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Humane Religion Magazine

September - October 2008 Issue

Cheap Grace

It appears to be fashionable in some "born again" Christian circles to decry "works," "religion," "self-discipline," and "legalism." On the other hand, the Emperor Constantine has become a "whipping boy": the "ogre" who opened the floodgates to allow the masses to be baptized as Christians.

As I see it, some of these modern Christians are "talking out of both sides of their mouth." On one hand they proclaim that God's grace is free and cannot be earned, being liberally bestowed upon those who ask in His Name; while on the other hand they rant and rave about Constantine's actions, or about the "liberal" church.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) seems to have struggled with the same concepts, accusing the Protestant churches and especially the Lutheran Church of "gathering like eagles 'round the carcass of cheap grace.' " In a nutshell, "Cheap grace preaches forgiveness without repentance."

Yet, the followers of Christ are called "disciples," and it doesn't take much linguistic ability to see that "disciples" and "discipline" must come from the same root word. According to my dictionary, "discipline," used as a noun, means "instruction and exercise designed to train to proper conduct or action" and "subjection to rules of conduct or behavior; a state of order maintained by training and control."

My observation of some Evangelical and Pentecostal churches has revealed an almost "in your face" denunciation of anything that may be perceived as "disciplinary" or "legalistic," resulting in a "controlled anarchy" or rule by social pressure among the members. Popular phrases such as "walk the walk" abound in such settings; but when I was growing up, I heard "talk is cheap."

When all is said and done, the key is "change." To be a Christian one must change; and that change must be manifested in one's behavior. That's where discipline enters the picture. True, the Holy Spirit, as the Helper, enters the believer to bring about change. But self-discipline, yes, "work" is needed for change and continued growth. Our world of instant gratification has taken its toll in the Christian Church. Many live in the "hype" of popular Christianity, as witnessed by the thousands of sensation-seekers thronging huge amphitheater-churches run by televangelists. Paul writes in Philippians 2:12 (KJV), "...work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." And in James 2:26 (KJV) we find, "For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead."

Bonhoeffer's "cheap grace" has evolved into even cheaper Christianity. We are inundated by cheap "Christian" music, cheap "Christian" romance novels, magazines, T-shirts, bumper-stickers, ad nauseam. We have lost the beauty, the sanctity of our Savior. Too many are busy trying to merchandise Jesus, the Jesus who "drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer'; but you make it a den of robbers." (Matthew 21:12, KJV) See also John 2:14-15 KJV.

I believe it was J. Vernon McGee who stated in one of his Christian radio broadcasts something to the effect that Christians are five years behind the world in adopting unwholesome, sinful behavior. Just look at how couples who claim to be Christian live openly "in sin." What used to be called "shacking up" is now accepted even in "proper" social circles. Is it any wonder that more children than ever have serious emotional problems? And that the leading cause of death in children five years of age to teenage is suicide? Messages of self-indulgence bombard us everywhere we turn, with many church leaders in the forefront of leading their flocks astray.

I have often wondered about the claims of some evangelists that multitudes are coming to Christ and that huge end-time revivals are imminent. When I read the Bible I see references to a "remnant" being saved. The dictionary definition of remnant is, "a part, quantity, or number (usually small), remaining."

Another self-indulgent thought with which many Christians comfort themselves is the belief that they will never have to suffer. They believe that they will be whisked away "pre-tribulation." Meanwhile, they max-out their credit cards believing that there is no day of reckoning stored up for them. To them, Jesus appears to be a personal Santa Claus, as well as personal Savior.

Hardness of heart, with resulting cruelty, comes in the wake of self-indulgence. An example of this is the televangelist's wife publicly trying to justify her own and her husband's wearing of fur coats by citing the Genesis account of God clothing Adam and Eve with skins. If such Christian leaders really had the love for lost souls that they loudly proclaim they have, wouldn't it be a small sacrifice for them to refrain from indulging themselves in behavior that is driving many sensitive souls into the ranks of non-Christians? Yet the Apostle Paul advises believers to refrain from partaking in anything which would weaken another's faith in Christ.

Another popular "whipping boy" or "scapegoat" of contemporary, popular Christianity is "new age" and "liberal." These two have become the dumping ground for anything from the truly detrimental to something that they don't want to understand, such as the immense,  totally unnecessary suffering of animals to which they contribute. It appears that the overriding emotion here is "fear." Something not understood (regardless of whether it is good or evil) is feared. So, anything different, new, or misunderstood is fair game for the label of "new age or liberal" dooming the thing so labeled to the status of "pariah." In some circles, "herbs," "vegetarian," and "alternative," for example, have been so labeled. Yet, in 1 John 4:18 (KJV) we find, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love."

Again, it is much easier to hunt for demons than to change our own behavior to conform with Christ's. Which brings me back to something J. Vernon McGee said: that if you simply tread the narrow path, avoiding sin in your own life, you don't have to go around "demon hunting."

From my heart,
Mary T. Hoffman


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