Christians and churches have struggled for centuries over how to live out being “not under law but under grace.” Grace is among the most comforting, wonderful and inspiring words of the Bible. Yet like all good things, even grace can be perverted and subverted. Sooner or later, every church and every Christian will come to a place where a decision has to be made for either Cheap Grace or Costly Grace. Perhaps no one has expressed this fork in the road better than Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic devotional call to the church entitled, The Cost of Discipleship (1937). Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran and his original words were for the Lutheran church in Germany during Hitler’s time. We may be spared much grief by taking advantage of our place in history as we seek to learn from the confessed mistakes of other believers over the centuries. Consider a few excerpts from pages 43-54 that explain the crucial concern of Cheap Grace versus Costly Grace that is present even for us. LH
” We Lutherans have gathered like the eagles around the carcass of cheap grace, and there we have drunk of the poison which has killed the life of following Christ. It is true, of course, that we have paid the doctrine of pure grace divine honours, … in fact we have exalted that doctrine to the position of God himself. . . . To be “Lutheran” must mean that we must leave the following Christ to legalists, Calvinists and enthusiasts – and all this for the sake of grace. We justified the world, and condemned as heretics those who tried to follow Christ. The result was that a nation became Christian and Lutheran, but at the cost of true discipleship. . . . .
What had happened to all those warnings of Luther’s against preaching the gospel in such a manner as to make men rest secure in their ungodly living? Was there ever a more terrible or disastrous instance of the Christianizing the world than this? . . . . Cheap grace has turned out to be utterly merciless to our Evangelical Church.” “This cheap grace has been no less disastrous to our own spiritual lives. . . Instead of calling us to follow Christ, it has hardened us in our disobedience. . . The word of cheap grace has been the ruin of more Christians than any commandment of works.”
Bonhoeffer explains the simplistic logic of cheap grace. “And 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. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be, if it were not cheap? 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. . . .
That is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs. Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of 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, absolution without personal 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 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 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. . . . .
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 costs 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; . . . 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 light.”
The Grace of the Law?
Paul says, “The law is good if one uses it lawfully” (1 Timothy 1:8). Paul revealed earlier that the standard of lawful use is none other than Jesus, who is “the goal of the law” (Rom 10:4). Paul‟s instruction is that now a Christian can use the law. That is a comfort and a call as what had been a consuming burden now becomes a useful tool. So the question becomes for the Christian, What are the uses of the law? In what follows please permit me to sketch at least six uses of the law by quoting from some helpful remarks that Timothy Keller gave to Christians considering the same issue at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York. LH
“Indeed, Paul says we are not „under law‟ but „under grace‟. But what does that mean as far as having an obligation to submit to God‟s will as written in his Word? Do we still have to obey the law? Absolutely.
To be „under the law‟ refers not to law obeying but law relying (Gal 3:10-11). . . . Though he [Paul] is not „under the law‟ (as a way to earn salvation) he now is freed to see the beauties of God‟s law as fulfilled in Christ and submits to it as a way of loving his Savior. How does this work?
First, we embrace the law of God in order to learn more about who our God really is….
Second, we embrace the law of God in order to discover our true selves…. Here [Deuteronomy 10:12-13] we see that the law of God is a gift of grace that is the foundation of human flourishing . . . . The law of God simply shows us what human beings were built to do—to worship God alone, to love their neighbors as themselves, to tell the truth, keep their promises, forgive everything, act with justice.
Third, we understand the law of God as fulfilled in Christ… Christ completely fulfilled the requirements of the law in our place . . . We also recognize that many parts of the Old Testament law no longer relate directly to us as believers. Since Jesus is the ultimate priest, temple, and sacrifice, we observe none of the ceremonial, dietary, and other laws connected to ritual purity. . . .
Fourth, we realize that the law’s painful convicting work is ultimately a gracious thing. . . . If you listen at all to the law of God, you will feel naked and exposed, ashamed and helpless, and you will seek out the mercy of God. That is why Paul says that though the law, when listened to, is devastating (Rom 7:9-11) it is nevertheless spiritual, righteous, and good (Rom 7:12-14) and its work is ultimately gracious (Rom 7:7). It acts as a … strict schoolmaster who leads us to Christ (Gal 3:24).
Fifth, we turn to the law of God in order to get a true definition of what it means to love others in our relationships and in society as a whole. . . . „How do you know what is the best thing for a person?‟ Is sleeping together with someone before marriage the best thing or the worst thing for him or her? How do you know? The law is God’s way of saying, „If you want to love others, act this way: I created people. I know what the best thing for them is
Finally, we turn to the law of God because sometimes we need to do things just because God says so. In the garden, God told Adam and Eve not to eat the tree, but he never told them why. Some of us simply hate to follow a direction unless we know all the reasons why the direction was given, how it will benefit us, and so on. But God was saying to Adam and Eve, I think, „Obey this direction, not because you understand, but because you recognize that I am your God and that you are not.’ They failed in this. But every day we have the opportunity to put this right. Do God’s will, not because it is exciting (though it will eventually be an adventure) not because it will meet your needs (though it will eventually be a joy) not because you understand why this is the path of wisdom (though it will eventually become more clear). Do it because he is your Lord and Savior and you are not. Do it because it is the law of the Lord. And if you do it—if you obey him even in the little things—you will know God, know yourself, find God’s grace, love your neighbor, and simply honor him as God. Not a bad deal!