At our Annual Conference's ordination and commissioning service a couple of weeks ago, the preacher for the evening, ELCA Bishop Elizabeth Eaton delivered a rousing and wonderful sermon in which she referred to cheap grace as "entitlement grace." Bishop Eaton alluded to Dietrich Bonhoeffer's famous passage on cheap grace in his book, The Cost of Discipleship:
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….
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…. 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. ‘All for sin could not atone.’ Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
I have been pondering the bishop's renaming "entitlement grace."
It surely seems appropriate in our culture where we believe we are now entitled to a whole host of things in life. Some believe they are entitled to a risk-free life, hence the many frivolous law suits. Others believe that they are entitled to a responsibility-free existence, thus when something goes wrong, someone else is to blame. And still others think they they are entitled to a sacrificially-free existence, so they object over having to give up for the sake of another. And there are still others believe they are entitled to a do-what-you-can-for-yourself-free existence, so they think others are obligated to provide for all their needs.
Have we in the church treated grace as an entitlement? In one sense entitlement grace is somewhat of an oxymoron. After all, if it's grace, one is not entitled to it. It can only be given as a gift. Bonhoeffer goes on to describe costly grace:
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and self all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: "ye were bought at a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.
Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: "My yoke is easy and my burden is light."
Do we sometimes believe that God owes us God's grace, that we are entitled to it? Do we believe we are entitled to forgiveness without true repentance? Do we think we are entitled to justification without sanctification? Do we live our lives as those entitled to receiving all the benefits of grace without allowing God to use us sacrificially to offer that grace to others?
A modern version of the old Prayer of Humble Access said before the celebration of Holy Communion, puts the grace we have received in correct context:
We do not come to this table, O Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your many and great mercies. We are not worthy to gather the leftovers from your table, but we rejoice that your love is so great, you invite us to come as guests. Grant us, therefore, Gracious Lord, so to partake of this Sacrament of your Son Jesus Christ, that we may walk in newness of life, may grow into his likeness, and may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
There is no sense of entitlement in this prayer. Moreover, it is in the unmerited and undeserved grace received that transformation, "walking in newness of life," is made possible.
And that grace, freely given by God, will cost us our lives. It is not cheap, nor are we entitled to it. But it is indeed a great joy to receive it; for it will transform us making us partakers of God's divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).
Such grace will restore the image of God in us. It is perfecting grace. Any form of grace that does not offer such restoration is not grace... and who really wants to be entitled to that?