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Posted by | Apr 13, 2019

Eighty years ago, a 33-year-old Christian theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer returned to his native Germany after a short stay in the United States. He would not live to see his 40th birthday.

The Lutheran and Episcopal Churches, as well as other religious bodies worldwide, recently commemorated the annual remembrance of German Lutheran pastor, theologian, and resister of Nazi totalitarianism and terrorism. On April 9, 1945, after being in held prisoner for two years, Bonhoeffer was hanged for his association with others who resisted Hitler and the atrocities his party committed against Jews, Germans, among others.

Evidence showed the group he worked with also plotted to assassinate Hitler. A week later the Allies liberated that very POW Camp. As he was being led away to what all knew would be his death, Bonhoeffer said, “This is the end – for me, the beginning of life.”

Bonhoeffer wrote a book “The Cost of Discipleship,” that is now a classic. He compares “cheap grace,” which is like a head nod or an “atta boy” to the ethics of following Jesus, without actually getting in the water and risking a swim – with “costly grace,” that throws people into the deep end because they are formed by and live out the ethics of Jesus.

This is not a church and state issue. It is the involvement of a person of faith, regardless of religion, using politics, political action, and involvement to change the world for the poor, needy, oppressed, voiceless and powerless. Such costly grace brought Bonhoeffer into the resistance movement against the Nazis.

Bonhoeffer was also a founder and leader in a church-based resistance movement, the Confessing Church. When he was imprisoned, he refused the prayers of that Church. At a 50th Anniversary commemoration of his death, Klaus Engelhardt, then Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Church of Germany, lifted up Bonhoeffer’s reasoning, and challenged the church on it.

Bonhoeffer felt that exercising political means to resist evil and injustice set him outside the circle of prayer. Only those imprisoned for their proclamation and work on behalf of the church, not political resistance, should be prayed for, and that exempted him. Engelhardt challenged the religious communities to reconsider Bonhoeffer’s position that separated resistance and faith.

Today what does “costly grace” look like? How do we separate holding religious principles from applying those principles, regardless of their origin, on behalf of the poor, needy, oppressed, threatened, and voiceless? What drives many who risk speaking up in our country against while privilege and nationalism, threats to Muslims, Jews, and law-abiding immigrants?

People of religion and no-religion share a vision of a common good for all. Almost daily tragedy strikes a blow to our hearts and vision for a better world – whether in New Zealand, threats to synagogues, mosques and churches here and worldwide, the continuing rise of gun violence and absence of adults to stand with our children against it. Health care costs for the needy and elderly rise. The opioid epidemic – suicides…

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“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.”

 

From Bryan: DB will continue to be a hero to all the flavors of Christianity…

Cheap resistance is like cheap grace. It risks very little.

June 7, 2018

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In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer distinguishes be­tween “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” Cheap grace requires nothing from us. Bonhoeffer describes it as “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” We are not changed by cheap grace, and so it is not really from God. Costly grace, on the other hand, “is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”

But costly grace is not just costly; it is also grace. “It is costly because it costs a man his life,” writes Bonhoeffer, “and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.” Bonhoeffer points us to the false dichotomy between preserving our lives and responding to the needs of the world. It is through costly grace that we receive our real lives.

In treacherous times, when powerful people and systems threaten us or others, we have to ask what God wants us to do—and we have to accept that doing it will cost us something. While there is a chance that the choices faith asks us to make will result in physical death, as it did for Bonhoeffer, the cost is likely to stop short of that. Choosing to do the right thing probably won’t make our hearts stop beating.

But what if it did? What would be worth that risk? If you are like most people, your list of people and ideals you’d be willing to die for is a very short one. Yet there’s something else we seem to be willing to risk our lives for: our fears. We allow fear to deprive us not of heartbeats and breaths, but of something even more precious: the fullness and beauty of a life lived well.

