Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of my heroes, and before he died at the hands of the Nazis at the age of 39, we was a prolific author and respected theologian. His best work (at least, according to me) is a book called “The Cost of Discipleship”. There is a much quoted passage that was not just appropriate for his time, but for ours as well. This is just a portion of it:
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.
I think the Church in America has been thriving on cheap grace for a very long time. The dominant form of Protestantism now is focused on individual material blessings (prosperity gospel) and limited condemnation focused on the lgbt community and abortion (fundamentalism). Greed, which shows up on every list of sins that the Apostle Paul produced, is excused as capitalism. Judgment (except for the previously mentioned concerns) is pushed off by misrepresenting what Jesus actually said about when we are allowed to judge and how we should do it. Faithfulness has such a low bar that people of faith are practically indistinguishable from people who do not practice their religion faithfully. Mixing religion and politics is acceptable as long as they are your religion and your politics. Honest conversation that is truthful and loving at the same time is as mythological as Bigfoot.
We have created a new relativism. This new relativism allows us to look at the behavior of others and say, “I must not be so bad if that person is doing those things!” This is very much like Jesus telling His disciples about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. It isn’t that we will never look at people around us and wonder how they can live with themselves (we are, after all, only human), but we can’t judge our faith and our lives by theirs. On the other hand, it is also really difficult to compare ourselves to Jesus, because we will always lose that comparison.
The slippery slope of “what is enough” cannot be answered easily. If we feel, at the end of each day, that we took care of every need around us, we would be either totally exhausted or lying to ourselves. If we live only for ourselves and this life, we might hear the words of Paul telling us that we are pitiful. If we compare ourselves to others, we can always find someone better and someone worse, and this would be as bad as legalism. None of this can answer the question with any satisfaction.
So, I try to do it this way. I honestly assess my gifts and abilities. I do the best I can with what God has given me. I hope that I have not missed something along the way. I pray that God’s grace will fill the gap. I believe that cheap grace, as Bonhoeffer would put it, is when we think grace will do it all, and that we can sit back and watch. I think adhering to the law, as Jesus would put it, is an impossible task. Not doing for others, while at the same time thinking you are faithful, is a lie – and it is cheap grace. Thinking that doing will earn us salvation nullifies the gift of grace. Seeking God’s direction and comfort and strength, and then pulling it all together in our daily walk of faith – maybe that comes close. We will all eventually find out when we come face to face with God – and may the grace of God be bigger than any of us could hope for. Peace.
Steve Ohnsman has been the pastor of Calvary United Church of Christ in Reading, PA, since 1999. He has a B.A. in Religion & Philosophy from Wilmington College (OH), an M.Div. from Drew Theological Seminary (NJ), a D.Min. in Christian Ethics from United Theological Seminary (OH), and a Ph.D. in Leadership from Alvernia University (PA).