The fifth grader was proud of his new coin. It was a rare coin that had been given to him by his father for his coin collection. He was so pleased with his coin that he brought it to school to show to his class. During lunch one of his class mates was hit by the green-eyed monster of envy and decided that he needed that coin. He stole the coin from his classmate. He even tried to cover up his crime by showing his friends the coin the next day at school, saying that his uncle had bought him one just like the other class members.
The parents of the boy whose coin was stolen called up the parents of the boy who stole the coin. They had a big conference. The parents knew the boy did not have an uncle who had given him a coin. They knew he was lying, knew he had stolen the coin. They were so embarrassed. The shame of it all.
They called in their son and for more than an hour the boy denied stealing the coin. The boy refused to admit that he had stolen it. He never acknowledged that he had the other boy’s coin, although the parents found the coin in his book bag. The fifth grader never broke down. He had learned the lesson well. Never confess. Never admit guilt. He never seemed to feel any guilt about the stealing, lying and broken trust of his parents.
Now the parents are asking, “If we are Christian people aren’t we suppose to forgive people for their sins? Aren’t we suppose to hate the sin and love the sinner? Shouldn’t they as parents forgive their son?”
There are those who would suggest that story is the story of our times. The story has all the elements of the new times in which we live. There are those who would say that we are producing children who have no sense of guilt. We have been working hard not to make people feel guilt. We don’t want to talk about blame. We don’t want to talk about responsibility. Don’t be laying any guilt trip on me. And what we are getting are young people who do not feel guilty when they do something wrong.
There is a pastoral care professor at Princeton Theological Seminary who suggests that the great sin of our age is shame. The great punishment of the age is embarrassment. “Hasn’t Marv Albert suffered enough for his assault on that woman in the motel room?” went the argument. Look how embarrassing it has to be for him. The parents of the young boy were so ashamed of their son. There was no “righteous indignation” as with the prophets. Only the wringing of hands, the dipping of the head and “We are so embarrassed.”
Forty years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned the Christian community that what they have been preaching will come back to haunt them and what they have been preaching is nothing but cheap grace. Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church. We are fighting today for costly grace.
Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sins, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut-rate prices. He suggests that grace seems to mean that all accounts have been paid, so everything can be had for nothing. This cheap grace being preached within the Christian community will be heard as forgiveness of sins declared as an established fact, a general truth, a concept as part of God. In the offering of cheap grace, the world hears a covering of sin which requires nothing. This cheap grace believes God has forgiven sin in Jesus Christ so there is no need for anything on the part of the sinner. No need for contrition; no need for a real desire to be delivered from the sin; no need to make amends for the pain that has been caused; no need to renounce the activities of the sin or to bring one’s life into obedience to the goodness of God. God has done it all. Enjoy.
These parents who move so quickly to forgiveness do not want a grace that demands they do something different. They want a cheap grace so they can claim to deal with the sin without having to let that grace get inside them and inside their child to change the child.
Bonhoeffer shudders about cheap grace because that understanding allows the world to go on in the same old way it has always gone. It removes from the cross of Christ the call for those who follow it to live a life different from the world around it and to live in obedience to Jesus.
Cheap grace is the preaching and discussion of forgiveness without expecting repentance, without believing that repentance means change, without expecting that restitution will be made where restitution is possible. It lacks the understanding that forgiveness when it is received, anticipates paying the consequences for the sin.
The young person who had been suspended from the Y for fighting apologized to the person attacked, apologized to the Y staff, and stayed out of the Y for the assigned six weeks. That was the process of forgiveness. He was forgiven. The Y received him back as a member in good standing. But the consequences were necessary for the Y and for the young person to participate in the changes brought by forgiveness.
Bonhoeffer suggests that grace is a much more costly process than we want it to be. It is costly because it invites us to leave the way we have been living and to follow a new and different way. It is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it does ask us to give up as important all those things which we have held on to so long as our shield and defenders. Our personal teddy bears. Our family traditions. Our schools: all those rankings of colleges and football teams, our gender and our race, our nationality. But it is grace because it gives us the only true life which is lasting as disciples of the living Lord. It is costly because it does condemn sins but it is grace because it sets us free from the burdens of trying to make ourselves good. But it does not set us free from the pull of Christ into a new direction and a new intention for our lives.
