Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.
The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of my all time favourite books.
Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in the first half of the twentieth century and was one of many German theologians who stood against the Nazi state, and particularly the way the Church was an instrumental part of that terrible system. He was executed in 1945 for being involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
His hard hitting opening remarks are like a prophetic voice for the contemporary Church:
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without Church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. (The Cost of Discipleship p. 6)
In the Church of his day, the practice was to declare people right with God, to justify their sins without seeing the sinner changed in any way whatsoever. So the state waged it’s wars with the Church’s blessing and the politicians played their games with people lives, knowing they were right with God and the man on the street is content to know that he shouldn’t be any different from the world because grace has covered him!
Today’s Church is quite different, you see. We don’t even require baptism. It’s as easy as a simple prayer.
I’ve attended plenty of Church services where a preacher will stand at the front and declare the forgiveness of sins re: John 3:16. Sometimes they will then invite people to respond. This usually means receiving prayer or repeating prayer line-by-line with the guy at the front. And then those who respond walk away. And their lives are no different.
For years I was in that place. I would make the sincere promises and pray heartfelt prayers and ask for the Holy Spirit to change my life. Walking away I’d be no different. So I began to go up more frequently and pray harder. Maybe I wasn’t being sincere enough? I was assured of the forgiveness of my sins whilst still living in them. Looking back, I can see why that wasn’t the way. I don’t see Jesus doing that.
When Jesus is given a sinner to deal with, he saves her life and gives her the charge to ‘sin no more’. His forgiving words are accompanied by a call. That’s not the only time the forgiveness and call are received together. The famous ‘woman at the well’ receives grace and then sets to work telling others. Even the traitor, Peter, is restored to Jesus with the call to obey, to be his follower. Forgiveness, for Jesus, is tied with real-world transformation.
It is this which Bonhoeffer picks up on. For the grace of God is not just linked with the call to be a disciple: Grace is discipleship.
In many ways, that’s what the preacher at the front was proclaiming – even without realising it. Their view of grace might be a commitment prayer. A soul signed on the dotted line. But Jesus didn’t do that. The grace he offered was a call to follow. Forgiveness as more than a comforted spirit – a redeemed life. Mercy which becomes viral.
No, we pour out our cheap grace over any who will hear. Worse still, we discourage people from following Jesus because it’s all been accomplished by God anyway. Why walk in ‘legalism’ when all God wants to do is ‘free’ us. This cheap grace suffocates the Christian:
The only effect such a word could have on us [is] to bar our way to progress, and to seduce us to the mediocre level of the world, quenching the joy of discipleship by telling us that we were spending our strength and disciplining ourselves in vain (p. 13)
I see this all the time in my own life and in the lives of others. The attitude that it’s ok to go out drinking because God has forgiven them, or that it’s not a big deal if they sleep with someone they’re not married to, that Jesus didn’t really mean it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Cheap grace pours water all over the flickering wick of the soul ignighted by the Holy Spirit.
It’s so tempting, too. Grace for nothing? Forgiveness if I pray this prayer? And I can keep my stash of porn, because that wasn’t part of the deal. And my marriage doesn’t have to change – grace is free! In fact, I can look just like the rest of the world but because I have been forgiven by Jesus I get to go to heaven.
The smoking flax was mercilessly extinguished.
We are members of a Church which extinguishes the flame of passion which drives the believer to follow Jesus. You see it in the leadership structures when sin goes unchecked and everybody knows that the worship leader smokes weed, but nothing changes. Everyone knows that the Pastor has grown cold and distant from his family but there is no repentance. Each week he declares everyone in the room forgiven!
Cheap grace. Forgiveness for free.
What ought the congregation do, but assume that it’s ok to be that way?
I know I have. I’ve been there – to think I was fine living in sin because, apparently, as long as I believed in Jesus I was safe. That’s not what I saw when I took a look at Jesus. He walked the hardest path and called me to follow.
Let us put to death this cheap grace, this cancer in the Church and let us beckon the world to follow. Let us no longer announce forgiveness without condition, for it is clear that discipleship is the condition. All the while let us know that our discipleship is a gift of grace, and so is the forgiveness received through it.
Happy are they who know that discipleship means life which springs from grace, and that grace simply means discipleship. (p. 14)