The Cost of Grace, Issue 118

September 19, 2017 by Presbyterian Foundation

What is the cost of grace?

By Joe Small

If “grace” is reduced to a slogan, “gratitude” will be relegated to an occasional act of our generosity with our time, our talent, our treasure (as if it is all ours rather than God’s). There may be no better way to rescue grace from the status of a cliché than to remind ourselves of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s opening words in his 1937 book, Discipleship.

Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of the church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.

Cheap grace means grace as bargain-basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament; grace as the church’s inexhaustible pantry, from which it is doled out by careless hands without hesitation or limit. It is grace without a price, without costs. It is said that the essence of grace is that the bill is paid in advance for all time. Everything can be had for free …

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 …

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again … 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. Above all, grace is costly because it was costly to God …”

What Bonhoeffer does not say explicitly is that cheap grace always leads to cheap gratitude, that bargain-basement grace is met by cut-rate gratitude. The necessary and proper pairing of grace and gratitude becomes corrupt when inexpensive grace and low-cost gratitude become the way of life in the church. That is why Bonhoeffer says that “Costly grace is grace as God’s holy treasure which must be protected from the world and which must not be thrown to the dogs.” Cheap grace is the church’s mortal enemy, and like all mortal enemies, it is always on the attack.

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