You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
Jon Walker has worked closely with Rick Warren for many years, first as a writer/editor at Pastors.com, later as vice president of communications at Purpose Driven Ministries, and then as a pastor at Saddleback Church. He's also served as editor-in-chief of LifeWay's HomeLife magazine and is founding editor of Rick Warren's Ministry Toolbox. His articles have appeared in publications and web sites around the world. He is also the author of Growing with Purpose. Jon currently lives in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
Visit the author's website.
List Price: $15.99
Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: Acu/Leafwood Publishing (September 1, 2010)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
What shall we say, then? Should we continue to live in sin so that God’s grace will increase? Certainly not! We have died to sin—how then can we go on living in it?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared cheap grace the deadly enemy of our church in 1937. “We are fighting today for costly grace,” he said. We are in that same fight today.
By cheap grace, Bonhoeffer means the arrogant presumption that we can receive forgiveness for our sins, yet never abandon our lives to Jesus. We assume, since grace is free, there is no cost associated with the free gift. We assume we can go on living the way we have been because our sins are now forgiven.
The gift is free, but Jesus paid a bloody price to offer us the gift; the gift is free, but that doesn’t mean there is no cost to following Jesus once we step into his grace.
Costly grace justifies the sinner: Go and sin no more. Cheap grace justifies the sin: Everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are.
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession,” says Bonhoeffer. “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
And this means cheap grace is “a denial of the incarnation of the Word of God,” says Bonhoeffer. Did Jesus die so we could follow a doctrine? Did he suffer a cruel and bloody crucifixion to give us a code of conduct? Did he give up all he had, take on the nature of a servant and walk through Palestine as a human being so we could give an intellectual assent to the grace he freely gives? Did he humble himself and walk the path of obedience all the way to death so we could live in disobedience to him? (based on Philippians 2:8)
When the forgiveness of sin is proclaimed as a general truth and the love of God taught as an abstract concept, we depersonalize the incarnation; yet, it can’t be anything but personal: the God of the universe launching a rescue mission for you, his beloved creation, at the expense of Jesus, his only begotten son. Jesus didn’t come in the abstract, as a nebulous idea of love, grace, and forgiveness; rather, “he became like a human being and appeared in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7b).
You can’t get more personal than that.
The Incarnation is totally personal. When Jesus calls you it is absolutely personal; and the cost of grace is personal. Jesus paid personally to provide us with free grace and we must pay personally to live within that grace. Why do you think Jesus died for you, if not for the personal? What do you think he expects from you, if not something personal?
RATIONALIZING OUR WAY INTO CHEAP GRACE
We too easily slip into a corporate concept that Jesus died for sins in general and so he becomes to us something like a huge corporation: we don’t really expect to get personal, individualized attention. And because everything, in our thinking, is impersonal, it is easier for us to dodge responsibility.
In the case of the cross, it is the difference between “Jesus died for the sins of mankind” or “Jesus died to pay for my lie last week at work.”
This is how we rationalize our way into cheap grace. But we are called—in truth, we are designed— to come face-to-face with Jesus, which allows us get to know him and the Father as we are know by them: “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror; then we shall see face-to-face. What I know now is only partial; then it will be complete—as complete as God’s knowledge of me” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
On the one hand, costly grace cost Jesus his life and he gives it to us as a gift of righteousness that includes the forgiveness of sin; it is something we can never earn and it comes to us as we open our hearts in repentance: “Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Purify me from my sin. For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night. Against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight. Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me” (Psalms 51:1-4, 10 NLT).
On the other hand, Bonhoeffer says cheap grace requires no contrition; we need not even have a desire to be delivered from our sins, just forgiven. He says, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.” It’s okay, God will forgive me.
“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,” says Bonhoeffer. “It is the pearl of great price to buy 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 auses him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.” Costly grace comes when we come to the end of ourselves, ready to abandon our current lives in order to give our lives whole-heartedly to Jesus. It comes when it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20). It comes when we submit ourselves to the will of Jesus, doing what he tells us to do day-in-and-day-out, altering our lives in obedience to him.
