Book Interview: Jon Walker on Costly Grace

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Costly GraceIn 1937, on the threshold of Nazi Germany’s war on the world, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote what turned out to be one of the most influential books of the century, The Cost of Discipleship. In it, he challenged the compromises of German Christians, famously writing, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.”

When I was a teenager, fifteen I think, an adult mentor from my student ministry challenged me to read it. It was the first Christian book I remember reading– and it disturbed and challenged me. So, when I heard that my friend Jon Walker was writing a book on the book, I was glad to endorse it and then interview him here.

Now Jon Walker has written Costly Grace: A Contemporary View of Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Jon is the editor of Rick Warren’s Daily Hope devotionals and the founding editor of the Ministry Toolbox. He served on staff at Saddleback Church and Purpose Driven Ministries.

In Costly Grace, he brings the message of Bonhoeffer against the background of today’s political upheaval and societal change and what it means to those who claim to follow Christ’s teachings, challenging contemporary teachings and lifestyles.

Ed Stetzer: What does Bonhoeffer mean by “cheap grace”? What is the difference between “cheap grace” and “costly grace”?

Jon Walker: Cheap grace is when we attempt to lower the standards of the gospel by ignoring the cost of the cross and down-playing the need for repentance. Cheap grace embraces an easy discipleship that requires little commitment. It assumes you can live in God’s sanctuary, where Jesus fulfills the law, yet remain independent of the commands and desires of Jesus.

Cheap grace justifies our sin. It is the thought that my sins are forgiven, so God will wink at me when I sin.

Costly grace justifies the sinner. It demands that forgiveness be followed by obedience, that grace remain tethered to truth. When Jesus forgives the woman caught in adultery (John 8), he says, “Neither do I condemn you … Go now and leave your life of sin.” His grace, which is freely given, offers forgiveness for her sins, but it includes an expectation that her life will radically change.

Costly grace means we change our habits, thoughts, behaviors, attitudes, and relationships according to the will of Jesus. Nothing can remain the same because we are no longer the same: ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20). Bonhoeffer says grace is “costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

We are uniquely connected to the divine nature through Jesus and we no longer “live under law but under God’s grace” (Romans 6:14 TEV; consider also Colossians 2:9-10). Cheap grace, on the other hand, denies the incarnation and leaves the gospel abstract and impersonal. It allows us to give intellectual assent to the teachings of Jesus. Yet, the bloody death and resurrection of Christ is nothing but real and personal and it forces us to continually make the intimate choice of following the person, Jesus Christ, or following our own path.

ES: Bonhoeffer says the Church does certain things that make Jesus seem insignificant. What are those and do you think they are present in the Church today?

JW: First, Bonhoeffer says the Church has reduced the gospel to a set of burdensome rules, the antithesis of the easy yoke we should find in Jesus. We’ve loaded the gospel down with so many extra-biblical routines and regulations– ‘a real Christian ought to, has to, must do’ — that it is difficult for anyone to find the real Jesus.

We make our legal lists and that makes us legalists. But that teaches people they have to work their way up to God’s standard of righteousness, which challenges the very Word of God, who is the crucified and resurrected Jesus. When we keep insisting that, through our behaviors and our attitudes, we can match godly standards of righteousness, we dismiss the Incarnation and suggest Jesus is insignificant to our hope for heaven?

Second, Bonhoeffer says the Church uses the doctrine of grace as an excuse for shallow discipleship and for a pervasive acceptance of sin in the Body of Christ. We’ve taken “I am a sinner saved by grace” and turned it into “I can sin because of grace.” This allows us to be satisfied with discipleship as mere Bible study. Jesus appears insignificant because he doesn’t seem to have the power or authority to really change our lives.

These two approaches are as prevalent now as they were in 1937, when Bonhoeffer wrote, “The Cost of Discipleship.” In either case, a burdensome religion or a presumptive attitude on grace, we end up practicing a religion far removed from the intimate relationship God requires we have with Jesus Christ. The essence of discipleship is to know Jesus at a level of intimacy that can only be sustained by his constant presence in our lives.

ES: You say that following Jesus requires an “obedient trust.” That is such a specific phrase. What do you mean by it? Can you give a biblical illustration?

JW: In many ways, the word “faith” has lost its meaning. We speak of faith, but often what we mean is something abstract and fanciful. In writing Costly Grace, I wanted the reader to understand the biblical essence of the word. Faith is not only trusting Jesus, it also means we are obedient to Jesus. We line up with the will of God and that shows we love God. We do what Jesus tells us to do and that shows we trust him. It is a loving, obedient trust.

