Dietrich Bonhoeffer walked naked down the stone-cobbled alley. Behind him, Nazi officers jeered as he approached the gallows. The Third Reich had imprisoned Dietrich Bonhoeffer for almost two years. Adolf Hitler had personally ordered his execution. But Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not a treacherous war criminal. He was a theologian.
Bonhoeffer was born in Germany in 1906. Early on he proved to be a theological prodigy. He breezed through seminary and published his first work before he was thirty. Bonhoeffer seemed destined for greatness. But his ascension halted in 1933 when Hitler rose to power. As part of his takeover, Hitler established a new church in Germany called the Deutsche Christen. It threw out the Old Testament, admitted only white Arians, and served as a political vehicle for the Nazis. This forced Bonhoeffer to suspend his career of academics and devote the rest of his life to combat Nazi Germany and its corruption of the Gospel.
Bonhoeffer’s greatest attack came in 1937 in a classic work called The Cost of Discipleship. In it, Bonhoeffer accused Hitler and the Nazis of following what he called “cheap grace.”
“Cheap grace is the grace we give ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without repentance, communion without confession... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus.”
Hitler had cheapened Christianity to something that only served him. But how many of us do the same thing in our own lives? No, we are not Hitler. But do we use Christianity as a tool for our own benefit? Here are three common ways we cheapen God’s Gospel:
As a Political Ploy:
Do you believe in Christianity only so much that it supports your political party? Do you quote Bible verses most often in an online political debate? I have. For two thousand years, kings and courts have used the Gospel to support their political agenda. Republicans and Democrats both recruit Jesus as part of their ranks. But God did not die so we could bolster our arguments. He died to buy back sinners from the clutches of death. People thronged around Jesus during His time on Earth, begging him to make a political stance. He diverted every time. God did not intend for his grace to combat flesh and blood, but to transform souls.
Palaces and parliaments are temporary. The United States is less than three hundred years old, yet it is the oldest government in power today. No other government on Earth right now has been in power as long as the U.S. Federal Government has. Politics is fleeting. Souls are forever. God came to redeem the eternal, not the temporary. Cheap things only have a temporary impact.
As an Academic Pursuit:
I knew many student scholars at Bible college who studied a doctrine of love but did not love others. I knew many who spent hours in the library studying the doctrine of forgiveness but did not forgive others. I know because I was often one of those students. Some people love history. Others science. Some people love theology. They could discuss it over coffee for hours. They love combatting with friends over the beatific vision and the hypostatic union. All noble pursuits. Yet too often academic pursuit replaces Christ pursuit. Grace becomes cheapened when it merely becomes an interesting topic to learn, and not a life-altering force that teaches us to die to sin and live to Christ.
Grace becomes cheap when it motivates people to scramble for as many books as possible, but condescends others, and breaks fellowship with believers because of petty differences. Yes, God’s truth should be studied with vigor. We should, as Joshua commanded, "meditate on it day and night." But we must also follow the remaining part of the command found in Joshua 1:8, "... so you may be careful to do everything written in it." Grace becomes cheap when confined to the mind. It must extend to the heart because it is the heart that extends to the hands and feet. Cheap things can only withstand sitting on a store shelf. They break down when used. Is the grace in your life cheap?
As an Excuse to Sin:
Do we manipulate the Gospel so it promotes our temptations instead of protecting us from them? Does it coddle our sin instead of convicting us of it? When it does, we strip the Gospel of its gold. We hallow out its bars. Like a toy from the dollar store, we keep the shiny colors, but turn it into something superficial and temporary. When Paul wrote to Titus, he insisted that grace resulted in changed lives. It acted. It got sweaty. It moved.
"For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age." Titus 2:11-12
This doesn't suggest that man’s salvation is a two-party effort. Salvation comes by grace through faith plus nothing. Zero. But faith in a kind of grace that enables a person to reject God and continue worshipping lust and greed is not grace at all. It's tolerance. Tolerance is a knock-off, generic-brand version of grace produced by the world. It offers good feelings but not good works. It promises physical happiness without spiritual health. But tolerance provides neither good feelings nor good works. It fails to give happiness and health. It breaks down on its first use.
God offers a grace that forgives, but also forges. It repeals the penalty of sin, but also attacks of the power of sin within us. As Paul wrote to Titus, it trains us, like a tutor over a child. Grace leads to growth. Any grace that doesn’t is not grace at all.
Grace of Gold
The guards laughed at Bonhoeffer as his shivering body walked up the gallow steps.
“Scared?” Asked the SS officer.
“Cold.” Bonhoeffer replied.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer died two weeks before Allied Forces entered Berlin. As he approached his execution, the dream of the Third Reich was toppling down. Nazi defeat was imminent. The soldiers in the execution yard could hear the faint booms of Russian artillery in the distance. When the metal-cord was placed around his neck, Bonhoeffer uttered his final words,
"This is the end for you. But for me it is only the beginning.”
The Germans held to a cheap grace. Bonhoeffer did not. Bonhoeffer could’ve fallen in with the Deutsche Christen and manipulated the Gospel for his own political gain. He could’ve escaped to America to enjoy a lavish career of academic excellence. Instead, he died. He returned to Germany, he withstood the Nazis. He did what the Lord called him to do—not by his own power, but by the grace of God, a grace that did not wear out or tarnish, but that lead to everlasting impact. The Third Reich is no more, but the Kingdom of God is eternal, and those who enter, enter only at the cost of the gold-like grace given to them at the Cross.
"When Christ calls a man, He bids him to come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave their home and job to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the Catholic Church. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1937
Resting in Him,