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Is Grace a License to Sin? (Lessons from the Life of Bonhoeffer)

Michael Jensen | July 20th 2021

Does the fact that we don’t earn our salvation by doing things to impress God mean that grace is a licence to sin? Can we, in Augustine’s famous phrase, “Love God and do what we like”?

A powerful answer to this question can be found in the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred for his faith. He begins his book, The Cost of Discipleship, with a chapter entitled “Costly Grace”. Costly grace is to be understood in part by contrasting it with what he called “cheap grace”. But what can this mean, since God’s grace is supposed to be free?

Is Cheap Grace a License to Sin?

In the German Protestant church of his day, Bonhoeffer could see plenty of evidence of the cheap variety of grace, but not much of the costly sort. The Protestant church was founded on the teaching of God’s free grace to us in Jesus Christ. But in Bonhoeffer’s eyes, many thought that they could receive God’s grace without needing to change in any way. Life could go on as if nothing had happened.

Bonhoeffer puts it this way:

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Grace is not cheap because it is free; but, because it is free, by some it is held to be cheap.

Grace is Free and Costly

The cheap grace of Bonhoeffer’s experience is unfortunately alive and well in our own time. The “Christianity” of cheap grace is remorselessly nice. It is as bland as an easy-listening radio station. It is concerned with social approval and belonging, and risks nothing. It has misunderstood what Christianity really is.

“Cheap grace Christianity” also keeps theology at arm’s length, as if it has nothing of any impact to say about the real world but is only a mental game we play.

What of costly grace? This may seem like a contradiction in terms. But Bonhoeffer reminds us of Jesus’ parable of the treasure hidden in a field: the man who discovers it happily pays everything he can to possess it (Matthew 13:44). This grace is not simply a lucky prize that we didn’t even buy a ticket for. It involves a call to follow Jesus to the cross.

"Costly grace is what shatters our faith in the world, and calls us to leave behind our old way of living."

We Struggle With Free Grace and the Cost of Discipleship

It is perhaps not surprising that we find this teaching very hard to take since the first disciples found it difficult too. How could the coming kingdom of God really mean that they might have to follow Jesus even to his death? Was there not a short cut that did not involve this path?

There is no short cut. Grace costs nothing, but it demands everything.

Bonhoeffer says:

“Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him.”

And that call doesn’t come to just a select few—to a spiritual elite who can dedicate themselves solely to prayer and contemplation. That, for many centuries, was the church’s response to the difficulty of this teaching. The heavy burden of discipleship was borne by the spiritual specialists: the monks and nuns, with their daily routines of prayer, and their disciplines of self-denial. But our discipleship cannot be outsourced.

Discipleship has to be lived out in the world—not just by monks, but by farmers and bankers, by princes and the poor, and by parents with their children. There is no area of life to which the call of the gospel does not come, no territory exempt from the lordship of Christ.

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The Costly Call of Grace

By Bonhoeffer’s day, many so-called Christians had fallen for the lie that the grace of God offered in the gospel to the whole world automatically bestowed on humanity the blessing of God. The great doctrine of justification—by which sinners can be declared “not guilty” of their sin because of Christ’s death—was taken to mean that because God had shown mercy to the world, his judgment against sin had been removed.

Was there any compelling reason for German Christians in the 1930s to reflect that something had gone badly awry within their culture? Apparently not, since they thought they could do as they wanted because of the grace of God.

But a grace which is presumed upon becomes something other than grace. It is a perversion of the teaching of Jesus and the rest of the Bible. Grace, costly grace, comforts us in our sinfulness, but does not say “okay” to our sin.

Costly grace is what shatters our faith in the world, and calls us to leave behind our old way of living.

For Bonhoeffer, the call of Christ meant standing against Hitler. It meant the loss of his academic career, his security, his chance to escape the grasp of the Nazis, his future marriage, his freedom and eventually his life. He would not have thought that this was extraordinary; but only rather what the grace of God in Christ had called him to do.

This article is adapted from a chapter of Is Forgiveness Really Free? By Michael Jensen. In this short, readable book, Michael Jensen explores the Bible's teaching on these important questions, insights from the lives of Christians like Bonhoeffer, and delivers some surprising conclusions.

Michael Jensen

Michael Jensen has worked as a school chaplain and church planter, and taught Christian doctrine at Moore College in Sydney. He now leads an Anglican church in Sydney, Australia. He loves the internet and bad TV. He is married to Catherine, and has four children.

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