Is Contrition a Condition for Grace?

Don: Does God require signs of our contrition, such as remorse or confession, before He will give us His grace? In 1937, when the Nazi party had reached the peak of its power, the German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship, a book which perhaps more than any other work has influenced Protestant thinking on the subject of grace. It is considered a modern classic. Bonhoeffer coined the terms “cheap grace” and “costly grace,” which he defined as follows:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

The idea that we must do something to receive grace, that there are expectations to be be fulfilled in order to enjoy God’s grace, is not new.

Free grace without condition, expectation, or limits seems neither possible nor reasonable nor right. It seems to undermine justice. Even during the ministry of Jesus, the tension between justice and grace is clearly visible in many of the parables. Jesus seemed to devote more time to it than anything else, so it is clearly an important but difficult concept to grasp—hence the time we are devoting to it!

The early church fathers also spent considerable time developing elaborate theology on the subject of grace, and especially the relationship between grace and contrition. It is at the heart of the findings of a Pew survey (noted in class a few weeks ago) that 83 percent of Catholics and 52 percent of Protestants believe that we are saved not by grace alone but by grace and works. At a minimum, one of those works needs to be contrition.

One definition of grace is “God’s love as seen from Wo/Man’s vantage point.” In other words, it is what we see and experience of God’s love. If so, could not we substitute the word “grace” for “love” as expressed by Paul in this passage:

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have grace, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have grace, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have grace, it profits me nothing.

Grace is patient, grace is kind and is not jealous; grace does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Grace never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, grace, abide these three; but the greatest of these is grace. (adapted from 1Corinthians 13)

Does this change our perspective on grace, particularly with regard to our obligations to receive grace? If grace is free, what does it cost? If God’s love is unconditional and grace is the aspect of God’s love that we see, should grace be unconditional as well?

The parable of the Prodigal Son, for one, might be enlightening. The English word “prodigal” can mean extravagant, wasteful, and profligate; but it can also mean generous, lavish, and liberal. Its literal meaning is “bounteous.” In its latter meaning, the parable might as well have been called the parable of the Prodigal Father, whose lavishness was evident from the very beginning of the story. He gave the younger son his inheritance long before it was due (which would have been after the father’s death) and, if he were a prudent father, he would have known that a son with the personality of this one was likely to waste the inheritance, and would have refused to give it, or at least would have set some strict conditions as to its use. At a minimum, a prudent father would have divided the inheritance in accordance with the conventions of seniority, so that the eldest son would have received double the portion of the younger son, not the equal portion apparently given to the Prodigal:

“If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him sons, if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved, then it shall be in the day he wills what he has to his sons, he cannot make the son of the loved the firstborn before the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn. But he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the beginning of his strength; to him belongs the right of the firstborn.
“If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his hometown. They shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear of it and fear. (Deuteronomy 21:15-21)

The Prodigal deserved to be stoned, yet he received more than he should have. It shows the lavishness of the father’s grace.

The famine the Prodigal encountered in the far place he journeyed to was not just physical but also spiritual in nature. He spent both his economic inheritance and the spiritual inheritance he took from his father’s house. In desperation, he determined to return to that house and seek forgiveness by relinquishing his rights as his father’s son.

But he misjudged the scope of his father’s ability to forgive (as also, it appears, did his older brother and the family servants.) His grace was lavish, extensive, profligate, excessive, offensive, inappropriate… and seemingly disregardful of justice. Most people in their right mind would share the elder son’s consternation. But grace is not about the cause-and-effect that is the crux and crutch of right-mindedness. Rather, grace is about being out of one’s mind, about being overcome with wild exuberance at the recovery of something most dear, that was lost.

Is the grace of the Prodigal’s father then “cheap” grace as defined by Bonhoeffer? We don’t know the aftermath of the celebration of the son’s return. We might wonder: Did the lesson stick? Did the Prodigal shun further iniquity and become an honorable citizen and dutiful son? But we have to remember that grace is not about the recipient: It is about God. We want to deserve grace but God’s grace is undeserved by definition.

