The View From 1776

Cheap Grace

Reactions of some nominal Christians to the message of Pope Benedict XVI are nothing more than liberal-progressive-socialistic “toleration.”

In his April 18th column for the Washington Post, E. J. Dionne, Jr. expresses the misgivings of liberal-progressives who enjoy the ritual of religion, but don’t want to be bothered with following the teachings of Jesus.

Mr. Dionne writes:

The most jarring word that Pope Benedict XVI is using during his visit to the United States is “countercultural.” The American sense of that term is shaped by the 1960s: free love, drugs, hippies, rock music and rebellion. Needless to say, that’s not what Benedict is preaching.

That word is the key to understanding how Benedict’s message runs crosswise to conventional liberalism and conservatism. Benedict came to the United States as a quiet but forceful critic of “an increasingly secular and materialistic culture,” as he put it during yesterday’s Mass. Almost any American who paid attention to his sermon had to be uncomfortable because all of us are shaped by the very forces he was criticizing.

Benedict directly challenged an assumption so many Americans make about religion: that it is a matter of private devotion with few public implications.

The truth is that too many of us like to think of ourselves as saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.  We think that it’s enough to give lip service to the Gospels on Sunday, while keeping our lives in a separate compartment for the remainder of the week.

This is what German pastor Dietrich Bonnhoeffer called cheap grace.  Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister who openly defied the materialistic, liberal-progressive socialism of Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazis) and paid for it with his life.

In The Cost of Discipleship, pastor Bonhoeffer wrote:

Instead of following Christ, let the Christian enjoy the consolations of his grace!  That is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs.  Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin.  Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline.  Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.


Jesus, two thousand years ago, put his finger on the same phenomenon. 

No one was more versed than the pharisees in the texts of the Hebraic Bible and more learned about the requirements of the law emanating from Moses’s original covenant with God.  But, Jesus told them, true religion is based on the two greatest of God’s commandments: have no other god than God Himself, and love your neighbor as thyself.

Ritualistically following the law alone was not sufficient.  There had to be a softening of the heart that led to obedience to God’s commandments, to genuine concern for serving others and aiding the needy.

So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?”

He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ?” ‘These people honor me with their lips,