A few days ago someone brought up the question of cheap grace as something he saw troubling the contemporary church of his community, just as Bonhoeffer saw it in his. That person wanted a more forceful emphasis on costly grace as an antidote. I sympathize, but at the same time am extremely cautious because the demand for costly grace can very easily be turned into a demand for God to separate the wheat from the chaff right here before our eyes on our personal naming of the unrepentant sinfulness, hypocrisy and unworthiness of those whom we accuse and have already judged.
Perhaps what he had in mind are some strands in American Christianity that appear to have an odd relationship with grace that can look a bit cheap. There are churches in which sin and the sinful nature of humanity that is always teetering on the edge of eternal damnation but for one’s acceptance of Jesus as one’s personal savior is coupled with the expectation of a constant cycle of backsliding and re-acceptance through public confession and appropriate tears, followed by more of the same behavior, often with the excuse that ‘the devil made me do it.’ It can look pretty cheap, even tawdry.
Grace is free and unearned, but it is not cheap. When the salvation of the world is accomplished through the incarnation of God in Christ Jesus there can be nothing cheap about it. But it still remains free and unearned. What it doesn’t accomplish is freedom from the natural consequences of our behavior. For instance, the natural consequence of my running up a poorly anchored ladder was a broken ankle. The natural consequence of the genes I inherited was a heart attack, in spite of a healthy life style. The natural consequence of my occasional arrogance, anger and judgments are strained relationships and genuine hurt to others. You see where this is going? The free gift of God’s grace, through which we have forgiveness of sin and all other benefits of Chris’s work, does not absolve us of the ordinary consequences of our behavior or the conditions in which we find ourselves.
Consider, for instance, the story of the woman caught in adultery. The hypocrisy of her accusers was blatant, but Jesus did not condemn or even shame them. He simply exposed their own sin to the shame they generated for themselves and sent them away to ponder it. He did not condemn the woman either, and in my imagination I hear him say something like, “Look, you almost got stoned, and if you keep on behaving like that you will be stoned, so go forth and don’t do that again.”
That is why we need to associate the grace of forgiveness with confession, repentance and the hard work of reconciliation through which healing and restoration can, but does not always, take pace. We have been called into the ministry of reconciliation, and, as the community of the Church, we are the body of Christ continuing the healing work of Christ. We enter into that ministry not to become saved, but because we are saved. It is a sacrificial offering of thanksgiving.
If that sounds like a call to mature discipleship, it is. And that is what Bonhoeffer was about when he wrote on cheap grace in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, which was a key element in the training of new clergy who would be able to continue the work of Christ in a Germany ruled by Nazis and a Protestant Church that had largely surrendered to them. Not all were ready for it.
Not all are ready for it in our own day either. We are surrounded by people who have never heard the good news; they are new to the Christian faith; they are long time Christians with only a superficial understanding of what that means; they are anyone and everyone in any condition of life. Whoever they are and however come into the presence of the Church, they are to be welcomed with the radical welcome of Jesus himself. Mature ordained and lay discipleship does not make demands on others for an adequate demonstration or proclamation of their faith. Mature discipleship exudes the radical welcome and love of Christ into lives that desperately need it. Mature discipleship calls others to begin their formation as followers of Jesus from the place where they are, in the place that they are, and as they are able. Mature discipleship offers through Christ the free gift of God’s grace. But it does not promise unnatural relief from the natural consequences of our behavior or the conditions of our lives.
In the tradition of my Church, the collects for Friday are the collects for mature discipleship in the recognition of what costly grace really means. That’s a good place to close this post and seek your own contribution to the conversation:
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your name.