‘Carlos Danger’ and the High Cost of Cheap Grace


Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. . . . Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

— Deitrich Bonhoeffer.

Although I feel vaguely sacrilegious saying this, when I first heard the name “Carlos Danger” yesterday, the very next name that came to my mind was the heroic Dr. Bonhoeffer’s (for those unfamiliar with Bonhoeffer’s compelling life story, here are the basics). His formulation of “cheap grace” – the easy grace we give ourselves – felt appropriate to not just the ongoing Anthony Weiner trainwreck but also to the Eliot Spitzer comeback and to Mark Sanford’s recent reelection as well. And I’m not just picking on politicians. The Oprah confession has become such a staple of modern pop culture that it’s a virtual standing joke.

The pattern is familiar and depressing: Public stumble, public apology, public rebirth — and then the next public stumble follows with depressing frequency. Certain Republican politicans have become adept at opting out of scandal by marrying their mistresses and prancing in front of cameras with their latest adoring spouse. At least Spitzer and Weiner have been able to keep their families intact, so far. (Memo to allegedly Christian conservative pols: Your marriage maneuver may work with some Republican primary voters, but I don’t see any biblical evidence that it works to placate the One whose opinion actually matters.)

We’re all susceptible to cheap grace. Perhaps that’s why we’re so eager to bestow it on others. Failure is embarrassing. Shame is unbearable. We want to close the worst chapters of our lives as quickly as possible and just get on with living on the same trajectory as before, minus the embarrassment. Such an outlook, however, neglects true repentence — invariably to our detriment.

At its theological core, repentence represents a true “turning,” not just a feeling of shame, and certainly not a mere cessation of the narrow set of behaviors that caused the shame. Saying, “I haven’t sexted for a whole year” hardly defines or represents a truly penitent heart.

I’d recommend reading Peggy Noonan’s recent profile of John Profumo, the disgraced British politician, who responded to his scandal not by regaining power but by serving the poor, in the most humble form imaginable (cleaning toilets and washing dishes). That is a true turning, a true rejection of the person he was.

There is no politician so brilliant, so captivating, and so charismatic that we needthem in our lives even in spite of their scandal and shame. Sure, some may go on to do fine work even as their personal lives fall apart, but do we need them?

We do, however, need examples of repentance. In other words we don’t need their “public service” — the name politicans give to their quest for power — but we do need the true public service of humility, honorable living, and redemptive suffering. We need the Cross and the sanctification that follows its embrace, but even in the absence of that vital spiritual transformation, simple humility would be a vast improvement.

Go away, Anthony Weiner. Go away and do some good. The people of New York will survive without your leadership.

 This post first appeared on National Review Online.

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  • Brantley Gasaway

    I usually only post when I disagree with you, David, which is not fair. So here’s a quick note of affirmation and appreciation. We indeed need more servant leaders in politics.

  • cadranni

    This is where Mormons and traditional Christians sometimes misunderstand one another. Mormons believe that we are saved by the grace of Christ – after all we can do. Meaning that belief alone isn’t enough, that we must do our best to repent and follow Christ, and then He will save us. Not that we save ourselves, or that our works will ever be enough.

  • Martha P

    WE NEED TO HEAR MORE OF THIS!!! When election day rolls around I become almost ill with people saying that they can forgive someone’s personal morals (or lack thereof), their religion, or something else just because they can “turn the country around.” Politicians and leaders of all kind may SEEM to have a plan for change but unless they are truly honest leaders, the plan usually becomes just another grab for power and fame and possibly riches.

    THANK YOU for reminding us of what we truly need in a leader. So well written.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ Steve Martin

    What if you don’t do all that you can do? And what if your motives are tainted in that ‘doing’…with self?

    I have never met a pure motive yet.

    And then why did God even need to bother with the cross if we had to kick in our best? He could just as easily lined us all up and judged us upon ‘what we have done’…or ‘what we did not do’.

  • cadranni

    What if you don’t do anything but say I believe? And continue living the same way you lived before you said I believe?

    Christ said “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” “Straight is the way, and narrow is the gate, and few there be that find it.” “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord,Lord, but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” In the resurrection “they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.”

    Seems that He says more is required than simple belief, although belief is also a requirement. As James said, “Even so, faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say Thou hast faith, and I have works, show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works.” (All of James chapter two is well worth exploring for a great explanation of this concept.)

    John (Revelations) said “And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.”

