Cheap Grace in the 21st Century
“Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church.
Our struggle today is for costly grace.”
These are the opening words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic work The Cost of Discipleship. Published in 1937, Bonhoeffer wrote Discipleship while teaching at the Finkenwalde Seminary, an underground illegal seminary for the Confessing Church, which was established in opposition to the rising tide of theological liberalism throughout the German church.
This message of cheap versus costly grace, written primarily to an audience of evangelical pastors in training, was written as a reaction to the empty, unsatisfying, and ungodly liberal Christianity of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which had penetrated itself into the fabric of German society and religion.
Christian liberalism had reduced the Bible to a mere historical document, truncated the gospel message of Jesus Christ to a set of moral principles and guidelines, and exchanged the God of Christianity for an idealized, self-serving, psychological projection of humanity. “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator!” (Romans 1:25)
And so in stark resistance to his cultural context, Bonhoeffer identifies this false Christianity, this cultural religion, as the source of a “cheap grace.” What Bonhoeffer meant by “cheap grace” is a grace that costs nothing to its recipient. It does not require faith. It does not require obedience. It certainly does not require repentance.
No, for Bonhoeffer, cheap grace means “forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. The church that teaches this doctrine of grace thereby confers such grace upon itself. The world finds in this church a cheap cover-up for its sins, for which it shows no remorse and from which it has even less desire to be set free.”
Cheap grace offers “justification of sin but not of the sinner.” It is a practice and understanding of grace that validates the world in its brokenness, instead of calling it to a higher holiness; disregards personal sin, instead of convicting it; and permits the sinner to continue in his sin, instead of calling him to confession and repentance. It is grace that serves as a cover for Christians to live like the world without consequence.
“Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.”
And this was the state of the liberal church of the 1930s, especially in Germany. This skewed understanding of “grace” was the justification for all sorts of evil.
Bonhoeffer wrote this nearly eighty years ago, yet do we not see this view of grace still permeating throughout the Christian church today? Are we not suffering from the same antinomian, lawless, abuse of God’s freedom and forgiveness in the church today? Is it not perhaps even more rampant with the 21st century’s cultural narcissism and relativism, each individual consumed with his own right for personal expression?
Over the last ten years, I have witnessed countless events of Christians abusing the grace of God in such ways. I’ve seen leaders of a college campus ministry throwing parties and getting drunk, serving alcohol to underage students, and justifying their behavior with an appeal to grace and an “incarnational approach to ministry.” They rationalize their behavior with statements such as “Jesus hung out with sinners and tax collectors, so we should too.” But Jesus didn’t indulge himself in their sinful lifestyles did he? He called them out of sin and into holiness.
I’ve seen Christian men sleeping with their girlfriends, and Christian women dressing provocatively going out to bars and clubs. I’ve seen addictions consuming people’s lives, but since they’re “only” addicted to pornography, video gaming, or social media, rather than drugs or alcohol, apparently they’re just having innocent fun – no big deal.
I’ve seen confused Christian men self-identifying as women, and both men and women engaging in homosexual practice with partners, refusing to acknowledge this as sin, but rather twisting scripture to justify their behavior… all on account of grace: cheap grace.
Grace in our 21st century Christian culture has been so twisted into something it was never meant to be. It has become a safety net for sinners, a catch-all for sin. It has become a blanket excuse and justification for any and all sorts of behavior. “Everything is permissible” because of grace, an argument the Gentiles tried making in the 1st century as well (1 Corinthians 10:23). This is the new manifestation of cheap grace. “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” (1 Peter 2:16)
Cheap grace has permeated not just the culture, but the Western 21st century church as well. The preacher who doesn’t preach the gospel, but instead proclaims feel-good uplifting stories of human achievement; the pastor who intentionally tempers his sermons to avoid the possibility of anyone being convicted of sin; the bishop who turns a blind eye to pastors under his charge who willfully disobey the discipline of the church and perform homosexual weddings; cheap grace disregards sin under the guise of divine freedom and forgiveness, and counts all as righteous.
Even progressive seminary professors and scholars today approach exegetical study of Scripture with anachronistic eyes, interpreting the Bible through modern philosophical and cultural lenses, like feminism, Marxism, and cultural reconstructions of sexuality and gender. It’s one thing to study the Scripture critically, engaging its social, cultural, and historical context, analyzing form, structure, and sources, and comparing textual variants from transcription traditions.
