Chapter 1: Costly Grace

Matthew 7:7-11

‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!


Bonhoeffer lays out the central problem Christianity faced in the world, the conflict of cheap grace versus costly grace. Cheap grace, in his view, is the grace proclaimed widely and abundantly by the church: the justification of sin presupposed by a grace that cannot be earned through human action or devotion. It is grace that demands nothing of the faithful because, through a subtle but significant alteration of Martin Luther’s teachings, to have any expectation of change in the believer’s life or alteration of their behavior would be to stray too close to the idea that grace can be earned.

Under the strangling hold of cheap grace, Bonhoeffer argues that any concept of discipleship had become lost to the church and its followers. In the place of actual discipleship, the faithful cease to follow Christ and follow instead the church, seeking the toothless comfort that they were forgiven and that their actions were justified. Instead of the Gospel, they received the assurance that the way of their lives was just fine as it was.

Costly grace, by contrast, is grace of great value. It is the grace that animates Christians to be disciples. It is the grace for which we are willing to pick up our cross and follow after Jesus. It is costly grace that, when we come to our labor’s rest, offers forgiveness for the ways we have fallen short. It is costly grace that, when we have run the race, meets us and carries us to completion. It is costly, because it demands our obedience; it demands our discipleship. It is grace, because when even our best efforts prove to be in vain, Christ comes to us, meets us, in our brokenness and offers life.

Crash Course: Luther’s Theology

Martin Luther, born in the late 15th century, was a German priest, monk, and scholar in the Roman Catholic Church. Through his studies, spiritual practices, and faith journey, Luther came to the conclusion that the forgiveness of sin and salvation could not be earned through any deeds or actions of a person. Indeed, it was not possible for a person to act with any righteousness of their own; any righteousness by which a person acted was given them by God. Therefore, the grace by which we find our salvation could never be earned by humans, but was given only by God.

This put Luther in direct conflict with the teachings and the practices of the Catholic Church in his day. He became an outspoken critic of such practices as the selling of Indulgences by the church. His teachings and vocal opposition to the church would lead him to becoming one of the central figures of the Protestant Reformation.

Contextual Clues

  • Hymns are not just pretty songs that we sing to liven up worship. They are little encapsulations that can communicate profound theology. Several times throughout this chapter, Bonhoeffer quotes from a hymn written by Martin Luther, a translation of Psalm 130. You can listen to a version of the hymn and read its verses here. Note that the English text in the hymn will differ from the English translation of this book due to the difficult work of translating hymns across languages, which requires that not only the meaning be similar, the words must work within the meter of the song.
  • Bonhoeffer writes of the “three thousand Saxons whose bodies Charlemagne killed…” which is a reference to the Massacre of Verden in the year 782, in which the Emperor Charlemagne ordered the execution of upwards of 4,500 pagan Saxons in his efforts to Christianize the population. This piece of ancient history became relevant again in the 1930’s Germany, as it was used by the National Socialist Party to shame the church and silence its objections to the party’s encouragement of nationalism among the German people.
  • Near the end of the chapter, Bonhoeffer writes, “Blessed are they who already stand at the end of the path…” This is not a vague platitude, but a direct reference to the dozens of seminarians of the Confessing Church who had already become prisoners of the National Socialist Party for disobeying the government.

Reflection Questions

Where do you see cheap grace being proclaimed in the world around you? In your church? In your own life?
How does the notion of cheap grace blind us to injustice and evil in our world today?
What does discipleship look like to you in the face of injustice and brokenness of our world?