Last week marked the 70th anniversary of the hanging death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Hence it was an occasion for meditating on the German Lutheran pastor who, amid Nazi atrocities during WWII, was driven to take part in an assassination plot against Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer's unapologetic writings on ethics and theology have factored heavily in my own spiritual and intellectual development since I first began studying him in 2003 as a senior in college. Specifically, his formulations on "costly grace" put a fire in my belly about the gravity of deeds in the Christian life, and their inescapable role as the true indicator of living faith.
Bonhoeffer's "costly grace" trope stemmed from what he saw as its converse: cheap grace. In what is generally regarded as his crowning work, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer describes grace that isn't costly:
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. [It] 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.
Bonhoeffer later meditates on Martin Luther, describing his embrace of a "costly" grace, and his followers' subsequent perversion of Divine Grace into a commodity:
[Luther] always looked upon [grace] as the answer to a sum, but an answer which had been arrived at by God, not by man. But then his followers changed the sum into data for a calculation of their own. That was the root of the trouble. If grace is God's answer, the gift of the Christian life, then we cannot for a moment dispense with following Christ. But if grace is the data for my Christian life, it means that I set out to live the Christian life in the world with all my sins justified beforehand. I can go and sin as much as I like and rely on this grace to forgive me, for after all the world is justified in principle by grace.
A bit later, Bonhoeffer starts bringing his "sum/data" concept into bloom:
Grace as the data for our calculations means grace at the cheapest price, but grace as the answer to the sum means costly grace.
At the end of a life spent in the pursuit of knowledge, Faust has to confess: "I now do see that we can nothing know." That is the answer to a sum. It is the outcome of a long experience. But as Kierkegaard observed, it is quite a different thing when a freshman comes to the university and uses the same sentiment to justify his indolence. As the answer to a sum it is perfectly true, but as the initial data, it is a piece of self-deception.
For my own part, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's emphasis on costly grace laid groundwork for my eventual embrace of the Orthodox Church. While Bonhoeffer contended for a modern recovery of costly grace by Protestants, that weight of the cross has been codified into the marrow of Orthodox Christianity and its faith and life since Her Sees were founded by the Apostles in the first century. Granted, it could be said that the constant threats of Islam and Communism have prevented a Western kind of laissez-faire attitude from getting much of a foothold. But to someone who four years ago had grown weary of trying to blaze my own trail of "costliness," Orthodoxy's institutional stability, the weight of 1900 years of unbroken tradition, and dare I say an apparent imbuing of Charisma came together to woo this born and bred Evangelical.
While I ultimately felt compelled to root my faith in the costly life of the Eastern Church, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life bore the fruit of one who had bowed down to the costliness of the Cross in the shocking context of Nazi Germany. His life was cut short, but is still echoing with prophetic counsel for a floundering, self-affirming culture seventy years after his execution. To borrow an ode the Orthodox memorialize their dead with, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Memory Eternal!
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