This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Cheap grace vs. works righteousness


I think the church is always faced with a tension between two poles.  On the one hand there is cheap grace.  On the other there is works righteousness.
Cheap grace is when we dispense God’s grace with no expectation that it will change lives, and certainly no requirement that behavior be altered because of it.  It simply blesses, accepts, and forgives.  Grace is everything; works mean nothing.  
Works righteousness is when we say that God’s grace is what we earn by our good works.  Our good works are everything, and God’s grace is the reward.
Both of these are toxic ideas leading to disastrous practices with catastrophic results.  
On the one hand we have the spectacle of people worshiping in church on Sunday, and driving trains to Auschwitz on Monday.  There is a total disconnect between what we say we believe and what we do.  It does not occur to us that these ought to be in relationship.  
On the other hand, we have people burning themselves out dreaming up things to do supposedly to deserve God’s favor, when this is impossible.  The worst of works righteousness is when the works aren’t even particularly meaningful, such as the mindless repetition of rote prayers or ritual actions.  But if we think we will save ourselves by our own initiative and actions, we are mistaken.
Protestantism has always, since Luther, been particularly allergic to works righteousness.  But as Bonhoeffer pointed out, this has made cheap grace a dangerous liability.  It is our natural tendency to think so highly of grace that we forget how costly it is.  
Cheap grace flourished under Christendom.  It was very convenient to hear about God’s grace and receive it.  It would have been very inconvenient, not to mention economically, politically, socially, and militarily unacceptable to hear that grace was supposed to change your behavior at all.
Works righteousness also flourished under Christendom, as a way to control people.  (I have often wondered how a faith that supposedly celebrated “grace alone” ended up contributing to the “Protestant work ethic.”
As Christendom crumbles, it occurs to me that if I had to choose between these two extremes (even though neither is truly faithful), I would have to say that works righteousness is the lesser of the two dangers.  I will more gladly be accused of advocating works righteousness.  At least then there is a possibility of faith intersecting with real life.  But if it were demonstrated that I preached cheap grace I would reevaluate my ministry.
Either way, healing is necessary.  Grace needs to be preached... but in such a way that it transforms lives and changes behavior, alters lifestyle and shifts commitments.  And works need to be advocated and accomplished... as a result of the grace of God at work in our lives.  Without works, grace is empty and unrealized.  Without grace, works can become a mindless and destructive activism with no root in God’s living Word.    

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