    Just as wise parents require effort from their children, so that their children will appreciate what they receive, so does our Father in heaven. Nothing we can do can ever be enough. The grace of Christ makes up the difference. But even Paul (whose words are often taken out of the context of explaining why the Mosaic law was no longer required) said God “will render to every man according to his deeds.”

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ Steve Martin


    Those whom He turned away said that they DID this , that and the other thing in His name. Right?

    The others who He welcomed in also did, but did without any self-consciousness. They didn’t even realize that they were doing anything that would garner a reward. They were free to act.

    Believers will ‘do’…it just follows belief…naturally. They will also sin and NOT do. Just the way that you and I do, and do not do. We so often put ourselves first. we do not live on a thin margin of income and give the rest to the poor. We do not spend all our spare time helping the poor and homeless.

    We are real sinners. And that is who Jesus justifies…through faith.

    Nothing else is required but faith (the works will follow). And besides…anyone can do works. Muslims, Hindus, atheists. But faith and trust in the finished work of Christ for real sinners is something else altogether.

  • cadranni

    So if we choose to do good, it doesn’t count? Regardless of our faith? Yes, faith leads to good works. Good works can also lead to faith – “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” You seem to think that I said works alone, where I repeatedly said faith was necessary, I simply agree with Jesus, James, Paul, John and the other writers of the New Testament that righteous effort is also required.

    No Mormon thinks that he is going to work his way to heaven, in spite of what others claim we believe. Nor do we think that “cheap grace” as described in David French’s article is going to get anyone to heaven.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ Steve Martin

    At work now…must be brief.

    No credit received where we think we’ve earned it.
    In Christ it’s not needed anyway.

  • cadranni

    Guess you should let all charities and churches know they can close up shop and go home then.

    To be less snide – God gave me a brain, and free will, and he expects me to use them. Pure religion is to care for the widows and the orphans. To visit the sick and those in prison, to clothe the naked and to feed the hungry. Christ made clear that those who fail in these things will not go to heaven. They won’t just magically happen because I feel like a nice person since I accepted my Savior. Money must be saved, work must happen. The gospel has to be preached in every nation. All these things take time, thought, and resources, which means people have to make the choice to do them. Or not. As Christ said to Peter – If ye love me, feed my sheep. Over and over again, he said it. All the apostles then spent the rest of their lives doing so, until they died martyr’s deaths. They organized others in the Church to take care of the poor, so that their time would be best spent preaching. The gospel is action, not just warm fuzzies.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ Steve Martin

    You have no
    “free-will” when it comes to matters of faith. Our wills are bound…to sin.

    “Faith is a gift of God.”

    “We love because He first loved us.”

    Yes we will ‘do’. But let’s not put the cart before the horse. Jesus does everything for us. And as far as our relationship with God is concerned, that is enough. It is enough.

    But while God does not need our good works, our neighbors do. And Christ has freed us from the ‘religious/self-ascendency project’…freed us for…the neighbor.


  • cadranni

    We are coming at this from fundamentally different premises, no wonder we continue to come to different conclusions.

    Faith is a choice. One that atheists, for example, choose not to make. Or does God arbitrarily give the gift of faith to one, and withhold it from another? Since He is no respecter of persons, I don’t believe that. He loves all his children, but some choose to reject Him.

    Inasmuch as ye have not done it unto these, ye have not done it unto me. Depart from me. (paraphrasing there.) God doesn’t need our charity – but he EXPECTS us to do for each other, and will not hold us guiltless if we fail in that duty. The 10 commandments aren’t the 10 suggestions…

    I’m always amazed at how those who accept the Bible as the inerrant word of God can completely ignore those parts that don’t conform to their views.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ Steve Martin

    Well,,,.you are entitled to your opinion…but it is definitely not Biblicla.

    Jesus clearly tells Nicodemus that he cannot be born again of his own volition but that it must come “from above”. And that “the Spirit is like the wind. It blows where it wills.”

    Even the gospel of John tells us in no uncertain terms that “we are NOT born of the will of man…but of God.”

  • cadranni

    I checked out each of the Bible references you listed. I’ll just say they can be interpreted rather differently.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ Steve Martin

    That’s for sure. Just about every Bible verse can be interpreted differently.

    We interpret through the ‘theology of the cross’ vs. the ‘theology of glory’.

    The former puts Christ at the center. The latter puts us at the center (ultimately).

  • http://www.churchformen.com/ David Murrow

    Public stumble, public apology, public rebirth, BESTSELLING BOOK or NETWORK TALK SHOW.