The word of cheap grace has ruined more Christians than any commandment about works. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship
I believe that Bonhoeffer’s perception of the state of the German Lutheran church motivated the writing of this book. He felt that discipleship had died and been replaced by what he labeled cheap grace. Even though he never refers to the following words of Paul, I think this is the issue he wants to address.
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (Romans 6:1-2 ESV)
Paul has just finished making a case for salvation by grace rather than by works. One rational conclusion is that grace is justification of sin. I think when Bonhoeffer uses this term he is saying that because of God’s grace we are permitted to sin, and even expected to sin. This is where Bonhoeffer saw the German church. They had gotten to the point where they were answering Paul’s rhetorical question about continuing in sin with a resounding “Yes”. If we answer yes to this question, then Bonhoeffer argues that Jesus’ call to discipleship becomes meaningless and grace becomes cheap.
I was raised in a tradition that erred on the other side of this issue. We called it discipleship, when it was really a system of merit based on how well we could keep the rules or our religious system. The more common label is legalism. The result was pride, division, and exclusion. In many ways, we were determined to follow the Pharisees and not Jesus. When we corrected this error, we moved the pendulum to the other extreme. Rarely do we preach the cross and the cost of discipleship.
The grace that we don’t deserve and that provides the door to eternal life cost God more than we can ever understand. Paul describes it as God’s indescribable gift. Bonhoeffer calls it costly grace. The purpose of the gift is to provide us with life, now and forever. The challenge is that this gift is only possible because of God’s grace and only received by the relentless pursuit of following Jesus. I can’t follow Jesus without His grace. I would be terrified to be in His presence if He had not already forgiven me. I can’t be in community with others in the way that Jesus intends if my focus is on achieving some sort of merit or position because of my works. I need grace, but I need the grace that moves me away from living in sin.
There is so much in this first chapter I feel I’ve very poorly introduced the concepts. Here is Bonhoeffer’s assessment of the church in Germany in 1937. I hope this is not true for your congregation. My own feeling is that this is an accurate assessment of the church in America in 2017.
For integrity’s sake someone has to speak up for those among us who confess that cheap grace has made them give up follow Christ, and that ceasing to follow Christ has made them lose the knowledge of costly grace. Because we cannot deny that we no longer stand in true discipleship to Christ, while being members of a true-believing church with a pure doctrine of grace, but no longer members of a church which follows Christ, we therefore simply have to try to understand grace and discipleship again in correct relationship to each other. We can no longer avoid this. Our church’s predicament is proving more and more clearly to be a question of how we are to live as Christians today. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship
That is the question. How are we to live as Christians today?