March 20

Bonhoeffer: Cheap Grace

By Marsh Chapel

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John 3: 1-17


The primitive Christian church proclaimed two accounts of Jesus. The first is the story of his death. The second is the story of his life. The death narrative and the life narrative continue in tandem, continue in dialectical dialogue, to this day.

The older is the death story. The church first preached Jesus’ death. ‘Ye do preach the Lord’s death until he come’, said St Paul near the year 50ad, in describing the marrow of the meaning of the meal, the Eucharist, at the heart of the community’s life. Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried: here we hear the older story, the death story. This older story, the account of the Crucifixion and the radiant apocalypse of resurrection to follow, is the church’s primal affirmation. Paul: ‘I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me, and the life I know live in the flesh I live by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, who loved me, and gave himself for me’.

The second story followed the first, though that seems odd to us today. Later, some decades later, the church began to convey not only the story of the cross and resurrection, but also the narrative of the incarnation and proclamation of Christ. This was the primitive church’s second story. Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary: here we hear the second oldest story, not of death but of life, not of cross but of cradle, not of suffering but of growing, not of example but of precept. John: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. In this secondary affirmation, the church accounted for Jesus’ advent, his birth, his teaching and preaching and healing, his parables, his miracles, his family, his disciples, and his call to those who would hear, ‘follow though me’. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul and mind and strength. And thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. The whole law is here summarized”.

Now these two sibling stories have usually gotten along well, with the occasional familial rancor. You will notice that the second story is that of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany and Ordinary Time. You will notice that the first story is that of Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. They are related but different stories. How they are related consumes two thousand years and the whole history of Christianity.

Some traditions and denominations within Christianity tend to favor the life story. Orthodox, some Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Quaker, Unitarian and various other Christians tend to know the second story better, and to sing the Carols of Christmas loudest. They tend to interpret the New Testament letters in light of the Gospels. They tend to interpret Holy Week in light of Epiphany.

Some traditions and denominations within Christianity tend to favor the death story. Lutheran, Calvinist, some Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist and various other Christians tend to know the first story better, and to sing the hymns of Holy Week and Easter loudest. They tend to interpret the New Testament Gospels in light of the letters of Paul and others. They tend to interpret Christmas in light of Good Friday.

But you will ask for a synthesis. ‘Please, Dean Hill, is there no way to bring these two stories together? Is there not an apt balance between Bethlehem and Calvary, Nazareth and Golgotha? May we not find a suitable compromise? Must we ever be at daggers drawn, death vs life, one vs two, Novum Testamentum vs Jesus Seminar, Buttrick vs Craddock, Calvin vs Wesley? In the immortal sentence of Rodney King, Dean Hill, please, por favor, ‘CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG’?


No. The answer to your heartfelt desire is: no. You will inevitably read one story by the light of the other. Or, at least, the LENTEN answer is no. Now. Now…Come back at Christmas and ask again THEN and you may find a more irenic, more life affirming, more pacific, more latitudinarian response! But you will need to stay around until December for that.

In any case, in this season of Lent, we are best advised to listen to the first story, the account of Jesus death, and to do so guided by Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, that is, by Exegesis, Exposition, and Application. A quintessential Lutheran, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is here to help us.


Our Holy Gospel from John, chapter 3, takes us insot the heart of Lent, the heart of darkness, a prelude to Calvary. Nicodemus appears at night, trying to catch the spirit. His darkened, murky encounter with the Christ of God reminds us, as Bonhoeffer wrote, that ‘discipleship is more than what we can comprehend’. In that sense, discipleship comprehends us, grace comprehends us, Christ comprehends us, rather than the other way around.

Nicodemus is a ruler of Israel. He is a teacher and a religious leader. He has stayed by the mother tongue, the mother tradition, the mother religion. He has stayed in the womb. He has never left home. But you cannot become yourself if you never leave home. To become who you are you have to go somewhere else. Not always geographically. Jesus never traveled more than fifty miles from Bethlehem.

John is concerned with Spirit, not speculation; with the artistry of the everyday, not with Armageddon; with the church, not with calamity.

You have already learned the heart of this text: that Nicodemus and Jesus are representative types of religion—past and future, law and liberty; that the word for Spirit and wind is the same word and that John can and does mean both; that the command to be born from above is plural, you all, or as they say in the South, “all y’all.”

John turns his gaze now away from inherited religion to focus on culture, away from Judaism to address the Gnostics, who wanted fervently to be saved by knowing “whence we come and whither we are going.” Says Jesus, “The Spirit blows where it wills.”

Cultural religion says, “You know whence you came.” Spirit says, “You do not.”

A pre-Christian culture says, “You know where you are going.” John says, “Not so: Those who are born of the spirit, of them you do not know whence or whither.”

John’s neighbors affirm: we know whence and whither. John replies: not so of those born of the spirit. You are left with confusing liberty, the assorted decisions of a complex life. You are free. In Christ, you are set free. In Spirit, you do not know. In Spirit, you believe.

Here stands Nicodemus, a man in full. A religious leader, really a representative of the best in spiritual inheritance. He ventures out at night, choking from the challenge of truth, new truth, full truth. Where he has been will not take him where he needs to go. He is a person on the edge of a great dislocation: he is about to make up his mind to change his mind about something that really matters. Think of Bonhoeffer in 1944.

Some years ago the Christian Century ran a series of articles by nominally great religious leaders, titled “How My Mind Has Changed”. A disappointing series. One found really little significant change of mind in any of them. Typical of preachers—stubborn, self-assured; it takes one to know one.

But here stands Nicodemus, a courageous soul. He is facing the great heartache of maturity. You face it too. He is facing out over a great ravine, a great gorge,
a great precipice. On a matter of mortal meaning, he is making up his mind whether to change his mind. That takes real courage.

