Cheap Grace and Gratitude
by Jordan Ballor
We celebrate the “Thanksgiving” holiday this week in the United States, and it’s therefore an appropriate time to ponder the gifts we have been given and the “gratitude” we ought to have for them. It’s easy to do these things at this time of year, but it is also appropriate to note that we ought to think about the gifts of God’s grace throughout the year. That is, even as we acknowledge and are thankful for things this week, we should also come to a greater recognition of the divine origin of all good gifts all the time.
Fallen (and perhaps particularly fallen and redeemed) human beings have a way of cheapening grace. The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer opened his classic work on Christian discipleship with an incisive analysis of what he called “cheap grace,” the idea that God’s saving work could simply be assumed and that it required no substantive response from or transformation of human beings. If Christ’s atoning work was infinitely sufficient to cover all of our sins, such thinking goes, why not go on sinning that grace may abound (Rom. 6:1)? Or at least, why worry so much about doing any good works, since they aren’t all that “good” in the first place, and aren’t the basis for our salvation in any case? As Bonhoeffer puts it, “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.”
Bonhoeffer had in mind what is often called special or saving grace in his indictment of cheap grace, and he had in mind the costliness of Christ’s sacrifice and the call to follow him. But there’s an analogous error when it comes to the gifts of common grace. If special grace involves the application of the atoning work of Jesus Christ for the salvation of sinners, common grace involves the recognition of the gifts that are given to everyone regardless of righteousness or piety. In Matthew 5:45 we read that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Natural goods like sun and rain are examples of common grace, but as the Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper describes the idea, common grace also involves social and cultural realities, like the love of familial relationships, the goods and services provided by businesses, and justice and order protected and preserved by governments.
For Bonhoeffer, Christians tend to view special “grace as the church’s inexhaustible pantry.” Cheap common grace would likewise view these general gifts of God to humanity as the world’s “inexhaustible pantry.” Where do we find this view of common grace as cheap? There are some basic underlying assumptions that can help us to recognize cheap common grace.
For instance, when we simply assume that whatever goods and services we need will always be there, as if by magic rather than by the work of divine providence, we take God’s grace for granted. When we do not recognize that God provides the food we eat, the drinks we drink, the houses we live in, and the cars we drive through the service of other people, we take for granted the stunning graciousness of our entire existence. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” the psalmist declares (Ps. 24:1), and thus everything we have comes from him. He has deigned to include human beings in his general plan for provision, and this too is gracious. God could provide for our material needs directly through miraculous and mighty works. But instead he has set up a world in which we depend upon one another for meeting our material, emotional, and spiritual needs.
We see a posture toward common grace as cheap when we gratefully receive the gifts of today but cease to be thankful tomorrow. So often today’s privileges become tomorrow’s rights, and the gratuitous offerings we receive today become the entitlements of tomorrow. We also cheapen common grace when we unduly concern ourselves with these goods; when we worry about how we will be provided for, we detach the provision of these things we need from their divine source.
How then, having recognized the natural human tendency to cheapen grace, can we combat it? There are at least three basic ways of addressing the cheapening of grace, whether special or common: “prayer, priorities, and thanksgiving.”First, as the Lord taught us to pray “Give us today our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11), we recognize that the bread we receive comes to us, by God’s gracious ordination, through the work and service of our neighbors. Second, as we are tempted to worry whether God will continue to provide for us in these ways, Christ instructs us to seek first of God “his kingdom and his righteousness” and then assures us that all these temporal things we need “will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33). And finally, through prayer and the proper ordering of our priorities, we can truly be thankful for all that God has done for us, from creation and preservation to redemption and consummation.
We can thus recognize that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (Jas. 1:17) and gratefully proclaim: “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever” (Ps. 107:1).