We often hear references to Bonhoeffer’s term “cheap grace.” In an essay defending Christians who are trying to separate themselves from the world–which I recommend that you read–Rod Dreher usefully quotes the entire passage and its context from The Cost of Discipleship dealing with “cheap grace.”
Read the passage after the jump, and then help me think about it.
From Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship:
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or
fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….
Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins…. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.
Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. ‘All for sin could not atone.’ Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….
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.
… The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organised church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptised, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving… But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard.
Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran, so let’s think about this in Lutheran terms. To be sure, grace isn’t cheap. It’s free, to us. But it is very costly to our Lord, “who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death” (Small Catechism; cf. 1 Peter 1:18-19).
Bonhoeffer has in mind the state church, in which people are automatically baptized, and yet in many cases have no other involvement with the church or its teachings. The church itself confuses grace in its evangelical sense with an automatic quality of God, allowing people to live in a state of spiritual complacency. And since God doesn’t matter all that much, since He is so gracious as to be tolerant of everything, it was easy for the state church of Bonhoeffer’s day to be taken over by the Nazis.
Is he referring to preaching the Gospel without preaching the Law? I am struck by his phrase “justification of sin instead of justification of the sinner.” The sinner must be crushed by the Law–not just at conversion but constantly–so as to truly cling to God’s grace in Christ. As opposed to justifying the sin, which is what many churches are doing today in regards to sexual morality, so that the sinner needs to repentance.
Is this it? But is there a danger in construing grace as “costly,” as if it depends on our works and our righteousness after all? Again, this recalls the teachings of C. F. W. Walther, that the Law must be preached in all its severity AND the Gospel in all of its sweetness. And those have to go together, not abandoning either pole, which is very easy to do.