12 May 2014

a brief reflection on cheap grace

see D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (chs. 1-4)

“In the last resort, what we want to know is not, what would this or that man, or this or that Church, have of us, but what Jesus Christ himself wants from us.” These words are appropriate introductory remarks on the subject of discipleship. There are many competing voices in the modern church, each claiming correct understanding of the gospel. This has become familiar and commonplace in American evangelicalism, perhaps to the point where we have allowed a need-for-novelty to shape the identity and work of the church more than Jesus himself. Yet, at the end of it all we must remember that we are called to Christ himself, which is a journey that walks through sacrifice and surrender. In other words, the true nature of discipleship - the kind to which Bonhoeffer speaks - is necessarily separated from spiritualities that are designed to feed our own ideas of accomplishment and identity.

This is where the idea of cheap grace enters - namely, that we would use the gospel as a means of affirming our own decisions of self-worth. Cheap grace both initiates and is perpetuated by various layers of tradition, theology and doctrine that, in reality, keep us from experiencing the unsettlingly dynamic presence of Christ. Instead, Jesus has been reduced to a caricature of our own ideas of morality and virtue; the Son of God is viewed as a non-threatening projection of our own ideals for humanity. As a result of viewing Christ through the lens of cheap grace, believers today are left uninspired and unchanged, for they have not encountered the powerful presence of holiness that is found in the incarnated Lord.

Perhaps there are two opposite errors in correcting this rather benign approach to Jesus. The first is to make Jesus even more approachable still, a savior-friend whose entire existence rests upon a sentimental relationship with the individual. Here is an all-affirming Jesus that seeks to heap blessings upon his own without asking for anything in return. The second is to make a reemphasis on the holiness of the Son of God that become doctrinally overbearing, which leads to an unknowable God and an inapproachable Jesus. This results in a judgmental and condemning priest who never leaves the sanctity of the temple.

Neither of these approaches work because, as is foundational to Bonhoeffer’s words on grace, the real person of Jesus is divine holiness made accessible through the incarnation. This leads to an experience of discipleship that is both unsettling and edifying throughout. The cost of discipleship is the surrender of one’s life to the call to follow Christ. “The cross is laid on every Christian.” The natural human difficulties with a surrender-all discipleship is, in reality, a problem with Jesus - it is Christ that we choose to follow or reject.

Until the church can reclaim the presence of Jesus as he comes to us through the Spirit and the Word, we will continue to play around with the novelties of worship and discipleship programs, missing out on the transformative power of the risen Christ. The need for a renewed vigor in biblical discipleship is evidenced in the current state of our evangelicalism. We have created a more comprehensive church subculture than human history has ever seen, yet the shallowing of American Christianity is increasingly problematic. We have access to more Bibles, sermons, services and studies than ever before in the history of the world, and yet committed disciples have become difficult to find - leaving our culture to spiritual rot and decay as a result.

It appears that evangelicalism has done everything to be Christian except to die to Christ. This is a sad reality, and a powerful challenge for the church. However, the discipleship of which Bonhoeffer speaks is indeed happening in some parts of the world. This is our great encouragement and, hopefully, our inspiration to join with the church of Christ in the work that brings all people closer to his presence.

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