There is a great tension within Christian discipleship. Eternal life is a free gift that costs us everything. Nothing we do can earn it; yet once we have freely received it, we ought to relinquish everything in reaction to it.

It is to revealing and clarifying this paradoxical balance that the gospel preacher must devote his energy. There are dangers on both sides of the equation:

  • Too much stress on the required human response and legalistic Pharisees are formed. Moralism, legalism, and sectarianism are just a few of the dangers.
  • Too much emphasis on divine grace and shallow, self-indulgent Christians are formed. Nominalism, cheap grace, and a fuzzy “we accept everyone and everything” attitude are often the result.

Perhaps no one navigated this delicate balance better than Martin Luther; perhaps no one experienced its absence as acutely as Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

How could the church of Martin Luther align itself with Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany? By forsaking the true gospel, that’s how. By allowing the mainstream church to become polarized on the extremes of legalism and cheap grace nominalism.

Eric Metaxas has written a profound biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Timothy Keller wrote the Foreword and it says some things worth repeating:

We are saved, not by anything we do, but by grace. Yet if we have truly understood and believed the gospel, it will change what we do and how we live.

[Many people understand] grace only as abstract acceptance—“God forgives; that’s his job.”  But we know that true grace comes to us by costly sacrifice. And if God was willing to go to the cross and endure such pain and absorb such a cost in order to save us, then we must live sacrificially as we serve others. Anyone who truly understands how God’s grace comes to us will have a changed life. That’s the gospel, not salvation by law, or by cheap grace, but by costly grace. Costly grace changes you from the inside out. Neither law nor cheap grace can do that.

We still have a lot of legalism and moralism in our churches. In reaction to that, many Christians want to talk only about God’s love and acceptance. They don’t like talking about Jesus’ death on the cross to satisfy divine wrath and justice. Some even call it “divine child abuse.” Yet if they are not careful, they run the risk of falling into the belief in “cheap grace”—a non-costly love from a non-holy God who just loves and accepts us where we are. That will never change anyone’s life.[1]

Of course the warning is to every generation: forsake the True Gospel and disaster is predictable. May God grant us the ability to see how we are allowing the true gospel to become out of balance in our generation. May God grant us the grace we need to navigate the paradoxical balance that is Christian discipleship.


[1] Timothy J. Keller, Foreword to Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, 2011).

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