Thursday, May 5, 2011

Salvation comes neither by law nor by cheap grace

In his introduction to Eric Metaxas' recent biography of Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Timothy Keller, pastor of New York City's Redeemer Church and author of several very good books, like The Reason for God: Belief in the Age Skepticism, writes about Bonhoeffer's most important theological theme: the stark contrast between "cheap grace" and "costly grace", which he set forth is still very relevant book, The Cost of Discipleship:

Asking how the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany was so easily co-opted by Hitler and the Nazi party, Keller, in a warning to us today, writes that the answer "is that the true gospel, summed up by Bonhoeffer as costly grace had been lost. On the one hand, the church had become marked by formalism. That meant that going to church and hearing that God just loves and forgives everyone, so it doesn't really matter much how you live. Bonhoeffer called this cheap grace. On the other hand, there was legalism, or salvation by law and good works. Legalism meant that God loves you because you have pulled yourself together and are trying to live a good, disciplined life."

Towards the end of his foreword, Keller writes in the true spirit of Bonhoeffer when he says "we know that true grace comes to us by costly sacrifice. And if God was willing to go to the cross and endure such pain and absorb such a cost in order to save us, then we must live sacrificially as we serve others. Anyone who truly understands how God's grace comes to us will have a changed life. That's the gospel, not salvation by law, or by cheap grace. Costly grace changes you from the inside out. Neither law nor cheap grace can do that."

I think this is worth considering right now in the wake of so many conflicting reactions to the death of Osama bin-Laden. As followers of Christ we must insist that how we live and what we do matters, we cannot shrink back in the face of evil, using cheap grace as an excuse to take a powder, or, even worse, to smugly condemn out of self-righteousness those whose response is to stand-up to evil. This is the challenging legacy and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

This puts me in mind of something written by my brother deacon of old, St. Ephrem the Syrian, which I posted over Lent:

"On that dreadful and amazing day, You shall say to us sinners, O Lord: ‘You men know well what I have undergone for you; what have you suffered for Me?’…The martyrs will point to their wounds, their sufferings, the severed parts of their bodies… The ascetics will point to their asceticism, to their long fasts and vigils, to their liberality…But I, idle, sinful, transgressing as I am, what shall I be able to point to? Spare me, O merciful One! Spare me, O Thou Lover of mankind!"

You see, grace is costly, which means that cheap grace is no grace at all.


  1. Hello Deacon Scott !

    Great post. I purchased "Cost of Discipleship" long ago, and have used it for many presentations on discipleship. I think Bonhoeffer may be a saint. What do you think?

    By the way, P.Diaconate ordination day is May 21 - Archdiocese of Newark, NJ. 35 wonderful men. Thank you for all the inspiration.

  2. Thanks, Brian. It great to hear from you. How exciting about your upcoming ordination.I am sure you diocese will be richly blessed.

    Yes, I think Bonhoeffer is a saint, most certainly. Around the jubilee year in 2000 there was some talk about the Catholic Church perhaps canonizing or giving some official recognition to the witness of non-Catholics. Bonhoeffer's name was certainly mentioned. Besides, he did his doctoral dissertation on the communion of the saints

  3. "It is NOT those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who OBEY the law who will be declared righteous." Rom. 2:13
    One has been added after Jesus' crucifixion.

  4. "For the whole lawk is fulfilled in one statement, namely, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Gal. 5:14)

    Yet, how many times do I fail in this, even after Baptism? Too many to name! This is why "a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified." (Gal. 2:16).

    Indeed, "if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. (Gal. 2:21b)

    We could proof text all day back-and-forth, which only shows the dialectical tension about which I wrote.

  5. The word law in Rom. 2:13 is referencing a law that has been added to the law after Jesus' crucifixion. See Rom. 5:20 & Heb. 7:12. In the statement of Gal. 2:21 the word law is referencing the Sinai code. There are no works or performance requirments of this code that will result in any person being declared righteous by God. The term "rightly dividing the Word of truth" is correctly disquingishing what the word law is referencing. In your mind the word "fulfilled" means abolished, but it actually means complete. In your tangled headed belief system the crucifixion of Jesus is viewed as a work or performance requirment relative to the Sinai code. However no person will be justified from anything whenever a person assumes to have derived a direct benefit toward himself by any man's death caused by bloodshed. Even Jesus himself plainly states that the issue of guilt relative to sin remains as the outstanding issue AFTER his crucifixion. "When he comes he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin". His crucifixon has not resolved anything. But it has placed you in the position of either obeying God exactly as he demands of you by Jesus' crucifixion or pay hell for not obeying him by the faith to obey a law that has been added by his only begotten son's crucifixion. Unless you change your tangeled headed view point to the understanding that the crucifixion of Jesus is an accountable sin for you you will pay hell for not satisfactorily accounting directly to God of it.