The writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis for his part in a plot to kill Hitler, have spoken powerfully to the generations of readers who have come after him. Recently, Eric Metaxes’s highly readable and engaging biography has brought the faith of Bonhoeffer to the attention of a new audience.
One of Bonhoeffer’s earliest books was his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, entitled The Cost of Discipleship. Knowing what would happen to the author himself, it is a moving experience to read his reflections on ‘taking up one’s cross’, and dying to the self. As he says with a prophetic edge: ‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die’. No-one would live this out more than Bonhoeffer himself.
Bonhoeffer begins his book on Christian discipleship, however, with chapter entitled ‘costly grace’. Costly grace is to be discovered in part by contrasting it with ‘cheap grace’. But what can this mean, since God’s grace is supposed to be free? In the German Protestant church of his day, Bonhoeffer could see plenty of evidence of the cheap variety of grace, but not much of the costly variety. The Protestant church was founded on the teaching of God’s free grace to us in Jesus Christ. But in Bonhoeffer’s eyes, there were many who though that this meant that God’s grace could be possessed but nothing need change. Life could go on as if nothing had happened.
Bonhoeffer puts it this way: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance….Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate”.
Grace is not cheap because it is free, but, because it is free, by some it is held cheap. Continue reading