Bonhoeffer on Luther and Costly Grace, part 1

In his formerly world-renowned book “The Cost of Discipleship” (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. edition, printed 1963), Dietrich Bonhoeffer made the distinction between “cheap grace” and “costly grace”. In his words, “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church” (45).

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! 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 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 … Well then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standard in every sphere of life, nan not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin … Let him not attempt to erect a new religion of the letter by endeavouring to live a life of obedience to the commandments of Jesus Christ! The world has been justified by grace. The Christian knows that, and takes it seriously. He knows he must not strive against this indispensable grace. Therefore—let him live like the rest of the world! …

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 of 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 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 (47–48).

To the earliest disciples, Jesus made the call: “Follow me”. And they did. The earliest disciples left all to follow. The call was unconditional. “A scribe came up and said to him, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Another of the disciples said to him, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.’”

Elsewhere he says, “whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” He says “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” And again, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

According to Bonhoeffer, Christians are called to this sort of discipleship. They are called to “knock, seek, and ask for” this “costly grace. But it wasn’t long before the earliest church lost this sense of urgency. And they sought other means to obey this call. One of these was the monastic movement.

In church history, the monastic movement did two things. First, “here men still remembered that grace costs, that grace means following Christ” (49). It “became a living protest against the secularization of Christianity and the cheapening of grace”. But the church “succeeded in relativizing it, even using it in order to justify the secularization of its own life. Monasticism was represented as an individual achievement which the mass of the laity could not be expected to emulate. By thus limiting the application of the commandments of Jesus to a restricted group of specialists, the Church evolved the fatal conception of the double standard—a maximum and a minimum standard of Christian obedience. Whenever the [Roman] Church was accused of being too secularized, it could always point to monasticism as an opportunity of living a higher life within the fold, and thus justify the other possibility of a lower standard of life for others (49–50).

I remember reading this work on a beach in Barbados in about 1982. There were lots of distractions, and I was not mature enough or knowledgeable enough to place much of this at all into the proper context and perspective.

Still, my intention during those years was to truly understand God’s will for my life, and I was willing to try to follow.

Much water has gone under the bridge since those days. I was cognizant that I did not truly understand what Bonhoeffer was saying, and so when Christian Audio made this work available for free some months ago, I took advantage of the opportunity and downloaded it. I have carried the audio files around on my phone for a while, and just started listening this past week.

I’m still on the first of seven large files, but I came across this selection from Chapter 1 and wanted to pass it along:

When the Reformation came, the providence of God raised Martin Luther to restore the gospel of pure, costly grace. Luther passed through the cloister; he was a monk, and all this was part of the divine plan. Luther had left all to follow Christ on the path of absolute obedience. He had renounced the world in order to live the Christian life. He had learnt obedience to Christ and to his Church, because only he who is obedient can believe.

Later in the work, Bonhoeffer analyzes the dual propositions, “only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes” (69). He says, “it is quite unbiblical to hold the first proposition without the second”. I won’t get into that now, but I wanted to put this comment into perspective.

The call to the cloister demanded of Luther the complete surrender of his life. But God shattered all his hopes. He showed him through the Scriptures that the following of Christ is not the achievement or merit of a select few, but the divine command to all Christians without distinction. Monasticism had transformed the humble work of discipleship into the meritorious activity of the saints, and the self-renunciation of discipleship into the flagrant spiritual self-assertion of the “religious.”

By “religious” here, I’m quite confident he means the word in the sense that Roman Catholicism uses it: those individuals who have vowed “poverty, chastity, and obedience” in a “religious order”. These are called “the religious”.

The world had crept into the very heart of the monastic life, and was once more making havoc. The monk’s attempt to flee from the world turned out to be a subtle form of love for the world. The bottom having thus been knocked out of the religious life, Luther laid hold upon grace. Just as the whole world of monasticism was crashing abut him in ruins, he saw God in Christ stretching forth his hand to save. He grasped that hand in faith, believing that “after all, nothing we can do is of any avail, however good a life we live.” The grace which gave itself to him was a costly grace, and it shattered his whole existence. Once more he must leave his nets and follow. The first time was when he entered the monastery, when he had left everything behind except his pious self. This time even that was taken from him. He obeyed the call, not through any merit of his own, but simply through the grace of God. Luther did not hear the word: “Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness.” No, Luther had to leave the cloister and go back to the world, not because the world in itself was good and holy, but because even the cloister was only a part of the world.

The phrase “the world” in this sense, of course, is used in the way that we would understand it as in the phrase “the world, the flesh, and the devil”.

Luther’s return from the cloister to the world was the worst blow the world had suffered since the days of early Christianity. The renunciation he made when he became a monk was child’s play compared with that which he had to make when he returned to the world. Now came the frontal assault. The only way to follow Jesus was by living in the world. Hitherto the Christian life had been the achievement of a few choice spirits under the exceptionally favorable conditions of monasticism; now it is a duty laid on every Christian living in the world. The commandment of Jesus must be accorded perfect obedience in one’s daily vocation of life. The conflict between the life of the Christian and the life of the world was thus thrown into the sharpest possible relief. It was a hand-to-hand conflict between the Christian and the world. (50–52).