Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Cheap Grace Isn’t True Grace

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Cost of Discipleship" by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is cheap grace? How does it put you at risk?

According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, cheap grace isn’t true grace (or salvation) at all. It’s dangerous because the illusion of cheap grace can lull you into a false sense of security, causing you to be sure of your salvation when it isn’t sure at all.

Read more to learn about cheap grace.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Cheap Grace

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is probably best known for criticizing what he called “cheap grace,” and contrasting it with what he called “costly grace.” Bonhoeffer subscribed to Luther’s view that people can receive salvation only by trusting in God’s grace (not by earning God’s favor through righteous works). Thus, he treats “grace” as being synonymous with “salvation.”

For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, cheap grace is essentially fake salvation, as real salvation requires a serious commitment. And fake salvation is dangerous, because it lures you into a false sense of security until you find yourself losing out on eternal life.

[Shortform note: “Salvation” in Christianity primarily refers to being saved from condemnation in the afterlife. If you commit sins (offenses against God or against your fellow man) during your lifetime, God will punish you for your sins in the afterlife, unless your sins have been forgiven. Most Christians believe it is not possible to make it through life without committing any sins, so you need God’s forgiveness in order to receive salvation. Bonhoeffer accepts this view of salvation, although he offers a unique perspective on how you obtain salvation, which we’ll discuss later in the guide.]

The Problem

On the one hand, Bonhoeffer expresses concern that some churches turn people away from Christianity by making it seem too difficult with their rituals and dogma. Yet, on the other hand, he expresses concern that in trying to make Christianity easier, other churches have lost the truth about salvation. These churches give people a false sense of security, because they administer sacraments and assure people of their salvation without teaching them to be disciples of Christ. 

(Shortform note: Bonhoeffer’s criticism of the church follows in Luther’s footsteps: Luther objected to the sale of “indulgences,” certificates issued by the church that allegedly pardoned the buyer’s sins, and to other practices of the day through which, in Luther’s view, the church gave its members false assurance of forgiveness.)

The Solution

In Bonhoeffer’s view, only disciples of Jesus Christ receive salvation, so to receive God’s grace, you must be a disciple. Furthermore, a correct view of discipleship remedies both these problems: Not only does true discipleship result in true salvation, but true discipleship is a dynamic relationship, not a burdensome ritual. 

Yet, Bonhoeffer also asserts that being a disciple generally entails voluntary suffering through fasting and asceticism, voluntary poverty, voluntary forfeiture of your civil rights, and persecution from unbelievers. Being a disciple costs you dearly, which is why Bonhoeffer says God’s grace is expensive.

[Shortform note: Others who share Bonhoeffer’s point of view have put a more positive spin on the idea of expensive salvation. For example, missionary Jim Elliot is credited with saying that it’s easy to justify giving up things you can’t keep (such earthly possessions or opportunities, which you can’t take with you into eternity) in order to gain things you can’t lose (such as salvation, which can’t be taken away from you). Elliot didn’t publish this view himself because he was killed early in his career, but his widow preserved it in a biography titled Through Gates of Splendor.]
Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Cheap Grace Isn’t True Grace

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Cost of Discipleship summary:

  • Why Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed the church made discipleship too “easy”
  • Why getting into Heaven will cost you a lot more than you thought
  • Bonhoeffer’s design for real Christianity

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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