In 1937, a German theologian and pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer was watching the rise of the Nazi regime in his country. He saw how faith in Christ was becoming muddled with faith in country. It was anti-German to be welcoming outsiders. It is anti-German to not be Christian. Therefore, not welcoming outsiders and being Christian go hand-in-hand — since they’re both pro-Germany.
This very same kind of fuzzy logic happens in our own country right now. When a person says they are Christian, immediately some assume that means they must also be pro-life, love America, vote Republican, and be against immigration.
But that’s not true… that’s fuzzy logic. Logic that makes grand assumptions. There are pro-choice Christians, and there are pro-life atheists. Polarizing language that breaks us up into two camps — the enemy and the good guys — (always, we find ourselves in the good guy camp no matter which side we pick) makes this fuzzy logic grow.
Soon there is no middle ground. Soon there is no real self-reflection. Soon, churches begin to offer only cheap grace.
Bonhoeffer coined this term in the book The Cost of Discipleship. Hear his words:
“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.
Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! …
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.”
Cheap grace, to Bonheoffer, is when the church bows to society and silences those who question the way things are. It is cheap grace when we tell ourselves we’re good people because we’re Christians… but don’t actually follow Christ. It is cheap grace when scripture and faith don’t challenge us, and God looks and thinks and acts just as we do.
“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” ((Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies.)) It’s a mirror. It’s yourself. An idol.
Our church gives cheap grace when it says “Things are fine for me, so stop your complaining.” “I’ve never been gay, so nor should you be.” “I’ve never needed to flee my country’s violence: so go home and leave me be.” Cheap grace is grace not from God — but from ourselves. It is patting ourselves on our backs and saying “What good Christians we are!”
Cheap grace is the love we give ourselves at the expense of following Jesus.
Opposite of this, says Bonhoeffer, is costly grace. He writes,
“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…
Costly grace is the Gospel which must be sought again and again, 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 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.”
Bonhoeffer’s words mean Christianity is costly. It doesn’t let us follow society. It makes us follow a different law – the law of love. Christianity demands repentance – repentance means to radically change your life. It isn’t just “I’m sorry,” when you do something… it is “I’m sorry and I will never do that again.” Repentance is the idea that we are walking the wrong direction and must completely turn around, back towards God The baptism of repentance that John calls for is having a water baptism as a sign of washing away the old life and beginning a new. The baptism in the name of Christ, the Father, and Holy Spirit we do is a sign of what happens invisibly of the new life a person has. And when we take communion, we confess our sins and pledge to begin anew our life with God and one another.
New as in… not repeating those wrongs.
And that is costly.
But grace is defined as a free gift. Confusing? Let me explain…
Cheap free gifts, cheap grace, are like… the really cheap chocolate you can get for Christmas. It’s mostly wax. The sugar tastes good. For a moment. Then it is awful.
The cheap free gift of a faith that doesn’t challenge us a faith that won’t stand up to pressure. When we face truly awful things – the death of a child, the betrayal of a friend, the injustice of law, the sexual abuse of clergy on children – and our faith hasn’t grown beyond the basic step… that faith crumbles. How could God permit such evil? How could I ever forgive such a friend? How can I have faith in any laws or any clergy? When our faith is given to us cheaply without challenge… it just wilts and has nothing to say to these situations.
Costly grace is a gift that cost a lost to give. It’s like the expensive chocolate. Just a little bit goes a long way because it is mostly cocoa. It tastes good, and leaves a good taste. But it cost way more.
The costly gift of faith that does challenge us is faith that stands up under the pressure of the evils of life. It reminds us that God is a parent grieving the loss of their child. God-in-Christ knew the betrayal of Judas… then each disciple… all the way to Peter, his best friend, who denied ever even knowing Jesus. It reminds us that wherever there are humans, there is sin… this includes our most sacred institutions and worship spaces. Costly grace is messy. It can’t be summed up on a coffee cup. It says there are real sins, real evils, but also real forgiveness, real repentance, really changed lives.
Malachi writes at a time the cheap grace of the Jewish faith is failing people. He prophesizes that God will refine the priests and make them strong – strong enough to lead the people back into costly grace. But costly grace – faith that can move mountains – costs.
So Malachi warns us this cost is like a fire that burns away impurities to leave behind the gold and silver. It is like bleach, that will turn dull and dirty cloth into dazzling white as snow cloth. Who can withstand this, wonders Malachi. Who can handle the cost of discipleship?
Bonhoeffer wrote about this in his own Advent sermons a few years before writing The Cost of Discipleship. He wrote,
“It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God . . . . We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for every one who has a conscience.
Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love.”
Fear and wonder. Terror. Like the shepherds seeing the angels. Like those who came to hear John preach. Like those who found Jesus’ tomb empty.
But also grace. Love. Forgiveness. Acceptance.
God’s question to us again and again is who shall I send? Who will go? Who will prepare the way? Who will keep awake? Who will walk the narrow way, the costly way, instead of the wide way, the way that offers no challenges… but no rewards? Who will be silver and gold? Who will withstand the bleach to be washed whiter than snow? Who will tackle their own sins?
I wonder, sometimes, if the paths Isaiah speaks about are us. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make God’s people ready. Everyone who is low should be encouraged and lifted up. Everyone who is high and powerful should be humbled and lowered. The crooked and sinful shall be made straight and true; the rough made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
It’s what John was doing. He was offering repentance. A way to turn our crooked path around and walk right back to God. And what Malachi foretold.
It is easy to love upon a cute baby cuddled in his mama’s arms.
But Christmas means so much more.
Are you preparing yourself for the more?