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The cost of grace

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Psalm 126: 5, John 8: 7, 10-11, Isaiah 43: 10, 18-19

Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.

Jesus spoke, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone. He stooped down and wrote on the ground ... After a time Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you?"
"No one, sir," she said.
"Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."

This is what the Lord says ... "Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland."

God has always been all about grace. But Paul says we cannot go on sinning so that grace will increase. Yet God promises his grace and forgiveness in the midst of our sin. He will rush on us like a waterfall and wash everything away, till we are clean as the driven snow.

In The Cost of Discipleship Dietrich Bonhoeffer grapples with the consequences of God's bold promise, with our unfortunate ability to take selfish advantage even of this great gift. He coins the phrase, "cheap grace." Here are some of his thoughts:

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! And 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?

But in such a church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the incarnation of the Word of God.

Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. Instead of following Christ, let the Christian enjoy the consolations of grace! That is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs. 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. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

But do we also realize that this cheap grace has turned back upon us like a boomerang? ... Instead of calling us to follow Christ, it has hardened us in our disobedience.

Bonhoeffer continues, paraphrasing Romans 1:

Having laid hold on cheap grace, they were barred for ever from the knowledge of costly grace. Deceived and weakened, men felt that they were strong now that they were in possession of this cheap grace -- whereas they had in fact lost the power to live the life of discipleship and obedience. The word of cheap grace has been the ruin of more Christians than any commandment of works.

So what does God provide for us? Bonhoeffer calls it costly grace, "costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner."

It 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. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His Son: "Ye were bought at a price" (1 Cor 6:20), and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.

Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus; it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: "My yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Mt. 11:30).

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 for which the merchant will sell all 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.

A daily decision made by us all is to take right responsibility, not for God's work but for our own. Depending on how I understand God's grace, I will make this decision very differently. Bonhoeffer says that grace is free, but our response (what he calls discipleship) costs us everything. He connects discipleship and grace with this conclusion: "Happy are they who know that discipleship simply means the life which springs from grace, and that grace simply means discipleship."

Thank you for your wisdom, Lord. Let me absorb it, and change because of it. Your grace is sufficient for me.

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