Loser’s Guide to God’s Grace 04: What about “cheap grace”?

OK, if you were raised in church and grew up hearing about the heroes of the faith, then you have heard about Dietrich Bonheoffer who gave us the idea that we ought to be ashamed of ourselves if we don’t shape up after receiving God’s grace because then we’re making it into “cheap grace.”

First off, Dietrich Bonheoffer was a very heroic guy, and I admire the hell out of all he did to try to save people from Nazi death camps prior to and during World War II. And even to bring down Hitler’s government. His heart was obviously in the right place, and his legacy is undisputed.

The fact remains, though, there’s just no such thing as “cheap grace.”

I will let our spiritual father Brennan Manning answer this, with words from his autobiography, All Is Grace.

My life is a witness to vulgar grace–a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up a ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifs, ands or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request–”Please, remember me” — and assures him, “You bet!” A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus the Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sakes, yours and mind.

This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.”

And I think maybe the incomparable Robert Farrar Capon wouldn’t be out of place here, either, from his The Mystery of Christ — and Why We Don’t Get It.

I’ve always had a problem with the phrase “cheap grace.” As far as I’m concerned, nobody can make God’s grace in Jesus any cheaper than it already is: It’s free ….

I guess what I really don’t like is the way people start out by defining sin as “moral failure,” and then go on to think that if they commit “sins” they’ll cut themselves off from grace. That’s all nonsense, of course: “sinners” are the very thing God gives His grace to — lost sheep, lost coins, lost sons. As a matter of fact, the true New Testament opposite of sin isn’t virtue, or moral success, or getting your act together: it’s faith in the grace that takes away all the sins of the world. Paul says, “All that is not of faith is sin.” And Jesus says, “The one who believes is not judged.” We’re not on trial: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” And we shouldn’t weaken that by giving a narrow interpretation to “those who are in Christ Jesus”: the whole world is in Him, reconciled and made into a New Creation by the Mystery of Christ.

OK … one more quote, in case you were raised in a fundamentalist church, and you think that my telling people not to worry about “cheap grace” may cause people to abuse grace and end up in hell! From Paul Ellis, in The Gospel in Ten Words:

If I am wrong about grace then one day I will have to apologize to God for telling everyone he is better and more gracious than he really is. But if the grace killers are wrong, then eternity for them is going to begin with a truly awkward moment. “Er, sorry Lord. Sorry for prostituting your love and making people pay for the free gift of grace.”

Thank you Paul Ellis, Robert Farrar Capon and Brennan Manning. You have forever obliterated the idea of “cheap grace” and taken the pressure off us losers who knew we could never live up to Dietrich Bonheoffer’s standards.

Loser’s Guide to God’s Grace 03: How to Get Grace

If you’re a loser who was raised in the evangelical church, particularly in a fundamentalist culture, but really any standard Baptist/Assembly of God/Holiness/etc. denomination (and there are a lot of us!), maybe you are wondering:

“Don’t I have to do something to get this grace? Don’t I have to accept it? And then, don’t I have to start living right to keep it?”

I am happy to tell you: no and no. The grace is there, for you, for me, for everyone, whether we accept it or not. If you don’t accept it, you will be missing out on … everything worthwhile in this world! But it’s a done deal. Christ’s death on the cross was the sacrament of His saving grace over you, whether you want it or not. He said, “I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” (John 12:32). All peoples — that includes you, like it or not. So grace is there, it is happening, and you’d be crazy not to accept it.

But then you had another question. “Don’t I have to start living right to keep it?” No, and for the same reasons: the grace of God is a fact that we can’t negate, no matter what we do. In fact, a lot of the parables Jesus told seem to indicate that the only people who might, in fact, miss out on a joyful eternity with Him are the ones who insist that they can get there on their own good works without His freely given grace. So this would be the people who do start living right in order to “keep” His gift of grace!

And who are the people who might do that?

Not us losers! We know we are screw-ups! We know we can’t behave our way onto God’s good side. We know if we’re going to get there at all it’s going to be because of His total unmerited favor.

BUT the people who are used to winning — used to getting the prize they deserve because of their own hard work and native strength and goodness — they’re the ones who might be tempted to put their faith in their own ability to live right rather than in God’s grace!

Once again: we losers are out ahead of the game in this arena. It seems the most fatal thing you can do, once you have received God’s grace, is to assume that you have a part in keeping this grace working for you, and that your part is based on your good actions. You don’t, and it’s not.