Costly grace is real forgiveness. Real forgiveness does not say that what one did or did not do does not matter. Costly grace says what we do matters immensely. Sin is so important that God had to come in Jesus to confront and break the hold sin has upon our lives.
In our own human relationships, wherever there is forgiveness there is always, on one side, the suffering of atonement on the part of the one who forgives. If you call me a dirty name, and you want forgiveness, I have to swallow my pride, I have to suffer the embarrassment of not doing anything about the insult, I have to contain my anger which may do me physical harm, send my blood pressure up, grind my teeth. There is an act of atonement by the one forgiving. There is also a suffering of repentance on the part of the one asking to be forgiven. Even if it is just taking a little thing like eating your piece of the cake, I have to humble myself, bear the pain of humility, contrition, admittance to wrong, to ask your forgiveness, promise not to take it again, and I’ll even go get you a new cake at the store if you want me to, and you have to suffer the pain of being willing to accept my apology and being willing to work with me again.
Because that is the way Sovereign God has created us as human beings, God’s revelations and actions in our lives have to fit into our human nature or they are not helpful. God cannot sing to us in frequencies we cannot hear and expect us to enjoy the music. God cannot simply by fiat declare all human beings saved. Then we are robots and have no freedom and our relationship with God is not freely given. God cannot just say that all humanity is forgiven because righteousness and goodness would be offended. God’s forgiveness comes to human beings in ways that we can understand. God comes in Jesus Christ as a human being, the one good human being who exposes the darkness and evil of humanity on the Cross. In the cross of Christ, God endures the suffering of atonement. God is the One being asked to forgive and He endures the suffering of atonement in the death and pain of Jesus. He is willing to continue to suffer so that we may find forgiveness. But that forgiveness offered is only received where there is the pain of repentance and conversion and the acceptance of the new obligations of a life in obedience to Jesus’ calling.
Cheap grace makes forgiveness immediate. I find out I hurt your feelings. I say I’m sorry. You say that is O.K. Everything better. Everything like it was. You ask for forgiveness. I think I am supposed to give it to you. I say I give it to you. It is over, done. Costly grace understands that forgiveness may be a journey, a process. It may take awhile. It may involve some steps.
She has finally got enough courage and pain in her to kick him out of the house. She was tired of his physical and verbal abuse, his carelessness, his disregard for her and her stuff. She told him to take a long walk off that short pier. Now he wants back in. He says he is sorry. He asks her to forgive him. He promises he will never hurt her again.
She offers real forgiveness. She says she will date him once a week for lunch at a public restaurant while he attends therapy for his anger and low self-esteem. As they share lunch and talk and as he attends therapy and she sees changes in him, in the way he acts and the way he talks and the things he does, they can move to dinners together, movies, and other outings. If those continue well, more steps towards reconciliation may be taken. She says let’s see how that repentance changes you. After all, when you become a new person, when you change, you may not want to be together. But she wants to see what difference the pain of repentance makes before she goes back into a situation which has caused her such physical pain. That sounds like forgiveness to me. She is willing to put it back like it was before all the bad stuff happened. Bad to the time when they were dating. She is willing to act like all the bad stuff has not happened. To go back in time to the point where they can start over. Sounds like forgiveness to me.
We can pretend that we aren’t guilty. We can even claim that humiliation is the worse punishment anyone can go through. We can talk about cheap grace and forgiveness, but the good news of Jesus Christ is that He offers us a costly grace and powerful forgiveness. A forgiveness in which God has already suffered the pain of atonement in the cross of Jesus, and invites us to accept the cross of suffering by bearing the pain of repentance and renewals so that we are striving to become more and more like Jesus.
There was a cartoon which suggests, as the Titanic sinks, that the captain was looking at the naval dictionary: “port means left, starboard means right.” The cartoon said that most of us keeping looking for simple answers to complex problems. The sins and the moral failures of each of us only find forgiveness in the atoning suffering of God, the suffering of repentance, and picking up the cross of obedience.