Grace Ain’t Cheap–It’s Free!

jailWhen pastors become troubled by the pre­sence of so many nominal believers in their congregations, they typically begin to preach 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 self-abso­lution, the word we speak to ourselves to protect ourselves against repentance and spiritual transformation. If God loves us always, absolutely, without qualification, no ifs, ands or buts, then there’s no compelling reason, we think, for us to change our behavior and cast ourselves on his mercy. We’ve been given a “get out of jail free” card, which we can play at any time, from now unto eternity. No nonnego­tia­ble deadlines. God will always be there to take us back just as we are, just as he welcomed home his prodigal son just as he was. Forget the confession speech. Forget the sack cloth and ashes, Time to bring out the party clothes and slay the fatted calf. God’s OK, I’m OK, we’re all OK. Ain’t cheap grace glorious? But that’s just too easy. Shouldn’t the prodigal first be required to perform penance and satisfaction? Shouldn’t conversion precede forgiveness? No cheap grace for me, we say to ourselves—and no cheap grace for anyone else either. After all, didn’t the Apostle James declare: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas 2:24).

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,” St Sophrony states, “than the effort to draw close to God Who is love.”

But there is danger here, both for the Orthodox and for all Christian traditions—confirma­tion in self-righteousness and the reduction of divine agape to conditional 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 desired for them and for which I fervently prayed, but I certainly felt righteous in my “prophetic” stance. Since my retirement I have heard the scolding in a multitude of law-dominated homilies and seen it embodied in eucharistic disciplines that seek to protect the unrighteous 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. Imagine thinking that we must protect anyone from Jesus. Something more, we feel, is needed than simple faith, and inevitably this more becomes a conditioning of the divine graciousness. We must first become worthy and pure before God will forgive and enter into a saving—and nonlethal—communion with us. In some Orthodox parishes this means the imposition of sacramental confession and attendance at the Saturday night vigil before one is permitted to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. This tradition goes back centuries. And we wonder why the Orthodox stopped receiving the Communion on a weekly basis. Better safe than sorry.

But 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.”1 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, 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 the 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. Our existential condition calls for something far more drastic, and painful, than mere change of mind and will. “If righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Gal 2:21). The unconditionality of divine grace means that we must, and most certainly will, abandon all hopes of justifying ourselves before God. When Jesus comes to us, what else can we do but renounce our egocentrism and allow him to heal and transform us? 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 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 its failure and read the Scriptures within the wholeness of the catholic tradition.2 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 and freedom in the Holy Spirit.

Preachers in particular need to learn the preaching of grace, to take the risk of actually giving Christ to their congregations rather than first demanding their works and perfor­mance. And risk it is, for all sinners will seek opportunities to avoid repentance. Yet the risk must be embraced, for it is by the giving of Christ that faith is created and new life is born. The great Welsh preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones speaks to all preachers:

If your preaching of the gospel of God’s free grace in Jesus Christ does not provoke the charge from some of antinomianism, you’re not preaching the gospel of the free grace of God in Jesus Christ.

We must proclaim not faith plus works but, as Robert Farrer Capon liked to say, “grace plus nothing!” Yes, our congregations are filled with the dead; but when Christ comes to us in his love, corpses rise up rejoicing!

What is the solution to nominal faith? The preaching of the gospel! Only the word of radical grace can liberate us from our bondage to self and the world and renew us in life. The gospel convicts, converts, and justifies; the gospel gives Holy Spirit. We are no longer slaves but sons in the Son. Christ alone justifies. Christ alone saves. Christ alone raises the dead.

“Take it, lassie—’tis meant for sinners!”

(10 June 2013; rev.)

Footnotes

[1] T. F. Torrance, “Cheap and Costly Grace,” God and Rationality, p. 56.

[2] See George Florovsky, “The Ascetic Ideal and the New Testament.”

(Go to “Baptized into the Eschatological In-between”)

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18 Responses to Grace Ain’t Cheap–It’s Free!

  1. Iain Lovejoy says:

    Spiritual practices and disciplines seem to me to be sold by telling people that they have no business being happy, they ought to be miserable and wretched and if they don’t want bad things to happen to them they had better start miserying and wretcheding themselves up PDQ. This seems to me to be quite wrong.
    No one comes to God except if the Spirit moves them. If someone is listening to a preacher it is because they recognise a lack or misery in themselves and wish it remedied – a sinner’s recognises that there sin is making them miserable wishes to stop sinning, a seeker has had a glimpse of God and wants to know more, the lukewarm and comfortable are asking if this is all there is. The church, ultimately, is supposed to be selling heaven, not escape from hell.
    A spiritual life is eternal life is sanctification / theosis (I am a bit dodgy on the terminology) is the grace / gift of God. Christ has to be “sold” as a good in himself, and prayer and fasting and other spiritual things as joy-bringers in their own right. Everything falls apart when Christ becomes a means to some other end.

