Cheap Grace Or Cheap Law? Dietrich Bonhoeffer And Gerhard Forde On The Nature Of Law And Gospel -- By: S. C. Lazar

Journal: Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society
Volume: JOTGES 26:50 (Spring 2013)
Article: Cheap Grace Or Cheap Law? Dietrich Bonhoeffer And Gerhard Forde On The Nature Of Law And Gospel
Author: S. C. Lazar


Cheap Grace Or Cheap Law?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer And Gerhard Forde On The Nature Of Law And Gospel

S. C. Lazar

Director of Publications
Grace Evangelical Society
Corinth, TX

I. Introduction

The epithet of cheap grace is often used to derogatively label the message of the free gift of everlasting life. But one seldom hears about the far more insidious danger of preaching cheap law. What is cheap law, and why should we be wary of it?

The debate between cheap grace and cheap law primarily arises within Lutheran circles, as exemplified by the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) and Gerhard Forde (1927-2005). This paper will contrast Bonhoeffer’s critique of cheap grace with Forde’s claim that putting any conditions on the gospel means preaching a cheap law.

II. Bonhoeffer Argued That Cheap Grace Produced Moral Laxity

In the mid-1930s, under the creeping shadow of the Nationalist Socialist German Worker’s Party (i.e. the Nazis), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German theologian, wrote the following foreboding words in his book, The Cost of Discipleship: “We Lutherans have gathered like eagles round the carcass of cheap grace, and there we have drunk of the poison which has killed the life of following Christ.”1

What is this ‘cheap grace’ he so grimly warned about?

For Bonhoeffer, cheap grace meant the kind of preaching that indiscriminately offers the promise of salvation without requiring a change in behavior. By treating God’s grace as if it were a common good, cheap grace preaching did not liberate its hearers from sin so much as left them all the more secure in them:

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be, if it were not cheap?2

The Lutheran Church of his day, Bonhoeffer says, was marked by the debilitating theological presumption that God’s forgiveness was granted as a matter of course, and was received simply...

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