CHEAP GRACE AND DISCIPLESHIP
“. . . No one knows the Son except the Father, just as no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. . . . “ (Mtt 11, 27-28). So the only means of having contact with God our Father is through Jesus Christ his Son: and that is why Jesus calls us to follow him, to be his Disciples.
In the 1930s the German Lutheran Pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer experienced anguish about the survival of Discipleship in his Church. The Nazi’s strategy to emasculate the Church worried him and he foresaw the direction in which Hitler was taking the German people. His anxiety was intensified by some of his fellow Pastors such as Pastor Gruner, who declared: “Hitler is the way of the Spirit and the will of God for the German people”. Bonhoeffer reacted robustly:
“We Lutherans have gathered like eagles round the carcass of cheap grace, and there we have
drunk of the poison which has killed the life of following Christ”.
By “cheap grace” he meant the assumption that, because God’s grace is without limit, there is no need to commit to the unknown in answering Christ’s call; and that effectively makes Christian discipleship impossible.
He reasoned thus:
· When Jesus called his first Disciples, they didn’t ask, “Well OK, but what do you want us to do ? How long for ?” They just left their nets and followed him.
· When he called Matthew the tax collector, Matthew didn’t ask any questions, he just got up and followed him.
· When he called Peter to come to him across the water, Peter (albeit with trepidation), just did so.
And so, concludes Bonhoeffer, faith only exists when there is that obedience to Christ’s call, “Follow me”, without our knowing what will be asked of us. This obedience is what makes Christian faith possible, he says. Any lesser response does not correspond to who Jesus Christ really is: the very Word of God for us.
On the other hand the rich young man told Jesus he had fulfilled the entire Law ever since his youth, and added, “What more must I do ?” This showed that it was just approval or congratulation that he wanted. Jesus’ response inviting him to sell his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor and follow him, was neither what he wanted or expected. So, “His face fell at these words and he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth”. (Mtt10, 22)
So for Bonhoeffer the only possible discipleship is through “costly grace”: “costly” because it is characterised by this unconditional obedience to the call from Christ, who is the Father’s Word to us.
“Cheap Grace”, he wrote, “is preaching 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.”
He himself lived up to his convictions and was hanged a month before the end of the war for his complicity in the failed plot to assassinate Hitler. The doctor present at his execution said, “I was most deeply moved by the way this loveable man prayed . . . In the almost 50 years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
Today everyone in the Church is concerned about its future. Should we be asking ourselves whether we have unknowingly succumbed to the illusion of “cheap grace” ? I leave the question with you; it is one which we should all ponder seriously.