From the Editor

Cheap grace? Don’t chance it!

Michael L. Sherer

Michael L. Sherer

Just because God gives us a gift doesn’t mean we should take it for granted.

When you hop a city bus in the Twin Cities you pay the fare when you climb aboard. Not so in Berlin, Germany. The city’s wonderful public transit web consists of two interlocking subway systems, a bus network, trams and even a ferry boat, all accepting the same pre-paid card. Minneapolis and St. Paul function according to strict rules (you pay first and then collect your reward — a ride); Berlin functions on the honor system (they trust you to pay, but will usually not ask you).

There’s a temptation to ride the rails and streets of Berlin by cheating the system, hoping you won’t get caught. You could save the six euros a day-card costs, but if you get caught without a current card during a spot check by the transit police, you pay an 80-euro penalty!

While my wife and I rode the subways and buses in Berlin for a week during July and August (our transit passes were prepaid) we witnessed a few occasions when non-payers got nabbed. Maybe these people were playing the odds. Maybe they figured they shouldn’t have had to pay anything, that the system somehow “owed them.”

Berlin was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s city. The Lutheran pastor/professor wrote memorable words during his tragically short life about “cheap” and “costly” grace. Bonhoeffer was reflecting on the state of German Lutheranism in the 1930s (the situation hasn’t changed much). He argued that the good Lutheran doctrine of grace (God gives us what we need, a gift for which we cannot pay) could be misused. When we accept the gift of Life but make no thankful response to the giver, we cheapen the gift.

Bonhoeffer said “cheap grace” is Christianity that skips over Good Friday and goes directly to Easter. It’s a religion of comfort that rejects the cross of Jesus.
When we bargain for soft religion, a faith that intends to take but not to give, to receive but never to suffer, we’ve chosen “cheap grace.” It’s like trying to get a free ride on the bus. God gives us everything by grace, but then says, “Follow me!”