Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship
I’ve been re-visiting the Sermon on the Mount in recent weeks, reading it over and over every day, getting to know it more intimately, to internalize it. I never get tired of reading it even though I struggle with it as mightily as Jacob struggled with God all night by the riverside.
In all this study and reflection on the great Sermon, I can’t help but wonder why so many American Christians want the Ten Commandments posted prominently on courthouse lawns and in judges’ courtrooms, and inside and outside of schools–as if ten amounted to the last word in the Bible.
That is to say that I wonder why nobody ever clamors for scriptures from the Sermon on the Mount to be posted on properties financed by secular tax dollars, or anywhere else for that matter.
Maybe because the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (the Sermon on the Plain in Luke)–with all that blessing of the poor, the meek, the peacemakers and such misfits as that–is really nonsense to an America that seems to prefer either cheap grace or a harsh God’s laws enforced by a fierce God with a flowing, Duck Dynasty beard.
It seems to me that the Jesus who calls us to the following path wasn’t dealing in either cheap grace or the theology of a guy who cashes in on celebrity and duck calling:
‘But I say to you … love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
— Luke 6: 27-36
I’m talking about the Jesus who preached this absurd kind of thinking:
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.’
— Matthew 5: 38-42
We hear Christian fundamentalists all the time who say:
“The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.”
But Jesus in that Bible of theirs and mine and yours says:
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?’
— Matthew 5: 43-47
Tell me, when was the last time you heard somebody say, “Jesus said to love your enemies and to pray for them.
“I believe it.
I do it.
“That settles it.”
That won’t even fit on a bumper sticker for gosh sake, much less into most people’s prayers.
* * * *
I submit that all too many Christians want easy, breezy, bumper-sticker religion, not a Christian faith that requires struggle, sacrifice, time, and an enormous amount of study and devotion to never-ending spiritual growth.
I submit this because it’s clear and obvious that multitudes and masses of American Christians who yelp the loudest about there being no government-sanctioned school prayers in classrooms are too lazy to get up on Sunday morning and so much as drop their children off at Sunday school class, much less get up and go with them to church services, Christmas and Easter excepted.
(And once more for the record: there is no law, and never has been one, against your child or any child praying or reading the Bible, the Jewish Torah or any other holy book at school. By all means, encourage your children to pray at school for something other than a passing grade in algebra and to crack the Bible over lunch with other young Christians or anybody else. They won’t be arrested in this free country.)
* * * *
If we’re going to place one of the two significantly different sets of the Ten Commandments found in Exodus and Deuteronomy all over properties financed by taxpayers who may or may not believe in God, and who have the American right and freedom to believe or not, why don’t we post this from St. Paul alongside those commandments:
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves … No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
— See Romans 12: 17-21
We could go with a Paul scripture that could be condensed and squeezed into a bumper sticker:
“Live in harmony … do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.”
— Romans 12: 16
Who in this American culture wants to encourage their kids to associate with the lowly?
Lord, if anything, our school children need to be protected from a book so dangerous. It’s a wonder that fundamentalist Christians don’t call for banning it from school libraries so that they can keep it under their greater control.
* * * *
Yes, our beloved Christian saint Paul teaches us to associate with the lowly. He and Jesus teach us to love the poor . . . To turn the other cheek to an aggressor (as a show of non-violent strength defiance to the aggressor, not as a show of weakness).
But how many American Christians know anything the Bible teaches or says aside from John 3: 16 or a maybe a few shreds of Psalm 23 and maybe four or five of the Ten Commandments such as the one about “thou shall not commit adultery.”
Which American Christians commit in staggering numbers even in the so-called “Bible Belt.”
Lord knows that Texans and Southerners need some exposure to the Ten Commandments, considering ho much they casually break the Ten Commandments.
* * * *
By America’s Christian culture standards, Jesus and the Apostles come across as flakes and naive dreamers. These guys didn’t live in “the real world” where we have to live, and never mind that they were crucified for their words and actions in a really ugly “real world.”
Look, Jesus and the Apostles weren’t 1960s-type love swamis who spoke sweet swami words holed up in hidden caves detached from “the real world.” But they weren’t risking life and limb in the real world by carrying around replicas of The Ten Commandments and shouting out those ten commands everywhere they went. Jesus in fact re-conceptualized the Ten Commandments and the laws of God without abolishing them.
Why do so many people want to simplify Christianity with replicas of the Ten Commandment tablets, at the exclusion of a million other Biblical verses, or simplify it with happy, sentimental bumper stickers (Honk if you love Jesus, yaw’ll!), and now, increasingly with museums charging fees for tours of the mythical Ark of Noah.
It’s all the kind of stuff that cheapens Christianity rather than advancing the kingdom of heaven on earth, which Jesus paid a heavy price in initiating and the Apostles paid in suffering and blood in pushing it too.
Cheap grace is easy and breezy and marketable to-boot; costly grace, as articulated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the following opening to his Christian masterpiece on the Sermon on the Mount– The Cost of Discipleship,
–is costly indeed.
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or
fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! 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….
Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins…. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.
Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. ‘All for sin could not atone.’ Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man’ will gladly go and self all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.
Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him. 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; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”