Church HistoryCultureEthicsEvangelicalTheology & Spirituality

Throwing Grace to the Dogs

“Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs.” 1

A recent New York Times article calls out evangelicals on their willingness to excuse scandal within their ranks. The proof case in focus was the Bill O’Reily sex allegations and subsequent firing. Katelyn Beaty, the author of the piece, laments the evangelical sympathy and loyalty expressed for O’Reily that followed. She then chastised evangelicals for succumbing to ‘cheap grace,’ a term coined by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which she defined as “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.”2 Beaty’s assessment of the hypocrisy in the evangelical response is fair, as is her definition of Bonhoeffer’s term. Bonhoeffer himself said that, “Cheap grace has turned out to be utterly merciless to our Evangelical Church.”3 But Beaty failed to get to the root of the problem, which is deeper than the mere inability to be self-critical: It is the sin of throwing costly grace to the dogs. Furthermore, the richness and depth of Bonhoeffer’s conception of cheap grace versus discipleship is lost in the article. It is far more than standing up for the little guy (or woman).

“Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.”4 Says Bonhoeffer in his classic, The Cost of Discipleship. Early in the book, he is quick to acknowledge how some Christians might try to characterize grace, “Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin.”5 This is cheap grace. “Cheap grace is  the grace we bestow on ourselves.” It is “grace without the cross.”He comes back with this, “Yet it is imperative for the Christian to achieve renunciation, to practice self-effacement, to distinguish his life from the life of the world.”7 This, I believe, is where evangelicals have truly fallen off the wagon.

Evangelicals have a cheap grace theology. With this Beaty would obviously agree. But, as stated earlier, the sin of American evangelicalism is greater than she presents it. Their true sin is not only selective and convenient morality, but that they have elevated the political and the social spheres above their faith so that they can, as Bonhoeffer phrased it, “cling to bourgeois secular existence, and remain as [they were] before, but with the added assurance that the grace of God will cover [them].”8 

Bonhoeffer notes that, “It is under the influence of [cheap grace] that the world has been made ‘Christian,’ but at the cost of secularizing the Christian religion as never before.”9 This was true of the Lutheran church in Bonhoeffer’s day and it is true in our day of evangelicals. In both instances it has been to the detriment of true discipleship. “Cheap grace [has] won the day”10 as we have baptized, confirmed, and absolved without condition those whom we favor, giving “that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving.”11 And “the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way” is hardly ever heard.12

Bonhoeffer’s retort to this brand of Christianity, which is no Christianity at all, was to expound upon Luther’s famous line, “Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ more boldly still.” Bonhoeffer explained that this formula is meant to be taken not as the premise, but as the conclusion. Luther’s formula was the consolation of the Christian life. For the Christian who realized that he could never become sinless but nevertheless need not despair. “It was [for Luther] the gospel of the grace of God before which we are always and in every circumstance sinners.”13 But it was not meant as a license to excuse sinful conduct.

The grave mistake that modern evangelicals have made goes beyond what the New York Times article points out. The mistake is allowing individuals who do not belong to Christ into the protection and association of the fold, the church of Christ. The real sin is that we have bestowed the costly grace upon others to whom it does not belong. People who are not under the yoke of Christ cannot be said to enjoy such grace. They have not answered Christ’s call (Mark 1:17; John 21:22). Yet we have diminished this requirement. We pretend that as long as one is politically and socially favorable to evangelical interests, they can enjoy the protection and grace of Christ’s yoke, as if it is ours to give. As Bonhoeffer clearly states, “This grace was certainly not self-bestowed.”14 Discipleship is the co-requisite of enjoying the riches of Christ and his church. They are inseparable.  

In the name of freedom and evangelism, evangelicals have been acting like the world. Bonhoeffer prophesied this: “The world was Christianized, and grace became its common property.”15 This does not mean that evangelicals cannot watch Fox News or be fans of Bill O’Reilly’s political commentary, but it does mean that an appropriate distance must be maintained between the Church and the world, even the politically conservative world. The political and the religious have become synonymous and this ought not be. We have not protected our distinct property, that of costly grace, from the snares and enticements of the world.

