First published March 14, 2013
I remember some time ago, when I was a younger lad, the church I attended was really into using a particular small black book as an evangelistic tool. You may have seen the type, small little gospel tracts you can hand out and give to strangers that purport to tell the gospel in pithy points and a prayer.
Once the person is made to see that they cannot obey God's law, and can then be judged a sinner, they are encouraged to pray a small prayer for their salvation and then maybe, if you're lucky, someone follows them up, or they are encouraged to come to church. But most of the time, they just pray the prayer for their salvation and then forget all about it.
Lately I've been considering the thoughts of a particular Theologian whose views sound so much different from this. (Ask yourself if you would want this on a tract!). "When Christ calls a man, He bids him to come and die." - Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
What Bonhoeffer means here is that we must die to our attachments to the world, to commit to following the way of Christ as distinct to our old nature.
And he calls the type of grace we present on a quick tract, as in the one I've discussed above, as 'Cheap Grace' because it offers God's grace without discipleship, forgiveness without repentance, and other features missing that should be entailed in Christian life. When we accept God's grace we should commit to following the way of Jesus, and repentance, otherwise we are accepting a cheap grace that demands very little from our lives.
Cheap grace is the grace that is sold in the marketplace of ideas with one tract and a small prayer. The account has been paid in advance by Jesus, and we as the church can shower this gift all over the place. If we just hold intellectual assent to this idea, this system, then that's all that is required of us and no further demands are necessary. Because grace alone does everything, everything can remain as it was before for the individual.
Cheap grace throws a cheap covering on our sin and in so doing claims to get rid of sin. With little or no contrition required on our part, we are on our way to heaven. Cheap grace therefore is grace we bestow on ourselves to carry on as we were before. It's not the full outworking of what the gospel entails by grace.
Modern Christian living
It's my opinion that this sort of cheap grace approach is pretty endemic to modern society, perhaps even more than it was in Bonhoeffer's time in the Lutheran church in 1930's and 40's Germany. We often hear both believers and non-believers complain that the way Christians are living is not in-line with the life of Jesus and his teachings, because Christians are sometimes quick to judge, unloving etc…but it's okay because we are all covered by God's grace, right? It's not like we have to strive to be like Jesus.
But wait, we totally do, because we are witnesses to those around us and Jesus tells us to follow him. We could dispatch of some of this a lot easier if we actually followed through on our faith and lived as Christians, following God's grace with repentance and following the model of Jesus. We should have the desire to be more like Jesus in thankfulness for what he has done for us instead of falling back upon a cheap grace in which our Christian witness is indistinguishable from the behaviour of the world we live in.
So what does biblical grace look like? Real grace, costly grace, challenges us with a gracious call to follow Jesus. It takes Jesus' words seriously when he tells his disciples in Matthew chapter 16, verses 24–25 "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it."
Hard words, hard because they require sacrifice, and may necessarily entail suffering as we attempt to follow in the footsteps of Jesus who himself suffered.
In amongst this there is also an important place for the role of community. We are to disciple and encourage one another in the faith. So if you hand someone a tract and they accept God's grace it shouldn't end there. There is a role for community, the church, in which people are encouraged in their Christian walk, practising confession of sins in community, according to Bonhoeffer, and attempting holiness.
A costly equation
To live Jesus out in the world is where the rubber meets the road. The abundant grace we have received should never be a justification for disobeying our calling to live out Jesus in the world. The church and body of believers provides community in our everyday lives, and helps encourage us and keep us on the straight and narrow.
Costly grace calls us to follow with our lives, in the words of 1 Peter chapter 2, verse 21 "To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps." But it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ who first loved us and gave his life for us. In return for the cost of our life it gives us the only true life back.
Cheap grace on the other hand is the wide road that requires little from us and is easy to follow, it requires little adjustment from the patterns of this world we live in, we simply accept the grace of God that has been given for us so our sins can be forgiven, with little real repentance, just a formulaic prayer and the continuation of living as we wish.
But if we are truly to live as Jesus requires we must reclaim real grace and live it out and follow him in response to what he has done for us, this is the fuller and richer Christianity that is required, not just what we have distilled it down to in order to serve ourselves.
I hope you're encouraged to think more about the concept of grace and all that is entailed by God's grace towards us. God's loving sacrifice should require us to respond in kind and embrace a grace that is costly and demands a response from our lives in repentance, confession, and discipleship.
Peter Rope is a Financial Economics and Theology graduate from Auckland.
Peter Rope's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/peter-rope.html