But it is a radically dangerous move to read into Scripture modern philosophical and cultural concepts and deduct some “truth” that the author never intended to communicate, or to pick and choose specific Scriptures and apply them out of context to a modern ideology. “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20).
In a way, The Cost of Discipleship is Bonhoeffer’s response to cheap grace. Of course his context was German liberalism and Nazism in the 1930s, not postmodern relativism and pluralism like we have today. But there certainly is much we can learn from how Bonhoeffer responded to cheap grace in the 1930s.
He rebukes this idea of cheap grace and exhorts Christians to return to a true understanding of grace, a biblically founded grace, “costly grace.”
Costly grace, as opposed to cheap grace, is the grace that cost Jesus his life, and which in turn costs us ours as well. On the one hand, grace is free, an absolutely free gift. We affirm that with all Protestant enthusiasm! Amen! There is nothing a person can do to earn grace; it has been offered freely to all who believe in the saving work of Jesus and follow Him.
But right there we see it – though grace is a free gift, there is a necessary and costly response for anyone who chooses to accept it.
Costly grace calls us to follow Jesus.
Costly grace calls us to obedience.
Costly grace calls us to surrender.
Costly grace calls us to transformation.
Costly grace calls us to share in Christ’s sufferings, in order that we might share in his glory. Grace calls us to the cross.
Bonhoeffer describes costly grace as:
“the call of Jesus Christ which causes a disciple to leave his nets and follow him…
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.
It is costly, because it condemns sin; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner.
It is costly, because it forces people under the yoke of following Jesus Christ; it is grace when Jesus says, ‘My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’”
Costly grace requires faith, a genuine belief in Jesus Christ as the risen, living, ascended Son of God, the only way, truth, and life. It requires obedience. It requires a response of surrender, even to a God whom we might not understand, even to a command to be holy which we feel incapable of meeting in our sinful brokenness. The truth is that we are all broken and our sin manifests in all different ways.
But here is the difference between cheap and costly grace: where cheap grace leaves you in your sin, costly grace takes hold of us as we give up our lives unto the transforming work of God through the power of the Holy Spirit!
While cheap grace justifies us in our sin and allows us to continue in it, costly grace justifies us as we are crucified with Christ and no longer live, transforming us into new creations in Christ!
It’s costly because it requires our own death, in order to share in Christ’s death. It’s grace because it blesses us with new life, by sharing in Christ’s resurrection. It is this grace which not only justifies us, but sanctifies us as we set our hope on Him through the means of grace, spiritual disciplines, humble service, confession and repentance.
Consider the United Methodist Church today. I’ve been a member of the United Methodist Church for nearly thirteen years. The UMC is currently holding their quadrennial general conference in Portland, Oregon, the place where doctrine and practice is discussed and the guiding Book of Discipline can be changed.
For many spectators and stakeholders, the entire conference seemingly revolves around a single issue: human sexuality and the inclusion of LGBT people in ordination and marriage. Protests, speeches, discussion panels, and social media feeds fuel hurtful arguments, deep divisions, and passionate theological positions.
But what is often lost is the fact that this disagreement is merely a symptom of a much deeper divide within the UMC, and between the 21st century church as a whole: a more traditional and orthodox approach to understanding Scripture and theology, or a more progressive and modernistic approach. Or like in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 1930s context, the division is between theological liberalism and classic Christian beliefs and practices.
On the one hand stands traditional orthodox evangelical Christians standing firm in their 2000-year-long-established view of sexual ethics, unwilling to adopt a more progressive stance for the church despite recent cultural progression trending toward sexual expression. On the other hand stands liberal progressive Christians fighting for the overhaul of sexual ethics substantiated by a modern approach to viewing Scripture.
Their protests attack conservatives, denouncing them as bigots, homophobes, racists, and hate-filled privileged white men. But remaining firm in theological orthodoxy is by no means hateful!
These protestors point to race and gender issues as themes which the Bible speaks against which have been overhauled, but they naively overlook the facts that Scripture honors women well above the 1st century cultural norm; that the church from the very beginning included women in leadership; that none of the apostles or early church fathers were “white men,” but rather Middle Eastern, North African, and Turkish.
