Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Free grace is costly grace

Preaching this past Sunday at CCC from Jeremiah 7, I couldn't avoid mentioning Dietrich Bonhoeffer's concept of cheap grace. In the chapter the prophet Jeremiah was sent by the Lord to preach outside the temple courts. The subject of his sermon, like almost all his sermons, was the sin of the people of Judah; in this particular case, the numerous sins are aggravated by the attitude of the people towards the temple itself. The temple represents their security. They'll be forgiven, of course they will. They'll get away with their worship of idols, naturally. They'll be preserved from foreign invasion and divine judgement, for sure. Because the temple. The house that bears God's name is just up the hill, and they go there all the time to celebrate their salvation.

Cheap grace.

"Cheap grace 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."

That's Bonhoeffer, in Discipleship.

It struck me that cheap grace may or may not seem cheap.  It might mean just praying the prayer and otherwise getting on with life.  But on the other hand it might mean a life of rigorous exertion.  In the case of the people of Judah, the sacrificial system was up and running, and that was work.  I bet it didn't seem cheap.  But what these two things - the sinner's prayer (as misunderstood and presumed upon) and the sacrificial system (as misunderstood and presumed upon) - have in common is that I give something or do something in exchange for grace.  'Grace' in this context might mean different things, but probably includes salvation, God's favour, maybe eternal life.  And it's when you start to think about what it includes that it seems cheap at the price, even if the price is a lifetime of sacrificial devotion.  Who wouldn't purchase eternal life at the cost of a lifetime of sacrifice and ritual - and if you can get it even cheaper, say just by 'believing in Jesus', then so much the better!  That is how many people understand the transition from Old to New Testament.

The other thing that the (misunderstood) sinner's prayer and the (misunderstood) sacrificial system have in common is that they both leave the rest of life untouched.  Once you've paid your dues for grace, you can carry on as you were.  Up you get from your prayer and get on with your life.  Out you go from the temple and return to - well, your abominations, says Jeremiah.  Cheap grace.

But God's grace is not cheap.  As Bonhoeffer points out, we should realise that by observing what it cost God himself.

God's grace is free.  There is nothing you have that you can exchange for God, for eternal life, for forgiveness and salvation.  You don't have anything that is worth that much, and everything you have you owe to God anyway as your Creator.  If you are going to receive those things, they will have to be given to you freely, gratis, and for nothing.  And so it, because Christ has paid for these things.

But then again, God's grace is costly.  To receive God, eternal life, forgiveness, is to lose everything you currently have and are.  Nothing can be held back.  It will take everything to be saved.  This is not a price-tag.  I'm not saying 'guys, God's grace isn't cheap; it's really, really expensive'.  I'm saying, God's grace is Jesus Christ, crucified for you and risen for you.  He has done it all.  Receiving what he has done does not require anything from you; there is nothing you can contribute.  But to receive Jesus Christ is to receive his cross.  It is grace that you lose everything you have and are, because that is the putting to death of your old sinful self at the cross of Christ, so that you might have bestowed on you the new identity of the resurrected and beloved.  It is grace that from now on your life in every single aspect is to be shaped entirely by Christ and his Spirit, because that is what eternal life looks like.

Free.  Costly.  But not cheap.

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