There is a temptation when we look back on figures in history to view them as a finished product; individuals who began their life’s journey in as prolific of a manner as the way they ended it. The Reformed tradition often gets this wrong when we look back on figures like John Calvin. We know of his incredible achievements, yet there is another side to John Calvin: a man who suffered much and caused sufferings for others, a man who got as many things wrong as he got right, a man who struggled with the sins of pride and poor temperament. I have learned much from Calvin’s works and his successes, but I’d like to suggest at least four lessons that we can all learn from some of his mistakes and failures in his early years of ministry.
By 1536 John Calvin had begun his work of ministry in the city of Geneva, Switzerland. He showed much promise in his zeal and understanding of the Scriptures. By 1535 he already had a first edition of The Institutes printed, and it was a complete enigma to everyone how a twenty-five-year-old man who never had formal theological training could write such a magnificent work. Older pastors and Reformers were inclined to take interest in his success and training.
We have letters that were exchanged between at least two of his mentors: Martin Bucer and Simon Grynaeus. In these letters we find a furious and intemperate Calvin who made accusations of his mentors. Bucer’s response to Calvin was firm, and he told Calvin that everything he did was out of love. Calvin understood what Bucer was implying: for all of his theology, Calvin lacked love. Bucer’s rebuke crushed Calvin.
In a similar fashion, Simon Grynaeus wrote to Calvin and rebuked him for his rancid language toward other church leaders. Grynaeus pointed out Calvin’s arrogance, and told him he was too prideful over his education and superior intellect. Between these two men, Calvin was crushed by the weight of his own relational sins. His youth and immaturity brought out his lack of love, his arrogance, and his pride.
Lesson 1: Youth breeds immaturity. Speaking as a person in ministry who hasn’t yet passed the age of thirty, this is a lesson I don’t like to hear. Like Calvin, I have often committed the arrogant sin of making accusations toward older leaders in ministry that were simply a result of me not being able to see the full picture. Certainly no one should be despised for their youth (1 Tim. 4:12). Yet this doesn’t change the fact that youth and inexperience is fertile soil for pride and immaturity. Young Christians would be wise to give the proper weight to the insight and experience of older brothers and sisters in the faith.
Calvin’s pride and arrogance had not yet gotten the best of him. Along with William Farel (another Reformation leader in Geneva), they had entered into a conflict with a council in Berne (the capital of Switzerland) over the minor issue of liturgical rites that should be used in the worship of the church. Calvin soon began denouncing the Bernese Council from the pulpit, calling them the “council of the devil.” He was quickly labeled as a hot-headed troublemaker, especially after he and Farel began refusing communion rites to the whole city of Geneva. The Bernese Council ordered Calvin and Farel to leave the city within three days.
What happened next still astonishes me and breaks my heart. Calvin and Farel headed to Zurich, but stopped in Berne to try and make a deposition while they were there. The two men openly lied to the Council and presented a very tailored account of the conflict, claiming that they had never opposed the Bernese liturgical rites and that a conspiracy had been mounted against them. Calvin’s attempt to win over the Council by openly lying to them backfired, and his reputation was severely damaged.
Lesson 2: Words have the power to destroy. Gossip and envy are the greatest enemies of God’s people. There is no quicker way to tear down unity in the church than with our words. This was clearly the problem in the church James addressed in his epistle, as his rebukes over taming the tongue come just before his admonishment about the envy which was tearing apart the church (James 3:1-4:4). All it takes is saying one thing we shouldn’t have said, and then it is out there forever to wreak havoc on relationships and friendships. In Calvin’s case, his words both publicly and private brought disaster and ruin. Not only did his personal relationships and reputation suffer, but the broader church in Switzerland suffered as well. It is important for Christians to resolve never to speak ill of another, or we too will bring similar consequences on our life and in our churches. Gossip and slander are never worth it.
A synod arose in Zurich made up of the leading Swiss churchmen and reformers. Multiple issues were discussed at this synod, in particular an ongoing dispute with Luther over the Lord’s Supper. Calvin and Farel were also a subject of discussion, and it was to their shame when they realized that they were regarded as the problem in Geneva, not the victims. In the eyes of these leading reformers, they had committed the horrid sin of bringing discord and division to the church.
Lesson 3: Unity and charity have priority over winning an argument. In other words, we want to win people – not arguments. Calvin was learning a lesson that many evangelicals need to learn today: have unity in the majors, and charity in the minors. The way we dispute amongst ourselves about doctrinal disagreements still needs to reflect the kind of love and unity Jesus prayed for in the Garden (John 17:20-26).