Costly grace means we change our habits, thoughts, behaviors, attitudes, and relationships according to the will of Jesus. Nothing can remain the same because we are no longer the same. We are uniquely connected to the divine nature through Jesus and we no longer “live under law but under God’s grace” (Romans 6:14; see also Colossians 2:9-10).
“Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ,” says Bonhoeffer. “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.”
GRACE AND DISCIPLESHIP ARE INSEPARABLE
“When he spoke of grace, [Martin] 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,” says Bonhoeffer. Costly grace does not exempt us from discipleship or give us a pass on obeying the commands of Jesus. In fact, it demands “we take the call to discipleship more seriously than ever before.”
And grace doesn’t make our sanctification automatic; Jesus transforms us into his image as we follow him down the hard path through the narrow gate into the kingdom of heaven. Luther quickly understood that discipleship must be tested in the world, outside the cloister, as Jesus pushes us from self-centered to other-centered.
While it is true Luther said, “Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ more boldly still,” Bonhoeffer notes his intent was not to teach cheap grace but to help us understand our position in Christ. When we get serious about discipleship, we will want to be obedient to God. This is why Jesus said the way we show our love for him is by being obedient to his commands. Our obedience brings us in line with the will of God; we become one with his agenda. And that’s the essence of love: when we love we want to do the things the people we love want to do; we become one with our loved one’s wishes.
Yet, our obedience will never make us perfect. The only way we can approach the throne of grace boldly is by stepping into the costly grace of Christ, where he becomes our righteousness before God; he acts as our mediator. Luther’s point, then, was when we sin we need not despair. Jesus covers all our sins. He died for the sins you’ve already committed and he died for the sins you will commit tomorrow. Luther means we can stop being afraid of ourselves; stop being afraid that we may make mistakes. Just love God and live your life—and when you stumble, fall into the grace of Jesus Christ.
By trusting the grace of God, we can be courageous in following Jesus and equally courageous in confessing our sins before him. There is no need to hide our sins or to posture as if we have not sinned. We can just admit it and keep on following Jesus, even if we have to confess sins to Jesus every day.
But if we don’t have a clear understanding of costly grace, we’re more likely to play games with God, pretending we haven’t sinned, maintaining the delusion that we’re not that bad, and that leaves us stuck in immaturity right at the threshold of discipleship. And our posturing is part of how we undermine grace. If we’re so cheaply forgiven, then we never have to face the ugliness of our sin. It doesn’t seem so bad. The bloody work and resurrection of Jesus become a generic work, a blanket forgiving of sins, a prettified passion meant to God bless us, everyone.
Cheap grace flips Luther’s sin without fear upside-down, recreating it as a justification of sin instead of the justification of the sinner. Bonhoeffer says the real “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.” “The justification of the sinner in the world degenerated into the justification of sin and the world,” Bonhoeffer says. “Costly grace was turned into cheap grace without discipleship.”
This is exactly what Paul addresses with the church in Rome, where the religious instinct of man—that desire for self-justification—was in full assault against the sovereignty of God, attempting to prove God wrong in his bloody sacrifice of Jesus.
DOES GRACE MEAN WE CAN KEEP ON SINNING?
“So what do we do? Keep on sinning so God can keep on forgiving?” asks Paul. I should hope not! If we’ve left the country where sin is sovereign, how can we still live in our old house there? Or didn’t you realize we packed up and left there for good? That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land! That’s what baptism into the life of Jesus means” (Romans 6:1-3 MSG). The costly grace of Jesus means to take us into a new land, the kingdom of heaven. We follow Jesus obediently along a difficult path through a narrow gate into his kingdom.
A simple glance across the evangelical landscape reveals that we’ve overwhelmingly embraced the lesser grace. We’re barely willing to adjust our schedules let alone our lifestyles. We make decisions based on common sense, robbing the Holy Spirit of his role of counsel. We stash away our 401k’s and plan for when we will do kingdom work in the future, never trusting God to provide. We take the risk out of ministry by always leaning on our own understanding and then we wonder why our faith is weak. When do we exercise our faith?
