Forgiveness Without Repentance!

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching
of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline,
Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship,
grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Someone recently contacted my wife and said, “Hey, this sounds like Jim, am I correct? Grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, because Grace is covered! Right???” So, I thought I would answer this straight from the horse’s mouth. Our friend was quoting our old friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from his book “The Cost of Discipleship.”

For the record, I am not trying to live my life nor to preach and teach in a way that would please Herr Bonhoeffer. He is not my God nor is he my savior. Those offices belong to Jesus Christ, who earned them with His blood and His flesh, and who resurrected from the dead. And I have all kinds of problems with this quote.

Cheap grace is still grace that costs something. Cheap isn’t free. Cheap isn’t a gift. If you are receiving grace on some scale of cost, well, it isn’t really grace any more is it? You’re earning it. So Bonhoeffer is right – cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. So is costly grace. If you’re writing your own efforts into your ability to receive grace, you are not being saved. You are being a hero. You’re being your own savior. That’s the whole question here: do you believe that you save yourself (with some kind of Christian verbiage thrown in), or do you believe that God saves you? There is no in-between, no gray area. There is no balance. You either believe in self-salvation or you believe Jesus saves you.

True grace, free gift grace, is the grace that God bestows on us. Cheap grace and costly grace are the kinds of grace that we bestow on ourselves. Real grace costs absolutely nothing. Jesus paid it all. You either believe that or you don’t. The entire rest of Bonhoeffer’s quote is based upon a terrible lack of belief in that point.

Consider this alternate point from the pages of scripture:

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.

Romans 5:6-11

Dumb old Paul, saying such things! Perhaps we should take a razor to Romans 5? Soon enough our entire Bible would be filled with gaps and holes, because the general message of the New Testament is radical grace! Ask yourself this, when you listen to the Bonhoeffers of the world: what does Jesus’ death have to do with his message? How does Jesus’ blood fit in with what he is saying? Does it exalt the lamb who was slain and count Him alone worthy, as the Father and all the rest of heaven count Him (Revelation 5:3-8)? Or does it count our efforts as worthy?

So, none other than Paul the apostle, right here in this quote, preaches forgiveness without repentance. Let me highlight it in big letters in case you skipped over the Romans quote, which is apparently what many theologians do:

“God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.”

So, you may say, McNeely DOES preach forgiveness without repentance! We caught him! However, the real perspective is this: I caught you, friend of Bonhoeffer! You are preaching forgiveness based on “repentance.” You are preaching justification based on something other than mere belief. You are interpreting all kinds of ominous undoable burdens into the thing that God meant to be a free gift (Romans 3:24, 6:23). Who can say how much “repentance” is enough of a cost to receive legitimate grace? How close to perfection must we get to gain the right to approach the throne of God? Yet, His throne is a throne of grace, from which we receive mercy! Free grace is the door to God, and only He can clean up our mess. Only free grace can truly say that Jesus is Lord. “Costly” grace still maintains our own lordship.

How about this little jewel: “baptism without church discipline”! So, we have to exercise church discipline on sinners before they can get baptized? Who could ever get baptized, ever? What the heck?! Maybe what he is saying is, “cheap grace” advocates baptize people, but they never exercise church discipline. Maybe they do that. Free grace welcomes imperfect believers in Jesus Christ to be baptized, because belief in Christ means you believe your sins required the death of the Son of God. Free grace says that you could never pay enough for your own welcome into the Kingdom of God. Free grace says, there is a repentance from unbelief into the universe of belief in the power of Jesus’ blood and into the mercy and kindness and grace of the Father.

As far as confession, radical grace is the doorway into authentic confession. Because we believe in the radical one-way love and kindness of God towards us, while we are yet sinners, we can confess everything! Taking communion is a confession of the supremacy of His sacrifice over our sins – our real and specific sins. That’s what communion is, and that is why we take it! If you have to clean up before you can take communion, you have no need of communion – and no one could ever approach the communion table. Either Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, or we are condemned. Communion is the declaration that His death is enough for us. That is our confession: Christ has triumphed and we are saved. Our sins are avenged and justice is satisfied over us.

