When Grace is not so Amazing

Bonhoeffer by Eric MetaxasWell Bono’s words about Karma and Grace have proved to be a bit popular – so far over 170,000+ people have shared it on facebook.  But what is it about Bono’s words that so connected with people?

The power of grace

Some of it relates to the interest in what celebrities say.  Some of it is due the arresting combination of raw language and passionate conviction. But a key part is the subject matter itself: because the grace is at the heart of Christianity and Bono’s words captured something visceral and urgent about its relevance and power.

Ethical problems

And yet…doesn’t grace present ethical problems?  Isn’t Karma a lot more fair: you get what you deserve. Doesn’t all this talk of grace give people a free licence to do whatever they want?  If people are simply forgiven by unearned grace, how do we make sense of the Bible’s consistent message about loving your neighbour? And what about Jesus’ teaching about the radical generosity, justice and love in the kingdom of God?

Too often protestant theology has turned grace into a theory or formula which is detached from any ethical demands on how we live.  Grace is presented almost as a ‘get out of jail free’ card to evade God’s wrath and secure your place in heaven. In some churches it is even lined up against concerns for community action or social justice.  Such works are tainted as a ‘social gospel’ where people are seeking to earn their salvation.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The most eloquent and authentic voice against this form of grace is the German Pastor/theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who ministered during the Nazi regime. He wrote The Cost of Discipleship in 1937 while running an illegal, underground seminary for trainee pastors.

No country had more of a heritage of reformed, grace-based theology than Germany.  But Bonhoeffer was deeply distressed with how ineffectively the Lutheran Evangelical Church made any stand against Hitler’s atrocities.

Cheap grace

Bonhoeffer coined the term ‘cheap grace’ to describe the way that his church’s emphasis on grace had stripped out the radical demands of Jesus:

‘Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate…Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.”

In 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo.

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