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Do Our Churches Preach Cheap Grace?

The gospel always leads to righteousness. Grace always leads to life. Having been reconciled to God by Jesus’ death, we are enabled to practice love, justice, mercy and peace through the indestructible power of his life.

Grace that fails to produce such righteousness is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” It rests on the illusion that grace involves endless affirmation and endless forgiveness. It conflates salvation with justification, the gospel with the forgiveness of sins. It seems loving to us, but it expresses the easy kind of love that costs us nothing. It proclaims the comfort of the gospel but robs it of its power to give life.

Christians often counter the danger of cheap grace by emphasizing that, having been saved through Christ, we are now called to demonstrate our gratitude to God by obeying his law. Yet emphasizing a return to the law merely distorts our understanding of the Christian life. It tempts us to view our practice of righteousness merely as a response to the gospel, rather than as the working of the gospel itself in our lives. It turns the practice of righteousness into a burden, an endless debt of gratitude that we can never possibly repay.

Just as dangerous, emphasizing a return to the law inevitably leads us to associate Christian discipleship with judgment and fear rather than with liberty and life. Confusing the call to righteousness with the demands of the law, we once again come face to face with its pronouncement of death. We become ashamed of our inevitable failures before one another. We bristle against those who would seek to keep us accountable. We resist the rigor of discipleship because we fear that it will rob us of the peace of God’s grace.

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church. We are fighting today for costly grace. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In these ways we lose sight of power of grace. We forget that by walking in the power of the Spirit, as hard and difficult as it is, we are walking the path of “life to the full” (John 10:10). We forget that while the way of sin and injustice is the way of slavery and death – even now, even during this life – the way of the Spirit is the way of liberty and life – even now, even this side of Christ’s return.

In short, we lose sight of just how much we are missing when we ignore the gospel’s active power to change and heal us, and so cease spurring one another to pursue the fullness of life in Christ with every fiber of our being.

The apostle Paul felt a tremendous burden to communicate this truth about the life-giving power of the gospel. Christ has not merely justified us by saving us from the wrath of God, he insisted. Rather, he has given us the gift of righteousness in order that we might “reign in life” (Romans 5:17). God raised Jesus from the dead in order that “we too may live a new life,” even now, even this side of the resurrection (6:4).

“Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace?” (6:15) That is the temptation of cheap grace. It is the call always to affirm a person, regardless of how miserable she might be in her way of life. It is a curtailed gospel, a gospel robbed of the power to grant life. It is well-intentioned, to be sure. It balks at calling a person to walk the hard path of discipleship because it fears that such a call will be heard as one of judgment and death.

And yet, Paul shows us, what calls us to the hard path of discipleship is not the law, but grace. It is not death, but life. After all, no benefit accrues to a person who continues to live in slavery to sin and its desires. “What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death!” (6:21) Or as he puts it later, “The mind governed by the flesh is death” (8:6).

What struggling Christians desperately need to hear is not merely that God affirms them, regardless of their sin. What struggling Christians desperately need to hear is that God empowers them toward life in the Spirit. They need to know that the church will bear their burden with them as they walk this path.

There are far too many people in the church who “have a form of godliness but deny its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). There are far too many who through their teaching “pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality” (Jude 4). We need to recover our confidence in the gospel’s truth that “if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness” (8:6, 9-10).

To be sure, we welcome all who confess their sins in a spirit of repentance, no matter what the sin. We celebrate the power of forgiveness even when it has already been granted seventy-times-seven (Matthew 18). We never give up on anyone.

But we remain the body of those who confess that “the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). At its core, our faith is in one whose life was so powerful that not even death could contain it. The good news is not only that we have been forgiven. It is that we are being changed.

And so, as sinful we remain, as much as we have to confess our sins and repent again every week, even every day, we do so in a spirit of hope. As much as the Christian life is inevitably a life of suffering and self-denial, we take up our cross and follow our Lord because his is the way of life. As Paul put it,

“The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, … the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs … if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (8:14-17).

Hitler and Restoring Germany’s Christian Heritage: Learning the Right Lessons From Church History

I’m grateful to the folks at Patheos for publishing my essay, “Why Did German Protestants Support Hitler?” It’s a much fuller presentation of arguments I’ve made on this blog in the past, but it arises out of a course on the Holocaust for which I’ve been a Teaching Associate and lecturer at Emory University. In the fall I’ll be giving a paper at the American Academy of Religion on Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a two kingdoms theologian, showing how Bonhoeffer took two kingdoms theology in a quite different direction than did many of his contemporaries.

Here an excerpt from my piece at Patheos.

Leading two kingdoms theologians like Paul Althaus argued that it was the church’s obligation to support the state in its attempt to protect the German volk from corruption or defilement. When Hitler came to power in 1933, it was therefore not a passive two kingdoms doctrine that kept otherwise skeptical Christians from opposing him. After all, the two kingdoms doctrine had not stopped them from standing up against the Weimar Republic, which they had regarded as godless. On the contrary, because of their strong convictions about the complementary roles of church and state, as well as about authority and basic Christian morality, they actively supported Hitler. They believed his rhetoric that he would restore Germany to its national glory and Christian foundations.