Donna: I see grace as a peace-making tool that God gives us to pass on. Without it, there would be less peace around us.

Donald: Like all Christian churches, ours attempts to give evidence to reflect what grace is in relationship to our faith and Christ. How much grace is in our church? How far does it extend until someone is disfellowshipped? How does the concept of disfellowshipping square with boundless grace? Why can a church not accept and tolerate the many  methods by which different people sincerely approach their faith journeys? Why do we rather look for distinctions, finding this to be appropriate but not that? In this  class we may challenge ourselves with such questions, but how likely are other members of the church to do so?

Dave: The Prodigal Son showed contrition, though we don’t know how heartfelt it was. He said to his father: “I have sinned in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.” The grace is there; the question is whether contrition—which can be seen as a willingness to accept grace—is needed to receive it. Many people who are desperate do not seek it. Some people have to hit rock-bottom before they will accept the grace that is available to them, from a practical standpoint.

Robin: Do we cheapen grace when we accept it without contrition, when we take it for granted? Grace is not cheap to God, but sometimes it is to us.

Donald: We talk of grace both in relation to our own needs and in terms of a requirement to pass on grace to others. Are they related? If we don’t pass it on, what does that say about our relationship with Christ? I may think I am living in harmony with Christ, but can that be true if I am not living in harmony with other people?

Donna: Grace is free, but not cheap.

David: There is nothing cheaper than free. But I continue to think we have not defined grace sufficiently well. I repeat my view that grace is what you get when you are at the end your tether to life itself; when there is absolutely no hope of any future you might dream of. I think the Prodigal parable was intended to portray this finality as a key aspect of grace, and that is why there is no aftermath to the story. I think we are to assume an aftermath of eternal—not temporal—reconciliation with God. Otherwise we could imagine all sorts of aftermaths, from the sublime to the tragic, and what then would be the point of the parable? The spiritual lift we may experience when we are down—as we must presume the Good Samaritan’s beneficiary to have felt—is qualitatively different from—it is less than—grace, it seems to me. In that sense, grace is not cheap: You can do nothing in life to deserve it, except to get to the end of life, and even then you don’t deserve it—you simply receive it! In the sense that it costs you your life, it is not cheap grace, to our mortal way of thinking.

Donna: You give grace over and over. It’s a spiritual death. We go through cycles. When we are not walking with the Lord we are spiritually dying, so we confess and God forgives us—over and over again. If the Prodigal Son were to fall away again, the father’s grace would be given again. As often as necessary.

Jay: I compare grace to the parent-child relationship. A parent gives grace to a child even when the child may be bad. I agree with the notion of two types of grace: One that is like gravity, or air—vital, and (almost) always there for us, a natural force over which we have no control; and one that results from a call or cue or desire that compels us to operationalize it—to pass it on. Contrition is a necessary precondition for “operationalized” grace. Contrition is what the Prodigal Son experienced and would have enabled him to pass it on.

Dave: The fact that Jesus so often addressed the topic of grace reflects how hard it is for us to understand and accept it. The main barrier to our understanding and acceptance is our own will. We seem to need a serious addiction or trauma or other event to take us to the rock-bottom of life before we grasp the grace that is available to us. I don’t think it has to be a life-ending event, though it might be our last chance.

Donna: Someone said to me “You must like abuse” after they observed me repeatedly giving grace to a person who repeatedly wronged me. But I felt myself growing through the experience: The more I gave, the more I grew.

Donald: The problem with trying to understand grace by relating it to something else is that it is not like anything else! How do we know we are at the end of our tether? When we are being wheeled into the emergency room on a gurney? What if the physician says: “You again? This is the fifth time you’ve been here in the last month!” Or: “Do you have insurance?” We sometimes don’t know when we are at the end of our tether.

