When preachers become troubled by the presence of so many nominal believers in their congregations, they typically begin to stridently declare Bonhoeffer’s distinction between cheap and costly grace: “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Cheap grace is the easy word of absolution that we speak to ourselves as a way of justifying our personal status quo and protecting ourselves against repentance and spiritual transformation. If God loves us always, absolutely, and without qualification, then there seems to be no compelling reason for us to change our behavior and cast ourselves on his mercy. We have all the time we need. God will always be there to take us back, just as he welcomed home his prodigal son. God’s OK. I’m OK. We are all OK.
Eastern Orthodoxy is often, and rightly, presented as a way of being Christian that eschews all forms of cheap grace. With its rich ascetical and liturgical tradition Orthodoxy is that “strong medicine” that every sinner needs and yearns for, a way that offers liberation from self-bondage, not through instant magical recipes but through patient perseverance in self-denial, prayer and fasting. “There is no more ascetic feat more difficult, more painful,” Elder Sophrony states, “than the effort to draw close to God Who is love.”
But there is a danger here, both for the Orthodox and for all Christian traditions—confirmation in self-righteousness and the reduction of divine agape to a conditionalist love. I know this danger from thirty years of pastoral ministry. On too many occasions I scolded my parishioners for their (apparent) lack of commitment. Needless to say, my scolding accomplished little. It certainly did not effect the repentance and change that I prayed for, but I certainly felt righteous in my “prophetic” stance. Since my retirement I have heard it in the law-dominated homilies to which I have listened and seen it embodied in eucharistic disciplines that seek to protect the “unworthy” from the consuming fire of God. 1 Corinthians 11:27 (“Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord”) is ripped from its pastoral context and elevated as a divine law above all grace and mercy. Something more, we feel, is needed than simple faith in Christ, and inevitably this more becomes a conditioning of the grace of God. We must first become worthy and pure, the priest tells us, before God will forgive and enter into a saving communion with us.
But perhaps there is another way to think of the cheap and costly grace distinction.
“Grace is not cheap but costly,” writes Thomas F. Torrance, “costly for God and costly for man, but costly because it is unconditionally free: such is the grace by which we are justified in Christ Jesus” (“Cheap and Costly Grace,” in God and Rationality, p. 56). Grace is infinitely costly to God, for it is “grace through the blood of Christ.” We are not speaking of a sentimental affection that merely affirms and accepts, excuses and blesses. The God whom we know as unconditional love is the God who has entered into the depths of our fallen reality, appropriated our sin, and borne it unto death and resurrection. Only in Christ, through his passion and sufferings and paschal victory, do we know the unmerited and unconditioned mercy of the Creator. We know it not as a philosophical principle but as a living, personal, concrete reality who is the Crucified. Grace is costly but not in the sense that we must first make ourselves “worthy” before we may receive it. The grace of God is unconditionally free. In Jesus Christ the Father “will only be grace and nothing but grace, immutably, unrelentingly, invincibly sheer grace” (p. 66). As the Apostle Paul so powerfully expressed the scandalous love of the Savior:
While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation. (Rom 5:6-11)
Christ died for the ungodly. Do you qualify? I am reminded of a story related by James Stewart about a young woman who refrained from partaking of the Holy Communion because of her unworthiness. The old Scots minister, knowing her life and history, presents her the sacred bread and whispers, “Take it, lassie–’tis meant for sinners!”
But we must not think that the unconditional grace of God entails no cost to us, for this grace means for us nothing less than our death and resurrection. By grace God embraces us in our sin—Christ died for the ungodly!—yet he does not leave us in our sin. He will make us fit for the kingdom of heaven. Repentance alone will not suffice. More radical surgery is needed. We need not entertain scholastic notions of created grace, yet our existential condition calls for something far more drastic, and painful, than mere change of mind. “If righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Gal 2:21). The unconditionality of divine grace means that we must abandon all hopes of justifying ourselves before God. We can only renounce our egocentrism and surrender ourselves to God in faith and allow him to accomplish in us in his transformative work of redemption. To be loved by the Father is to be to be slain and raised to new life in the Son and reborn in the Spirit. “Truly, truly, I say to you,” the Savior declares, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). In the words of the Apostle: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17).
And immediately the objection comes: if the love of God is truly unconditional, then we may delay conversion and simply continue in our self-will and sin. Let the status quo remain status quo. Why not exploit the grace and mercy of God? But this is not a new objection. It was raised against the teaching of Paul while he was still alive. Observe how the Apostle responds to the objection:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Rom 6:1-14)
We are new beings in Christ. We have died to sin in baptism and been raised with Christ to new life. We are no longer the kind of people who seek to abide in sin (that we do so is the mystery, scandal, and challenge of our baptismal existence). What Paul does not do is to dilute the explosive radicality of his proclamation. In Christ we are free for God; our lives have been set on a new foundation. We now live in the coming kingdom.
Eastern Christians may be particularly concerned about the impact of the Pauline gospel on our commitment to the ascetical life. Why pray and fast? But why draw the inference that because God loves us unconditionally we do not need to embrace the spiritual disciplines? This is but another form of the question posed to Paul in Romans 6. The concern has some validity, given Protestantism’s historic difficulties with integrating the ascetical life into its understanding of justification by faith; but this only means that we must learn from Protestantism’s failure and read the Scriptures within the wholeness of the catholic tradition (see George Florovsky, “The Ascetic Ideal and the New Testament“). Hidden beneath the worry, I suspect, is our attachment to self-justification. Perhaps we can save ourselves through our ascetical practices and good works. But asceticism and the moral life only make evangelical sense when they are understood as life in the Holy Spirit.
If no one ever accuses you of preaching antinomianism, then you are not faithfully preaching the gospel given to St Paul.
What is the solution to the desire of the baptized to continue in sin and faithlessness? The preaching of the gospel! Only the word of radical grace can liberate us from our bondage to self and creaturely goods and attach us to Jesus Christ. The gospel convicts, converts, and justifies; the gospel gives life and Holy Spirit. We are no longer slaves but sons in the Son. Christ alone justifies. Christ alone deifies.
(This article is a very mildly edited version of a piece published on 10 June 2013)