Bonhoeffer teaches us grace does not come cheap

Published 12:01 am Friday, April 26, 2019

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a professor and pastor in Germany during the rise of Adolf Hitler.

In the critical time period of 1930-1945, Dietrich faced monumental ethical decisions while pastoring a church and teaching young seminarians. Namely: would he accept the next nationalistic infringement that Hitler imposed upon society? Or would he stand up in opposition, risking his career and life.

Dietrich did not have the advantage of life experience, as he faced these great ethical dilemmas as a 24-year-old pastor in the German Evangelical Church.

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Bonhoeffer bravely decided to speak out against the Fuhrer; on the radio, in lectures and writings. He threatened his own Bishop that thousands of parishes might secede from the church rather than take a loyalty oath to Hitler.

His deep resistance to the Nationalistic government caused him to forego his deeply held pacifist views, and he became a double agent in the German Intelligence. He aided in a plot, which conspired (but failed) to kill Hitler. Ultimately, he would be imprisoned for almost two years, and executed on the direct order of Hitler at the age of 39.

Recently, we had a wonderful day of shopping and selling at the Community Market, making money and spending money, all for the cause of mission.

For those who shopped they found something costly at a cheap price. For those who were selling, they received money for an item they were tired of holding. Sometimes they received a good price for a costly item. Some received a cheap price for a costly item, but it outweighed having to keep it in their home or as part of their inventory.

We become excited about buying something costly for a cheap price.

Bonhoeffer tries to deepen our appreciation of Christ’s sacrifice and the journey of discipleship by distinguishing between cheap grace and costly grace. Worked out in his book “Discipleship” (1937) and set in opposition to “cheap grace,” “Costly grace” is a rich concept grounded in the important philosophical work of Bonhoeffer’s dissertations and foundational to his later thoughts in ethics and letters and papers from prison.

Bonhoeffer’s distinction between “cheap grace” and “costly grace” is more than a call to sacrificial action. It is a theological insight related to his understanding of Luther’s doctrine of justification. At the most basic level, justification is about “getting right” with God.

Anyone who has ever typed a document on a computer has thought about justification in this simple sense. If you select “left justify,” the words are aligned on the left side of the page. “Right justify” lines up the words on the right side of the page. “Both justify” aligns the words with the margins on both sides of the paper (as with the text on this page). For Bonhoeffer the goal and the gift for Christians is to be “lined up” with (or justified in the eyes of) God.

Cheap grace is, in a practical sense, a denial of the incarnation — of the word of God. It is the deadly enemy of the church.

Cheap grace It is “the preaching of forgiveness without repentance … [it is] the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession.”

“Cheap grace,” Bonhoeffer continues, “is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.” It is grace without the constant knowledge and hope of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is “grace without the cross.”

Bonhoeffer cannot emphasize strongly enough the unbreakable link between God’s gift of grace and God’s call to “follow after.” Justification is a gift of grace, but it is not a gift that renders Christians free from responsibility.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field, for the sake of which people go and sell everything they have. It is the costly pearl, for which the merchant sells all that he has.

It is costly because it calls us to discipleship. It is grace because we follow Jesus. It does not excuse one from works.

Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of God’s son. “You were bought with a price,” I Corinthians 6:20. What has cost God much, cannot be cheap for us.
Cheap grace has turned out to be utterly un-merciful to the church. Cheap grace has been unmerciful with us personally.

Blessed are they who in the knowledge of such costly grace, can live in the world without losing themselves in it.
Thanks be to God for the call and the cost of discipleship.

Rev. Bill Barksdale is the pastor of Jefferson Street United Methodist Church in Natchez.  He has been referencing Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s legacy throughout his sermons the past month in preparation for their annual Dinner Theater, May 1,2, 4,5 about the heroic stand that Dietrich took against Hitler and Nazi Germany, “The Beams are Creaking”