Cheap grace: theology which fails to safeguard the vulnerable

At the moment the Church of England is being investigated by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

Initially the focus is into the safeguarding of children in Chichester diocese.  This will be followed by a focus on the handling of Bishop Peter Ball, who was imprisoned in 2015 after admitting abuse of 18 young people over a fifteen year period.

The Rt Rev Peter Hancock, the lead-Bishop for safeguarding, warned the church: “We will hear deeply painful accounts of abuse, of poor response, and over cover-up.”

It is painful.  I have had countless conversations with people affected by these kinds of scandals.  Understandably, many have lost all faith in the Church.

Institutional sin

Any abuse of vulnerable people is deeply wrong. But what compounds these sins is the incompetent, reluctant and dishonest ways the institution responds. So often, the Church is shown to have got it priorities wrong: seeking institutional damage-limitation, protecting perpetrators and safeguarding the reputations of its leaders. This all adds up to marginalising or silencing the victim.

The focus of learning is often mainly on the lack of accountability, organisational culture and effective systems.  But, theology plays a role too. And I think a key reason for the poor way in which safeguarding matters are handled lies in what Dietrich Bonhoeffer termed ‘cheap grace’.

The deadly enemy of the Church

Bonhoeffer was a German pastor-theologian who was appalled by the inadequate response of the German Church to the rise of Nazism. As a leading member of the ‘Confessing Church’, he ran an illegal seminary for trainee pastors in the late 1930s. During this time he wrote The Cost of Discipleship. The opening lines of the book are:

“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting to-day for costly grace.”

Bonhoeffer was part of a Church deeply shaped by Martin Luther’s emphasis on salvation by grace alone. But Bonhoeffer saw how Luther’s theology had become warped as it was turned into a theory detached from practice:

‘Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth…an intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins.’

The radical way of Jesus can never be followed by mere ‘intellectual assent’. The cheapening of grace removes the transformative elements of faith and church practice:

“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.”


God offers everyone an opportunity for forgiveness, a new start, a true hope. But we cannot detach this grace from the demands of truth. The route to grace is via confession, an honest admission of the wrong done, and repentance, a radical change of direction. Without authentic confession and repentance, grace costs nothing.

Often in safeguarding scandals, senior ministers or priests have accepted private, verbal assurances from perpetrators that in reality cost them nothing. Too often, instead of proper investigations which seek the truth, perpetrators move on, remaining in positions of influence without the situation really being dealt with. Because of this, these people remain in a position to abuse again.

The cross

The cross is the symbol of the Christian faith. It reminds us of the cost of what God did through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It is the opposite of a magic wand.

God chose to deal with the brokenness of the world by engaging with all the shit, carnage, pain and injustice in our world. Sin was confronted and defeated – not ignored or skirted over.

Living costly grace

Jesus said that if we follow him, we must take up our crosses and live out this costly grace. This is what any church caught up in a safeguarding scandal needs to learn from.

Cheap grace is easy to grant – but it changes nothing. When it comes to safeguarding, its a theology which helps hide and deepen the sin.

But this not just relevant for the institutional Church. It is a principle true across all walks of life: in the management of organisations, in marriages and other relationships or personal conduct.

If we settle for the cheap grace of easy forgiveness, air-brushing the issues and not confronting problems, then it all comes back to bite us.

We need the faith and courage to confront and tackle the real issues. Only then can we experience the costly grace which has the power to transform.

2 thoughts on “Cheap grace: theology which fails to safeguard the vulnerable”

  1. Thanks Jon. Sadly so true. I wonder how much, in the Church of England context, the practice of infant baptism with very little, if any, discipleship of the parents, or the child as he or she grows up, bolsters the culture of cheap grace. Speaking as a CofE vicar, I think Bonheoffer’s words are the most powerful criticism of such practice.


  2. Thanks Jon. A good thinking point as I set off to walk 120 miles carrying a cross… For me cheap grace is a sign that God is not in fact present in the act of forgiveness (or restructuring or new practices and regulations).


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