We’re glad to follow Jesus. His yoke does seem easy: a few hours each week in worship, a Bible study, a small group, a bit of service at the church and perhaps a mission trip each year. We try to be good people, to help others, and to thank God for our blessings. When things are going well, we don’t want to bother God and, when things are going badly, we can camp out with God and say a holy “Amen” that he’s always there in our darkest times.
But a peculiar people? A royal priesthood set apart? What? Does Jesus really mean I’m supposed to abandon my ________ (fill in the blank)?
We preach, we teach, we publish. We have the internet and Christian radio. “We poured forth unending streams of grace,” says Bonhoeffer. But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way is hardly ever heard. Have we presented the gospel in such a way that we’ve left people feeling secure in their ungodly living?
Cheap grace has been “disastrous to our own spiritual lives,” says Bonhoeffer. “Instead of opening up the way to Christ, it has closed it. Instead of calling us to follow Christ, it has hardened us in our disobedience.”
We’ve settled for cheap grace for so long that we’ve allowed it to become the norm for Christian living. We know there must be something more but life just gets in the way. We’ve taught people to live disconnected from Jesus and we wonder why they struggle in their Christian walk, why they are so tired all the time.
Bonhoeffer says, “To put it quite simply, we must undertake this task because we are now ready to admit that we no longer stand in the path of true discipleship. We confess that, although our Church is orthodox as far as her doctrine of grace is concerned, we are no longer sure that we are members of a Church which follows its Lord. We must therefore attempt to recover a true understanding of the mutual relation between grace and discipleship. The issue can no longer be evaded. It is becoming clearer every day that the most urgent problem besetting our Church is this: How can we live the Christian life in the modern world?”
THINK OF GRACE AS A RESTAURANT
Grace is a restaurant where you can eat anything on the menu for free. The cost for you to dine is hefty, but your whole bill has been paid by Jesus.
“You mean, I can eat anything I want here? Then I’ll have a lust burger with a side of lies.”
I’m sorry. We don’t serve lust burgers or lies here. But you are welcome to anything on the menu. Everything here is hand-made by the Father and all of it is specifically designed to keep you healthy.
“I thought you said I could eat anything I wanted if I came into this grace restaurant?”
You can eat anything you want, but we only serve what is on the menu. If you look, you will see there are thousands of choices we’ve prepared specifically for your taste buds.
“But not a lust burger? No lie fries. What kind of restaurant are you running here? Don’t you want me to be happy, to feel good?”
Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires; God will satisfy them fully!
“What if I go outside the restaurant, get a lust burger and some lie fries, and bring them back in here to eat?”
That would be cheap grace.
GRACE IS A TRANSFORMING POWER
If you asked most evangelical Christians about the meaning of grace, they’d probably tell you it’s the unmerited favor of God. Not a bad answer, but one that’s just academic enough to keep you distracted from the truly transformational nature of costly grace.
Grace is powerful, audacious, and dangerous, and if it ever got free reign in our churches, it would begin a transformation so rapid and radical that it would cause skeptics to beat a path to our door.
What is grace? Consider this illustration from Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s timeless tale about a peasant who is sentenced to hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. Released from jail, Jean Valjean is offered brief sanctuary in the home of a priest.
Despite being treated with dignity for the first time in years, Valjean, steals the bishop’s valuable silverware and runs away. The next day, Valjean is brought back to the priest’s home by the police, who tell the priest that Valjean has claimed the silver as a gift. The police obviously expect the priest to deny the claim.
The priest immediately addresses Valjean, saying, “Ah, there you are! I am glad to see you. But I gave you the candlesticks also, which are silver like the rest, and would bring two hundred francs. Why did you not take them along with your plates?” When he hands the candlesticks to Valjean privately, he tells him, ”Jean Valjean, my brother, you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you.”
It’s a Christ-like moment—and one that shows the tremendous cost of grace, both for the giver and the receiver. Valjean goes on to live a life of grace, supporting the poor and adopting a young orphan whom he must ransom out of servitude.
Do you suppose for a minute that a harsher approach by the priest could have gotten a better response from Jean Valjean? Then why do we expect people to behave better when we “Tsk, tsk, tsk” and shame them into behaving properly rather than modeling the kind of grace that will change them radically and permanently. Grace allows people to make choices and assumes they’ll make the best choice. Grace is free and flowing and unencumbered by guilt or shame or fear, for true grace says, “I know all about you, and I still love you with a godly acceptance.”
