Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church.Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship
Our struggle today is for costly grace.
I love the bible, and I bet you do, too. As Christians, we believe that every word of it is inspired by God, and of vital importance to us. But that doesn’t mean that we should take every word of it literally. And today’s gospel reading, Mark 9:38-50, is a good example of why. Because surely Jesus did not intend for us to take everything that he says in this particular passage literally!
Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe, strongly, that there are many parts of the Bible that should be taken literally. And that every bit of it should be taken seriously. Every word of it is inspired by God. I believe that. But that doesn’t mean that every word of it should be taken literally. I don’t believe that God is literally a rock, for example. I don’t think that we are literally sheep. And I don’t think that we should literally cut off our hand, or our foot, or tear out our eye, if they cause us to sin!
It is obvious, I hope, that Jesus does not intend for us to take him literally in this gospel reading. But if that is the case, then what is Jesus talking about here? What does he mean when he says to us, for example: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43)? Or, “If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell” (Mark 9:47)? What does Jesus mean by all of these striking statements?
Heaven and Hell
I think that we can only make sense of what Jesus is teaching us in this passage by talking about Heaven and Hell.
I think that these are supposed to be taken literally. That there really are two kingdoms awaiting us: One ruled by God. And one ruled by Satan. Heaven and Hell. And that there is no place better than Heaven, and no place worse than Hell. Because in Heaven, we are with God. And in Hell, we are not. And I think that Jesus is saying some pretty outrageous things in this passage to wake us up, to remind us of what awaits us, and of what an immense difference there is between these two possible destinations.
It would be worth doing anything, absolutely anything, to avoid going to Hell, and to enter the kingdom of God instead. Cut off our hand? Absolutely. Our foot, too? Certainly. Tear out one of our eyes? Without a doubt. If that is what is needed to enter the kingdom of God rather than be thrown into Hell. It would be worth that, and so much more. I believe that. It may not be popular to talk about these things, but how else can you understand this gospel reading?
As Lutherans, we are taught to believe that the kingdom of Heaven is God’s gift to us through Jesus. And that is true. Without a doubt. I believe that. Salvation, eternal life in the kingdom of Heaven, is God’s gift to us. It is free. We don’t have to do anything to earn it. That is the meaning of grace. It is free. It is a gift.
But I can’t help but wonder sometimes whether the fact that it is free leads us to undervalue its worth? In our world, we often decide the value of something by what it costs. And if something is free, we think that it is either not very valuable, or that there is a catch. So, I can’t help but wonder if this is a danger with our believing that heaven is free. We might undervalue its worth.
There is nothing of greater worth than our salvation, than living in the kingdom of God, than eternal life with Jesus. It is worth giving an arm and a leg for! Or a hand, a foot, and an eye. But do we always believe it?
That is what Jesus is reminding us of today, in this gospel reading. It is a bit strange to hear him suggest that we cut off our hand, foot, or eye. But isn’t he just telling us how valuable it is? I don’t think that he ever intended this to be taken literally. But I think that he always intended for it to be taken seriously.
Ten Thousand Hours Rule
The kingdom of God is worth doing whatever it takes. It makes me think of something called the “Ten Thousand Hours Rule.” It was made popular by the author, Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, Outliers. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but the idea behind this particular rule is that if you want to become great at something, like chess or baseball or the violin, you must devote ten thousand hours of practice to it. You might have some natural ability, you might have a good teacher, and there are other factors involved, to be sure, but you don’t become great at something by accident. You must work at it. You must practice.
As the old joke about Carnegie Hall goes, when a musician is asked by a visitor to New York if they know the way to Carnegie Hall, they reply: Of course. Practice, practice, practice. Want to become great? Practice. Ten thousand hours. It’ll be hard. It’ll take a long time. But it’ll be worth it, if you really want to become great at it.
Well, what if every Christian approached our life of faith with that same passion? Practice being a Christian, every day. Read the Bible, pray, worship, serve others, share our faith, and do all those things that Jesus calls us to do, with passion and conviction, knowing it will take at least ten thousand hours before we get any good at it? But that it will be well worth it?
Isn’t that what Jesus is trying to tell us today? That the kingdom of God is worth ten thousand hours, and so much more? It is worth giving up an arm and a leg for. Or, to be more precise, a hand, a foot, and an eye.
Life with Jesus, in other words, is worth whatever it takes. It’s free. But it’s worth giving our lives for. It is grace, but it is costly grace, because its value is priceless.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Costly Grace
Now, many of you know that one of my spiritual heroes is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who died in a Nazi concentration camp because he was involved in attempt to overthrow Hitler. Before all of that, Bonhoeffer wrote several books, some of which are among the most important books that I have ever read. And one of those books is called “The Cost of Discipleship.” (Or, in a newer translation, “Discipleship.”)
In this book, Bonhoeffer helps us to understand this paradox that grace is free, but it is also costly. And the way that he helps us to understand that is by talking about “cheap grace.” Here are the very opening words of this book:
“Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of the church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.
Cheap grace means grace as bargain-basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament; grace as the church’s inexhaustible pantry, from which it is doled out by careless hands without hesitation or limit. It is grace without a price, without costs.”
Cheap grace, he goes on to say, is “preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.”
Cheap grace, in other words, is thinking that we can get to Carnegie Hall without practice, that we can become a chess master, or a professional athlete, without putting in our ten thousand hours of work.
Cheap grace is thinking that since Jesus went to the cross for our sins, we don’t have to deal with our sins anymore. He’s taken them away, so we don’t have to worry about them anymore, right? Our salvation is secure as long as we have Jesus, right? So why worry about our sins?
This is cheap grace. And this cheap grace is the mortal enemy of the church. Our struggle is for costly grace.
Okay. So, what exactly is costly grace?
As Bonhoeffer describes it, “Costly grace the hidden treasure in the field, for the sake of which people go and sell with joy everything they have. It is the costly pearl, for whose price the merchant sells all that he has; it is Christ’s sovereignty, for the sake of which you tear out an eye if it causes you to stumble. It is the call of Jesus Christ which causes a disciple to leave his nets and follow him.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock.”
Costly grace is the grace that invites us to spend our ten thousand hours learning about it. It is the grace that Jesus is dying to give us. But it is also the grace that is worth giving an arm and a leg for. Because it is the grace that ushers us into the very kingdom of God.
And Jesus is reminding us today that grace is free, but it still asks something of us. We’re still called to repent, and to change our sinful way of life. We are still called to resist temptation and evil, and keep steadfast in the faith. Being forgiven of our sins doesn’t mean that we don’t have to repent of our sins, and battle those sins daily. Being forgiven of our sins is why we can repent of our sins and battle those sins daily. For ten thousand hours and more. And when we do, we are living into the paradox of grace, that it is free, but also costly.
“It is costly,” to quote Bonhoeffer one last time, “because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live … Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s Son … and because nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God.”
Nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God. Our salvation was costly to God. Shouldn’t it be to us? Shouldn’t we do everything, absolutely everything, that we can to thank God for this gift? Shouldn’t we spend our ten thousand hours and more to become the best Christians that we can possibly be? Not to earn our way to Heaven. But to thank God for this priceless gift. To thank God for the grace that is free, but never cheap.
The grace that is priceless, the gift that is more valuable than any other: God’s love in Jesus Christ. May we always appreciate this priceless gift. Amen.