The German Protestant pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in Auschwitz in 1945, wrote a lot about what he called “cheap grace”. He was fiercely opposed to it. “Cheap grace,” he wrote, “is the deadly enemy of our Church. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin.”
Nearly 80 years later the problem of “cheap grace” is as big an issue as it ever was for Protestants, and it has become a major problem for the Catholic Church. Grace here includes all the blessings of salvation: God’s Word, the sacraments, eternal life, forgiveness of sin, divine mercy, union with God. But if these are offered to human beings too cheaply, if too little is asked in return, then we begin to suspect that they can’t really be worth very much. Which is what has happened in modern society. People have come to believe that what the Church has to offer can’t be worth much since so little is asked in return.
But what might a “fair price” be? Nothing less than our lives; ourselves; our whole being. If Jesus is willing to give himself totally to us and for us, then he wants the complete gift of ourselves in return. And, as Jesus himself has made crystal clear, that starts with repentance, a turning away from our sins. Right from the beginning of his ministry Jesus made repentance a huge theme. He opened his preaching with a statement and a commandment. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand,” he said (Mark 1,15). A fact. The time of waiting for salvation was over and a new time was beginning.
How were people to respond? They were to “repent and believe the gospel”.
That order (it wasn’t an invitation or a suggestion) was quite a show-stopper. He was telling them that they were sinners, evildoers, that God knew it and they would pay dearly if they did not repent. This was a theme he came back to again and again in his teaching. Think of the Prodigal Son parable, for example.
But the last book in Scripture, the Book of Revelation, is probably the most powerful call to repentance in the whole Bible and it is the risen Lord who is calling us. Human beings have always had a resistance to the idea of repentance, we don’t want to admit we have done wrong, we try to justify ourselves, we dislike having to say sorry. But special problems seem to have arisen in our time, problems that are unique to our age. We are told we have to be able to accept ourselves, and that God accepts us, as we are. What need is there, then, for change and repentance?
We are to be “positive” in our thinking. But regarding ourselves as sinners is “negative” thinking and likely to damage our self-esteem and our good self-image. The thought that he is injuring anyone’s self-esteem is enough to put any priest off the notion of preaching repentance. Better to play safe and talk about the reassuring and comforting aspects of our faith. Then there is the notion of freedom that has become so prevalent in our culture – we have a “right to choose”, whatever the situation. So if I choose it, it must be alright. And I am certainly not going to limit or criticise the choices that others may make, even it they involve voting for evil or for a politician who has done evil, or the killing of an unborn child.
With such notions flying around it becomes very difficult to either preach repentance or to recognise our need for it. So it has largely gone out of fashion. It is time we recognised that this has been an immensely destructive development, and took steps to remedy it.
Written by Fr. Brian McKevitt