The Apostle Paul makes that clear in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” It’s a gift, and a gift means: no strings attached. God’s love for you is unconditional, and His grace for you springs from that love.

Still and all, wouldn’t it be nice if everyone who had received God’s grace started behaving right? Well, yes, of course, it would be great. It would be great if everyone — period — started behaving right. It would be lovely. We should all behave just the best that we can. But what we don’t want to do is start telling ourselves (or anyone else) that our behavior is what makes us God’s beloved. Or worse, that our behavior can place us outside of God’s love. That is a very vicious thing to tell someone!

My poor old grand-dad was told by his Pentecostal Holiness church back in the day that smoking cigarettes was a sin, and sinners didn’t go to heaven, so despite his loving Jesus (and Jesus’ loving him!) he was going to hell unless he quit, which he couldn’t. My grandpa thought, to his dying day, that he was going to hell because he smoked. This is the pernicious end of the idea that our good behavior makes us more acceptable to God — or that our bad behavior makes us unacceptable to Him.

So don’t believe, and don’t tell other people, that behavior has the power to get God’s grace or lose it. God’s grace is a free gift to you, no matter what you do or don’t do before you receive it or in response to it. God just loves you, no matter what.

Loser’s Guide to God’s Grace 02: God’s Answer for Losers: Grace!

Grace was made for losers like you and me.

Truly. It is so perfect for us.

Because grace, as some define it, is “unmerited favor.”

This means we can do nothing to deserve it. See? This is great news for the underserving! It’s something for nothing, and we losers have too much of nothing, right? (And it makes us ill at ease. Tee-hee.)

A fabulous example of grace is Ralphie’s dad in the film A Christmas Story, when he gives Ralphie the Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Ralphie has done nothing to deserve this ultimate gift. In fact, he has done a lot of rotten things!

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  • He is mean to his little brother.
  • He abandons his friend Flick in the snowy schoolyard with his tongue stuck to a light pole.
  • He lies about his friend Schwarz to save his own skin and gets Schwarz in big trouble.
  • He beats the snot out of that bully Scott Farkis.

Ralphie is a bad brother, a bad friend and a bad son!

Yet on Christmas morning, he receives the gift he’s been dreaming of. By the unmerited favor of his old man, he is made the happiest of boys.

That’s grace. God’s love poured out lavishly on us, despite all the reasons we don’t deserve it. It’s not a Red Ryder BB Gun, but it does guarantee us a lifetime of joy in the presence of One who knows us wholly and loves us completely.

“God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” says the Apostle Paul in Romans 5:8. While we were still the kind of losers who betray our friends, abuse our siblings and beat the snot out of our enemies, Jesus Christ laid down His life in a sacrament of love for us.

That’s grace!

And it’s yours, right now, no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done. Anne Sports, author of the beautiful novel How Thin the Veil, says that when God looks at us, He doesn’t see broken or whole — or even good or bad — He sees “Mine.” We are His not because of anything we do or don’t do, but because He made us, and He loves us. Period.

The incomparable Robert Farrar Capon says that God didn’t need us, because He was complete in the Trinity. But He wanted us … the same way we don’t need fine wine and rich chocolate, but we want it. We’re His fine wine, beloved because He made us and wanted us and delights in us. And it’s nothing to do with us. We don’t have to be good to get this grace. We don’t have to be deserving to get this grace. We can be the biggest darn losers in the world, and He still looks at us with eyes of love and says, “Mine!”

And this acquisition of grace is one area where we losers have the big advantage over the winners of the world. Because you can’t get grace by deserving it, you see? The winners are used to the accolades they deserve. They know they can be smart enough, good enough, strong enough to get what is rightfully theirs! But grace is something that nobody but Jesus is smart enough, good enough or strong enough to get … It can’t be gotten by deserving it.

So if you’re a loser, and you know it, you don’t think to yourself, “I’ll do some of my famous good works, and God will love me!” Because you don’t have any famous good works. You got nothing. But the good, strong, smart winner person can easily fall into the trap of believing their good works will get them some grace. “Ha-ha winner! You can never get it that way!” we losers laugh. (Because we’re bitter and snotty about the winners, really.)

Grace is there for all of us, winners and losers alike, but it’s easier for the losers to get it, because we know we don’t deserve it. In the grace-getting competition, at least, we can be the winners. There. Don’t you feel better about yourself already?