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Cheap Grace

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Tonight I watched a documentary on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who encouraged the Lutheran church to stand against the Nazi persecution of the Jews and later joined a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. The account of Bonhoeffer’s life led me to some of his writings on the role of Christians and the Body of Christ in fighting evil in the world. Bonhoeffer’s approach was much less academic than it was practical. One of the things that really stood out to me was his coining of the term “cheap grace.” He eloquently articulated the modern Christian church in this way:

“[It] 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.” [Citation]

At first read, it sounds almost as if he is proclaiming salvation by works. But I don’t believe this to be the case. Rather, he is contrasting salvation by grace with the universal salvation that so many Christian churches preach– wittingly or unwittingly. If you visit a lot of different Christian churches, you will find no shortage of this “cheap grace” being preached. Such churches typically focus on “doing good” and “judging not.” They piously and with false humility focus on their own imperfections while ignoring the festering sin of everyone else. The “cheap grace” they preach is grace without cost, grace that comes without sacrifice or punishment because the sin wasn’t that bad to begin with. “Cheap grace” is salvation by right, instead of salvation undeserved.

One does not have to “work out [his] salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) in order to keep that salvation. But in not doing so one will remain in a state of inner turmoil and conflict, “know[ing] the good he ought to do and not doing it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17). This raises the question of what good ought the Christian to do, and to what extent? Bonhoeffer saw his neighbors, the Jews, being persecuted and killed unjustly. The Lutheran church condoned and even participated in the atrocities, for they did not “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Bonhoeffer believed it was right to join a plot to assassinate the Chancellor of Germany in order to put a stop to the merciless brutality. Oddly, Bonhoeffer stated that man cannot know right from wrong because man’s sinful nature precludes him from having perfect knowledge of morality. This, of course, rides dangerously close to the rim surrounding the pit of moral relativism, which is not at all what Bonhoeffer taught. Rather, I think it’s safe to say he was terribly conflicted about whether his decision to try to assassinate Hitler was right or wrong. And rather than addressing the issue head-on, he dismissed his obligation to “judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24).

It is easy to see why Bonhoeffer believed that sometimes the Christian will feel disappointment and frustration over his righteous actions rather than experiencing feelings of relief and peace. I have found this to be frequently true in my own life. Making a righteous judgment in a fallen world is seldom easy.

In his own life, Bonhoeffer participated in multiple assassination attempts on Hitler, one of which resulted in several casualties. He risked his own life by acting as a double-agent and plotting to stop the atrocities of the godless left-wing Nazis. He ran an illegal seminary in Germany which also served as the base of operations for his conspiracy against the Nazis. Bonhoeffer was eventually found out, brought before a court marshal, and sentenced to death. He was murdered by the Nazis on April 9, 1945. 21 days later, Adolf Hitler murdered himself.