Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the eminent German theologian, in his book The Cost of Discipleship made a distinction between the concept of cheap grace and costly grace. Cheap grace means the Christian message is thrown away at cut-rate prices. It’s a message which maximizes God’s promises and minimizes man’s responsibility. To quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
“It’s a grace without price. Grace without cost. The essence of grace we suppose, is the account has been paid in advance and because of that, everything can be had for nothing.”
Costly grace, on the other hand, demands a price. It demands that a person surrender his or her egocentricity, defiance and hostility to God. It demands that a person submit to the authority of Christ. God didn’t reckon Christ too high a price to pay for our lives, and in return we’re not to reckon our lives too high a price to offer to him. I struggle however, because in some situations the Church can have some serious credibility problems within the community.
In our effort to communicate the Christian message to the world, all too often we try to make it palatable to the world. We’ve made it attractive and easy, and in return created a message that’s often impotent. I recently sat in on a church service at San Diego County Juvenile Hall. The speaker was a pastor from a very large and highly respected church in the local area. His sermon was effective as he presented the Christian message in a rousing and emotional manner.
On completion of his appeal, he invited those who wish to become Christians to raise their hand and then repeat the sinner’s prayer, which he dictated to them. 15 to 20 youngsters that day raised their arm, raised their hands, and then repeated the prayer after him. The pastor then turned to the audience, said, “God bless you,” and left. There was no further attempt to minister to the needs of those young people. I knew a lot of the kids who were present that day. There was a lovely young lady there, 15 years old, who got released from juvenile hall several days later.
When she came in within the next week, I was talking to her about all that it happened at home and how difficult it had been. When I asked her about what she was thinking or feeling when she raised her hand and read the sinner’s prayer her response was, she thought now that she’d given her life to Christ that she was a good girl and when she went home her wouldn’t beat her anymore. She got home. Her daddy was drunk, started beating on her again and she ran away and ended up in juvenile hall. What does an experience like that do to the theology of a young woman who’s just been beaten like that? Or to the validity of the commitment to Christ she’d made in repeating the sinner’s prayer?
There was a young man in that service who I knew quite well. He was awaiting trial for a very, very violent offense he committed against two people who were unable to defend themselves. Sitting down with him a few days later, I asked him about what he was thinking, what was going on in him when he raised his hand and then repeated the sinner’s prayer. He said it was all right, made him feel good for a couple of days.
I came away from my talk with him thinking,
“Is that why Christ died on the cross? So people feel good about themselves for a couple of days?”
There’s only one word that appropriately conveys my feeling toward that method of ministry and that word is abortion.
That pastor performed a spiritual abortion and that is an example of why the Church so often has a credibility problem within the juvenile and adult correctional facilities. Too often, the Christian message is rejected by the inmates because many of them have tried it and found it wanting. A lot of times, it’s not taken seriously by the staff because they know how manipulative residents can be. Also even when they do take it seriously, they don’t see significant change in the lives of the inmates themselves. The problem is not to be found in our message, but in our methods. Too often, our method is like that of the proverbial snake oil salesman.
It has been said that the penal system is the barometer of a society’s condition. If that is true, then our society is very, very ill and our Christian message isn’t doing a whole lot to stop the spread of that disease. Cheap grace can make many converts. Costly grace can change lives. Cheap grace can ease a person’s conscience. Costly grace can forgive sins. Cheap grace often results in contempt. Costly grace builds credibility. Please remember me in your prayers. I’m a part of the environment in which I work, and I struggle to remain free of being part of the problem.