We see this in John 4, when Jesus meets the woman at the well. When she offers to give him a drink, he says, “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh living water” (John 4:10 MSG).
Note that he talks about how gracious God can be. Yet most of us, if we were gut honest, function as if God were stingy with his grace. We fear his punishment, in the sense that we think he’s the high school principal walking the halls, taking down names. Who did what and who’s to blame?
But God already knows who did what and who’s to blame, and he still loves us anyway. His interest is in redeeming us, not in keeping us on the hook for our sins.
Unfortunately, many of us—Christians—live our lives as if we’re still on the hook, and as if we have to keep everyone else on the hook. We use weapons of the flesh—the sarcastic comment, the angry stare—all designed to get people to straighten up and live right.
In contrast, when the woman at the well goes back to her village, she says, “Come see a man . . . who knows me inside and out” (John 4:29 MSG). Nothing is hidden from him, and yet he communicates with her in such a fashion that she leaves feeling loved and accepted. That’s the aroma of grace.
Did she get away with her sins? No. They cost Jesus plenty, yet you don’t see him lording it over her, or putting a guilt trip on her, or even using the time for a lecture on sexual ethics. Jesus trusts that once she is confronted with God’s generosity—his grace—that she will be eager to change and conform to God’s commands.
It’s a classic Christian paradox, isn’t it? Just when you think it’s time to pull out the Law and read someone the riot act, Jesus shows by his behavior that it’s better to embrace that person with a costly love.
And grace does cost. It obviously cost the Son of God everything, and for you to extend grace will cost you, just as it cost the priest his silver. In fact, one way to distinguish the difference between grace and mercy is that grace costs while mercy does not. Mercy says, “I won’t press charges.” Grace says, “I not only won’t press charges, I’ll pay for your rehab program.”
GRACE HELPS US BECOME OTHER-CENTERED
Grace is powerfully other-focused. It gives without fear of depletion. Love, forgiveness, and mercy are handed out with no thought of exhausting the supply. Someone enveloped by grace is rooted deeply in soil next to a river that never knows drought.
The prodigal’s father offers a picture of the paradox of grace. The story begins with a self-centered, younger son. He requests his inheritance and then squanders all his father’s hard earned money, ending up working for a pig farmer. Every time he touched a pig, the young Hebrew boy was reminded how far he was from the will of God. In a state of horrible desperation, he remembers his father and decides to return home as a slave.
What was going through his mind as he headed home? Maybe he realized what a failure he was. Or maybe he thought about the money his father gave him that he had foolishly thrown away. Possibly he feared a harsh rejection, one he was sure he deserved.
Whatever he thought, he was not prepared for his father’s response!
Imagine: He sees his father’s house in the distance as he shamefully shuffles home. Then he sees an unidentifiable person running toward him. Then he recognizes his father and he prepares himself for the worst.
The prodigal was probably bewildered by his father’s loving embrace. The father’s love faces off against the son’s self-degradation. After a few minutes of wrestling, the son’s heart is finally overcome by the father’s passionate embrace. He goes limp in his father’s arms unable to hold back the tears.
The father is overjoyed at the son’s return. This is too much for the son. He only hopes for a job as a slave, and yet he is treated as a son despite all his filthiness. The father’s extraordinary grace continues as he places a ring on his son’s hand and sandals on his feet and then wraps him in an extravagant robe. Each gift is a visible sign of full son-ship.
The father completes his bountiful behaviors of grace by inviting the community to a joyous celebration of his son’s return. Rather than being embarrassed at the wayward son, the father responds with merriment. The father’s response to a rebellious son is a beautiful picture of transforming grace.
Each of us has had our prodigal experiences. Prodigal behavior is common because our heart’s default setting is trust yourself at all cost. Self-trust is rooted in the belief that I will be more gracious to myself than God will. Who are we kidding anyway?
We must go to Jesus to be personally tutored in Grace 101. As we receive his grace, we can then pass his grace to others.