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Among my favorite books in our library are those written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I never tire of re-reading them.

He was one of the most influential Christian theologians in the world.

So pervasive is his influence that church historian Martin Marty once suggested dividing the theological world into two groups: those who admit their debt to Bonhoeffer and those who borrow his ideas without acknowledgment.

Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau in 1906. Educated in Germany and the U.S., he early earned a reputation as a brilliant theologian. During World War II, he was imprisoned for resistance activities against the German government. For his part in a plot to kill Hitler, he was executed at Flossenburg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, a few days before it was liberated by allied troops.

Of his writings, the most impressive to me is The Cost of Discipleship. In this monumentally important book, Bonhoeffer discusses the difference between cheap and costly grace,

In theological terms, grace is understood as the free and unmerited love and favor of God. Bonhoeffer argues that churches are giving away grace at too low a cost. “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves — the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship.”

He argues that cheap grace is disastrous to our spiritual lives. Instead of pursuing a life that requires discipline, obedience and sacrifice, we accept a deceptive gospel that makes us feel strong when, in fact, we are weak and misguided. Instead of opening up our lives to Christ it (cheap grace) has closed it. Instead of calling us to follow Christ, it has hardened us in our disobedience.

For Bonhoeffer, “Costly grace is the gospel that must be sought again and again, the gift that must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. It is costly because it causes us to follow , , , and because it costs a man his life. It is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

Perhaps the concept of costly grace can be understood by recounting a small part of Bonhoeffer’s life. In June 1939, American friends got him out of Germany. Soon, however, it became clear to them that Bonhoeffer could and would not remain with them. His heart belonged to the German people who were suffering oppression and persecution under Hitler’s policies.

Since he felt he could not desert them at a time when they needed him most, he returned to Germany.

Before leaving the U.S., Bonhoeffer wrote to his colleague, Reinhold Niebuhr, these words: “I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people. Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of those alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make this choice in security.”

His life personified service, commitment and costly grace. In fact, the day before he was executed, he counseled widows of those who were executed for plotting the death of Hitler, He felt that he could ease their debilitating depression and anxiety.

And his message for all of us — not just Christians — should be reaffirmed.

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Posted: February 17, 2017


In 1937, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned some extreme words: “When Christ calls a person, he bids him come and die.” Unfortunately, those words were personally prophetic. In April 1943, the Gestapo arrested Bonhoeffer. He spent the next two years in prison and concentration camps. By special order of Heinrich Himmler and with probable direct knowledge of Hitler himself, two primarily responsible for the Holocaust, the Nazis tragically hung Pastor Bonhoeffer at a camp in Flossenburg, Germany.

Afterward, they burned his body in a pile because the crematorium was inoperative. Just a few days later, the Allies liberated the camp.

Practically, what do Bonhoeffer’s words in his fine work, “The Cost of Discipleship,” mean for us? Similar to alarming images used by Jesus and other authentic faith teachers, Bonhoeffer’s striking language at heart means that true religious faith must make a real life difference. Practical and noticeable change in how we live day-to-day is the point of Christian or any other faith-related “calling” or vocation.

Bonhoeffer’s notion of a Christian being radically obedient to the teachings of Jesus has everything to do with love and respectful expression. Notice that the price has to do with one’s own life. In contrast, radical manifestations of alleged faith rooted in violence, hatred and exclusion are dead wrong.

The cost of discipleship is not in the lives or well-being of others, such as someone killing or hurting someone else, allegedly in the name of God. In vivid contrast to such delusion, genuine expressions of faith benefit others by caring for them and meeting their needs. Lives are enhanced, not lost or harmed.

Outside of the New Testament, the first chapter of “The Cost of Discipleship” might be one of the most important writings for Christians in any era or at any age. Further, prioritizing a transformed life of thanksgiving applies across faith lines.

For his Christian readers, Bonhoeffer distinguishes between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” Essentially, cheap grace is the perception that God’s acceptance, forgiveness and favor results from some easy mental assent to a doctrine or belief without any impact on a person’s life. It is “grace without discipleship,” without actually endeavoring to follow the teachings and model of Jesus.

In contrast, God’s actual grace is life-altering. Acknowledging God’s grace is a beginning, not an end in itself. Experiencing and responding to God’s grace is a daily and life-long process involving hard work. Accepting such true grace is a choice. The consequence should be discipline toward a changed life, one that is focused on practical acts of love and caring.

Bonhoeffer is one who has “standing” to provide an opinion about bona fide religious faith. He lived in a time when his beloved German homeland deteriorated into a fanatical and isolationist nationalism fueled by hatred and led by a demagogue. Bonhoeffer was troubled by the general silence of the institutional church of his time, which the Nazis attempted to co-opt with some success.

