I've been thinking and praying about what to do my lesson on this Sunday, and what I keep coming back to is grace. This is probably because I started reading "The Cost of Discipleship" by Dietrich Bonhoeffer this week, a book that deals in large part with the contrast between cheap grace and costly grace. Cheap grace, that absolves without making demands, that allows us to live as we like and do whatever we want, relying on the fact that God will always forgive us. And costly grace, the grace that comes with an obligation, not as in a deal being made, but as a debt we cannot deny that we owe. Costly grace recognizes that because Christ sacrificed and suffered for us, we cannot live as though he didn't. We cannot separate grace from discipleship.
Bonhoeffer writes that cheap grace is killing the church, and is really undermining the heart of Christianity. Jesus didn't tell his disciples, "I forgive you, so just feel better about what you're doing." He said, "Follow me." A direct command to abandon the past life and become his disciple.
This should be obvious. If Christians read the Bible, they would see that. In Romans 6:1, Paul asks, "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?" In this passage, Paul clearly states that grace is not license. Just because we're forgiven doesn't mean we don't have to change. On the contrary, because of this grace, we cannot possibly go on with business as usual. Grace so outrageous must make the difference in our lives.
And what happens in so many churches and in so many Sunday schools is that we hammer home the grace of God as a free gift, offered to us by Christ, whose death brings life and justification. And this is absolutely true. But it's not the whole picture. Grace itself demands response. We who were dead in our sins and have been made alive in Christ are not only freed from the slavery of sin, but we are now "slaves of righteousness." We are bought with a price; Christ's blood gives us life, so that we might become like our new Master.
Even as I write this, I feel myself wanting to shy away from the "master/slave" language, but I can't. It's what Paul says. That's the dynamic. But my American upbringing wants to champion independence. We are free from anyone's control. But this isn't reality. I haven't found anywhere in the Bible where it says that Christianity is freedom from obligation. In fact, it says the opposite. Once we were slaves to sin; but the grace of God through the sacrifice of Jesus brought us out of bondage to sin, and made us slaves to righteousness.
You can't get away from it. You can lie to yourself all you want about being independent, free of all ties, but, to quote the eminent sage Bob Dylan, "you gonna have to serve somebody."
But this relationship dynamic doesn't lessen the love involved. We are not slaves treated as human masters treat slaves. We don't fear suffering handed down from a sadistic owner. In fact, we who are in Christ are elevated to the level of friends of Jesus, sons of God (of whom Christ is the Firstborn), and heirs to the riches of our Father.
Wait--isn't that a contradiction? First we were slaves, and then we were sons. We can't be both, can we?
Actually, yes, in a way. But we have to understand this new slavery. When we were slaves to sin, we were led and controlled by sin, but now that we are slaves to righteousness, we are led by the Spirit. Paul writes in chapter 8,
"Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation--but it is not to the sinful nature,
to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you
will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you
will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For
you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you
received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father." The Spirit
himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. Now if we are
children, then we are heirs--heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we
share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory."
We are slaves to God, as a son (or daughter) is the slave of his/her father. This is sometimes a difficult comparison to make, especially in our "progressive" Western culture, where rebellion is glorified and accepted. But Paul says that, in this new dynamic, when we are slaves to righteousness, we no longer have to fear, because we become children of God. We can go to God and call him "Abba," the term for "daddy." When Grace is there, slavery becomes sonship. And being a son means doing the will of the Father.
Which brings us back to discipleship. At the end of Paul's passage above, he says we are heirs, if we share in Christ's sufferings. I have to admit, when I think about the "sufferings" of Christ, my mind immediately goes to "The Movie," and the sadism of Christ's death. But that's not the only suffering of Christianity. Paul describes in several of his letters about the hardships he endured for the name of Christ, ranging from slanders to imprisonment to hunger and torture. Paul rejoices in these, knowing that they are proof he is living the life to which he has been called.
Which is not to imply that Christianity is some form of psychological masochism. But hardship and trouble are part of the package. Jesus told his disciples on several occasions that if they follow Him, they will encounter persecution. But, as we discussed a few posts ago, those who are persecuted for Christ and for righteousness are called "blessed." Furthermore, Paul understood that the "suffering" he dealt with was nothing, by comparison, to the victory of God's redemptive grace revealed in his life.
But if there is no suffering, if there is no struggle, if there is no change, if Christianity is easy, it may be the result of cheap grace, which falsely provides reassurance that you owe God nothing.
Grace is our redemption. Grace removes the stain. Grace is our resurrection. But Grace is not cheap, not traded in the street like gold-plated jewelry. Grace is the pearl of great price for which Christ gave all he had, so that he might offer it to us. But such a gift is not to be accepted lightly. Discipleship is not the term of a bargain, or part of a trade (my service for Your forgiveness). Discipleship is the response to a life-altering event, like the person who is rescued by an EMT and becomes a doctor as a result.
You were dead; he made you alive. You are His. If you understand this, you will never be content with a grace cheaply held. You will leave your nets, or your counting table, or your shade tree, and follow wherever He leads.
Apologies for the unfocused post. I usually try to hone them into more direct statements. Today's just got away from me. There is so much to say, so much I'm still learning. I seem to stumble through the explanations. I may have misread things, miscommunicated them. Look-- don't listen to me. Read Romans. Paul explains it much better than I do.