David: If you are being admitted to the hospital rather than to the hospice, then you are not at the end of your tether. You have hope. Things might look bad but at least there’s a doctor trying to patch you up. Two criminals were crucified alongside Jesus. Spiritually, Jesus patched up the one who expressed contrition by giving him hope—certainty, in fact—of a place in heaven. What about the other criminal?

Donald: In life, we can be given false hope by doctors and others. Sometimes we cling to hope even if the doctor says there is none. I think our difficulty in understanding grace stems from its incomparable nature.

Chris: The parable of the Unforgiving Servant features a master who forgave a servant a massive debt the servant had no hope of repaying. There was no penalty and no interest—it was free grace. But after receiving it, that same servant denied grace to another servant who owed him a much smaller sum of money. We are not to be mere recipients of grace; we are to be conduits through which grace can flow from above.

Donna: The true beneficiary of grace is the one who extends it unconditionally; not the one who receives it. The one who extends grace is more Godly than the one who receives it.

Dave: We can be conduits for grace, but its source is God.

Mikiko: We have a father who loves us and provides for us. Like the Prodigal Son, we must return to Him so that we can enjoy His eternal grace—His mercy, kindness, forgiveness, patience, and compassion.

David: Which brings us back to the definition of grace. It seems to me that to substitute “grace” for “love” in the passage from Corinthians (above) cheapens grace in the sense that it becomes something any of us can understand and bestow, whereas I believe grace is strictly a divine concept and prerogative. I would define grace as the opening of the door to the kingdom of heaven. We are capable of love, and God knows love is important enough. But it is not the same as grace, in my opinion.

Donna: Grace is love extended to God. It is inward.

Dave: I think grace and love are distinct but that God is the source of both and we are the carriers, the vessels, the conduits for both, if we choose to be. The love we give our children is the same as the love God extends to us.

David: If my definition is correct, who here feels they have the right and the power to admit others into the kingdom of heaven? That is what “passing on” God’s grace would mean (if I am right).

Jay: I would not agree with that definition. To me, love and grace are  practically synonymous and mutually dependent—there cannot be one without the other.

Donna: Can one extend grace to a person without loving him or her?

Jay: I don’t believe so.

David: There must be a reason why we have two words, love and grace. There must be some distinction.

Donald: We go to the emergency room or to the doctor because we don’t want to die. We are not asking for love—we are asking for life. Whether we deserve to live is an issue not on the operating table. If I am a serial thief and ask for forgiveness every time I steal, and then don’t forgive someone who robs me, I have closed the conduit of grace.

Jay: Love and grace mean the same but apply to different realms: emotional and spiritual, respectively.

Robin: Can a person who is hateful extend grace?

Don: Suppose I have patients whom I have advised, over and over, to quit drinking and smoking, lose weight, control their blood pressure, check their blood sugars, eat properly, and so on. They simply refuse, and keep drinking and eating to profligate excess. Should I continue to see them, to treat them, to counsel them, to give them medications I know they won’t take? Is there a limit to my obligation? Is there a limit to God’s responsibility for us?

(Unknown; partly garbled): I have had such patients and made grouchy comments to them.

Dave: Back to the question of contrition: I think we do need to be contrite to be saved, to be born again. Otherwise we have not grasped the grace.

David: …which is the message of the contrite criminal crucified alongside Jesus. He was saved; the other was not. But the saving was not of his mortal life, and he was born again but not into mortal life.

Robin: Grace is sometimes likened to “money in the bank”—there to be drawn upon whenever we need it. But we can’t withdraw it without admitting that we need it, otherwise why bother to withdraw it? I think that amounts to contrition.

Donald: Compliance is the key. We tend to give up on the non-compliant, at some point—on those who don’t comply with the law, our advice, and so on. The parables show us that God does not.

Don: It seems as if from God’s perspective, contrition is not a big deal. The Prodigal’s father brushed aside his son’s contrition. But it was important from the perspective of the Prodigal son.

What should the end product of grace be? What do we expect of God, and what do we expect of ourselves? How can grace be administered if people don’t want it, and have the free will to reject it? We will discuss these questions next week.


Leave a Reply