Among my favorite books in our library are those written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I never tire of re-reading them.
He was one of the most influential Christian theologians in the world.
So pervasive is his influence that church historian Martin Marty once suggested dividing the theological world into two groups: those who admit their debt to Bonhoeffer and those who borrow his ideas without acknowledgment.
Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau in 1906. Educated in Germany and the U.S., he early earned a reputation as a brilliant theologian. During World War II, he was imprisoned for resistance activities against the German government. For his part in a plot to kill Hitler, he was executed at Flossenburg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, a few days before it was liberated by allied troops.
Of his writings, the most impressive to me is The Cost of Discipleship. In this monumentally important book, Bonhoeffer discusses the difference between cheap and costly grace,
In theological terms, grace is understood as the free and unmerited love and favor of God. Bonhoeffer argues that churches are giving away grace at too low a cost. “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves — the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship.”
He argues that cheap grace is disastrous to our spiritual lives. Instead of pursuing a life that requires discipline, obedience and sacrifice, we accept a deceptive gospel that makes us feel strong when, in fact, we are weak and misguided. Instead of opening up our lives to Christ it (cheap grace) has closed it. Instead of calling us to follow Christ, it has hardened us in our disobedience.
For Bonhoeffer, “Costly grace is the gospel that must be sought again and again, the gift that must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. It is costly because it causes us to follow , , , and because it costs a man his life. It is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”
Perhaps the concept of costly grace can be understood by recounting a small part of Bonhoeffer’s life. In June 1939, American friends got him out of Germany. Soon, however, it became clear to them that Bonhoeffer could and would not remain with them. His heart belonged to the German people who were suffering oppression and persecution under Hitler’s policies.
Since he felt he could not desert them at a time when they needed him most, he returned to Germany.
Before leaving the U.S., Bonhoeffer wrote to his colleague, Reinhold Niebuhr, these words: “I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people. Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of those alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make this choice in security.”
His life personified service, commitment and costly grace. In fact, the day before he was executed, he counseled widows of those who were executed for plotting the death of Hitler, He felt that he could ease their debilitating depression and anxiety.
And his message for all of us — not just Christians — should be reaffirmed.
Within our secular world we are falling for messages that promise much, but require little of us in return. We want more government services, but no tax increases. We want our highways and bridges fixed, but don’t want to pay for them. We want clean air, but don’t want to make personal sacrifices to make it happen.
We want cheap grace because costly grace means personal hardships.
Bonhoeffer thought it imperative that we change our ways.
We need to pay attention — before it’s too late!