The more one comes to know and understand Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the harder it becomes to deny a certain prophetic gift he had for understanding the problems in the church for years to come. He was writing and pastoring in the dawning age of modern theological liberalism, and this is evident in his critiques of the church of his day. What were only budding theological errors and problems in his day have now taken full bloom. Indeed, one wonders that if he was able to write “There is no theology here” about the teachings of Union Theological Seminary in 1929, what would he say about much of the Western Evangelical Church today?
These same kinds of questions appear in our minds when we approach Bonhoeffer’s classic The Cost of Discipleship. If the issue of cheap grace was apparent in his day, what would he think about our shallow proclamations of the gospel today? What would he make of the lordship salvation issue that was prominent in the late 80’s and early 90’s, that still invades many evangelical churches today, teaching that we can be a Christian but not a disciple? What would he make of the law-grace debates that blow up the Christian blogosphere every 6 months? Well, when we turn to the opening chapter of Discipleship, we have our answer. He’d lament the malignant state of the church.
Bonhoeffer understood the deep, necessary relationship between justification and sanctification in the Christian life. When these two aspects of our union with Christ are separated, we are left with cheap grace – “bargain-basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament.” Cheap grace is left only as a system to take advantage of, where justification now no longer means the justification of the sinner, but of sin itself. Thus nothing about our sinful lives needs to change. If we change our lives to conform to the commandments of Jesus Christ, then we no longer trust in cheap grace, and that becomes too uncomfortable. So long as we conform to the world, we can still accept cheap grace and assure ourselves that our sins are forgiven. Within the bounds of a system of cheap grace, there is now forgiveness without repentance, baptism without discipline, and the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin.
Yet this is strikingly different than the kind of grace we should be accustomed to! The grace lived out in the Christian life is not a cheap grace, but a costly grace. “It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live…Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s Son – and because nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God.” If grace was costly for God, it is costly to us, which means we must strive for obedience to Christ’s commandments.
Martin Luther understood the problem with cheap grace, and Bonhoeffer explains his system of thought well. Luther understood that grace is the “result given by Christ himself to Christian life,” which means our life is not excused from discipleship in any way. Too many people instead take grace as a presupposition, therefore excusing any sin that they commit. Luther knew that we “sin boldly,” yet should believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly. There is no escaping being a sinner in this life, yet we believe and rejoice in Christ and strive for obedience to him all the same.
Dietrich certainly knew of the problems facing the rising liberalism in churches of his day. We would be wise to meditate on his words and corrections for the church. He saw the cusp of the dam that has overflowed today, “Is the price that we are paying today with the collapse of the organized churches anything else but an inevitable consequence of grace acquired too cheaply? We gave away preaching and sacraments cheaply; we performed baptisms and confirmations; we absolved an entire people, unquestioned and unconditionally; out of human love we handed over what was holy to the scornful and unbelievers. We poured out rivers of race without end, but the call to rigorously follow Christ was seldom heard.”
If we surveyed the Evangelical landscape today, could this not be a summary of the problems we are facing today? Shallow churches that preach a shallow gospel, with little commitment other than an occasional stop at the church to be assured that our sins are still forgiven? Perhaps if we recognized that “the word of cheap grace has ruined more Christians than any commandment about works,” we would do a better job at stopping this train in its tracks. If we realized that living under grace means striving to live in the world without losing ourselves to it; if we realized that living under grace means giving up our lives for the one who laid down his life for us, we would have a better understanding of grace. Not a cheap grace, but a costly grace. As Bonhoeffer says, “Blessed are they for whom following Jesus Christ means nothing other than living from grace and for whom grace means following Christ.”