Bonhoeffer says this means our faith must be concrete. We show Jesus we trust him by being obedient to what he tells us to do. And by being obedient, we learn that we can trust him more.

When Jesus walked on the water, Peter verbally expressed faith that Jesus could empower him to walk on the water also. But his faith didn’t become real until he stepped out of the boat. That’s when it became a concrete faith, when he climbed out of the boat in obedience to the call of Jesus. When he put his foot on the water and it didn’t sink, he learned he could trust Jesus. That made it easier to be obedient with the next step, where he, again, learned Jesus was good for his promises.

ES: Peter learned to trust Jesus by being obedient to Jesus. His faith, in essence, was ‘obedient trust.’ Jesus always brings us to a choice – do you believe me or not? Will you trust me in this circumstance or not?

JW: Of course, Peter eventually sank beneath the waves, but that is because he let fear overtake his faith. Another choice we often have is, will you submit to your fear or to your faith in Jesus? Many of us are still sitting in the boat saying we have faith, but that means we will never learn we can trust Jesus. We only learn to trust him by being obedient to him.

ES: Why are grace and truth inseparable? How can we tell if we’re trying to separate one from the other?

JW: The apostle John tells us that Jesus is full of grace and truth and, now that we have the life of Christ present in our lives, we are full of grace and truth (John 1:14-16). Jesus holds them together in us just as they are held together in him.

Legalists try to separate truth from grace and so they begin to see grace as a license to sin. Grace sounds like heresy to them.

On the other hand, those who are unrestrained by grace (licentious) try to separate grace from truth and so they begin to see truth a ‘law’. Truth sounds like legalism if we are abusing grace.

In Jesus, grace is always truthful and truth is forever gracious. There is no way to have the fullness of grace and truth apart from Him. He didn’t come to show us ways of grace and truth or give us definitions of grace and truth. He came to be all the grace and all the truth we will ever need and to freely offer both to us in the gift of Himself.

If I am full of grace, there is no excuse for legalism in my life (Matthew 23:4; Matthew 11:28-30). If I am full of truth, there is no excuse for ‘cheap grace’ (unrestraint, licentiousness) in my life (Matthew 5:17-20; John 8:11).

The only reason to live as a legalist or to abuse grace is unbelief in the adequacy of Jesus. Legalism and ‘cheap grace’ both show a lack of faith. We live faithlessly because we do not trust Jesus.

ES: Why must we bear the sins of others? Doesn’t Christ do that for us?

JW: The way we become like Jesus is through suffering and rejection. Jesus became the Christ because he was rejected and suffered, and for us to become his disciples – to become like Christ – we must share in his rejection, suffering, and crucifixion.

Bonhoeffer says, “God is a God who bears.” The Son of God wrapped himself in our flesh and then carried the cross, even as he carried our sins, straight up a hill called Golgotha. Because we are his disciples, we are called to bear the burdens of others, including their sins.

This doesn’t mean we create righteousness in others – although our witness may ignite a desire for righteousness, which will lead them to Jesus. Rather it means we must bear a cost for someone else’s sin.

For instance, if a father is caught up in pornography, his sin will cost others. It will cost his wife, it will cost his children, it will cost his friendships, it will cost the women he meets because he will no longer see them as daughters of God, and it costs those who are part of the pornographic images, essentially encouraging them in their sin. It can cost physically, monetarily, relationally, but there is a huge price spiritually.

We must bear his sin and that means we don’t blame or become bitter, but rather we invest in his life. We help him to get out of his bondage and into an obedient trust of Jesus. Bonhoeffer says this is “precisely what it means to be a Christian.”

This is how God brings out the life of Christ planted in us by the Holy Spirit and it enables us to take the deep regrets and loss in our lives, those past and present, and view them as God’s way of acquainting us with the grief, heartache, and sorrow Jesus experienced on his way to the cross. In this way, Paul says, the death of Christ is at work in us so that the life of Christ can be at work in others (2 Corinthians 4:12).

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Get your copy of Costly Grace: A Contemporary View of Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.


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Ed Stetzer About Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer is President of LifeWay Research, one of the best and most-quoted Christian research organizations in the world. He has planted churches in multiple states; trained pastors across the US and on six continents; and taught at 14 seminaries. Author or co-author of 12 books, Stetzer is a leading voice among evangelicals. He is a contributing editor or columnist for several publications, including Christianity Today, Outreach Magazine, The Christian Post, and Facts and Trends.


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