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    • TJF says:

      I disagree. From experience I know that there are many things I should do, indeed that I will have to do no matter what and yet they are painful, require effort, and in my laziness I avoid them either entirely or I procrastinate. I don’t see spiritual disciplines being sold by telling us we ought to be miserable. Aquinas was right when he said that going from a life of sin to being a saint is a painful process. Earthly and lowly things entice us and often we have to “fake it to make it.” The greatest spiritual writers in the Christian tradition all agree that when we don’t feel like staying on top of our discipline we must remain as though nailed to the floor. Evagrius is the most insightful Christian writer I’ve ever read. I highly recommend anything written by Gabriel Bunge about him. I guess I will say that some people do indeed have the view you describe, but it is far less than many assume. I think most people rely on experience. If you just sit there and do nothing in a depressed state, then nothing happens.

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    • Pauli says:

      In some ways it’s not too surprising that human beings are like this. We look at the world and see both good and evil, and evil (sin and death) always seem to triumph over innocence and love. Perhaps that’s why Christ seems (happily) surprised by people’s faith. It’s not something revealed “by flesh and blood”.

      By faith though, we catch a glimpse of that eternal love which tells us directly, that we are loved and cared for. Until the day when stop seeing through a glass dimly and finally see face to face, we’re left in our current situation of struggle and confusion, to the degree we have or do not have faith.

      But if our glimpses of eternal love and the promises of God are true, then somehow this
      is all “OK”, not in the sense of it being entirely good, but that it will be made entirely good, and that’s good news!

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    • your comment made me reflect on the antinomianism of the gospel kerygma. People are often searching for a “way” or set of practices that they can do which will eliminate their sufferings and bring pleasure and bliss; preachers across the religious spectrum are all too happy to demand a tithe and impart some such teaching. “Just believe in jesus,” “just get baptised and grind away at the sacraments for your whole life,” “just say the shahada and follow the sharia,” “take the triple refuge and spend your life meditating on the words of the buddha”. etc etc etc. Whereas the kerygmatic gospel claims that there is nothing you can do and there is nothing you need to do; so once you fully understand this, the striving ceases, and there will be room in your soul for God’s grace to do it’s work. Religious leaders don’t generally want to preach this tho, it’s not in their financial/material/institutional interests. Far easier to construct some illusory “way of salvation” and then push it on people, and then take a generous cut of your people’s women and wealth as a crucial but subtle demand of said way.

      The real gospel is a word that must be spoken, but once spoken it will inevitably come across as tantric, antinomian and subersive of all the institutions and structures of society, both religious and civil. Rather than “You need to get baptised”, the gospel says “actually, you don’t need to get baptised”. Rather than “you must confess the shahada”, the gospel says “actually, you don’t need to confess the shahada”. The gospel affirms every good law, practice and tradition, but it firmly denies that any of it is necessary. If you want to follow the LDS word of wisdom and refrain from tea and coffee: you go girl! I’m sure that you will find many blessings and graces in doing so. But i’ll be damned before I’ll have you convince me that following the LDS word of wisdom is necessary for salvation.

      The kerygmatic gospel is a word that liberates us from all articificial necessities, and helps us to spot the charlatans. Anyone who’s preaching follows the grammar of “If you wanna be saved, you need to do x” is immediately suspect. As Fr Kimel powerful writes here on this blog, the grammar of the salvific word is that of “Because divine love, therefore unconditional salvation”, and it is the understanding of this gospel promise with your mind, and the trusting of it with your heart, which actually delivers the happiness, salvation, bliss, and release from suffering that we are all striving for. Once you have been liberated from all artificial laws and religious frameworks by the gospel kerygma, you are also enabled to follow every law and religious framework – without becoming enslaved to any of them – not for your own sake but for the sake of proclaiming the gospel promise to the entire world. St Paul talks about this a lot: Even though he is free of every law and religious framework, he nevertheless chooses to sign up to every law and religious framework, so as to preach the gospel to those who are enslaved to those frameworks and liberate them. “I became a jew to the jews, a greek to the greeks, so that I might save some jews, and so that I might save some greeks”. Today in this tiny globalised world, the same mission is even more colourful: “I became ash’ari to the ash’aris, maturidi to the maturidis, vaishnava to the vaishnavas, Mahayana to the mahayanas, Theravada to the Therevadas, Adventist to the adventists, catholic to the catholics, orthodox to the orthodox, baptist to the baptists etc to the etc – so that I might save all” – Spreading the gospel as St paul does is utterly exhausting, but it also gives meaning and joy to life like nothing else but God and his divine word possibly could.

