Costly grace and bioethics

I am currently reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Discipleship, and thinking about how what he said relates to bioethics. One of the significant concepts in this book is the idea of costly grace. Bonhoeffer wrote “It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live. It is costly, because it condemns sin; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s Son – “you were bought with a price” – and because nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God. Above all, it is grace because the life of God’s Son was not too costly for God to give in order to make us live.” (45)

One of the difficulties of Christian ethics (including Christian bioethics) is that when we focus on doing what is right it can seem like we are saying that doing what is right is necessary to gain God’s favor and that we are negating the foundational Christian doctrine of salvation by grace. That was a significant issue in Bonhoeffer’s Germany. The established church had taken a position which Bonhoeffer called cheap grace. They were saying that since God’s grace is freely given and we can do nothing to earn it, we should not try to do what is right, but should conform to the standards of society to show that our salvation is entirely free and not related to any effort of our own. That led them to conform to the Nazi regime’s practices that were engulfing their country and not to oppose them.

Bonhoeffer helps us to see that Jesus has paid the price for our salvation and that we can do nothing to earn it, but that God’s grace calls us to be disciples of Jesus. As we seek to follow him by the power of his Spirit and his transforming grace, we will seek to live by his standards. The moral reflection of Christian bioethics helps us to understand how God would have us live in response to his grace in our increasingly complex world.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Discipleship. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

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