For those of us who believe that we rest in the hands of an eternal and ever-loving God, living a life full of fear is worse than dying. The great threat to Christian faith is not that we will not be safe from the world’s dangers but that we will be held captive by our fear of them—that we will have more faith in our fear than we have in Christ. This can be hard for North American Christians to understand, since we have rarely faced persecution. But the mission of the church is not to avoid causing a stir, nor to hold on to things that cannot save us. As Jesus says, to save your life you have to lose it.

Christians are not called to recklessness, but we are called to action.

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“To be called to a life of extraordinary quality, to live up to it, and yet to be unconscious of it is indeed a narrow way. To confess and testify to the truth as it is in Jesus, and at the same time to love the enemies of that truth, his enemies and ours, and to love them with the infinite love of Jesus Christ, is indeed a narrow way. To believe the promise of Jesus that his followers shall possess the earth, and at the same time to face our enemies unarmed and defenceless, preferring to incur injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves, is indeed a narrow way. To see the weakness and wrong in others, and at the same time refrain from judging them; to deliver the gospel message without casting pearls before swine, is indeed a narrow way. The way is unutterably hard, and at every moment we are in danger of straying from it. If we regard this way as one we follow in obedience to an external command, if we are afraid of ourselves all the time, it is indeed an impossible way. But if we behold Jesus Christ going on before step by step, we shall not go astray.” 

Dietrich BonhoefferThe Cost of Discipleship

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

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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By Denny Heiberg

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

Few people have had the transforming influence upon the spiritual lives of multitudes of people around the world as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Most of those lives, mine included, never had the opportunity to see him in person or hear his voice. History records that his courageous life was taken from him on April 9, 1945 by the Nazis in their Flossenbürg concentration camp, just two months after his thirty-ninth birthday. But a closer look at this bold professor, pastor, theologian, author, and central figure of the Confessing Church’s ecumenical movement reveals that no one took his life from him. Dietrich Bonheoffer willingly laid down his life from the moment he responded to Jesus’ invitation to follow him as his disciple.

Bonhoeffer was a man on mission. He was proactively engaged in a battle against two pandemic forces. The loudest enemy was Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich. After Hitler came to power in 1933, he began to inject his poison into every sector of German life. Nazism was more than a political party; it was an extreme racist philosophy. Only the Aryan race was acceptable to the Nazis and history has recorded the tragic results of their beliefs. However, the Jews and other non-Aryans were not the only target of the Nazis, they also sought to bring the German Church under its rule as well. Unfortunately, due to the eroding spiritual condition of the Lutheran Church, the gates of hell overtook them.

The quiet enemy Bonhoeffer faced was also a toxic foe. In his defining book, Discipleship (later published as The Cost of Discipleship), Bonhoeffer referred to this plague as “Cheap Grace.” Bonhoeffer describes this enemy in his own words:

“Cheap Grace is the mortal enemy of our 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 for it is paid in advance for all time. Everything can be had for free, courtesy of that paid bill. The price paid is infinitely great and, therefore, the possibilities of taking advantage of and wasting grace are also infinitely great…. Cheap grace means justification of sin but not of the sinner. Because grace alone does everything, everything can stay in its old ways.… 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.”1

In 1935 Bonhoeffer chose to return from pastoring two German congregations in London and head back to Germany to become the director of an “illegal” seminary in Pomerania. As Bonhoeffer poured his heart and soul into this community of twenty-five vicars, his curriculum focused on the kingdom gospel that included discipleship as essential to a believer’s life. No cheap grace allowed here. He spent five years training and modeling among these young pastors the biblical mandate of disciple making until the Gestapo permanently closed the seminary in 1940. It was during those years in Christian community that Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together and Discipleship.

For a brief period, Bonhoeffer returned to the United States in 1939. And while his friends urged him to stay and impact Germany from afar, he resolutely set his face toward his homeland and boarded one of the last ships leaving the States.

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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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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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Costly Grace by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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 (common) wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut (rate) 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 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.

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