Unlike many contemporary preachers that feel the need to start off with pithy, humorous, non-confrontational ‘ice breakers,’ in “Cost of Discipleship” (hereafter CoD) Bonhoeffer comes out swinging like a prize-fighter from word one. He begins with the assertion, “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church.” His very term ‘cheap grace’ with its deliberately ugly connotation sounds like a concept we could all line up in opposition to…until he begins to unpack this beast:
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 gross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Stated in those terms, Bonhoeffer’s words are apt to get us a little more worked up. As much as we Evangelicals talk about the freeness of grace in Jesus Christ…and we must speak of his grace this way for this is the reality of the matter…these words tend to hurt quite precisely because Bonhoeffer’s description of Lutheranism in Third Reich Germany unfortunately also perfectly describes Evangelicalism in contemporary America.
Let us look at each of his accusations…
“The preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance…” We hear all the time about forgiveness and repentance in our circles, how could this possibly apply to Evangelicalism? Sure we have our invitations and poorly named ‘altar calls’ where we plead with people to repent of their sins and turn to Christ, but let’s be honest here, the typical Evangelical understanding of repentance is primarily that of a ‘one time good deal’ at the beginning of the Christian life. “I don’t need to repent anymore,” a believer actually told me once, “I’ve done that already.” Contrast that attitude with the beginning of Luther’s 95 Theses, where he writes, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matt 4.17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” On the main, we surely do not ‘get’ repentance, though we are quick to preach and teach the assurance of forgiveness.
“Baptism without church discipline…” Do I even need to flesh this out at all? When was the last time church discipline was discussed, let alone practiced, in the land of Evangelicalism? “That’s too judgmental. That’s not very seeker-sensitive. That’s too harsh.” Perhaps the Church would not be so impotent today if we had not given up on the biblical mandate for practicing church discipline a couple of hundred years ago.
“Communion without confession…” I guess if we have completely eliminated repentance from our theology and praxis, we couldn’t help but be guilty of allowing believers to come to the Sacrament/Lord’s Supper without requiring confession. Most of the time pastors will not even ‘fence the table’ by drawing the line against non-believers or non-members taking communion. Why in the world should we think they will address the far more ‘touchy’ issue of self-examination and confession prior to regular members taking communion? Not only do Evangelicals typically misunderstand the importance of the ordinance itself, but we really don’t want to face Paul’s obvious warning and reminder about Christian becoming sick or even dying after partaking unworthily (1 Cor 11.27ff.)!
“Absolution without personal confession..” I already touched on this a bit above, but in a nutshell, we are quick to minimize or eliminate confession while simultaneously bending over backwards to assure people of God’s forgiveness and their security. ‘Once saved, always saved’ is parroted from the mouths of laity and preachers alike and often used as a pathetic attempt to provide a balm for our souls when discussing Cousin Jimmy who ‘made a profession of faith at church camp back in 1973’ then turned his back on Christ and his church, never to utter a word about faith since 1979. Biblically there is absolutely no reason to believe that this person’s ‘faith’ is saving, but many Evangelicals would still argue that Cousin Jimmy is ‘saved’ regardless of anything that has happened since his so-called conversion.
As much as these assertions might generate heat and light, the real issue here is with Bonhoeffer’s last sentence above. If cheap grace really is “grace without discipleship, grace without the gross, grace without Jesus Christ,” and the situation within much of contemporary Evangelicalism is indeed described by CoD (as I maintain), then Bonhoeffer ought to be a clarion call for pastors, lay leaders, and laity alike. Wake up! (Re-) Turn to the cross! (Re-) Turn to Jesus Christ!