I have to admit that I’m a little torn as I think about the “requirements” of citizenship in the Kingdom of God. After all, anyone who has read Romans knows that we have been saved by Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not from anything we could do. I think Ephesians 2: 8-9 sums it up best when it says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.” I don’t want to give the impression, then, that we can ever “earn” our salvation by our own efforts.
Scripture is crystal clear that we are saved through Christ’s efforts, and not our own, which is why we tend to think of salvation as a free gift.
If it’s free, however, then why does Jesus keep warning His listeners to “count the cost” before they follow Him?
‘Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’
‘Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple‘” (Luke 14: 28:33).
To better understand what Jesus might be talking about when he says “estimate the cost,” we have to look no further than the verses directly before that pronouncement. Far from touting Himself as the “free gift” to the world, Jesus warns His listeners that following Him will consist of stringent demands:
“Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.“ (Luke 14:25-27).
Elsewhere, he tells would-be followers to leave their dying (or perhaps dead and unburied) relatives, to leave their families without saying goodbye, and that anyone who looks back after following Him is not worthy of Him (Matt. 8:18-22, Luke 9:57-62).
So what gives? Isn’t Jesus contradicting Paul, who maintains that we can do nothing to save ourselves? Not at all! Jesus agrees very much with Paul in that regard. He tells Nicodemus that “no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again,” a statement that Nicodemus rightly recognizes as physically impossible (John 3:3-5). Elsewhere, he says that no one can come to God unless God enables that person (John 6:65), and that apart from Him, we can do nothing (John 15:5).
Jesus and Paul, then, are in perfect agreement that we can not earn our salvation. Their idea, however, that there is nothing we can do to be saved, has been twisted into the concept that we have to do nothing.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls that perception, “cheap grace.” In his famous work, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer says that “cheap grace means grace as a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins” (43). He goes on to declare that “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (44-45).
Such a concept of grace finds itself severely at odds with the repeated teachings of Jesus that His followers must sacrifice all for Him, an act that He calls “dying to self,” or, more literally, just “dying.” Here are some of the requirements that Jesus gave His would-be followers:
“Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:37-39).
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it'” (Matt. 16:24-25).
“Then he said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?’” (Luke 9:23-25).
“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me” (John 12:24-26).
“Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33).
It seems clear from these and other verses that following Christ involves a complete renunciation of our lives, which consists not only of our will to survive, but also of all the selfishness that makes up the tableau of our daily wants and needs. That is, at least, how Paul seemed to take Jesus’ commands.
He tells the Galatians, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:24-25).
In that same letter, he declares that, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
To the Corinthians, he maintains that, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Cor. 4:10-11).
Truly, this is just a small sampling of verses that claim that being a follower of Christ requires personal sacrifice and that clearly indicate that a follower of Christ must live his life in active imitation of Jesus.
Bonhoeffer cites a misunderstanding of Luther as the root of the church’s conception of “cheap grace.” Thus, he strives to correct the popular perception of Luther’s beliefs: “When he spoke of grace, Luther always implied as a corollary that it cost him his own life, the life which was now for the first time subjected to the absolute obedience of Christ. Only so could he speak of grace. Luther had said that grace alone could save; his followers took up his doctrine and repeated it word for word. But they left out its invariable corollary, the obligation of discipleship” (49-50).
Even though we may not know much about Luther today, his teachings (or as Bonhoeffer would be quick to assert, the popular misconception of his teachings) have nevertheless influenced the way the church thinks about grace and salvation. We think of salvation as almost completely disconnected from our own actions, when even an inattentive reading of the gospels reveals such a thought to be ridiculous. Being a Christian costs something. It most certainly cost something to Jesus, and He tells us in no uncertain terms that we must walk as He did in order to be His follower. Being a citizen of God’s Kingdom, then, has some requirements. It requires that we lay down our lives, take up our crosses, and follow Christ.
This blog is dedicated to learning how to do that.
What do you think? Do you agree with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s assessment of “cheap grace”? Or do you think it is wrong to view the Kingdom of God as having “requirements”?
Quotes taken from:
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.