CoD Part 2, Justifying Sinners or Sin?

Though I’ve read ahead in CoD by now, I cannot help but return to the first chapter again and again for Bonhoeffer’s discussion of cheap versus costly grace. He wrote to address the situation of WWII Germany, but his voice heralds like a prophet to contemporary Evangelicalism. As he discusses the differences between cheap and costly grace (see discussion here), he parallels his grace terminology with his discussion of justification–specifically justifying sinners versus justifying sin. Though it may sound like some sort of semantic slight of hand, his words cut to the bone as usual:

This is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of the sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs.

Cheap grace, in other words, allows us to justify habitually walking in sin in our lives (i.e., justifying sin) while deluding ourselves into thinking we are justified before our holy and righteous God (i.e., justifying the sinner). The charade of cheap grace is our way of trying to cling to the Evangelical doctrine of sola gratia (saved by grace alone) while simultaneously ignoring the ‘hard parts’ of Scripture that call us to lives of holiness, striving in gratitude to emulate the perfection of our Triune God.

The problem, he maintains, begins from our understanding of how grace plays into the ‘equation’ of our lives:

The recognition of grace was [Luther’s] final, radical breach with his besetting sin, but it was never the justification of that sin. By laying hold of God’s forgiveness, he made the final, radical renunciation of a self-willed life, and this breach was such that it led inevitably to a serious following of Christ. He always looked upon it as the answer to a sum, but an answer which had been arrived at by God, not by man. But then his followers changed the ‘answer’ into the data for a calculation of their won. That was the root of the trouble. If grace is God’s answer, the gift of the Christian life, then we cannot for a moment dispense with following Christ. But if grace is the data for my Christian life, it means that I set out to live the Christian life in the world with all my sins justified beforehand. I can go and sin as much as I like, and rely on this grace to forgive me, for after all the world is justified in principle by grace. I can therefore cling to my bourgeois secular existence, and remain as I was before, but with the added assurance that the grace of God will cover me…As the answer to a sum it is perfectly true, but as the initial data it is a piece of self-deception.

It took me a while to really ‘get’ this…the issue is not a matter of grace versus no grace but one of how we view grace. Grace can never be something we add into the equation of our righteousness in order to cancel our our sins. This ‘grace’ isn’t really grace at all but an intoxicating delusion to allow us to think we are justified before God. Such self-justification isn’t really justification at all. Instead, grace is God’s answer (‘a sum’) to the problem of our righteousness…a problem that doesn’t add up at all based on our merits. It is his declaration, based on the infinite righteousness of Christ, that I am righteous in his sight.

Bonhoeffer’s practical ramifications are right on, too. If we set out to live our lives flippantly taking God’s grace for granted, we will end up justifying our sins instead of coming contritely to God seeking, as a sinner, to be justified. His most pointed words are at the conclusion, “I can therefore cling to my bourgeois secular existence, and remain as I was before, but with the added assurance that the grace of God will cover me…As the answer to a sum it is perfectly true, but as the initial data it is a piece of self-deception.”

How often do we seek to justify ourselves by saying ‘Yes’ to sin instead of repenting of our flagrant disregard of God’s ‘No’ in the Law in humble hope of hearing his justifying and forgiving ‘Yes’ in the Gospel? How often do we cling to our ‘bourgeois secular existence’ in the name of grace and Christian freedom instead of seeking to lead lives of unending gratitude for the grace that God has lavished on us in Christ? Woe unto us for cheapening the most marvelous gift of all…

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