By this point, Calvin was beginning to learn all of these lessons too. He had bruised pride and a shattered ego – and it showed. Calvin doubted his calling to serve the church and was hesitant to resume the work again. In one letter to another church leader he wrote, “For though when first I took it up I could discern the calling of God which held me fast and by which I consoled myself, now, on the contrary, I am in fear that I would tempt him if I were to resume so great a burden, which I have already felt so insupportable.” Calvin drifted and felt a loss of purpose or meaning. Over the next three-and-a-half years, he meditated on these lessons he had learned. By the time he returned to Geneva in 1541, he had grown in wisdom and maturity and in many ways became the winsome and pastoral leader we regard him as today.
Lesson 4: Growth doesn’t come without resistance. It’s just as true for us physically as it is spiritually. One of the repeated themes of the Bible is that the Lord uses pain and trial to refine us more into the image of Christ (Hebrews 12:3-17. 1 Peter 1:3-7). When we first become Christians, many of us walk around with a kind of spiritual swagger. Through trial and affliction, the Lord gives us a limp to remind us of our daily need for his grace. Don’t underestimate what God is doing in your difficult season.
 Material for this article was taken from Bruce Gordon’s biography, Calvin. Particularly, chapters five and six.
In 1843, John Williamson Nevin wrote a book simply entitled The Anxious Bench. He was writing during the time when Charles Finney’s revivalism was sweeping american churches. These revivals downplayed substantive Christian teaching of any kind, and instead heightened the experience of a salvific moment in one’s life. Knowing the Bible, being catechized, having a sound understanding of who Christ is and what he has done for his people, a real understanding of what kind of obedience was required in the Christian life – all of these things were downplayed so long as a person could point to a moment in their life where they “accepted Christ.” Getting the greatest number of conversions was the new endgame of Christian ministry. No longer did pastors need to invest in long term pastoral care, affective Christian preaching, or learning sound doctrine. Instead, they began to use what would soon be called the “new measures.” These “new measures” were essentially any method, by any means necessary, where a preacher would manipulate a person into making a Christian confession.
One such method was known as the “anxious bench.” Think of modern day methods of “everyone close your eyes and bow your heads but raise your hand if you want to become a Christian,” except more intense. Essentially there was a bench at the front of a church where a preacher would force people at the end of a service to come up to the bench, and would not allow them to leave until they made a public profession of faith. Capitalizing on people’s anxiety of being put up in front of a church, this method was hailed as the greatest sign of spirituality and revival in a church.
Writing against the “anxious bench” and the “new measures,” Nevin came down hard on this method and its widespread use. This was for multiple reasons:
1) It gave people a false assurance of their salvation. Just because you had this experience where you gave in to pressure and your anxieties doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit actually did anything in your heart.
2) Man cannot control the movement of the Holy Spirit.
3) Professing Christians no longer had any idea of what the Scriptures taught (since catechesis and sound preaching were thrown out the window), and therefore had no idea how to live the Christian life.
4) Any sort of Christian knowledge is perceived as “cold” and “dead” – antithetical to the “spirituality” of a conversion experience.
5) Pastors and preachers no longer had any sort of inward spiritual strength, but instead relied on their own talent and skill to manipulate others into a “Christian” profession.
Writing specifically on this last point, Nevin says this:
“The man who had no power to make himself felt in the catechetical class (that is, teaching), is deceived most assuredly and deceives others, when he seems to be strong in the use of the anxious bench. Old forms must needs be dull and spiritless, in his hands. His sermons have neither edge nor point. The services of the sanctuary are lean and barren. He can throw no interest into the catechism. He has no heart for family visitation, and no skill to make it of any account. Still he desires to be doing something in his spiritual vocation, to convince others, and to satisfy himself, that he is not without strength. What then is to be done? He must resort to quackery; not with clear consciousness, of course; but instinctively, as it were, by the pressure of inward want. he will seek to do by the flesh, what he finds himself too weak to effect by the spirit. Thus it becomes possible for him to make himself felt. New measures fall in exactly with his taste, and are turned to fruitful account by his zeal. He becomes theatrical; has recourse to solemn tricks; cries aloud; takes strange attitudes; tells exciting stories; calls out the anxious, etc. In this way possibly he comes to be known as a revivalist, and is counted among those who preach the gospel “with the demonstration of the Spirit and with power.” And yet when all is done, he remains as before without true spiritual strength. New measures are the refuge of weakness.
The system of New Measures then is to be deprecated, as furnishing a refuge for weakness and sloth in the work of ministry, and in this way holding out a temptation, which, so far as it prevails, leads ministers to undervalue and neglect the cultivation of that true and inward strength, without which no measures can be at last of much account. This is a great evil.