When Bonhoeffer says “grace without the cross,” he is engaging in a bit of double-speak. He means, grace without our cross. You know what I’ve found in my life? Belief in the free grace of God lavished upon me despite my habitual sins and terrible guilt is the only door to the kinds of results he is demanding as the condition to grace. I have seen a great treasure, and from joy over it, I am glad to sell houses and give up careers and hang with ragamuffins and follow Jesus, because I have entered into a very great love! Jesus says, “if anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” Guess what? I have received a great great treasure in the glorious and beautiful gospel of Christ! I wish to follow Him! I do wish! I drop my nets! People want me to go back and emphasize the sacrifice and the net dropping and the following – but I won’t do it. I won’t point people to the tangential results of my faith! I don’t want anyone looking at me. I am going to keep talking and squawking about Jesus and Him crucified! When you find your treasure, you’ll be happy to sacrifice things. Real, rich, lavish, free-gift grace is not a license to sin. It is a doorway into the freedom to live from love and blessing. Your paltry sacrifice, your cheap repentance, your slipshod discipline, all mean nothing. You will always need Paul’s warnings against even gross carnal sins – because you are still not quite completely “repentant”. You need a savior, and in Christ you have one. Believe it! Rejoice! Jump in the water, sinner, and be cleansed!!!

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  1. Those words of Bonhoeffer have been used by so many sincere preachers that many people probably think they are from scripture (like “God helps those who help themselves”). It produces soul killing doubt in any honest Christian and inspires the most deadly kind of navel gazing. I think probably rather than having bad theology (maybe not) Bonhoeffer may have been referencing those “Christians” who gave in too easily to the nazification of the church. Whatever the reason, I’m so grateful that you have pointed out the error and danger of his words. They are particularly hurtful for those Christians (all of us) with particularly difficult weaknesses and struggles. Thanks Jim…….

    • Thank you Robert. I tend to get replies through social media to these kinds of posts by people who want to defend Bonhoeffer. They post other more beautiful quotes, or direct me to Eric Metaxis’s biography of him. That’s wonderful. While I am not much of a fan of Bonhoeffer because his viewpoint led him to the kinds of statements we see here, I am not anti-Bonhoeffer. I am pro-gospel. Honestly, if Billy Graham or 100 angels or a multidimensional cherubic being or a resurrected martyr or whoever came and said something against the centrality of Christ and Him crucified, I would say the same things. No matter how beautiful the other quotes from Bonhoeffer may be, a little pee in your coffee ruins the whole cup. Just a little bit of law in your gospel ruins the whole gospel. Bonhoeffer wrote a whole book on costly grace. I admire him for his commitment during his incarceration and martyrdom, I really do. But I do not embrace every bit of his theology by a long shot. I think despite his theology, he may have been saved. However, we have the opportunity to believe and walk in true grace, grace without cost and therefore grace without limits. As Paul says, lavish grace.

      4 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. 4 You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

      7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. 13 By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. 14 We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.

      1 John 4:1-14

  2. Hi Jim,
    Like you, I have not been a huge fan of Bonhoeffer (although, admittedly, I’ve yet to read much of his stuff). To put any cost or demands on grace is, as you say, to negate all grace. I’m with writers like you and Tullian (and the apostle Paul!) on that message. Keep sharing it!

    As an aside, my Lutheran pastor and Lutheran mother-in-law helped me reconcile Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace” with Gerhard Forde’s “cheap law” recently. It all comes down to the audience and the faith of that audience. According to them, Bonhoeffer was addressing the pew-sitters who were in fact non-believers. They sat in church, attending weekly, but had no knowledge or belief in the Gospel. As such, Bonhoeffer was trying to slap them into opening their eyes. While he preaches “grace,” what he was really delivering was law. And he was doing so to convict them, as the law is meant to do. Only when fully convicted by God’s holy, perfect, absolute law can someone begin to grasp the Gospel message. His audience couldn’t understand grace until they saw themselves as lost sinners. Once believers in the Gospel, the fruits of faith and the Spirit would lead to the change in heart the Bonhoeffer so desperately wanted to see. The start of true love for neighbors is only exhibited by those who understand the Gospel.

