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The Toxin of Cheap Grace
The bane of the American church is consumer Christianity: comfortable, easy-cheesy, cotton-candy Christianity; the low-grade Christianity of what’s in it for me? This diluted Christianity offers a certain solace to the individual but is anemic before the principalities and powers of entrenched evil.
If the essence of our Christianity affects only our Sunday mornings and our afterlife expectations, we are simply embracing a Christianized version of our true religion—self-preservation and self-promotion. This is the religion of the selfish individual and the arrogant empire. This is the religion German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” and taught about before he was executed for opposing Adolf Hitler during World War II.
“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church,” he wrote. “Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. ... [It] is the grace we bestow on ourselves ... grace without the cross.”
A cheap view of grace deceives us into thinking that nothing really has to change. Because we have “received Jesus as our personal Savior,” we now possess our salvation and simply await our transfer to heaven by living a moderately Christianized version of the status quo. As the bumper-sticker theology goes, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”
Bumper stickers are a poor place to get your theology. We aren’t “just forgiven.” We are forgiven that we might become practitioners of radical forgiveness. We are forgiven forgivers.
Jesus does not offer His disciples the cheap grace of being just forgiven. We turn the gospel into cheap grace when we think of the cross only in terms of what Jesus has done for us. The cross is also the way we are called to follow—the way of endless enemy-love.
An honest reading of the Gospels makes an offer of cheap grace impossible. We too are called to love our enemies. We too are called to forgive our transgressors: the bully who has made your life a living hell; the ex-husband who betrayed you; the ex-wife who left you a lonely man; the backstabber who sabotaged your career; the criminal who violated your security; the abuser who violated your dignity; the activist who advocates everything you oppose. And on it goes.
We are called to love, forgive and bless these enemies. The consumer Christianity of self-preservation and self-promotion will never be able to meet the challenge of taking up the cross and forgiving an enemy.
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul says that at the cross, “having disarmed the powers and authorities, [Jesus] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (v. 2:15, NIV).
How does the cross triumph over the principalities and powers—the power structures, both human and demonic, that have kept humanity engaged in the endless cycle of revenge and payback? By absorbing the blow and offering forgiveness.
This is why the final word from the cross is, “It is finished” (John 19:30). The endless cycle of revenge and paybacks was finished at the cross! Now forgiveness would take the stage and begin to remake a world according to the goodness of forgiveness.
As those who believe in the victory of the cross, we need to reclaim the triumph of forgiveness in the realm of imagination. We live in a culture that constantly celebrates and glorifies vengeful and vigilante violence—especially in entertainment. This is partly because it is only through a perverted concept of justice that our culture can justify its obsession with violence.
The early Christians believed violence as entertainment is a sinful affront to human dignity. In Christ they believed violent bloodshed was finished at the cross. They believed that in the new world God is creating in Christ that violence as punitive justice or perverse entertainment has no place.
Without forgiveness, evil is allowed to write the final word—and often that word is retaliation. In this way evil is passed on from generation to generation as a demonic virus, and generations of human lives are ruined while the virus of evil lives on.
Forgiveness changes all that. When the virus of recalcitrant evil encounters the forgiveness of the cross, it is finally overcome. This is the kind of radical forgiveness taught and modeled by Jesus Christ.
Christian forgiveness is neither ignorance nor amnesia. Forgiveness both knows and remembers. Forgiveness does not call us to forget, but to exhaust evil by ending the cycle of revenge.
Forgiveness is not pretending that evil didn’t happen or trying to tell ourselves it wasn’t really evil. For the Christian whose faith is rooted in Good Friday, the existence of real evil—both human and demonic—is undeniable. Jesus was crucified, and it was unjust, and it was evil.
But evil does not have the last word. Through absorbing evil in forgiveness without vengeful retaliation, Jesus overcame evil. And His resurrection was the triumph of forgiveness.
Brian Zahnd is the founder and senior pastor of Word of Life Church, a congregation in St. Joseph, Mo. He and his wife, Peri, have three sons. Zahnd is also the author of What to Do on the Worst Day of Your Life and Unconditional? The Call of Jesus to Radical Forgiveness, from which this article was adapted.
Want more from Brian Zahnd? Then visit unconditional.charismamag.com to win his book Unconditional?— new this month.
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