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Friday, January 13, 2006

Grace IV - Cheap Grace's Return

Yet…the outcome of the Reformation was the victory, not of Luther’s perception of grace in all its purity and costliness, but of the vigilant religious instinct of man for the place where grace is to be obtained at the cheapest price. All that was needed was a subtle and almost imperceptible change of emphasis, and the damage was done. Luther had taught that man cannot stand before God, however religious his works and ways may be, because at the bottom he is always seeking his own interests. In the depths of his misery, Luther grasped by faith the free and unconditional forgiveness of all his sins. That experience taught him that this grace had cost him his very life, and must continue to cost him the same price day after day. So far from dispensing him from discipleship, this grace only made him a more earnest disciple. When he spoke of grace, Luther always implied that it cost him his own life, the life which was now for the first time subjected to the absolute obedience of Christ. Only so could he speak of grace. Luther had said that grace alone can save; his followers took up his doctrine and repeated it word for word. But – they left out its invariable corollary, the obligation of discipleship. There was no need for Luther always to mention that corollary explicitly for he always spoke as one who had been led by grace to the strictest following of Christ. Judged by the standard of Luther’s doctrine, that of his followers was unassailable, and yet their orthodoxy spelled the end and destruction of the Reformation as the revelation on earth of the costly grace of God. The justification of the sinner in the world degenerated into the justification of sin and the world. Costly grace was turned into cheap grace without discipleship.

Luther had said that all we can do is of no avail, however a good a life we live. He had said that nothing can avail us in the sight of God but “the grace and favor which confers the forgiveness of sin.” But he spoke as one who, at the very moment of his crisis, he was called to leave all that he had a second time and follow Jesus. The problem became when followers took a message that, like Faust’s “I now do see that we can nothing know”, is only truly applicable at the end of a long experience of attempting it ,and yet foolishly applied it to the beginning. Instead, from the mouths of those who had not given all, it is a piece of self-deception. The only man who has the right to say he is justified by grace alone is he who has left all to follow Christ. Such a man knows that the call to discipleship is the gift of grace, and that the call is inseparable from the grace. But those who use this grace as a dispensation from following Christ are simply deceiving themselves.

Some may ask, “But wasn’t Luther proclaiming cheap grace with his pecca fortiter (Sin boldly, but rejoice and believe in Christ more boldly still)? Isn’t this a blasphemous encouragement to sin boldly and rely upon grace? Is there a more diabolical abuse of grace than to sin and then rely upon the grace which God has given? Is not the Roman Catechism quite right in denouncing this as a sin against the Holy Ghost?

Again, pecca fortiter it is to be taken as the sum, not the data or the premise. For Luther, “sin boldly” could only be his very last refuge, the consolation for one whose attempts to follow Christ had taught him that he can never become sinless, who in his fear of sin despairs of the grace of God. As Luther saw it, “Sin boldly” did not happen to be a fundamental acknowledgement of the disobedient life; it was the gospel of the grace of God before which we are always and in every circumstance sinners. Yet that grace seeks us and justifies us, sinners though we are. Take courage and confess your sin, Luther says, do not try to run away from it, but believe more boldly still. Who can hear these words without endangering his faith but he who hears their consolation as a renewed summons to Christ? Interpreted in this way, these words of Luther become a testimony to the costliness of grace, the only genuine kind of grace there is.

Unfortunately, that is not the grace which many have heard...

(to be concluded - for real, this time)


  • I'm reading this series with interest. Thus far, I've few quibbles with the content - although the emphasis seems a little odd to me. For example, (and especially with this post) I'm uncomfortable with making Luther normative for our faith. For all his good points, he was a seriously messed up person - including theologically!

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 1/15/2006 01:45:00 PM  

  • John,
    If we were to base the validity of the message upon perfection of the messenger, we would have little to go on. That said, I recognize Luther's failings. I am not praising Luther for anything I have mentioned here - for as we both know, the rediscovery of costly grace for all who believe was not the work of Luther, who was merely a vessel, but of God!

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 1/15/2006 05:35:00 PM  

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