Beyond Cheap Grace: A Call to Radical Discipleship, Incarnation, and Justice

Eldin Villafañe, Eerdmans, 2006, 98 pp.

This is the book that I referenced in the closing worship service sermon at 2008 Synod Assembly. Villafañe is a professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. This six chapters in this book are shaped by three lectures he gave in 2004, each followed by a response from another theologian:

1. The Christian Mindset and Postmodernity: Lessons from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians
2. A response by Richard Peace
3. “El Verbo fue Hecho Carne”: The Incarnation and Theological Education
4. A response by Juan Francisco Martinez
5. Amos the Intrepid Leader for Justice: Three Indispensable Qualities for a Minister of the Word of God.
6. Response by Veli-Mattí Kärkkäinen

The Christian Mindset and Postmodernity

Villafañe begins an immediate attack on the theology of glory, calling upon Bonhoeffer to remind us of the cost of discipleship: “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church… Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares… Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again… Such grace is costly because it call us to follow and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.”

Then Villafañe puts Bonhoeffer in his own 21st century terms: “Cheap grace… speaks to us of an ‘easy’ Christianity… a Christianity that doesn’t cost much… it thinks and says, in fact, ‘Please don’t ask too much of me;’ … ‘Don’t place any demands on me.”… ‘Do not disturb.’”

 “Such a Christianity cannot respond to the concerns and mindset of our postmodern world.
 “Such a Christianity has no attraction for a world in search of identity and meaning.
 “Such a Christianity offers no hope to a hopeless world!
 “Such a Christianity is a scandal to the scandal of the cross!”

He takes apart Philippians 2 as Paul’s call for us to have the mind of Christ, to be:

 Nothing
 Servants
 Humble
 Obedient unto death

Richard Peace responds by pouring gas on the flame. “Come to the church,” we say, “we will entertain you… We won’t demand anything much of you.” He goes on about Gen X, the 20-30-somethings, and how they are distancing themselves from the so-called seeker churches. Their emerging churches are more committed to justice, more focused on transformation than information, more focused on community. He outlines four defining marks of Gen X spirituality:

1. Institutions are suspect
2. Experience is key
3. Suffering has a religious dimension
4. Ambiguity is central to the faith

Remember, he says, these are suffering folks. They are the first latch-key kids. They are children of divorce. They are outnumbered, overshadowed and forgotten. He sees the emerging church as a corrective for the baby-boomer prosperity, success churches – a return to the cross.

El Verbo fue Hecho Carne

Villafañe draws upon the writings of Miguel de Unamuno to make a case for using the theology of incarnation to renew the church. The Word became flesh in Christ, and Christ becomes flesh in us. We are the body (flesh) of Christ.

He goes on to outline the challenges globalization throws at a church trying to incarnate Christ: evangelism, ecumenism, justice, inter-religious dialog, racial, gender and cultural equality. He quotes the often quoted challenge of Barth: “God always takes his stand unconditionally and passionately on this side and this side alone: against the lofty and on behalf of the lowly, against those who enjoy right and privilege, and on behalf of those who are denied it and deprived of it.”

Villafañe uses the classical heresies regarding the person of Christ to illustrate what is happening in theological education. Docetism and Apollonariansim (denial of the humanity of Christ) has taken the shape of the overspiritualizion of theological education. We focus heavily on Bible and theology to the detriment of mission and justice, practice and incarnation. Ebionism and Arianism (denial of the deity of Christ) express themselves in evangelical prosperity doctrine, the so-called health and wealth gospel. Nestorianism and Monophysitism (denying the unity of Christ) manifests itself in the tendency to split theory from practice. Body/soul, mind/body, the constant conversation in our seminaries about the integration of curriculum – all these reveal a struggle with an age-old heresy.

Martinez responds by pointing out our seminaries are focusing on white, suburban ministries, and our theology is often not grounded in reality, but an exercise in quoting dead white males to enjoy intellectual theological philosophizing. Incarnation means theology must be contextualized. Incarnation must be a hermeneutical method. Our seminaries do Carnegie’s three tasks of a professional school, but at different degrees: We are great at intellectual, cognitive learning. We are so-so at developing a body of skills. We are poor at developing the values of the professional group (clergy). Are we taking discipleship seriously?

Amos, Intrepid Leader for Justice

The final essay begins with Luther as an intrepid leader. Courage is the essential ingredient in effective leadership. One cannot lead without it. Then he moves to Amos, yearning for the prophetic voice among today’s clergy. He develops the concepts of tsedek (justice as living in a right relationship with someone) and mishpat (justice as simple fairness, the best word for the Greek dikaiosyne). Gerhard von Rad says, “There is absolutely no concept in the Old Testament with so central a significance for all relationships of human life as that of tsedek (justice).”

Amos starts with Syria to the north and moves counterclockwise around Israel, saving the big whopper for last. Syria is guilty of violence, cruelty and atrocities. Philistia (Gaza) – slave trading. Phoenicia – treaty breaking. Ammon – imperialism and atrocities. He points out that all of these are alive and well today. Slavery (human trafficking) is at an all-time high. Yet we live in a church that believes these are political issues, and not the concern of the church.

The worst is saved for Israel and Judah: idolatry. Of course idolatry can be Baal or Mammon. Today our money idolatry is tearing the world apart. And our imperialism has been a catalyst for much violence in a dangerous world.

Amos says,

“they sell the needy for a pair of sandals…”

“You trample on the poor…”

“…you have built stone mansions; you will not live in them.”

His message is clear: God champions the cause of the alien, the widow, the orphan, the poor. How can the church gloss over this message?

Kärkkäinen resonates with the author’s insistence on Yahweh’s covenant faithfulness as expressed in justice. He takes it further, saying that the Trinity is the model for relationality. That as the Trinity is relational, equal, interdependent, so is God’s relationship with humanity and all creation. He quotes Leonardo Boff who says, in Trinity and Society, that the godhead should be our “social program.”

He asks how eschatology and social justice might inform the preacher who wishes to preach the full gospel.

This book is a great reminder of the importance of incarnational theology in every aspect of the church’s life.