Saturday, January 21, 2012

Mr. Gingrich and Cheap Grace

" only duty as a Christian is to leave the world for an hour or two on a Sunday morning and go to church to be assured my sins are forgiven. I need no longer try to follow Christ, for cheap grace, the bitterest foe of discipleship, which true discipleship must loathe and detest, has freed me from that. Grace as the data for our calculations means grace at the cheapest price, but grace as the answer to the sum means costly grace. It is terrifying to realize what use can be made of a genuine evangelical doctrine. In both cases we have the identical formula--'justification by faith alone.' Yet the misuse of the formula leads to the complete destruction of its very essence."
  --Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

We moved to South Carolina just as the Republican primary here was just beginning to crank up. We’ve heard a lot of cranking from these quarters the last few weeks. Most of the attacks, strangely enough, were not directed toward our sitting President. Most of the missiles were hurled at each other. Since South Carolina has been known to break or make Republican presidential contenders—the candidates have felt much was at stake in this deep-South state.

The most lethal attacks were directed toward the two primary horses in the race—Romney and Gingrich. And those attacks came from the two leading contenders themselves. The ugliness came from Gingrich’s remarks and Romney’s behind-the-scenes advertising. Stephen Cobert weighed in with enough levity to put this whole charade in perspective.

In the last debate on Thursday night I felt it was a cheap shot for Moderator John King to begin this debate by asking Mr. Gingrich about his former wife’s charge that he wanted her to engage in an open marriage arrangement. Gingrich, rightly so, was furious. He lashed back: “I can’t believe you would begin a Presidential debate with a question so scurrilous and inflammatory about my personal life when so much is at stake in this election.” Gingrich was right in his angry retort. This was no way to begin this debate and I felt it was unfair.

And yet—for months Mr. Gingrich has painted a picture of someone who has made serious mistakes in his personal life and yet has joined the Catholic Church and found forgiveness. And yet this third-time husband cannot just sweep his past under the rug. I remember that while he was still married and having affair with his third-wife-to-be he piously said that he would never speak in public again without mentioning Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Certainly there was more than an aroma of hypocrisy about those statements.

I do hope that Mr. Gingrich has found forgiveness and closed the tawdry chapters in his own personal life. Yet I kept thinking about Bonhoeffer’s contrast between cheap grace and costly grace. He wrote in his book, The Cost of Discipleship that “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church. We are fighting today for costly grace.” He continued: “Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares...Cheap grace means justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.”

Mr. Gingrich seems to have overlooked or forgotten that we have to live with the consequences of our sins and misdeeds. What happens in Vegas or Washington or Atlanta cannot stay there. The ripples we all make in the stream just go on and on--often with deadly consequences. The debris left behind his affairs and three marriages cannot be swept under the rug so easily.

It is appalling to see so many Evangelicals put aside their principles so casually when it comes to Mr. Gingrich’s marital failings. Bonhoeffer wrote that in supporting a casual grace that makes so few demands on the person ”the Christian (then) can live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin.... 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.”

Bonhoeffer was right when, in the title of his book, he states that discipleship is always costly. For the Christian, ethics always comes before politics. And when we reverse that order we might remember what happened in Nazi Germany when churchmen and supposedly good Christians forgot what comes first for the followers of Jesus.

Mr. Gingrich is no Hitler. But he has forgotten his Baptist heritage on its good days and his new-found Catholic faith when it, too places its priorities in the proper order. This does not mean that I am not about to get out a Romney for President placard—but it does mean that I do not scrap his name simply because of his Mormon faith.

T.S. Eliot, in another age reminded us:

“Remember the faith that took men from home
At the call of a wandering preacher,
Our age is an age of moderate virtue
And of moderate vice
When men will not lay down the Cross
Because they will never assume it.
Yet nothing is impossible, nothing,
To men of faith and conviction.
Let us therefore make perfect our will,
O God, help us.”
     --T.S. Eliot, Choruses from 'The Rock'


  1. Well said! Another thing that troubles me about the political landscape was the way the crowd at one of the debates booed Ron Paul when he invoked the Golden Rule as a way our country should treat other countries. I see too many Evangelical Christians now who are cheering cheap grace and booing the Golden Rule! I count myself a Christian, but if I thought these political Evangelicals were the only Christian standard, I would be checking out other avenues.

  2. i'm sorry, but those same people who cheered for gingrich not to be judged by his sexual exploits would have jeered if had been clinton doing the same. gingrich appealed to all that is lowest and base in south carolinians and none of what is good... and won big. it is a sad, sad commentary on our state and its people. i personally think gingrich deserves to reap what he has sown, not as punishment but as natural consequences... just as those who have abused their bodies have to live with the residue, so do those who have so long abused their soul...... and personally, i see no indication that he is taking care of it now.