Dietrich Bonhoeffer on ‘Cheap Grace’

1.3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer on ‘cheap grace’

Perhaps no other work on discipleship is more widely known and highly regarded than that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Discipleship, however, “is a book that needs to be seen within a specific context” in order for it to be read and understood properly.1

Bonhoeffer was thinking and writing about the nature of true discipleship in the context of his home country, Germany, in a very specific point in history, namely the re-emergence of Germany in the 1930s under the leadership of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. It was during this time that the Nationalist Socialist revolution “sought to force all elements of society, including the churches, into line with the ideology and structures of the Nazi party”, even demanding that “Christians discriminate against their fellow Jewish citizens and against other groups that had been branded as ‘enemies of the people.’”2

While parts of the church in Germany during this time were indeed absorbed by the power of the Nazi regime, and earnestly believed that their actions were in line with what God wanted for their country, Bonhoeffer became more convinced of the call to peace through discipleship as taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. It became clear to him that “the call to discipleship, although unmistakably addressed to the individual, would place that individual within a community and within the public arena.”3 For him, the call to discipleship was deeply embedded in embodying God’s redemptive and loving purposes in the world as seen through the example of the Christ. It was this conviction that led him to become a figure head in what would be known as the Confessing Church, and in one of its seminaries for pastors-in-training.

The Confessing Church, in a bold and striking example of true discipleship, “adopted its own order, and in doing so, separated itself from the Reich Church government and the National Socialist regime.”4 They were not willing to go along with the message preached by the Third Reich, nor were they willing to sit back and rest in the promise that one day it would all end and that they would reap the reward of eternal life in heaven as a result of their quiet faithfulness.

And so, in 1934, the Confessing Church met to table a theological declaration that “was the compass that was to guide this new ‘confessing church’ in its struggle to be the authentic church of Jesus Christ against the opposition of the Nazi state.”5 Written primarily by Karl Barth, a key feature of the declaration as it pertains to discipleship is that it maintains that the Christian church, “as a church of pardoned sinners, has to witness in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it belongs solely to him [Jesus Christ, its Lord] and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectations of his appearance.”6 In other words, disciples of Jesus are called to be faithful witnesses of his teachings and example at any and every point in human history.

While Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship must be read within the context of understanding its true nature within his ‘today’, it is argued that within its pages he expounded the Barmen declaration “in such a way that its truth became undeniable, even beyond the historical context of the Church struggle in the Third Reich.”7 With that in mind, we turn to specifically to Bonhoeffer’s exposition of the dangers of cheap grace.

Bonhoeffer begins by making this bold statement: “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of the church.”8 He describes cheap grace as a doctrine adopted by the church wherein we find “justification of sin but not the sinner. Because grace alone does everything, everything can stay in its old ways.”9 Having been forgiven of their sins by the free gift of God’s grace, the Christian is therefore enabled to continue on living in much the same way as they did prior to receiving that gift – “so the Christian need not follow Christ, since the Christian is comforted by grace!”10 There is, then, no visible change, no way of distinguishing the so-called followers of Jesus from any other citizen of this world. Bonhoeffer goes on to give a clearer idea of what cheap grace looks like when he says the following: “Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.”11

In other words, the church can and, at times, has fallen into a deep trap wherein it is perceived that, upon receiving the forgiveness of sins, nothing else is required – “the Christian should live just like the rest of the world.”12 Christians can continue living in the same way as they did prior to professing belief in Jesus, imitating the world around them instead of embodying the redemptive work of God within that very world. This acceptance of cheap grace, therefore, “did not open the way to Christ for us, but rather closed it. It did not call us into discipleship, but hardened us into disobedience.”13

Cheap grace can cause Christians to drastically misunderstand the nature of the call to discipleship. It allows for a non-disruptive belief in Jesus free from the burden of truly following him and engaging in the realities of the world, and allows for absorption of the people of God into the dominant powers of society, culture and politics. There is no personal transformation, nor is there any need to participate in the ongoing renewal of creation made possible through Christ.

1 Martin Kuske and Ilse Todt, “Editors’ Afterword to the German Edition,” in Discipleship, ed. John D. Godsey and Geffrey B. Kelly (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 289.

2 Ibid., 294-295

3 Ibid., 293.

4 Ibid., 297.

5 Robert T. Osborn, The Barmen Declaration as a Paradigm for a Theology of the American Church (Lewiston: E. Mellin Press, 1991), 9.

6 John H. Leith, Creeds of the Churches; a Reader in Christian Doctrine, from the Bible to the Present (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1973), 520.

7 Kuske and Todt, “Editors’ Afterword”, 298.

8 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. IV (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 43.

9 Ibid., 43.

10 Ibid., 44.

11 Ibid., 44.

12 Ibid., 44.

13 Ibid, 54

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