You can read the whole essay here.

Should Christians sometimes lie to one another for the sake of love?

I recently came across an argument in a book by Jerram Barrs, Through His Eyes, in which Barrs explains the conduct of Rahab, who lied to the men of Jericho in order to protect the Hebrew spies, as evidence that Christians may lie when it serves the good of their neighbor. Barrs argues that this is true not only of times of urgent necessity (i.e., to save a life) but in the routine affairs of daily life. And he argues not simply that we ought not judge people who lie in such conditions, or that lying may be a necessary evil at times, but that in these cases lying is a “righteous act,” demanded by God.

Barrs writes,

[E]ven at the level of family life there are many occasions when we all conceal truth and tell half-truths out of love for our children and out of love for one another. A child wakes up, feeling sick, at 3 AM and comes crying to get you out of bed. Do you tell him exactly how you feel? I hope not. You conceal what you feel because you love him. This is true in our marriages as well. We must not always say what we feel. If we do, we will destroy a marriage very rapidly. We are required to be faithful to our commitment to love our husband or wife rather than to the feelings and words that may be in our heads or in our hearts at a particular moment. (96-97)

But may a person lie to his or her spouse or children? The above paragraph is, after all, in the context of a discussion of lying. In the discussion questions at the end of the chapter Barrs asks,

What everyday situations do you find yourself in that bring you to concealment or telling half-truths and even falsehoods to protect the feelings of other people, or in order that you might be true to the love you have in your heart for them rather than to the sinful feelings that are also in your heart? (100)

It’s an interesting approach to ethics. My wife, who drew my attention to Barrs’s argument, grew up in an unbelieving family in which certain members routinely concealed the truth or spoke half-truths in order to protect one another’s feelings. The effect, needless to say, was not conducive of relationships built on truth or trust. In contrast, my wife and I are committed never, ever to lie to one another. To be sure, Barrs is right that we should not simply say whatever evil thought or opinion pops into our minds. But if we are called to conform to the image of Christ rather than of the Devil, the father of lies, the key to building relationships with one another is to speak the truth in love rather than to distort the truth in love.

But what about times of war?  Barrs maintains,

In wartime there has to be constant concealing of the truth and outright lying and falsehood… Consider the present struggle against terrorism connected with Islamic radicals and in particular Al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden. Reflect on how necessary it is for our governments to have agents who infiltrate groups that plan bombings and other terrorist acts. We should pray for such men and women, and we should regard their work as not only dangerous but also righteous, though it will certainly involve lying and deceit. (96)

Again, it’s an interesting claim. When I was in training to be an intelligence analyst for the FBI one of the portions of that training involved a presentation on the possible demands placed on covert agents, including those in the CIA working overseas. One of the things that became quickly obvious to me was that as a Christian I could never serve in such a role. Why? To be an effective agent one is not simply required to commit occasional acts of lying or violence. One is required, in obedience to an oath to a secular power, to put on an entirely false identity, an identity that shapes everything one does, from cultural activities to moral behavior to worship. In short, to fulfill such a task it is impossible for one to conform to the image of Christ by taking up the cross and following him.

To be sure, I will not stand in judgment over Christians who find it necessary to lie in order to save a life, nor am I saying that I would not necessarily do the same thing. But what I find troubling about Barrs’s approach is his very confidence that lying can be such a routinely righteous act. In contrast, compare the attitude of Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he was writing his Ethics whilein prison under the Nazis for his complicity in the plot against Hitler. Bonhoeffer insisted that acts of lying and violence (by one who is not a magistrate) violate God’s moral law. Yet he found that loving his neighbors in a manner responsible to Christ demanded that he lend his support to the plot against Hitler, support that involved lying and complicity in violence.

Sorting through the problem, Bonhoeffer refused to offer a final justification for his actions. Instead, he argued that the primary concern of a Christian should not be to be innocent and pure with reference to the law. Obsession with conformity to the law could quickly become quite Pharisaical when isolated from love for one’s neighbor, or from the virtues of mercy and justice. In contrast, freed from the law in Christ and transformed by the mind of Christ a believer’s driving concern will be to act responsibly in Christ towards his or her neighbor. In that sense there will be moments when the call to serve one’s neighbor will trump the call to obey a particular precept of the law. In Bonhoeffer’s case that meant that helping to stop Hitler trumped the commandment not to lie.

Does Bonhoeffer’s argument ultimately make sense? Honestly, I’m not sure he entirely pulls it off. But what impressed me about Bonhoeffer was his refusal to justify himself or his actions. He never said, “it was righteous for me to lie.” Instead, he did what he felt he had to do to follow Christ, though disobeying the law, and he took refuge in the grace of the gospel. He even analogized his willingness to take on genuine guilt for others to Christ’s willingness to take on imputed guilt for sinners. The result was that although Bonhoeffer acted in good conscience, he did not trivialize or explain away his violations of the law. He took that violation absolutely seriously and was willing to suffer the consequences for his actions.