Benjamin Franklin found this courage when he left behind his beloved Europe and his confidence in diplomacy to take up arms with his fellow colonists. Abraham Lincoln found this courage when he finally moved to side fully with the abolitionists. Robert F. Kennedy, then the junior Senator from the Empire State, found this same courage when he left the Cold War mind of his own past and of his dear brother to oppose the war in Vietnam. Sometimes you get to a point where you have to make up your mind whether to change your mind. To face facts, as Nicodemus courageously faced the works, signs, deeds of Jesus the Christ. It takes great courage to change your mind about something of mortal significance. In fact, it may not even be humanly possible, apart from grace.

It means admitting error. We would sooner be proven sinful than stupid. John takes us to higher ground. We have an easier time receiving forgiveness for sin than we do receiving grace for change. So, we hear John 3, the first of our three Lenten tasks in these weeks of Lent 2011. For our rendering of, our exposition of, the Gospel, we turn to the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau Germany, in 1906. His father was a prominent psychiatrist, and the family sooned moved to Berlin. Bonhoeffer made, for his family, the unusual decision to study theology, and began in Tubingen in 1923. In the next several years, he wrote and published, and traveled to Barcelona and New York. He later served as a pastor in London, and returned for further study to NYC, again at Union Seminary. In 1934 he worked to organize the Confessing Church, which criticized the Lutheran church’s support of Hitler. For three years, he led a small seminary for the Confessing Church, in Finkenwalde, until it was closed by the Gestapo (about the time his book, the Cost of Discipleship, was published in 1937). Although on returning to Union in NYC in 1939 he could have stayed there, he determined to return to his homeland. In 1940 he was prohibited from public speaking in Germany. For many years he had taught and practiced a kind of pacifism. But in 1943 he began to take part in a plot to kill Hitler, for which activity he would lose his life. He was also engaged to married that year, and then imprisoned in Berlin. In 1945 he was moved from Berlin to Regensburg and from Regensburg to Flossenburg where he was hung on April 9, days before he would have been liberated.

Bonhoeffer is best known for his ferocious assault on cheap grace. We here at Marsh Chapel in Lent 2011 will not let his voice be forgotten. Hear him again:

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 cheap wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolation of religion are thrown away at cut prices.

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means foregiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of GodIn 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 means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner…Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.

Cheap grace is the preaching of foregiveness without requiring repentance, baptism withouth church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all he has. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world and not thrown to the dogs…it comes as a word of foregiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart.

Do we realize that this cheap grace has turned back upon us like a boomerang? The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organized church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation unasked and without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving.

With us it has been abundantly proved that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generations. Cheap grace has turned out to be utterly merciless to our Church.


We set ourselves these weeks a third assignment, to apply the Gospel and this one life. As Justice Holmes said of a sermon he heard (5 beautiful words): ‘I applied it to myself’.

Monday morning this week brought a quiet calm to an empty campus. Our plaza centrally adorned by the majestic, universal beauty of the MLK sculpture was empty, or nearly so. A winter solitude settled on the center of our University.

Across the plaza hustled a young father, administrator and doctoral student. He is completed a dissertation on the leadership of our fourth President, Daniel Marsh. He paused in front of the Chapel named for his subject, and then saw last Sunday’s sermon title. Slowly, haltingly, deep in reverie, he came across the rest of the windswept emptiness.

Then he spoke: The Cost of Discipleship. I will never forget reading it in college. It changed me. It inspired me. It stays with me. Not since have I read it or anything like it. Bonhoeffer’s voice penetrated my heart and soul, and lives there still.

The Lenten series here offered, Marsh Chapel 2011, is lifted with the hope that such an experience, either of reading remembered or of words presently heard, will broadly be ours. May you know his voice, remember his voice, honor his voice, hold and be held by it. For something there is that warns us that sometime, maybe soon, maybe sooner than later, we shall need, deeply need to remember that voice. Our life, our salvation may in part depend upon it.

We are relying this Lent, for the application of the Gospel heard in Scripture and Life, upon a third voice, beyond that of Nicodemus and that of Bonhoeffer. This is the voice of Franklin Littell, who preached thunderously from this pulpit in 1952.

The meaning of the Holocaust for Christians is at least this: when the baptized betray their baptism, when those who have been grafted into history flee back out of history, when the new men and new women in Christ cast off the new life and become part of the dying age again, the old Israel is left alone as the sign that the God who is God yet rules…For Christians only: we must begin our agonizing self-assessment and reappraisal with the fact that in a season of betrayal and faithlessness the vast majority of the martyrs for the Lord of history were Jews. The Jewish people carried history while
the Christians fled headlong from their professed vocation. (80)

Israel and the Holocaust are alpine events deeply resented by many modern Christian teachers—the former, because its survival against great odds requires a theological reappraisal for which few are ready; the latter because popular religion admits error but denies guilt. (2)

Just as the child is aware of the mother before it is self-aware, just as it commonly says mama before it says I, so the awareness of God and his work in history is primordially known to the person of faith. But the world of techne, in its aversion to the mysterious and the open, has sealed off that dimension of human experience. From the elementary school, the young person is taught to think in the symmetry of the closed, the traditional mathematical model, and by the time he has finished with the university he may be a skilled technician—but he is rarely a wise man. (13)


Within the jail cell of his last years, Bonhoeffer penned memorable prayers, reflections, meditations, and a hymn that is located in our hymnal, and we shall sing it next week. It is a hymn of faith. A hymn we may hum when we want to summon the courage to change our mind. A hymn we may hum when we need to remember the supreme sacrifice of others. A hymn we may hum when we try again to see ourselves, truly, in our real location in history:

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered
And confidently waiting come what may
We know that God is with us night and morning
And never fails to greet us each new day


~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel.

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