Nearly four score years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship. Every Christian should read it because the German martyr was on to something: He exposed the scourge of cheap grace. “Cheap grace,” he wrote, “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.”
He saw the church peddling grace as an idea about God, not proclaiming Jesus Christ, whose lavish sacrifice and invitation to follow demands unconditional surrender. “Cheap grace,” Bonhoeffer continued, “is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” The drift of religious Christianity is towards this bargain-store spirituality; we like God and his benefits on the cheap and with as little personal cost as necessary.
The contagion of cheap grace is cheap church. If we expect God and his goods on our terms, with our desires untouched, we will want church just as conveniently.
Dare we admit that many adhere to the doctrine of cheap church and fervently believe it to be true. We want church that costs nothing beyond our cash, interests and occasional attendance. We want church that will not require the gruelling tasks of loving, forgiving and offering grace to those we’re sure shouldn’t get it. We want to consume our bargain-store spirituality and happily shop with others who think the same. We want a church of the holy potluck, the holy project, the holy huddle, but we’re not so keen on a church of the Holy Spirit.
I mean, really, have you read what the Holy Spirit did to the church in Acts? Who wants that mess and cost anymore? Now that we’ve got everything pasteurized and organized, we can get on with church on the cheap and defend it almost like we mean it and mean it as if we like it!
We seem to expect church to be unrealistically perfect for our sakes. We want our church to have the spit and polish that convinces us we’re really something. We’ll give to that—particularly if there’s a tax break to be had! We’ll raise our communion shot glasses to that!
The church is foremost and always God’s cherished possession. Church is not something to horde, but give away! We give away Christ and with him always a costly piece of ourselves. God in Christ spared no expense and yet many who have been absorbed into the body of Christ by grace long for church on the cheap.
The church does not exist to prop up our wants. Rather, it requires us to collapse in the costly joy of dying to self and living alongside others who are not always easy to love, because Christ died for us—and them—and is risen from the dead! The church is to be a window into what can be when people spend themselves in forgiveness, reconciliation and mission together precisely because the grace they received was lavishly expensive.
Jesus still wears scars. How can we who are now his earthly body expect to wear anything less? The church extracts a cost many may have never fully embraced: It will cost us our rights, preferences and comfort.
The church is not easy! Get over it! It is a costly adventure in being a resurrected Holy-Spirit-endowed people, and the cheap church many practise is as much a swindle as cheap grace ever was.
Phil Wagler (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Huron County, Ont., where he seeks to count the cost with the churches of Kingsfield. He is author of Kingdom Culture.