A man may be mighty in the use of new measures, preaching every day if need be for three weeks to crowded congregations, excited all the time; he may have the anxious bench filled at the close of each service, and the whole house thrown into disorder; he may have groaning, shouting, clapping, screaming, a very bedlam of passion, all around the alter; and as the result of all, he may be able to report a hundred converts or more, translated by the process, according to this own account, from darkness into God’s marvelous light. A man may so distinguish himself, and yet have no power to study, think or teach. He may be crude, chaotic, without cultivation or discipline. He may be too lazy to read or write. There may be no power whatever in his ordinary walk or conversation, to enforce the claims of religion. Meet him in common secular connections, and you find him in a great measure unfelt, in the stream of worldliness with which he is surrounded. Often he is covetous; often vain; often without a particle of humility or meekness. The truth is, he has no capacity, no inward sufficiency, for the ordinary processes of evangelical labor. Much is required to be a faithful minister of the New Testament; while small resources in comparison are needed for that resemblance of power, to which a man may attain by the successful use of the system now in view.”
Although this was written in 1843, Nevin’s critiques of the “new measures” in his time almost mirror the same phenomena we see happening in our churches today. Perhaps we have a resurgence of “new measures” happening in American Evangelicalism that even supersede what Nevin saw in his own day.
This desire Christians have to set knowledge against experience – substance against zeal – is the cause for all of our evangelical shallowness today. Our shallow preaching which all to often relies on lights, sounds and theatrics instead of convicting exposition of the Scriptures; exalting “ministers” who are all zeal but no knowledge – as if you can have true love without deep truth; “Christian” books that cater to some sort of weird pseudo-Christian mystical felt-needs rather than teaching that resembles anything like what Christians have believed for the last 2,000 years.
When will we learn that little substance and little knowledge is not the answer to an emphasis on mere knowledge and mere substance? When will we learn that to have a sustainable witness in this world we must have churches that engage both mind and heart? When will we learn that our own experience does not dictate how the Bible is supposed to be read? When will we learn that we need to grow in discernment over what we read, how we worship and what we participate in?
Friends, let us grow in worshipping and following Christ in both Spirit and in truth.
How are we today as the Church meant to read the creation account as told in Genesis 1 and 2? Many Evangelical leaders today paint the picture that the only faithful interpretations of these chapters are an explicitly “literal” one, meaning that Christians must believe in a young earth, creationist science, etc. One only needs to briefly read and listen to the likes of Ken Ham and Ray Comfort to see how their teachings have permeated into many modern churches and pastors. Such leaders would have us believe this view of creation and our origins is not only the only choice a Christian has, but is also the historic view of the church.
But is this really the case? Is a literal 6-day young-earth reading of creation really the only way to read the text? Indeed, is it even the most historically and Biblically faithful? Many proponents of the Creation movement today would have us believe so. However, when we actually turn to the pages of church history itself, we actually find something quite different. Through a brief study of some of the giants of church history (from antiquity to today) is that a literal creationist reading has not always been the way the church has read the text. I want to briefly consider the works of 6 figures from church history, who I have selected because of their influence as well as their clarity on the subject at hand.
One of the great giants of the historic Christian faith, St. Augustine, has some very interesting things to say to us in regards to our interpretations of Genesis. In his work On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manichees he deals intently with an explicitly literal interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis. Carrying on in what could be regarded as an apologetical and polemical tone, he largely proves the impossibility of taking everything in Genesis as literally as possible. He also has quite a strong word towards those who would forsake reason and logic in our observations of the modern world in order to hold on rigidly to such a literal reading. In many ways, this makes Augustine’s comments as relevant today as it did 1600 years ago. Towards the end of his work, he has this to say for such people who hold to rigid readings of Genesis:
There is knowledge to be had, after all, about the earth, about the sky, about the other elements of this world, about the movements and revolutions or even the magnitude and distances of the constellations, about the predictable eclipses of moon and sun, about the cycles of years and seasons, about the natures of animals, fruits, stones and everything else of this kind. And it frequently happens that even non-Christians will have knowledge of this sort in a way that they can substantiate with scientific arguments or experiments. Now it is quite disgraceful and disastrous, something to be on one’s guard against at all costs, that they should ever hear Christians spouting what they claim our Christian literature has to say on these topics, and talking such nonsense that they can scarcely contain their laughter when they see them to be “toto caelo,” as the saying goes, wide of the mark. And what is so vexing is not that misguided people should be laughed at, as that our authors should be assumed by outsiders to have held such views and, to the great detriment of those about whose salvation we are so concerned, should be written off and consigned to the waste paper basket as so many ignoramuses.
