Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Costly Grace

Costly Grace
Romans 5:1-11[1]
I think we are a people for whom God’s grace doesn’t make much sense. I mean, think about it: the whole idea is that God loves us just because he chooses to do so no matter what we do or don’t do to deserve it. That’s not something we “get” very easily. We’re wired to understand things like working hard to get somewhere in life; if anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing right; and you don’t just get handed whatever you want on a silver platter. But the idea that God—especially God—would grace us with his love simply because he chooses to do so is something of a stretch for most of us.
In our world, we’re much more comfortable with the idea that “God helps those who help themselves.”[2] I think many people view the Christian faith from this perspective—as if it were some kind of barter system, where we exchange going to church and helping the less fortunate and giving our income so that God will give us eternal life in paradise. It is the idea that we have to earn whatever we hope to receive from God’s hand in the end. And in fact, that idea has actually been endorsed at times by church leaders because it can be an effective way to motivate the flock. The fact that it turns salvation into an elaborate “pay-to-play” transaction doesn’t seem to matter to those who take that approach.
In contrast to that line of thinking, in our lesson from the Letter to the Romans for today, the Apostle Paul speaks about a God who offers peace, hope, and life to us all.  Not because of anything we could possibly do to deserve it, but simply because God chooses to do so. It’s an act of grace. It’s purely a gift. And as difficult as it may be for us to comprehend, that means there’s nothing we can ever do to deserve it. I think that makes a lot of us uncomfortable, because we prefer to be in control of our destiny. Although I don’t know why we would think we could control our eternal destiny!
But in fact, Paul says that God pours out his grace for us precisely when we are in no position to do anything to earn it for ourselves. He says that God sent his Son to die for us when we were helpless and even antagonistic toward God.  As Gene Peterson translates Romans 5:6 in The Message, “Christ arrives right on time to make this happen. He didn't, and doesn't, wait for us to get ready.”  Paul says that at just the right time, Christ died for the sinners and the ungodly—and in Paul’s mind that includes us all!  He doesn’t talk this way to browbeat us for our fallen condition, but to bring us to the place where we can accept the gift of peace and hope and life that God offers us all. 
But that’s really the question: how do we accept the gift of the amazing grace that God is offers us through Jesus the Christ? If it’s simply a gift that we can never deserve or earn, then it might make sense to think that we can just sit back and let God do his thing. But the fact of the matter is that’s not how it works either. Both extremes miss the point—we cannot earn it, but neither can we just sit back and act like we are entitled to it. That’s what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”!  By that he meant grace that doesn’t really have a lasting effect on our lives.[3]
By contrast, when grace really grabs us it changes us for good. The word that the Scriptures use for that is repentance. The Scriptures call us all to repent; that is, we have to come to the point where we can acknowledge our faults in order to accept the gift of the grace that God offers us. It might seem like a contradiction to say that there’s nothing we can ever do to deserve or earn it, but that we have to come to the place where we admit our failings in order to receive it. And yet, various recovery programs have taught us that the only way to start the journey toward healing is to recognize that we have a problem.  I think the same thing holds true for God’s grace. It really doesn’t make much of an impact on us that God loves us so freely until we realize that we need it. God’s grace becomes something life-changing when we fully grasp that we cannot live without it.
I think a big part of what St. Paul was getting at is that we cannot “save” ourselves. That might seem obvious, but I think there are a wide variety of ways in which we go around trying to “save” ourselves. What St. Paul knows is that repentance and faith go hand in hand—you can’t have one without the other. We can’t really come to the place where we put our faith in Jesus as our savior until we realize that we are simply unable to save ourselves. That’s a hard thing for many of us to admit to ourselves. No amount of effort, no amount of service, no amount of giving will suffice. Our only way to find the peace and joy and new life that God offers us is by recognizing that we need it, and that we can’t do anything on our own to get it. 
The season of Lent is a time for us to come to terms with who we are—we are all in need of the gift of grace and new life that God offers us through Jesus Christ. But it’s also a time to recognize that grace is “costly” as Bonhoeffer said it.[4] And St. Paul makes it clear how much it cost to make it possible for us to have access to this grace: it cost Jesus his life. It cost God the life of his own son. I think that pretty much takes care of any notion that we can somehow deserve or earn God’s grace. That’s another reason for the season of Lent. It’s a time for us to get past the pride that keeps us from acknowledging our need, so that we can accept the gift of God’s costly grace.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/19/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] This phrase entered our society through Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” It is not a quote from the Bible, despite what many think!
[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4 (2001), 43-44: “Cheap grace is means grace as bargain-basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament; … Cheap grace is grace without a price, without costs. … Cheap grace means justification of sin but not of the sinner. Because grace alone does everything, everything can stay in its old ways. … So the Christian need not follow Christ, since the Christian is comforted by [cheap] grace! … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Christ.” This edition of Bonhoeffer’s classic work is vastly superior to the previous English translation, The Cost of Discipleship. In some cases the older version actually renders the German of Bonhoeffer’s Nachfolge into English in direct contraction to the German original! For example, on page 44 of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer speaks ironically about “Cheap Grace” leading the Christian to try to do something exceptional, and as a result “there is no difference between Christian life and worldly life.” In The Cost of Discipleship, 44, the same statement is rendered to say that it is imperative for the Christian “to distinguish his life from the life of the world,” and the motivation is so that the world will believe in “the free gift of grace” (“billige Gnade,” which is correctly rendered “cheap grace” in the newer version). There are many such examples of this reversal of meaning in Cost of Discipleship.
[4] Cf. Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 45: Costly grace “is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live. It is costly, because it condemns sin; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s Son… and because nothing can be cheap to us that was costly to God. Above all, it is grace because the life of God’s Son was not too costly for God to give in order to make us live.”

No comments: