Grace is neither costly nor cheap

October 27th, 2019
by Chris

I’ve been editing a book by William Powell Tuck, “The Rebirth of the Church” (forthcoming shortly from Energion Publications). In it he says “Many church members turn to the church only when they want to get married or buried or have a crisis in their lives. These same people often show greater loyalty to their civic clubs or country clubs where they have annual dues and attendance requirements. The church must assume some of the responsibility for this failing since it has placed too much emphasis on the ease of church membership and has not had any real requirements for those who have joined. There has been too much stress on the security of the believer and not enough acknowledgement of faithfulness. Many have found cheap grace from their church and have been unwilling to examine the New Testament requirements for following· Christ. This failing demands that we look again at the New Testament call to discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has called this “cheap grace.” “Cheap grace,” according to Bonhoeffer, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” “

He goes on (quoting Bonhoeffer again) “”Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the regal 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.” Bonhoeffer goes even further when he declares:

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought repeatedly, 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” (The quotations come from “The Cost of Discipleship” pp. 36-37)

Now, I hugely respect Bonhoeffer. Unfortunately, I think that in this much quoted attitude to grace, I think he is mistaken. What he speaks of is, I think, true of discipleship, of following Jesus, who talked about taking up our crosses in Luke 9:23. If you are “all in” following Jesus as Lord, then yes, that is at least a potentially very costly course of action.

But that is not “grace”. Let me explain…

Grace is a huge feature in Christianity, and particularly in Protestant Christianity, in which it is one of the three (or sometimes five) “solae”, “sola gratia”. It is unmerited gift (we preserve the terms “gratuity” meaning a tip, and “gratis” , meaning entirely free, in English).

Gifts, however, particularly in the West, seem historically to have been hugely difficult for people to grasp. In the Roman world of the first century (i.e. the background of most if not all of the New Testament), gifts were given by a patron to his clients, and there was an overwhelming understanding that receiving such gifts placed you under an obligation of service to the patron. Jesus was dead against giving gifts this way: in Matthew 6:1-4, for instance, he says “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” This is echoed in the common Twelve-Step “Just for today” injunctions “Just for today… I will do someone a good turn and not get found out; if anyone knows of it, it will not count” .

We preserve this in modern society to a considerable extent. How many of us, for instance, calculate the value of presents we are given and try hard to give presents of similar value? The motivation is clear – if you agree to buy something, you know the price. If you accept a gift, you incur a potentially infinite obligation, certainly one which is not well-defined. In giving a gift of similar value, we are trying to get rid of that unspecified obligation…

This is particularly forceful in the case of the debt we feel we owe if someone has saved our life. In that instance, we readily talk of an infinite debt, possibly involving the whole of the rest of our life. After all, we wouldn’t have that were it not for our rescuer, would we?

Curiously, that doesn’t apply in every society. The Chinese template, for instance, is that if you voluntarily save someone’s life, you become responsible for them for the rest of your own. There is a logic there as well, though it is one which is difficult for Western minds to grasp quickly.

The Roman and general Western attitude is picked up by Paul in the quotations to which Bonhoeffer is referring – 1 Cor. 7:23 and 1 Cor. 6:19-20. Paul is there perhaps thinking of the concept of ransom (which isn’t explicit in either passage, but in 1 Cor. 7 he does refer to us being freedmen of God, even if we were previously bondservants). Ransom is, of course, a motif which is used by Paul for what Jesus does for us, and forms the basis of Origen’s “Ransom” theory of atonement.

The thing is, if you accept that we are infinitely indebted to Jesus for his self-sacrifice, you are not talking about ransom, which (as Paul indicates) frees you, you are talking about the purchase of a slave. To give Paul his due, he is only arguing that there is some moral weight to Jesus’ action in the 1 Cor. 6&7 texts; you might feel that you are undoing Jesus’ actions, for instance, if you then misuse your newfound freedom. Bonhoeffer, however, sounds far more as if he is talking about Jesus having purchased our slave-contracts – and that is nothing remotely like gift.

Indeed, the very idea of “cheap” or “costly” grace contradicts the basic concept of a gift. You can have a cheap or a costly purchase, but not a cheap or a costly gift – at least, not to the recipient. The giver, of course, can give as much or as little as they wish, but if they follow Jesus’ prescription, they shouldn’t expect anything in return, even the good opinion of others.

Thus, of course, if we look at Jesus’ self-sacrifice as a gift, we should be able to accept it as just that – the freedom not just to accept it or reject it, but to accept it in total freedom. Any suggestion that we need to commit ourselves to Jesus if we accept it (and otherwise it is witheld) is no longer a gift, it’s a purchase.

But, as I say, we don’t really understand gift.

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