Cheap Grace is Killing the Church
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:7-9).
During these weeks of Advent I’ve been thinking a lot about repentance. In this season of anticipation and preparation for the coming again of Christ repentance is a major topic of the appointed Scripture lessons. It is, of course, a major emphasis of Jesus’ preaching. His mission is to bring people into the reign of God. In order to get them into God’s reign requires that they turn away from the ways and expectations of the world and turn towards the ways and expectations of God and life in God’s household.
The call of John and Jesus to repentance is for both individuals and communities. My concern today is for the church’s need for repentance; in particular, The United Methodist Church. For what does the church need to repent? In my travels and observation and growing up in this church I believe that if The United Methodist Church is really serious about its stated mission of “Making disciples of Jesus Christ” it must repent of its propensity to be a purveyor of cheap grace.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it best when he wrote in his masterpiece, Cost of Discipleship:
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 price, without costs. …
Cheap grace means grace as doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. The church that teaches this doctrine of grace thereby confers grace upon itself. The world finds in this church a cheap cover-up for its sins, for which it shows no remorse and from which it has even less desire to be set free. Cheap grace is, thus, denial of God’s living word, denial of the incarnation of the word of God. …
Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of the community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.
This is a fairly accurate description of most United Methodist congregations today. If you are shocked by this, I invite you to consider the expectations of membership in your local congregation. How does the congregation equip and help its members remain faithful to their baptismal covenant? Is there an intentional system to help members grow and mature as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ? Is there even an expectation that each member will be taught and equipped for the practices of discipleship (prayer, worship, the Lord’s Supper, Scripture, small groups, fasting/abstinence, feeding the hungry, welcoming strangers, visiting prisoners, caring for the sick, seeking the common good, and witnessing to Jesus Christ in the world)? My experience, as a life-long Methodist/United Methodist, is that we have very low expectations of membership. We give little more than lip service to the baptismal covenant. The result is that most local congregations are little more than social clubs with a religious veneer. There is no expectation that faith will increase, hope in Christ will be confirmed, or that you or I will be perfected in love.
In spite of what the Baptismal covenant states, the real expectations of membership are that a person attend Sunday morning worship when it is convenient and, most important, that they make regular financial contributions to the church’s budget. Consequently, membership in the church is seen more as a benefit than an obligation; more as an entitlement than as a commitment to service and obedience.
Cheap grace is killing the church. If we ever hope to turn around decades of decline we must repent of this insidious way of “doing church.”
Stir up your power, O Lord,
and with great might come among us;
and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins,
let your bountiful grace and mercy
speedily help and deliver us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen
(Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, The Book of Common Prayer)