Thoughts of a Living Christian

Musings of an amateur theologian and hopeful writer

Costly Grace

There can likely be no life which epitomizes the costliness of grace more than those who have given their lives for their faith. There is no action which emulates Christ more than giving one’s life. One such martyr was Bonhoeffer, who, more than anyone else, was sufficiently equipped to talk about the costliness of grace. Horrified by how ‘cheap’ grace had become in churches, he scornfully laments,

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. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?[1]

Though such an outcry was in response to the liberalism that pervaded his German context, the same cry can be made today, indeed in any generation. For when grace is watered down, perhaps so as to make it as appealing and easy as possible, the Gospel is distorted. We see timid and tame Jesus and hear his teachings on tolerance, but we don’t see the pain and passion or hear his preaching on persecution. Bonhoeffer insists that true grace must lead to justified living; he claims “the only man who has the right to say that he is justified by grace alone is the man who has left all to follow Christ,” for “such a man knows that the call to discipleship is a gift of grace, and that the call is inseparable from the grace.”[2] We need, therefore, “to recover a true understanding of the mutual relation between grace and discipleship.”[3]

Grace must be costly, he argues – and I agree – for cheap grace seduces us toward mediocrity where Christ urges us toward action (cf. John 7.21-23). Willmer explains that for Bonhoeffer, the Christian life is not about achieving a certain religious life, but about acknowledging Jesus as Lord. It’s about separation from everything except the Lord so as to follow him exclusively.[4] Hence grace is costly because it does not lead to the freedom of comfort, living as though Christ died purely so we can go on living as we were without consequence; rather it leads to the freedom of servitude (cf. Gal. 5.13; 1 Pet. 2.16). Integral to discipleship is imitating Christ’s self-sacrifice, and thus is a cost. According to Willmer,

Costly grace is necessary because grace endangers salvation. The church too often (as with some German Christians) yielded to plausible pastoral and evangelical temptations to make grace cheap in order to ease the way of outsiders into church while excusing them from discipleship.[5]

The question I ask is: “Bonhoeffer’s calls to discipleship are roughly 80 years old – are they still relevant today?” My answer came swiftly: Yes, of course! Howard argues that today’s social climate requires us to uphold Bonhoeffer’s legacy and call the contemporary church to recover the costliness of grace.[6] It doesn’t matter the generation, complacency will always lead to mediocrity. I see many presentations of the Gospel wherein “justification by grace” is the be-all and end-all, to get people through the doors. The Gospel is simplified and saturated and there is no sanctification. Kerygma requires the uncomfortable proclamation of discipleship and persecution; Jesus never made it easy, so why should we?

References

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Touchstone, 1959.

Howard, Evan Drake. “Bonhoeffer’s Legacy for American Christians.” In The Reformed Journal, (April, 1985).

Willmer, Haddon. “Costly Discipleship.” In The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by John W. de Grunchy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.


[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Touchstone, 1959. 43. Furthermore, “Cheap grace means the justification of the sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before,” (p. 43).

[2] Ibid. 51.

[3] Ibid. 55. Cf. p. 56 – “Discipleship means the life which springs from grace, and that grace simply means discipleship.”

[4] Willmer, Haddon. “Costly Discipleship,” in The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. John W. de Grunchy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). 173-188.

[5] Ibid. 177.

[6] Howard, Evan Drake. “Bonhoeffer’s Legacy for American Christians,” The Reformed Journal (April, 1985). 14-17.

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