Orthopraxy Over Orthodoxy: Understanding Bonhoeffer’s Cheap Grace

The very first chapter of TCOD is probably its most famous portion, as well as it’s most co-opted. Every church imaginable likes to talk about cheap grace and the need for costly grace, and they use it to their own context. It’s funny how churches fight over Bonhoeffer, claiming that he’s championing their cause when he talks about cheap grace. It’s great to see Bonhoeffer recognized as a giant in the world of Christianity, but astounding how we all think he’s talking about US (this blogger included). Of course, we would NEVER do this with any other book!

Oh, wait…

We must remember while reading Bonhoeffer to locate him in his context, that of pre-WWII Germany, where the Nazi’s were rising to power. A lot was at stake here: the elimination of state enemies and undesirables, a state overtaking of the church, complete with a false gospel (as in one that suited National Socialist ideals) for them to preach; and the destruction German culture under the guise of trying to bring it to its rightful place in the world. In this world, Bonhoeffer saw a church that, instead of resisting the new Fuhrer and working to save the supposed enemies of the state, sat on its hands and passively watched as Hitler imposed his horrific agenda on his beloved homeland. When Bonhoeffer fights for costly grace, he means to fight for a church that acts on the teachings it claims to hold dear, a church that takes Jesus seriously.

Here’s how Bonhoeffer defines cheap grace:

“Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception” of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. The church which holds the correct doctrine of grace has, it is supposed, ipso facto a part of that grace. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God. Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before.”

And all American Christians say, “Amen!”

This has to be the most tricky part of TCOD, because the way you understand this portion of the text is how you understand the rest of the book. Some have said this simply means that churches don’t take salvation seriously enough and need to work harder to evangelize people. Others have claimed that it means the church is fixated too much on doctrine and needs to work harder at its orthopraxy, or right practice. Still others have claimed he’s talking about two women named Grace, one who was a cheap date and the other…

*is handed a note*

OK, never mind. No one has said that.

Look, the way I interpret this text is that Bonhoeffer is trying to promote living like Jesus tells us to, thus promoting orthopraxy, and I point to his use of the early desert fathers as prime evidence. In the early monastic communities of the church, Bonhoeffer saw true dedication to Christ, the poor, and to the world. These men were an example to him of how one truly lives for Christ (this is well reflected in his time with Finklewald seminary, I think). The problem came when the church set these men up as examples of how the most holy men live, as something unattainable to the layperson, rather than something everyone should strive toward. Martin Luther came close to setting the church back on track with his 95 theses on the church door, but his opposition to justification by works swung the church too far in the opposite direction. As Bonhoeffer points out: “Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything remains as it was before.”

We’ve been arguing over doctrine for 2000 years now. While I love a good debate, it becomes frivolous when we forget the ones Jesus came for as we hoot and holler for double justification or pedobaptism or whatever. We’ve let ourselves get comfortable sitting in our pews and letting grace do all the work while the world starves for solid food and for the love of God we claim to carry. So, here’s my big tent argument for turning our focus off orthodoxy and towards orthopraxy:

1) If you’re in the conservative evangelical camp, you’re probably at a point where you think you’ve got your doctrine (not necessarily theology) figured out. That’s fine. Quit worrying about it and go do the things Jesus told you to do. If you’re going to claim to take Jesus at his word, you better be out there pounding pavement to care for the poor, the homeless, the imprisoned, and the marginalized, and I don’t just mean tithing and short term missions trips. If you think the Kingdom of God is a real thing, start thinking about ways to make it a reality here and now, not just later on.
2) If you’re in the liberal camp, and you’ve left your hand open to doctrine for whatever reason, that’s fine as well. Although I don’t know how much Bonhoeffer would agree (his language IS very conservative) I’m going to assume that you’ve done so in the hopes of bringing more people into the love of God through the open doors of your church. If not, and you’re just showing up at church because it’s what you’ve always done (as any Christian might wind up doing), then get off your ass and go live up to all those criticisms you’ve made of conservatives and do something with the moral influence Jesus has on you.

I don’t care who you think Bonhoeffer is writing for, or if you want to co-opt his writings to your cause. If you’re a Christian, you know damn well that costly grace is what beckons us to the life we live, and the life we live with that grace will cost us everything, as “Christ…bids a man come and die.” Cheap grace won’t give shelter to the homeless, or bring down the Fuhrer. Costly grace will tax our health, our wallets, our very lives, but it is the pearl of great price we give everything for.

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