The full narrative of Scripture clearly advocates for equality in gender and race, the eradication of slavery, and for the unity of the church. But it does not share that view of sexuality, but in every aspect denounces it as unnatural and sinful.
No argument for a modern notion of a loving, committed, homosexual relationship can be substantiated when considering that God’s perfect creation in Eden was culminated by bringing man and woman together. God’s sexual design is clear through Scripture, tradition, and reason, regardless of what a small percentage of personal experiences might reflect.
The issue at hand isn’t social justice. It isn’t civil rights. It isn’t even scriptural authority… The issue is cheap grace. It’s a cheap grace that has allowed the church to disregard Scripture and deny sin. It’s a cheap grace that has permits a personalized relative truth and reduces holiness to an orderly society.
This progressive protesting LGBT community is a perfect example of Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace in our present day. They reject what Scripture says about sexuality, what the Church has held for 2000 years, and what reason says in favor of their own subjective experience.
They lean on modern worldly culture for their arguments. They label any who oppose them on theological grounds as a bigot and homophobe. They equate their ordeal with racism, gender discrimination, and religious persecution. They deny their sin, and cry out for grace and liberty in the name of the gospel.
I fully agree they should receive grace! I hope they encounter grace! But the only grace that Jesus Christ offers is a costly grace, not the world’s cheap grace.
Bonhoeffer saw the bigger problem in the 1930s, and cheap grace remains the same consequence of the same problem: a lack of true Christian discipleship. He said “without discipleship, costly grace would become cheap grace.” Is this not the state of our 21st century church? Hear Bonhoeffers’ words:
“Is the price 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 grace without end, but the call to rigorously follow Christ was seldom heard.”
We must, we must respond to cheap grace with a renewed call to discipleship! That is the means to the costly grace of Jesus, and that is the way to restoration.
By discipleship I mean a radical call to follow Jesus himself, the living god-man himself, “not as a teacher or role model, but as the Christ, the Son of God.” It is a commitment to Christ, the person, not to religion or institutions. It demands unconditional obedience and surrender; your life is no longer your own, it was bought at a price. It means being separated from your previous existence and set on a path toward a new life in Christ… born again. It requires abandonment, allowing yourself to enter into a situation where faith is made possible, where only Jesus can save you, a situation where true faith can be enabled. Peter had to step out of the boat and put his life on the line.
“The road to faith passes through obedience to Christ’s call… This call is his grace, which calls us out of death into the new life of obedience.” Our belief must be met with our obedience.
This is what the 21st century church lacks. True discipleship is the radical abandonment to Christ in faith and obedience: “only the believers obey, and only the obedient believe.” Discipleship is following Jesus wherever he calls with no personal agendas or political gains in sight.
The way forward is not one of ethical compromise, nor of institutional concessions. The way forward is a return to discipleship – sanctifying, transformative discipleship. We must put aside ethical conflict and return to radical obedience to Christ:
“To invoke ethical conflict is to terminate obedience. It is a retreat from God’s reality to human possibility, from faith to doubt… The only answer to the predicament of ethical conflict is God’s commandment itself, which is the demand to stop discussing and start obeying. Only the devil has a solution to offer to ethical conflicts. It is this: keep asking questions, so that you are free from having to obey.”
The same cheap grace that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote against 80 years ago continues to plague our church today. Evangelical Christians must respond with a renewed calling to discipleship and a desire for the costly grace that requires faith and obedience, sharing in Christ’s death and being made newly alive in Him. Only through the transforming power of Christ’s true and costly grace gained through discipleship can the sin that cheap grace has validated be overcome.
About the Author
Kevin Cook is a 4th year student at Asbury Theological Seminary and an Aspirant for Ordination in the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA). After graduating, Kevin hopes to plant a contemporary three-streams Anglican Church. He and his wife Nicole attend Wilmore Anglican Church in Kentucky.
Kevin holds a Bachelor of Arts in Music and a Master of Business Administration from Florida State University. Kevin enjoys playing music and leading worship, reading fiction and spiritual classics, drinking coffee, and spending time with family and friends.
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