Back when I was a teenager living in Wichita, Kansas, I used to drive past Family Christian Stores every day during my half hour commute to and from work. Being the music junkie that I was at that point, I had a custom of stopping by the bookstore and shelling out way too much money for the latest CD, acquiring well over 100 CDs in this fashion. Between that, speeding tickets and running my car into various random objects (such as other cars, garages and toll booths), I ensured that I never had any spare money throughout my high school and early college days.
One day, after walking into Family Christian Stores and noticing that I’d already bought all of the CDs on the $5 rack, I turned to perusing Christian air fresheners. I’d done this before, and typically found the selection to be lame and/or cheesy (“3 Nails + 1 Cross = 4gvn!”). But I saw one that really stuck out to me. It read, “Dying for me is the most He could do, living for Him is the least I could do.”
So, being a destitute high school student who was barely making his car insurance payment, I bought the air freshener, and it remained in my car for the rest of my high school days.
The Cost of Discipleship
Although Christian air fresheners are not generally the most reliable source of theological wisdom, there’s something about that turn of phrase that gets at the core of the Christian life. If you truly believe that God condescended to become a man, that he suffered and died an agonizing death to save you from the eternal torment you justly deserved, can you owe him anything less than your all? There’s a lot of talk about “free grace” in theological circles and, whatever the merits of the doctrine itself, the movement gets an F for communication. Grace isn’t ever free, its acceptance requires wholehearted submission to Christ as Lord.
But that often seems to get lost in American Christianity today. Too often, the call to “come as you are” isn’t paired with the complementary call: “but don’t stay there.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who you may have seen featured in my Heroes column, saw the same problem in the German Lutheran church of the 1930s. In The Cost of Discipleship, he argues that:
“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 sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.”
But the truth is that it can’t be had for nothing. When Christ finally vanquished sin and death on the cross by declaring “it is finished” (John 19:30), he did so after insisting that “if any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). The grace offered by Christ is the grace that caused Paul to greet his churches with the phrase “Paul, a slave to Christ” (Romans 1:1). It is a grace that the Apostle Peter tells us to steward faithfully, given to us for the service of God and others (1 Peter 4:10).
But fortunately, the paradox of Christianity is that absolute slavery to God is the same thing as Christian liberty. Communion with God is what we were made for, so when we’re drawn closer to him, we become more fully who we were meant to be.
I wonder what would happen to American Christianity if we got a hold of this notion. What would happen if we realized that a call to follow Christ was a call to die to ourselves daily? What would happen if we treated God’s grace less like a “get out of hell free card” and more like a life sworn to the service to our master?
By Nick Barden