Costly Grace

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. (43)

As Bonheoffer begins his account of discipleship, i.e., the habit of following, he does so not by examining who we are to follow or where we are going but by considering why we need to follow in the first place. He does this by contrasting to opposites, cheap and costly grace. Cheap grace, Bonheoffer concludes, is that grace that demands no transformation, while costly grace requires complete transformation.

Let me explain.

Grace, as a Christian theological category, is the assertion that we all receive something we do not deserve and have not earned. It is not a costless something. It is merely a something someone else has purchased on our behalf. Like a birthday gift, we receive the gift not because we have earned a present. Rather, we receive a gift as a prize for simply being born, a feat we did not initiate nor had any say in its achievement. Yet, despite our lack of personal initiation or achievement, we are rewarded anyway. A good gift given to us is given to us freely but was not acquired freely. That birthday gift was acquired/made/found through someone else’s initiation and offered through someone else’s desire that we have it. As a theological idea, grace is that something that unites us with God, merging the holy with the mundane, the divine with the human. It is a merger, as classical Christian theology tells us, achieved through God’s instigation and not ours and through God’s desire to share life with us and not out of a necessity for us to be so united. Said another way, grace is a claim about the character of God and not about humanity.

That’s grace briefly explained. Now, we should move to consider what constitutes the costliness or the cheapness of grace, as Bonheoffer sees it. And, having considered grace, we will be able to link this conversation about grace with a consideration about discipleship.

For Bonheoffer, the distinction between grace that is costly or cheap occurs not because one type of grace has a certain set of elements and the other set another. Rather, the two graces are distinguished by their divergent foci. Costly grace is a claim about us while cheap grace is a claim about what we do. Or to put it another way, costly grace is a description of how we exist in relationship to God while cheap grace is a description of how our actions exist in relationship to God. The consequence is that a focus on us means we desire to change how we live in the world so as not to drive a wedge between ourselves and God while a focus on our actions means a lack of desire to change how we live in the world because all our actions, holy or profane, have been preemptively justified or rendered holy.

Given the circumstances in which Bonheoffer found himself in 1930s Germany and the role most churches assumed as willing justifiers of Nazi atrocities, his response is not surprising. His repulsion at the idea that the Christian faith had at its heart a notion that all actions are holy once under the banner of God’s infinite grace moves from the realm of abstract theological ponderings by an academic into the soul-rending and consequential reality of a pastor. If God’s grace simply justifies all our actions in the world, regardless of those actions’ conformity to or protestation against the powers-that-be, then Bonheoffer needs either a new God or an alternative accounting of grace.

He chose the latter.

Bonheoffer begins his declaration of discipleship as a consideration of grace because he first needs to distance himself from any notion that grace is complacent about the world in which we live and to provide the underlying necessity that grace—as the very heart of the gospel—demands our lives take a new trajectory. Such trajectories, it turns out, require someone to follow and a complete and total commitment of those followers . . . but I am getting ahead of myself.

Bonheoffer’s experience while seemingly worlds away and decades removed remains all too close and contemporary. Transformation of ourselves and participation in the good life, the holy life seem all too easy these days.

Think about how easy our world tries to tell us life is. We are told that adequate participation in social networking may be achieved through binary code and electrical impulses rather than turning off something electronic and sharing a meal with each other. We are told that good relationships are the product of finding a perfect, “destined” match rather than the result of hard work and shared sacrifice. We are told that adequate participation in elections includes using the same parts of our brains that we use to decide between Ruffles or Doritos. We are told that adequate participation in the sacrifices of war include our patriotically shopping at the mall. We are told that the gospel is somehow equated to offering blessings to God in order to receive our own material blessings as some sort of divine quid pro quo. We are told that adequate participation in protecting the biblical model of the family may be achieved without even considering actual models of the family found in scripture.

Hearing the world’s facile mantras, Bonheoffer’s complaints prove all too real a cautionary and prophetic tale.

If the world is to become a place more reflective of the one we want and see as embodying the beloved community of grace called the kingdom of God, then the emphasis need not be placed on the ease of the achievement but on the difficulty of the task achieved through an intentional gift of life lived, endured, and enjoyed together.

Such a life, such a world requires real, personal, corporate, and material change.

Only in a world of shared and individual sacrifice, of personal transformation and social reformation may grace been seen as a liberating gift and not an excuse to do as we have done and claim that status quo is good enough.

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