Bonhoeffer on Luther and Costly Grace, part 2

Justification by God’s costly grace involves the justification of the sinner, not the justification of the sin.

Following up on the first part of Bonhoeffer’s treatment of Luther and Costly Grace, I want to point out that it’s Roman Catholics who want to “justify sin”.

Consider this explication from the not too distant past:

What’s tripping you up here is thinking that venial sins are violations of God’s law. So you’re not yet seeing the basis for the difference between mortal and venial sins. Venial sins are not violations of the law; they are not violations of love. They are deficiencies or defects in carrying out the love that is the spirit and principle of the law.

Venial sin in relation to God is very much like doing something minor or unintentional that troubles one’s spouse but does not break the friendship with one’s spouse (say, failing to remember to readjust the seat in the car, so that it is easier for the other person to get in). It is not a violation of the law of love. When you get into the car and find the seat not readjusted, you don’t justifiably turn to your spouse and say, “You violated the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.” That would obviously be way over the top, because the failure was not purposely chosen out of spite or apathy; the spouse loved and loves you, and the inaction did not destroy that love or indicate its absence.

This Roman Catholic writer is actually articulating infallible Roman Catholic doctrine when he says that “sin is not so bad”. Roman Catholics not only minimize sin. They contradict Christ, when he says, “whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” They contradict Christ when he says, “Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” The least sin is that offensive to God.

But they do something much more sinister. They justify the sin, while allowing the sinner to remain comfortable in his sin. They discount the absolute holiness of God, and in doing so, they put him on the same continuum as humans. God is not “wholly other”. God is a buddy, who is going to drive the same car we drive, after we get out. “It’s ok, because this ‘buddy’ now isn’t going to be too upset with you if you don’t readjust the car seat. It’s ok if you just say an ‘act of contrition’ after you sin. It’s all just back-slappin’ fun.”

Christ’s costly death was not, however, for the purpose of creating good buddies for himself. It was not for the purpose of justifying sin. It was to justify “sinners”.

Here’s how that plays out in Bonhoeffer:

It is a fatal misunderstanding of Luther’s action to suppose that his rediscovery of the gospel of pure grace offered a general dispensation from obedience to the command of Jesus, or that it was the great discovery of the Reformation that God’s forgiving grace automatically conferred upon the world both righteousness and holiness. On the contrary, for Luther the Christian’s worldly calling is sanctified only in so far as that calling registers the final radical protest against the world. Only in so far as the Christian’s secular calling is exercised in the following of Jesus does it receive from the gospel new sanction and justification. It was not the justification of sin, but the justification of the sinner that drove Luther from the cloister back into the world. The grace he had received was costly grace. It was grace, for it was like water on parched ground, comfort in tribulation, freedom from the bondage of a self-chosen way, and forgiveness of all his sins. And it was costly, for, so far from dispensing him from good works, it meant that the must take the call to discipleship more seriously than ever before. It was grace because it cost so much, and it cost so much because it was grace. That was the secret of the gospel of the Reformation—the justification of the sinner.

Yet the outcome of the Reformation was the victory, not of Luther’s perception of grace in all its purity and costliness, but of the vigilant religious instinct of man for the place where grace is to be obtained at the cheapest price. All that was needed was a subtle and almost imperceptible change of emphasis, and the damage was done. Luther had taught that man cannot stand before God, however religious his works and ways may be, because at bottom he is always seeking his own interests.

In the depth of his misery, Luther had grasped by faith the free and unconditional forgiveness of all his sins. That experience taught him that this grace had cost him his very life, and must continue to cost him the same price day by day. So far from dispensing him from discipleship, this grace only made him a more earnest disciple. When he spoke of grace, Luther always implied as a corollary that it cost him his own life, the life which was now for the first time subjected to the absolute obedience of Christ. Only so could he speak of grace.

Luther had said that grace alone can save; his followers took up his doctrine and repeated it word for word. But they left out its invariable corollary, the obligation of discipleship. There was no need for Luther always to mention that corollary explicitly for he always spoke as one who had been led by grace to the strictest following of Christ. Judged by the standard of Luther’s doctrine, that of his followers was unassailable, and yet their orthodoxy spelt the end and destruction of the Reformation as the revelation on earth of the costly grace of God. The justification of the sinner in the world degenerated into the justification of sin and the world. Costly grace was turned into cheap grace without discipleship.

Luther had said that all we can do is of no avail, however good a life we live. He had said that nothing can avail us in the sight of God but “the grace and favour which confers the forgiveness of sin.” But he spoke as one who knew that at the very moment of his crisis he was called to leave all that he had a second time and follow Jesus. The recognition of grace was his 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 own. That was the root of the trouble. If grace is God’s answer, the gift of 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. It is under the influence of this kind of “grace” that the world has been made “Christian,” but at the cost of secularizing the Christian religion as never before. The antithesis between the Christian life and the life of bourgeois respectability is at an end. The Christian life comes to mean nothing more than living in the world, and as the world, in being no different from the world, in fact, being prohibited from being different from the world for the sake of grace. The upshot of it all is that my only duty as a Christian is to leave the world for an hour or so on a Sunday morning and go to church to be assured that my sins are all forgiven. I need no longer try to follow Christ, for cheap grace, the bitterest foe of discipleship, which true discipleship must loathe and detest, has freed me from that.

Grace as the data for our calculations means grace at the cheapest price, but grace as the answer to the sum means costly grace. It is terrifying to realize what use can be made of a genuine evangelical doctrine. In both cases we have the identical formula—“justified by faith alone.” Yet the misuse of the formula leads to the complete destruction of its very essence (52–55).