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    • The asceticism of the Orthodox East is by far the most strict regime of Christianity. One could look at it from the outside and easily say “They really do not wish their people to be happy.” But this is not what this is all about, and the Western, legal, forensic view of salvation, i.e., that you “Say a Sinner’s Prayer” (Protestant Evangelical) or you get baptized (Roman Catholic) and you are legally forgiven, misses the whole point of the Christian life.

      The point of fasting for half the year (every Wednesday and Friday, two “Great Fasts” and two “Small Fasts”) is not about making us miserable. The Christian life is about changing from an ontology of sinfulness, where our bodies and our passions demand their own way and more often than not, get it, to becoming like Christ in all things. We really have no idea just how antethetical to our way of life this really is. Denying the demands of the body is like Boot Camp for the passions. When your body says “Eat.” and you say “Nope, not now.” you teach it that it is not in control of you any more. Your spirit takes over the unruly passions and disciplines them. The body, which houses these passions, is brought under control.

      Over time, the whole person changes, cooperating with the Holy Spirit in submission to Him that He might live the Christian life through us. This is why we sing the weekday refrain to the first antiphon “Son of God, Wonderful in your Saints, save us who sing to you, Alleluia!” Just as it was Christ working through the saints, so He wishes to lead us and work through us also. But this can only happen if our passions are subdued and put to death. St. Paul speaks of this when he speaks of putting the old man (the passions, the old way of life) to death and feeding the new man made in Christ.

      Too many people (me included) think that we can live according to our desires (which are warped by sin) do whatever makes us happy, and yet claim to have a relationship with Christ. They are in a state of prelest (deception) and will find this out at the Judgment when He who is love shows them their true state.

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  2. John H says:

    At the other extreme are those who preach that one must follow the rules with scrupulosity to be saved. An unfortunate example is a Catholic priest from Wisconsin who posted a video on you tube stating that a Catholic could not cast a Vote for the Democratic Party in the US presidential election. To do so would result in certain condemnation to eternal hellfire. One Catholic Bishop from Tyler, Texas approved of the views expressed in that outrageous video.

    Even though I am 95 percent certain at this juncture that Trump’s presidential days are numbered, I marvel at how wrong the pollsters were once again at the strength of his support among US voters. Part of the explanation may lie in the fact that many of Trump’s supporters were simply reticent about admitting that they actually supported him. So they lied to the pollsters that surveyed them, which resulted in a significant distortion of the results.

    Most polls also show that the US population does not believe in hell. So here is a question for all of the readers of this blog to contemplate: how can we trust that those results are accurate, given the dismal results of political pollsters in predicting the results of both the 2016 and 2020 elections?

    It is certainly possible, even probable, that there are many infernalists out there who don’t want to publicly admit that they actually believe in hell.

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    • Mike Brown says:

      “It is certainly possible, even probable, that there are many infernalists out there who don’t want to publicly admit that they actually believe in hell.”

      I’m not sure where you live but I’d say the opposite is very true. Myself included. Try saying that ETC isn’t biblical in the Southern US and see how far you get.

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  3. Dale Crakes says:

    How about an Asceticism for the Laity; better yet a Guide to the Spiritual Life for those with NO Monastic calling. The vast bulk of Christians are not called to the monastic vocation though by the way the Offices are prescribed to them you’d never know it. The desert, the desert ad nauseam.

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    • We have an asceticism for the laity – the fasts of the Orthodox Church and the Rule of Prayer. Or are you looking for more and more? If anyone would ask me for a guide to ascetic practice as a lay person, I would guide them to the Orthodox Church and then encourage them to fast and pray. If the Lord wants more, He will make it known to the individual.

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  4. Dale Crakes. says:

    Sorry I should have said at the opening of my prior post that it was in response to the Florovsky article which I read and not to your piece Fr Kimel.

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  5. Dale Crakes. says:

    I’m very doubtful with the description of “interiorized monasticism” but I’ve ordered in anyway. I’m much more into Macquairre’s Christian Existentialism and certain aspects of Martin Thorntons late adaptation of same. Very much for the average non-monastic or oblate.

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  6. Curdie says:

    I actually just found out this weekend that Bonhoeffer himself was actually a universalist! I found that so interesting, not only because he is such a huge and highly regarded figure in the 20th century reformed movement, but because his “cheap grace” quote is so often used as some sort of ammo against universalism.

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