Whenever, you see, they catch out some members of the Christian community making mistakes on a subject which they know inside out, and Christians defending their hollow opinions on the authority of our books, on what grounds are they going to trust those books on the resurrection of the dead and the hope of eternal life and the kingdom of heaven, when they suppose they include any number of mistakes and fallacies on matters which they themselves have been able to master either by experiment or by the surest of calculations? It is impossible to say what trouble and grief such rash, self-assured know-alls cause the more cautious and experienced brothers and sisters.[i]
This is a strong word from one of the great church Fathers! What is he getting at? In summary, he is arguing for how dangerous it is for Christians to argue for things from Scripture that simply do not exist, for the sake of their own pride and ignorance. This is so dangerous because, in effect, it is hardening the non-Christians who are experts in the physical observation of this world to the gospel of salvation. What is interesting is how he appears to value the observations of the physical world that come from non-Christians. Augustine does not have a militant view of outside scientific observation, but instead he welcomes it. This comes from Augustine’s confidence in God’s Word and his ability not to force it to say something that it does not say. We would be wise to heed his advice in this area.
Edward Grant is the Distinguished Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University. In his essay Science and Theology in the Middle Ages, he outlines Thomas Aquinas’ view on creation and Biblical interpretation. He quotes Aquinas, who followed in Augustine in his though, as saying the following: “First, the truth of Scripture must be held inviolable. Secondly, when there are different ways of explaining a Scriptural text, no particular explanation should be held so rigidly that, if convincing arguments show it to be false, anyone dare to insist that it still is the definitive sense of the text. Otherwise unbelievers will scorn Sacred Scripture, and the way to faith will be closed to them.”
Grant goes on to explain Aquinas further:
These two vital points constituted the basic medieval guidelines for the application of a continually changing body of scientific theory and observational data to the interpretation of physical phenomena described in the Bible, especially the creation account. The scriptural text must be assumed true. When God “made a firmament, and divided the waters that were under the firmament, from those that were above the firmament,” one could not doubt that waters of some kind must be above the firmament. The nature of that firmament and of the waters above it were, however, inevitably dependent on interpretations that were usually derived from contemporary science. It is here that Augustine and Aquinas cautioned against a rigid adherence to any one interpretation lest it be shown subsequently untenable and thus prove detrimental to the faith.[ii]
What is striking about both Augustine and Aquinas’ view is how they perceive rigid and literal interpretations of Scripture – contrary to scientific evidence – as being so harmful to our evangelism and witness. I wonder if the efforts of outspoken creationists today have similarly hurt our witness in the scientific community today because of their perceived hostility to the efforts of modern science?
Another giant of church history, John Calvin, reveals to us a very similar attitude. During the time of his writing of his commentary on Genesis, it appears that one of the biggest scientific discoveries of his day was that one of the moon’s of Saturn was far superior in size and brightness than that of Earth’s moon. Such a finding seemed to call into question the two lights the God placed into the sky in Genesis 1:16. Writing on this passage, Calvin says this:
Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which, without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labour whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, this study is not to be reprobated, nor this science to be condemned, because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them. For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God…Had he (Moses) spoken of things generally unknown, the uneducated might have pleaded excuse that such subjects were beyond their capacity…Moses, therefore, rather adapts his discourse to common usage.[iii]
For Calvin, as we can see, the language of Genesis is in the language of “common usage.” It is no problem for Calvin that science – in this case, astronomy – tells us things that appear to not be in the Bible. There is no discrepancy here. As a matter of fact, the very use of science should lead us to praise. Calvin concludes this passage by saying that those who do not worship God on account of their scientific findings “are convicted by its use of perverse ingratitude unless they acknowledge the beneficence of God.” The true tragedy then is not that science tells us things that the Bible does not, but instead that scientists could gather such great information about the creation that does not lead them to praise its Creator.
Another figure of church history who provides us great insight into an orthodox, historic Biblical interpretation of creation and Genesis is the great Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield. Warfield is often regarded as one of the great champions of Biblical inerrancy and inspiration, yet he referred to himself as an “evolutionist of the purest stripe.” Much of his writing of course was coming during the time when Darwinian Evolution was first exploding on to the scene. In the January 1911 edition of The Princeton Review, Warfield wrote an article called “On the Antiquity and the Unity of the Human Race.” In this article, he wrote: “The question of the antiquity of man has of itself no theological significance. It is to theology, as such, a matter of entire indifference how long man has existed on earth.” [iv] What is of theological significance to Warfield then was that as fallen humans we find our unity in Adam, but as regenerate Christians we find our unity in a new federal head, Jesus Christ. Warfield saw no conflict in this doctrine with that of the age of the earth or the origins of humanity.
