“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” — Ephesians 2:8-10
“Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
The reader board outside Peace Lutheran Church in downtown Puyallup, Wash., is ancient. Its plastic face is clouded from decades of scratching, and metal block letters fit precariously into slots behind it. The message is only visible to the first car or two stopped at the busy intersection of 3rd and Pioneer. Otherwise motorists pass quickly by, vaguely aware of the historic church on the corner, a seeming relic of bygone years.
Nevertheless, the reader board tirelessly invites them to find there a thriving community gathered every Sunday around God’s word of promise and a holy meal and sent out again to meet Christ in the faces of friends and strangers.
The next message on the board reads “Free Gift: See Inside!” Reflecting a world of commercial publicity designed to woo new customers, this phrase carries a dramatically different meaning when it’s posted outside a Lutheran congregation.
Of course, the church might see a few curious visitors eager for a prize. They will receive an earnest welcome and a handsome refrigerator magnet. But the message on the reader board will point to a much more profound truth. The dignity of belonging, acceptance despite our imperfection, renewal amid our exhaustion—in short, grace—is the gift of God, freely given in the ministry, cross and resurrection of Jesus, in baptism, in the word proclaimed in community, in the Lord’s Supper and in the sacrificial love of the living body of Christ.
Grace has always run the risk of dilution. Those of us already “inside” are liable to take grace for granted, mistaking it for divine permissiveness or indifference. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” the notion that, according to the love of God, anything goes. When Jesus’ high expectations go by the wayside, and we go about our business unchanged, grace is depreciated.
But grace is not cheap. Grace is costly—to God, in the first place. Crucifixion is the end result of so much human logic, yet it’s a devastating event at the heart of the divine life. Imagine losing a child to rejection and violence, and you begin to understand. What’s more, grace is costly to those who dare to call themselves disciples. “Take up your own cross,” the Messiah urges, calling his followers to die to our self-preoccupation in order to live for the world.
Yes, grace is costly. And yet, grace is free. This goes against the grain of our conditioning. We’ve internalized that everything is earned and everything is for sale. But God’s goodness cannot be merited or purchased. Filled to the brim by a generous host, our cup overflows. Recognizing the extravagance of the gift, we allow God’s abundance to spill over into the lives of others.
Grace is a free gift, but, God willing, it won’t stay inside. Drive by the church on a Sunday about midday and you’ll see more than a sign and an old building. You will see hungry people filled with good things, streaming out onto the street.