DISCIPLINE: Costly Grace (Part 1) by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Costly Grace (Part 1) by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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

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.  The church which holds the correct doctrine of grace has, it is supposed, ipso facto a part in that grace.  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.”  The world goes on in the same old way, And we are still sinners “even in the best life” as Luther said.  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.  That was the heresy of the enthusiasts, the Anabaptists and their kind.  Let the Christian beware of rebelling against the free and boundless grace of God and desecrating it.  Let him not attempt to erect a new religion of the letter by endeavoring to live a life of obedience to the commandments of Jesus Christ!  The world has been justified by grace.  The Christian knows that, and takes it seriously.  He knows he must not strive against this indispensable grace.  Therefore – let him live like the rest of the world!  Of course he would like to go and do something extraordinary, and it does demand a good deal of self-restraint to refrain from the attempt and content himself with living as the world lives.  Yet it is imperative for the Christian to achieve renunciation, to practice self-effacement, to distinguish his life from the life of the world.  He must let grace be grace indeed, otherwise he will destroy the world’s faith in the free gift of grace.  Let the Christian rest content with his worldliness and with this renunciation of any higher standard than the world.  He is doing it for the sake of the world rather than for the sake of grace.  Let him be comforted and rest assured in his possession of this grace – for grace alone does everything.  Instead of following Christ, let the Christian enjoy the consolations of his grace!  That is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs.  Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of 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, absolution without personal confession.  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has.  It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods.  It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.  It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.  It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.  Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “Ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.  Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us.  Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs.  It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him.  Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart.  Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

On two separate occasions Peter received the call, “Follow me.”  It was the first and last word Jesus spoke to his disciple, (Mark 1:17; John 21:22).  A whole life lies between these two calls.  The first occasion was by the lake of Gennesareth, when Peter left his nets and his craft and followed Jesus at his word.  The second occasion is when the Risen Lord finds him back again at his old trade.  Once again it is by the lake of Gennesareth, and once again the call is: “Follow me.”  Between the two calls lay a whole life of discipleship in the following of Christ.  Halfway between them comes Peter’s confession, when he acknowledged Jesus as the Christ of God.  Three times Peter hears the same proclamation that Christ is his Lord and God – at the beginning, at the end, and at Caesarea Philippi.  Each time it is the same grace of Christ which calls to him, “Follow me,” and which reveals itself to him in his confession of the Son of God.  Three times on Peter’s way did grace arrest him, the one grace proclaimed in three different ways.

This grace was certainly not self-bestowed.  It was the grace of Christ himself, now prevailing upon the disciple to leave all and follow him, now working in him that confession which to the world must sound like the ultimate blasphemy, now inviting Peter to the supreme followship of martyrdom for the Lord he had denied, and thereby forgiving him all his sins.  In the life of Peter grace and discipleship are inseparable.  He had received the grace which costs.

As Christianity spread, and the church became more secularized, this realization of the costliness of grace gradually faded.  The world was Christianized, and grace became its common property.  It was to be had at low cost.  Yet the Church of Rome did not altogether lose the earlier vision.  It is highly significant that the church was astute enough to find room for the monastic movement, and to prevent it from lapsing into schism.  Here on the outer fringe of the church was a place where the older vision was kept alive.  Here men still remembered that grace costs, that grace means following Christ.  Here they left all they had for Christ’s sake, and endeavored daily to practice his rigorous commands.  Thus monasticism became a living protest against the secularization of Christianity and the cheapening of grace.  But the church was wise enough to tolerate this protest, and to prevent it from developing to its logical conclusion.  It thus succeeded in relativizing it, even using it in order to justify the secularization of its own life.  Monasticism was represented as an individual achievement which the mass of the laity could not be expected to emulate.  By thus limiting the application of the commandments of Jesus to a restricted group of specialists, the church evolved the fatal conception of the double standard – a maximum and a minimum standard of Christian obedience.  Whenever the church was accused of being too secularized, it could always point to monasticism as an opportunity of living a higher life within the fold, and thus justify the other possibility of a lower standard of life for others.  And so we get the paradoxical result that monasticism, whose mission was to preserve in the Church of Rome the primitive Christian realization of the costliness of grace, afforded conclusive justification for the secularization of the church.  By and large, the fatal error of monasticism lay not so much in its rigorism (though even here there was a good deal of misunderstanding of the precise content of the will of Jesus) as in the extent to which it departed from genuine Christianity by setting up itself as the individual achievement of a select few, and so claiming a special merit of its own.

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