Healing From Complex Trauma & PTSD/CPTSD

A journey to healing from complex trauma.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Cheap Grace – by Michael Jenson.


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.

It’s a very easy habit of thought. We value what costs us. If we receive something for free, then no matter how costly it is, we tend not to value it. It is no surprise that the cheap grace of Bonhoeffer’s experience is unfortunately alive and well in our own time. The Christianity of cheap grace is the Christianity which is remorselessly nice. It is as bland as an easy listening radio station. It is a Christianity which is concerned for social approval and belonging, and risks nothing. It is the Christianity which has misunderstood what Christianity really is.

It is that form of Christianity, too, which keeps theology at arms length, as if it has nothing of any impact to say about the real world but is only a mental game we play.

What of costly grace? This may seem like a contradiction in terms. Bonhoeffer reminds us of Jesus’ parable of the treasure hidden in a field: the man who discovers it happily pays everything he can to possess it. This grace is not simply a lucky door prize. This grace takes the form of a call to follow Jesus to the cross. This was a teaching that the first disciples found very hard to take. How could the coming kingdom of God really mean that they might have to follow Jesus even to his death? Was there not a short cut that did not involve this path?

There is no short cut. Grace costs nothing, but it demands everything: “Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him”.

And that is not the call that comes to a select few, to a spiritual elite who can dedicate themselves solely to prayer and contemplation. That, for many centuries, was the Church’s response to the difficulty of this teaching. The heavy burden of discipleship was borne by the spiritual specialists, the monks and nuns, with their daily routines of prayer, and their disciplines of self-denial. The challenge of Martin Luther, the former monk, was to see that the word of Christ had come to every man and woman and not just some. Discipleship cannot be outsourced.

And that meant that discipleship had to be carried out in the world – not just by monks, but by farmers, and bankers, and princes, and the poor, and by parents with their children. There was no domain of life to which the call of the gospel did not come, no territory exempt from the Lordship of Christ. Luther learnt from God that “the following of Christ is not the achievement or merit of a select few, but the divine command to all Christians without distinction.”

But by Bonhoeffer’s day, many Christians (so-called) had fallen for lie that the grace of God offered in the gospel to the whole world automatically bestowed upon it the blessing of God. The great doctrine of justification, by which we learn that nothing is beyond the scope of the divine mercy, was taken to mean that mercy had been simply handed over to the world without a word of judgment upon it. Was there any compelling reason for German Christians in the 1930s to reflect that something had gone badly awry within their culture? Apparently not, since they could presume on the grace of God.

But of course a grace which is presumed upon becomes something other than grace. It is a perversion of Luther’s teaching; and (worse) a perversion of the teaching of the New Testament. Grace, costly grace, comforts but does not confirm us in our sinfulness. Costly grace is the word that shatters our faith in the world, and calls us to leave behind our old way of living.

For Bonhoeffer, the call of Christ meant standing against Hitler. It meant the loss of his academic career, his security, his chance to escape the grasp of the Nazis, his future marriage, his freedom and eventually his life. He would not have thought that this was extraordinary; but only rather what the grace of God in Christ had called him to do.

Author: Healing From Complex Trauma & PTSD/CPTSD

I am a survivor of complex and multiple trauma and abuse, who at the age of 40, began my healing journey. I am using my journey to recovery and healing, to help others, to help survivors feel less alone, validated, encouraged and to enable others to understand themselves more. Complex trauma, particularly from severe, prolonged childhood abuse, is profoundly life changing. Complex trauma produces complex adults. The journey to recovery is a painful, often lonely, emotional daily challenge and it is my aim to encourage others in their daily battle. ~ Lilly Hope Lucario

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