In “Bonhoeffer: Pastor. Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” Eric Metaxas cites a chilling birthday tribute to Hitler from an April 1939 official publication of the nationalistic German Reich Church: “[We celebrate] with jubilation our Fuhrer’s fiftieth birthday. In him God has given the German people a real miracle worker.” What an abomination. The fascist government, with complicity of the so-called church, worked to silence faithful, authentically Christian critics of the regime, such as Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer was a gentle and peaceful man who loved his country. Nevertheless, he actively and strongly opposed the extreme tyranny, outrageous prejudice and ecclesiastical hypocrisy of his day. He was part of a significant movement that opposed all that Hitler and his extreme brand of nationalism stood for and represented.

In 1939 and with help from American friends, Bonhoeffer was in the United States, far away from his imperiled country. He was teaching at Union Seminary in New York. By that time, he was well-known and well-liked in many international circles as a rising theological mind and author.

The situation in Germany by 1939, six years after Hitler came to power, was beyond dangerous. Friends begged him to stay in the United States, where he was making a difference then and potentially into the future. Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer chose instead to return to his home. His selfless choice was an act of true love rooted in faith for his misdirected country and its people.

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Recasting the Movie: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Edition

Today, we’ll look at how a dead German theologian came into a resurgence of popularity–only to play an unexpected role in the Christian Right’s ongoing love affair with its own ego.

Westminster Abbey's 20th Century Martyrs. (By photographer- T.Taylor - Public sculpture, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link.)

Westminster Abbey’s 20th-century martyrs.

The Hero They Wanted.

In case you’ve never even heard of the guy, please permit me to whisk through his bio. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 and became a pastor and theologian in Germany. He vocally opposed the Nazis and even was involved in a major plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He got caught, imprisoned in various concentration camps, and finally executed in 1945 by the Nazis, and he is now all but a venerated martyr in several Christian denominations. His ideas influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa (among many other folks and movements). And to many Christians, he remains a very charismatic and enigmatic figure.

He had some very firm ideas about the importance of living one’s faith in the real world as well as about pacifism, and also some piquant observations to make regarding what he called the “complete failure of the German Protestant church” to stop or even impede the rise of the Nazi regime. At one point he escaped to America and then returned to Germany at the last second to help with the fight against the Nazis. During the last part of his life, he was hassled constantly by the German government, forced to report to the police, and even forbidden to speak in public. Eventually he joined the underground resistance, fulfilling the spirit of a sermon he’d preached long before about how martyrs’ blood was being “demanded” by the events of his time. His death was apparently very brave–though also apparently slightly embellished in the way that many of these sorts of iconic martyrdom accounts often are.

You can probably already see why the Christian Right would adore the guy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer plays directly into their fascination with recasting themselves as the beleaguered, pure-hearted heroes fighting an unthinkably evil regime for ultimate global stakes–with martyrdom not only possible but inevitable.

Eric Metaxas, an evangelical-leaning Christian who is clearly frantic to break out of his limited circle of influence as a Veggie Tales scriptwriter and right-wing radio host, has been on a Bonhoeffer kick of late. He wrote a biography of the man a few years ago that his fundagelical tribe went wild for but which actual historians roundly criticized; one of these scholars proclaimed his version of the man a “counterfeit,” while another claimed he’d “hijacked Bonhoeffer.” The irony is that Mr. Metaxas himself appears to think that liberals have actually done the hijacking–and that now he’s taking back his hero for the conservatives.

Thanks to his biography, terms like “cheap grace” are in vogue in fundagelicalism now in a way I sure never heard when I myself stood among them; Christianity Today, in reviewing the book, gushes about Mr. Bonhoeffer’s plaintive plea asking “Who stands fast?” and his demand that Christians make their entire lives “an answer to the call of God.” This sold out/on fire/uncompromising* quality combines seamlessly with Mr. Bonhoeffer’s heroism during World War II and his very early death at the direct command of Adolf Hitler himself.

You might well wonder what prepared Eric Metaxas to write such a book. I certainly do.

His personal biography page doesn’t list any educational credentials for the man at all beyond graduation from Yale. We don’t even know what he studied there, but we do learn that he upstaged Dick Cavett at his commencement. Obviously his background in Christian entertainment makes him the perfect person to write a popular biography of one of the most influential and complex figures in modern Christianity even though he can’t even read or speak the language that his idol used in his work–which is one of the primary and most basic requirements we should expect to see out of someone trying to be an academic. Another is that the would-be academic should be extremely familiar with the basic scholarly work already done on whatever his or her topic is. And still another is that his work should at least be free of obvious mistakes.

Just like apologist David Marshall before him, Mr. Metaxas lacks these basic qualifications. He is a person claiming expertise who apparently has very little in actuality. He’s smart, that much is clear–and clever. He’s just not anywhere near as prepared to write a book of this nature as he pretends to be. But the inexpert expert is, itself, a trope that feeds into fundagelical delusions of grandeur. Ah kin do jus’ as good as them book-larned edumacated expurts! you can all but hear them muttering.