    This is, of course, the crux of the problem for all Lutherans to this day. We are constantly accused of preaching “cheap grace” by other denominations (and even by fellow Lutherans like Bonhoeffer). And, if the audience listening to the preaching is an audience of non-convicted non-believers, those critics are correct – folks hear about a free ticket to Heaven and simply say, “Sure, that sounds better than Hell. I’ll take it.” They don’t have a clue about conviction under the law and thereby what Christ accomplished for us. Lutheranism only “works” when the audience recognizes itself as lost, miserable, horrible sinners, whose only hope is in Christ Jesus. When true faith is present, and an understanding of the Gospel is strong, grace is properly recognized as free and salvation as a gift from God, with absolutely no contribution from us. And of course, this is why Lutherans demand the preaching of the law, followed by the declaration of the Gospel.

    • Can a person really be alarmed by the preaching of the law if they know that the preaching of grace will immediately follow? Would he have to be ignorant of grace altogether to really see himself as helpless and damned?

      • 2 Samuel 12. Sometimes we’ve fallen from faith and don’t even realize it.

        Certainly I can see your point. Once convicted of the Law and given repentance and faith in the Gospel, a converted believer would always remain cognizant of the Gospel, grace, and forgiveness. And yet in direct contrast to Romans 6:1-2, I also realize that I constantly take advantage of this promised forgiveness by casting my sin aside as trivial. God’s Law re-confronts me and casts me down from this unrepentant attitude. It’s why a Law & Gospel sermon is so vital to hear every single week.

        Finally, I’ll point out my Lutheran view of repentance, as articulated by Luther, consists of both contrition (feeling sorry for sins, as created by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Law) and faith (believing that my sins are forgiven in Christ). And so we exist in both states constantly as believers, just as we exist as both justified and sinner this side of eternity.

        Hope that helps.

        • “God’s Law re-confronts me and casts me down from this unrepentant attitude.”

          How does this happen? Are you cast down by literally fearing damnation? I admit I haven’t been to church in several months, but I do feel the sting of the Law in my conscience. It usually sneaks up on me and I go through a period of feeling condemned, and then I feel resentment and even hate towards God. This will continue until I hit the bottom of despair, a black pit of guilt and anger. Then I hear God’s gentle voice in the Gospel. I guess I have a problem with the idea (which may only exist in my head, I concede) of having the Law laid on me when it seems I can be crushed by it all by myself. Don’t know if that makes any sense.

          • Indeed, I fear damnation itself. I realize my sin creates a chasm between myself and God. This is necessary! This is why it is so important to hear the Law from your pastor’s pulpit…although it is imprinted on your heart, it is so easy to cast aside, especially as your conscience becomes desensitized. Being condemned verbally and feeling that sting is valuable. BUT(!) just as valuable is hearing the consoling words of the Gospel, which should predominate such preaching. After all, the Gospel is foreign to man and needs proclamation.

            Augustus Toplady’s hymn “Rock of Ages” captures this Law-Gospel dynamic so well in the lines:

            Let the water and the blood
            From Thy riven side which flowed
            Be of sin the double cure
            Cleanse me from it’s guilt and pow’r
            Nothing in my hand I bring
            Simply to Thy cross I cling

            God’s Law, preached in all its power (and not some watered-down “cheap Law” variant which encourages you to just “try harder” not to sin!), casts us wholly into the despair of hell (Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect – Mt 5:48), and God’s Gospel promise, preached in all its freeing grace, restores us in His promise to deliver us from our body of sin.

            This is why we go to church – to be reminded of our sinfulness, and to receive absolution and grace. We bring nothing to God, but He gives in great abundance. I highly encourage you to find a Christocentric church near you and begin regular attendance! The benefits are enormous, even as our flesh fights against it.

            Hope that helps.

  3. How does Christ know you have accepted the Grace? He sees the transformation, the rebirth. He sees you don’t just believe ABOUT his deed and its meaning; that is: believe the information. Rather, He sees you believe IN him. When you believe IN somebody who commands you to follow, the following occurs. Jesus discussed how he can tell someone has accepted the grace that transforms: “Not every one who says to me ‘Lord, Lord…” and the separation of sheep from goats. Of course, Jesus did not have a theology degree, nor was he the founder of institutional church doctrines, like Paul. Jesus was merely Son of God.

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