The late German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, coined the phrase “cheap grace” in his famous book The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer describes cheap grace as a grace that requires no repentance, no sacrifice and ultimately no cross. A century later, concerns about cheap grace seem just as prevalent, which is the very reason why the Church today needs the season of Lent. This season reminds us of our morality and sin and invites us to enter into the sacrifice and sufferings of Christ, year after year, helping God’s people learn and live not by a cheap grace, but by a “costly grace.”
Defining Cheap Grace
Bonhoeffer describes cheap grace this way:
Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks' wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut 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!…
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.
Defining Costly Grace
Bonhoeffer contrasts cheap grace with costly grace:
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….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 cost 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 delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.
The Good and the Bad News
Even though Bonhoeffer was writing to German Christians before the Second World War, his concerns remain today, as the problem of cheap grace comes up in a variety of ways. Some tend to downplay and mitigate the weight of sin. We’re quick to claim our Christian freedom, and “accountability” never moves from confession to repentance. We come back every week acknowledging the same old sins and patterns with no sense of brokenness, humility and transformation. There’s no grievance over our sin. There’s no acknowledgement of our darkness.
Others, especially within an evangelicalism comprised of “moralistic, therapeutic deism,” are altogether unfamiliar with categories like sin, sacrifice, doubt, lament, confession and repentance. They ignore them altogether. Whether intentionally or not, we skip over the bad news to get to the good news. This version of Christianity is more clean and comfortable than gritty and painful. It requires little of our time, energy and resources—it requires little sacrifice.
The Urgency of Lent
Lent, the 40 days—sans Sundays—leading up to Easter, offers a biblical and practical solution to cheap grace: costly grace. Despite ways Christians and popular culture have skewed it, this season is an intentional time every year to examine our mortality and brokenness and to lament and repent of the sin in our world and our lives, letting go of lesser things for the greater thing that is Jesus Christ. The main way we do this is through fasting—a spiritual discipline that allows us to realize, rehearse and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, overcome areas in our lives where we have chosen creation over the Creator, where we don’t actually believe Jesus’ words that “man cannot live by bread alone” (Matt. 4:4).
As we wrestle with our sin during Lent, we enter into the suffering of Jesus Christ, giving us a better understanding of the pain and sorrow Christ experienced on our behalf. In looking and sitting in the bad news before the good news, we see that it was our sin that held Him there, that we were bought with a price. Lent reminds us, over and over, of our sin and our desperate need for a Savior.
More than 80 years after Bonhoeffer's book, not much has changed for the people of God. We continue to find ourselves in the same spots, with the same struggles. We are still as guilty as ever of both preaching and practicing a cheap grace. While not the only solution, Lent creates a clear pathway toward costly grace.