Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Apologies to Bonhoeffer but There is NO SUCH THING as Cheap Grace

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 Cost of Discipleship

There's the quote.  I hate it.  

I hate it because it is used to try to drag out law to make people behave. 

I used to think I hated the quote because it was used out of context, and believe me it is.  But now I think the problem isn't just that this has been misused.  

I believe the problem is that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was wrong. 

There I said it.  Nobody is supposed to say that.  His writing has taken on the status of scripture in some places.  Bonhoeffer said it, that settles it.  

Every time anybody gets nervous about someone getting something from God they don't deserve, this quote gets trotted out.  "CHEAP GRACE!  CHEAP GRACE!"

And so I ask "and who, pray tell, is paying too cheap a price for grace?  Who is selling grace for too cheap a price?"

And then I am patronizingly told that I should read the "Cost of Discipleship"  As though I haven't read it several times.  Because, you know, nobody ever read Bonhoeffer and actually said "I don't agree with that" 

I have been wanting to take another look at Cost of Discipleship and dispute it in a more scholarly fashion.  Well maybe when I retire I'll write a book.  For now, these are my thoughts shooting from the hip.

Right off the bat this part of the quote rubs me the wrong way "Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance" 

Forgiveness does NOT depend upon repentance. 

Because that would make it about me and my repentance and then it would not be grace.  Cheap or costly, it would not grace.  Grace does not depend upon me.  I do not have the power to cheapen it.   

Either grace is free and undeserved and unearned or it is something else.  

Grace without the Cross?  That's not cheap grace.  That's not grace.  It's excusing, it's enabling, it's looking the other way, but it's not grace and it is not freeing.  

Grace is not cheap.  

It's free.  It cost God a lot, but it costs us nothing.  It is free but it ain't easy.  We fight it like crazy and I think Bonhoeffer was having his own struggles with it.  And if he had lived through the struggle, I think he'd say it differently. 

This is where some more scholarly work needs to be done but I suspect that Bonhoeffer was influenced by the Baptists in Harlem he hung out with.  

And let me just come out and say it - Baptists are semi-pelagians. Pelagianism can be very compelling.  Especially when people are behaving badly.  Especially when Christians are behaving badly.  

Bonhoeffer was dealing with some very badly behaving Christians and he just overstated the case trying to get them back in line.  That's what I think anyway.


  1. You're on to something important here, and well worth exploring.

    It's not so much that I disagree with Bonhoeffer, as that he chose a memorable and misleading expression. If he'd said, "What is unanswered grace," or "what is grace waiting for gratitude," or something like that, things would be a lot clearer. But "cheap," at least in English, is just the wrong word, and we've had to listen to those people use it to slip legalism in by the side door for decades now..

  2. yeah. My response to "forgiveness without requiring repentance" is that it is exactly backwards. Forgiveness does not require repentance. Repentance is only possible when there has already been forgiveness. In other words, we don't repent in order to get forgiven. We repent because we have been forgiven. We turn toward the God who has already been gracious to us.

  3. I think this is finding its way into my preaching on Sunday, Advent 2. Thanks Joelle.

  4. "I do not have the power to cheapen it." Wonderfully well said. For me, this is the gospel center of your proclamation for me. If I had the power to cheapen it, all God's grace for me would have become worthless long, long ago. Instead, when I pour out grace like water for people who think themselves undeserving, with no apologies, confession or preconditions, or after hearing repentance for too many things they've done and left undone, that's when folks who consider themselves undeserving experience God's grace most richly. The free gift of grace overwhelms us as it welcomes us. Like you, I suspect that Bonhoeffer was responding to some particularly bad behavior, and his words always give us something worth thinking about, but I have secretly always found these few words of his to be annoying, an axe swung at the root of the wrong tree. Fortunately, Bonhoeffer is not Jesus, so we are in a position to sort this out in calm theological conversation.

  5. He is the perfect example of the prodigal sons brother. duty without knowing the fathers heart