I know how it is; I was there myself once. More importantly, I figured out exactly why I was there, too.

The Movie in Their Heads.

Unmoored from simple considerations like how their ideas tie into reality, toxic Christians are free to conceptualize their lives as epic movies. They cast themselves as heroes, everyone opposing them as villains, and their cause as divinely-blessed–even divinely-mandated.

For many years now, Christians inhabiting the right-wing fringe of the religion have been styling themselves as the brave crusaders fighting for the soul of America in Earth’s final wretched days. Even back in my day, we saw ourselves that way. We fetishized the Rapture and Tribulation,** waiting eagerly as every predicted date came and went without even remembering all the past disappointments. We correlated world events in our various checklists of what had to happen before Jesus finally kick-started the end of the world. We created and devoured diagrams about Bible verses and how they matched up with this or that natural disaster or war. If Israel’s leaders burped, we gasped and raced back to our Bibles to figure out what it meant in terms of the predictions we thought had been given to us. It always meant something, too–usually “oh my god, we’re another step closer to the Endtimes.”

We thought we lived in “the last days.” Spiritual battles were erupting all around us–angels and demons vying for the souls of every person alive. Prayer was their ammunition; fasting charged their weapons’ power cells. So Christians were vitally necessary in this battle, because without our efforts demons would win countless souls for their gruesome master. (No, we didn’t realize how weak and useless we made our god look by acting this way.)

In such an environment, any Christian, no matter how lowly or uneducated or mocked, could become a Big Damn Hero–a Prayer Warrior who could save other people’s lives, fight evil princes and principalities, and gain the ultimate of all rewards: eternal life and an exalted place in the heavenly kingdom. But this warrior would only receive that reward if he or she stood perfectly steadfast and did not waver in faithfulness. The forces arrayed against such a warrior could be incredible, and the hardships endured both many and excruciating. In the end, though, only one outcome was possible for a truly faithful servant.

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by Paul Trewhela

Paul Trewhela writes that it takes little courage to demand the removal of a statue of a man who died 113 years ago
Thinking about the campaign against the statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town last month and its repercussions at other universities (including my alma mater, Rhodes University), led me to think about the German Christian priest and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.With Bonhoeffer, deeds matched words in the toughest of parishes: Nazi Germany. His most famous teaching was about what he called the “mortal” difference between “cheap grace” and “costly grace”.

On April 9 1945, exactly 70 years ago this month, the Nazis hanged Bonhoeffer in Flossenburg prison, two weeks before it was liberated by the Allied armies and three weeks before Adolf Hitler committed suicide in the bunker. Bonhoeffer was 39, and had been arrested by the Gestapo in April 1943.

A vocal critic of the regime’s euthanasia programme and its genocidal persecution of Jews, he published his most famous book,The Cost of Discipleship (in German, Nachfolge, meaning discipleship), in 1937, at a time of ferocious repression.

I think his words are relevant in South Africa today, if one can consider Bonhoeffer’s Christian concept of “grace” – understood as the highest kind of spiritual and moral behaviour, embodying God’s word in action – in the light of how young people should address themselves to the problems of South Africa, now.

Cheap grace, he wrote, “means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. …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.”

Costly grace, by contrast, “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. . . . It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

He continued: “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.”

By that, Bonhoeffer meant direct conflict with the Nazi regime.

It is easy to see that “cheap grace” in South Africa today could be represented by the throwing of faeces on the statue of a man who died 113 years ago, and demanding that the statue be removed, or that a university change its name.

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“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship   

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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by

“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church. We are fighting for costly grace.” That’s how Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins his classic work The Cost Of Discipleship. It could also in some ways sum up Jesus’s parable of the Wedding Banquet recorded in Matthew 22.

Jesus in the last week of his life. The triumphal entry has happened. The tables in the Temple have been overturned. Jesus has cursed the fig tree because it isn’t bearing fruit as a sign to the Jewish leaders that they are in danger because they are also not bearing fruit. He then begins to tell this parable about a king who has prepared a wedding banquet for his son. However, when he begins to send out the invitations, the invited guests reject the invite. Some come up with excuses of why they can not make it, but many just refuse. This can only be interpreted as an insult to both the son and the King. To refuse an invitation was almost unheard of, unless one was trying to shame the host. These villagers are rejecting the gifts of the king and want nothing to do with the son.

The message of the parable at this point is clear. The Jewish leaders have rejected the Son and in so doing have rejected the Father. Just as the King in the story goes and destroys the cities where the invited guests live, the Jewish leaders will be punished for rejecting the Son.

Yet all is not lost. The King still has a party to throw and so he sends his servants into the cities and towns to invite everyone they see to the banquet. The king welcomes in both the good and the bad, he simply wants the banquet hall to be full. There are no requirements for entry. There is no test that needs to be completed or a mission to be accomplished. The invitation is out of grace, and must be received as such.

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“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 of one 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.

. . .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 light.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 45.

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship    

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