Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.
Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like (common) wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut (rate) prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?
Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception” of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. The Church, which holds the correct doctrine of grace, has, it is supposed, ipso facto a part in that grace. In such a Church, the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.
Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. “All for sin could not atone.” The world goes on in the same old way, and we are still sinners “even in the best life” as Luther said. Well, then let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin. That is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner, who departs from sin and from whom sin departs. Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin, which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye, which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows Him.
Costly grace is the Gospel, which must be sought again and again, the gift, which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it costs God the life of His Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon His Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but deliver Him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.
Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which He speaks as it pleases Him. 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; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and My burden light.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was born into a family of seven children in Breslau, Germany. He grew up in Berlin, where his father worked as a prominent professor of psychiatry and neurology; his mother was one of the few women of her generation to obtain a university degree. He was the first of the German theologians to speak out clearly against the persecution of the Jews. He was 39 years old when he was taken out of his prison and hanged as a Nazi traitor in 1945. As he left his cell he said to his companion, “This is the end — but for me, the beginning of life.”