Though Bonhoeffer was not one to shy away from political activism in pursuit of justice, he would not have sacrificed the purity of Christ’s costly atonement for the sake of political expedience or social comfort. This is proven by his unwillingness to submit, contra the rest of the German Lutheran church, to Nazi sanctions against Jewish congregants. He makes it clear that the world cannot be escaped,16 but that there must be separation in lifestyle and morality. It is only through living out our vocation and civil duties in a Christ-like manner that they “receive from the gospel new sanction and justification.”17

This indeed requires us to condemn sin when we see it, to embrace truth where we find it, and to cultivate justice where we are, as Beaty advocates. But it is more than that. We also are called to sacrifice our own influence for the sake of the Word and testimony we are charged with guarding, and for the health of the Church and her witness. It means that we must “take the call to discipleship more seriously than before.”18 In the situation of Bill O’Reilly, with whom we should not be so tightly affiliated, it looks like accurately expressing the gospel of grace: that the sinner may be justified if he but turn to Christ and his costly grace, but the sin is never excused. Our expectation of the depravity of man should make public scandals unsurprising to us and the condemnation of sin more readily performed. The absolute, costly obedience to Christ is our moral standard for all men. If we find ourselves so closely bonded to certain men or parties or creeds that we are hesitant to apply this standard, it should be proof to us that said bond should be severed. The excusing of members of our favored political tribe is an affront to Christ and his Bride when they violate this standard. It is allegiance to something outside of Christ that is the true problem of the evangelical church. It has truly become a church that exhibits no longing for heavenly things and the world to come. It is too comfortable in the false assurance of cheap grace and the superficial, finite protection of its self-cultivated, worldly influence.

The costly grace that we evangelicals claim to possess is “the treasure hidden in the field” that requires “radical renunciation of the self-willed life.”19 That sacrifice at times includes our worldly influence, power, and voice—plucking out the eye that causes us to stumble, or rather, that causes us to lose sight of Christ. We cannot allow “the justification of the sinner in the world [to be] degenerated into the justification of sin in the world.”20

A closing word from Bonhoeffer: “What has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”21

 


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Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a native of Memphis, TN and grew up in Dakar, Senegal. He is a graduate of Wright State University, and is concurrently pursuing a J.D. at Rutgers Law School and a M.A. in Religion at Westminster Theological Seminary. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, Rachel.

  • Benjamin Winter

    Interesting take. Your piece raises a note, at least in my mind, on the importance of the sacrament of confession (which, in the early church, was called a “second Baptism” and a form of public communal reconciliation). In addition to (and in connection with) the notion of costly grace, the sacrament of reconciliation is yet another aspect of Christianity that most Evangelicals have jettisoned. Would you agree?

    • Timon Cline

      Yes. I definitely think this that evangelical church life in general is in a meager state, to say the least, and that what you’re drawing attention to here is certainly part of that. Evangelicals have taken a sort of economical/efficiency view to the Christian life in many ways (i.e. if its not salvific or explicitly mandated in scripture then its unnecessary). The practice of public confession has been roped in with this (even though James 5:16 does explicitly mandate such).

      One thing I see as influencing this is yet again a simplistic view of Reformed Protestant theology. Luther was convinced that confession could not be mandated as baptism and the eucharist could be (lest it become a “law” unto itself), but he was equally convinced that it was essential for spiritual growth, and practiced it his entire christian life (in fact, it was arguably his zeal for confession as a monk that first led him to more deeply examine scripture, etc.).

      That’s a little bit of a rabbit hole (and I don’t agree with Luther on everything, and he certainly would’ve had no patience for my baptist beliefs) but my point is that our (protestants) spiritual forefathers would have been appalled by most of evangelical church life, and we have dishonored them greatly (not to mention Christ) by our minimalist attitude. Sin festers and love of Christ dwindles in a church where a culture of confession does not exist. And grace becomes cheap when we don’t regularly take stock of our own depravity, thereby valuing grace less. Whether protestants would be comfortable calling confession a “sacrament” proper or not, there is certainly a measure of grace involved in direct obedience to scripture and the mortification of sin.

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