What makes Bonhoeffer’s approach convincing to me is that he maintains his focus on following Christ and on living in the grace of the gospel rather than establishing a set of (inherently dubious) principles or examples in which it is righteous to disobey God’s commandments. There are some difficult situations in life, moments in which we are called to make terrible decisions, decisions that are incredibly morally difficult. But if we are going to lie or break God’s law we need, like Bonhoeffer, to be willing to come to grips with what we are doing, to be willing to take the full consequences without insisting on self-justification, and to rest in the grace of the gospel. Anything else, Bonhoeffer would say, is cheap grace.

Why did some Christians support Hitler? And what informed the ones who opposed him?

One of my professors at Emory University once claimed when Adolf Hitler became the dictator of Germany and took the country down the path of fascism and national socialism he was giving conservative Christians – specifically Christian Protestants – just what they wanted. Of course, most of us in the room realized that this claim is a massive distortion of history, and a highly inflammatory one at that. But in fact, there is just enough of an element of truth behind the statement to enable someone with an anti-Christian agenda to believe it.

The reality is that the vast majority of German Protestants (4o million people, or two thirds of the nation’s population) were politically conservative and nationalist in their convictions. What that meant in that context was that they were not particularly interested in democracy but were instead looking for a great leader to bring Germany and the German people out of the ashes of the Great War (1914-1918). They loathed communism and tended to view Jews as alien members of society. They wanted to see Germany return to the military glory of the past.

Roman Catholics (20 million people, or one third of the German population) tended to be much more skeptical about the Nazis. The Catholic Church had been persecuted by Bismarck in the early years of the German Empire (the second Reich), and unlike the Lutherans and the Reformed it maintained allegiance to a power outside of Germany, the papacy. The Catholic Church also boasted a massive infrastructure of schools, youth organizations, journals, and political parties, all of which amounted to a state within a state, a serious threat to the all encompassing claims of National Socialism.

But what my professor’s comments failed to acknowledge was that the sort of Protestant Christianity that was susceptible to the Nazi temptation tended to be the more theologically liberal or nominal form. Indeed, even those Christians who loathed what was going on in the “German Christian” (ardently pro-Nazi) movement often avoided association with the Confessing Church (which explicitly rejected totalitarian Nazi claims) because the latter was to a large extent “formed by a piety that veered increasingly towards biblical fundamentalism,” or that required rigid allegiance to Scripture and to orthodox Christian doctrine (Richard J Evans, The Third Reich in Power, 226).

In other words, while virtually all German Christians were politically conservative and therefore susceptible to Nazi ideology, theologically conservative Christians tended to be much more resistant to that ideology by virtue of their commitment to orthodox Christian teaching. Theologically liberal Christians, on the other hand, having rejected such orthodoxy as well as the authority of Scripture, had little basis with which to reject a movement that seemed to be so deeply sensitive to the philosophical and social ethos of the day.

To be sure, when push came to shove (or prison, or death) most Protestants supported the Nazi regime regardless of where they fell on the theological spectrum. And prominent liberal theologians like Paul Tillich were just as hostile to the Third Reich as were prominent conservative theologians and pastors like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And the tragic thing is that while the Catholic Church and the Confessing Church rigorously opposed Nazi claims to totalitarian power over their churches and other church-related organizations, neither said much at all in the way of denouncing Nazi policy towards Jews, or to the mentally-handicapped.

In fact, the religious group that the Nazis found more hostile to its goals than any other was the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This group alone – committed in its very essence to faithful witness to the point of suffering – seemed immune to the pressure of imprisonment or death.

What is worth noting in the context of contemporary debates about political theology is that the two kingdoms doctrine was used in conflicting ways, both to support allegiance to the Nazi regime and to oppose it. For those inclined to support the regime the two kingdoms doctrine taught that the realm of politics and the state is separate from the realm of the gospel, representing a source of authority and identity distinct from that of Christ and yet binding on the Christian’s allegiance.

For those who opposed the regime, on the other hand, the two kingdoms doctrine functioned in the context of a higher allegiance to the lordship of Christ over all of life. The Barmen Declaration, adopted in 1934 by the Confessing Church, declared, “We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords – areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.” It went on to declare that the church is not “permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.”

We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church’s vocation as well. We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus becoming an organ of the State.

What those Christians and churches who maintained this confession – and their opposition to the Nazi regime – seemed to recognize, in contrast to many of those Christians who supported Hitler, was that the allegiance of Christians and of the church to Christ is preeminent in every area of life, and that therefore the authority of Scripture must always be the ultimate judge in matters of justice, political ideology, or politics. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued so carefully, versions of the two kingdoms doctrine that divide life into distinct realms, one of which is outside the authority of Christ, are denials of the Christ in whom all things exist. To conceive of any action or authority apart from Christ is to conceive of an abstraction.

Christians who held to the two kingdoms doctrine but who lacked this Christocentric perspective had little with which to resist the claims of a state that masterfully channeled the spirit of the times. Given our contemporary debates, that something we need to take seriously.

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