Mark Noll, writing for BioLogos, summarizes Warfield’s view of evolutionary theory when he writes, “[Warfield] devoted much effort in his later career to indicating how a conservative view of the Bible could accommodate some, or almost all, of contemporary evolutionary theory.”[v] If a reconciliation between scientific theory and Biblical inspiration and authority was of no issue for a giant like B.B. Warfield, then we should find no trouble ourselves in our attempts at reconciling the two.
In his fantastic article from the BioLogos website entitled Creation, Evolution and Christian Laypeople, Keller argues for a non-literal and potential evolutionary reading of Genesis 1 and 2. He does so by arguing that these chapters fit into a potential genre called “exalted prose narrative.”[vi] His argument does not stem from trying to fit science into the Bible, but instead comes from “trying to be true to the text, listening as carefully as we can to the meaning of the inspired author.”[vii] What is important for Keller, and he argues should be for us today, is how we view the historicity of Adam. The thrust of his argument is what it means to be “in” a covenantal relationship with someone as our federal head. Those of us who have placed our faith in Christ are united to him as our federal representative. Similarly, those of us who are not in Christ are explained in the Bible to still be “in Adam.” Losing the historicity of Adam begins to have serious problems for our understanding of the Bible (including such passages as Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15).
In his large systematic work The Christian Faith, he argues for an understanding of Genesis 1 and 2 that defies modern creationist movements. Horton understands the creation account as a preamble to a covenant treaty between God and his people. He writes: “The opening chapters of Genesis, therefore, are not intended as an independent account of origins but as the preamble and historical prologue to the treaty between Yahweh and his covenant people. The appropriate response is doxology.”[viii] He goes on to quote the Psalmist who writes:
Know that the Lord, he is God!
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him; bless his name! (Psalm 100:3-4)
Horton continues his thoughts on Genesis in the next chapter of his book when he writes:
The point of these two chapters (Genesis 1 and 2) is to establish the historical prologue for God’s covenant with humanity in Adam, leading through the fall and moral chaos of Cain to the godly line of Seth that leads to the patriarchs. If these chapters are not intended as a scientific report, it is just as true that they are not mythological. Rather, they are part of a polemic of “Yahweh versus the Idols” that forms the historical prologue for God’s covenant with Israel. Meredith Kline observes that “these chapters pillage the pagan cosmogonic myth – the slaying of the dragon by the hero-god, followed by celebration of his glory in a royal residence built as a sequel to his victory.” As usual, God is not borrowing from but subversively renarrating the pagan myths, exploiting their symbols for his own revelation of actual historical events.[ix]
Of ultimate importance for Horton then, as it should be for us, is that Yahweh is seen to be Lord over man and creation.
My goal in sharing these six examples from the pages of church history is not to influence anyone on a particular reading of Genesis. My goal instead is to show an alternative view of how Christians view Genesis 1 and 2 that is often not shown to us by the loudest voices in the debate or in popular media today. I hope this will allow all of us to see, no matter where we fall in this conversation, that there is great freedom and room for charity in how we interpret and read these passages in the Bible. May our conversations within the church reflect such charity and freedom as we partner together in sharing the gospel and showing the world how science and Christianity are not at all at odds with one another.
[i] Augustine, Works of Saint Augustine, trans. Edmund Hill, vol. 13, On Genesis: On Genesis: a Refutation of the Manichees, Unfinished Literal Commentary On Genesis, the Literal Meaning of Genesis (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, ©2002), 186-87.
[ii] Lindberg and Numbers, God and Nature. Edward Grant, “Science and Theology in the Middle Ages,” pp. 63-64.
[iii] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume 1: Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker), 2005, pp. 86-87 (commentary on Genesis 1:16).
[iv] B.B Warfield, “On the Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race,” The Princeton Theological Review 9 (January 1911): 1.
[v] Mark Noll, “Evangelicals, Creation and Scripture,” BioLogos (November 2009): 9, accessed July 30, 2015, http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/Noll_scholarly_essay.pdf.
[vi] Tim Keller, “Creation, Evolution and Christian Laypeople,” BioLogos (November 2009): 4, accessed July 30, 2015, http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/Keller_white_paper.pdf.
[vii] Ibid., 5
[viii] Michael Scott Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, ©2011), pp. 337.
[ix] Ibid., 382.
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.”