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Grace, Grace, Marvelous Grace

April 18, 2024

Annie Nardone

The Cultivating Reader – Literary Leaf-Mould provides a fresh source of recommended books gathered from classic and contemporary Christian authors. I will introduce you to varied genres through the ages – classic literature, poetry, myth, and inspiring non-fiction. You will also find a good cookbook here and there, because breaking bread together over a good read builds fellowship. My prayer is for you to set aside time alone and with friends to linger over good words and good food.

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

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

 Welcome to my spring reading theme of Grace! Have you noticed, dear reader, how words have become watered down or lost their original meaning? We define food as “sinfully delicious,” when in fact, I need no absolution for enjoying that chocolate truffle, nor will it be a condemnation of my soul for sharing a box of them with a friend. There was a time when awful referred to feeling “awe-full,” as in awe-inspired, especially in Scripture. My graduate school professor would challenge me to avoid verbicide and implore, “Define your terms.” Those three words were worth the price of tuition.

 So, how would you define grace? Is it a kindness that is spread out by our Father, covering our naughty behavior like sweet jam on bread? Or the gramma grace given to her grandchild who sneaks a cookie? Grace in our current culture has been gently dressed in velvet and lace, when the true embodiment of grace was robed in blood and nails on a cross. Grace was, and is, costly.

 The best way to understand what grace is all about is to first comprehend what it is not. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes of “cheap grace,” and explains that we have a “Christian ‘conception’ of God.” [1] We are taught that God forgives the worst of sin, so we proceed in life with that comfort, without remembering God’s sacrifice of His own Son that makes grace possible, and that “costly grace is the Incarnation of God.” [2] Jesus paid for our sins on that blood-stained cross, and it is a mockery that anyone should continue to use the term like theological glitter, liberally sprinkled to dress up our spirituality. Would you sacrifice your most beloved for the crimes of another? God did.

 Think of grace described in literature. Frodo’s repeated grace offered to J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbit-gone-bad in Lord of the Rings still catches my breath. Would you have killed Sméagol if you had the chance? Would I have ended his life for the evil he wrought? Probably. Remember Edmund in Narnia and his traitorous nature? In our human thinking, we may hope that he gets what he deserves. He doesn’t. Aslan sacrifices himself so that the creatures of Narnia do not get what they deserve.

 We are the recipients of unlimited love and forgiveness from the Creator of the universe, but because we don’t physically see God’s face at the time of sin, we may feel that we’ve gotten away with it. Since we are receiving forgiveness anyhow, all is well. We may believe that it wasn’t that big of a deal. But forgiveness by grace is given with the obligation of discipleship, to live in fulfillment of our call to follow Christ. Bonhoeffer states that “Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.” [3] Grace is not pretty or cheaply offered; grace is gritty and costly, difficult to deeply comprehend. My book suggestions examine true, beautiful, good Grace. 

  1. For grace defined, read “Costly Grace” in The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

This essential essay is the foundation for understanding true grace. Written in 1937 at the rise of Hitler’s Germany, Bonhoeffer calls the Church to task for settling for a secularized definition of grace, “. . . grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ . . .” [4] 

  1. To understand God’s grace for the unbeliever and the pious, read The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller. 

Using the parable of the Prodigal Son, Keller examines both sons: the deep self-willfulness of the younger and the self-righteousness of the older brother, whom we often forget. One pursues temporary pleasures, the other rests in his perceived moral righteousness. Both need grace. 

  1. Understand the depth of grace in the autobiography The God of Second Chances by Stephen Arterburn.

Every life is filled with foolish decisions and harsh consequences. Arterburn gives his unvarnished testimony of years spent in moral darkness and then finding restoration. When we rightly humble ourselves before God, we experience unending grace. 

  1. The mystery of grace in sorrow is found in A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis.

The death of your beloved tears at the fiber of your soul in undefinable ways. Lewis wrote this book from the pit of his own grief after the passing of his wife, Joy. Her death radically affected his understanding of truth, faith, and grace. Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain, a more academic analysis, long before his emotional A Grief Observed.

One can have assumptions about pain, but until you experience that dark valley, you’ll not understand the heavenly realm of holy grace. 

  1. To comprehend God’s infinite grace, read Transforming Grace by Jerry Bridges.

Salvation through God’s mercy and infinite grace is not based on your efforts to be a good Christian or your human accomplishments. Grace is unmerited. Bridges expands on Bonhoeffer’s definition of cheap grace, writing that grace is “absolutely free to us, but infinitely expensive to God.” [5] This book is a thorough explanation via Scripture, great theologians, and testimony. 

  1. A magnificent tale of grace is found in Les Misérables by Victor Hugo.

Adding this classic was a forgone conclusion! If you haven’t read the book or watched the musical, I’ll avoid details, but Hugo’s novel illustrates radical grace extended to the broken and desperate, and how unmerited grace can redeem the forgiven. 

  1. See glimmerings of grace amidst sorrow in the poetry of Love, Remember by Malcolm Guite.

I believe that poetry is essential to life, especially in helping us name our deepest emotions. Guite guides you from grief to hope through selected poems, with passages that reveal meaning and moments of grace. 

  1. So that wee ones may understand grace, read to them Saint Valentine the Kindhearted, Saint Nicholas the Giftgiver, and Saint Patrick the Forgiver, written and illustrated by Ned Bustard.

Charming, lyrical verse revealing the true stories of three Christians who changed the world by living lives of sacrifice. They extended grace to others as a reflection of the grace given to them by God. Ned’s linocut illustrations are a meaningful complement to these lovely children’s books. 

  1. Read of transcendent, grace-giving forgiveness in The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom.

Corrie and her family were captured and imprisoned in German concentration camps. Even when surrounded by horrific conditions, Corrie and her sister experienced grace upon grace from God. I marvel at their gift of seeing God’s goodness in the fleetest of moments. 

  1. Read of abiding grace and peace through difficulty in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

This coming-of-age classic about the March sisters depicts the difficulties and joys experienced as they grow older. Each girl struggles with her own flaws but matures in grace and mercy. New at each reading. 

“Bonhoeffer insisted that people whose lives remained unchanged by God’s grace didn’t really understand its costliness and therefore didn’t really understand the gospel. They had a general idea of God’s universal love, but not a real grasp of the seriousness of sin and the meaning of Christ’s work on our behalf.”

—Tim Keller, The Prodigal God

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Costly Grace,” The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 43.

[2] Ibid., 45.

[3] Ibid., 43.

[4] Ibid., 45.

[5] Jerry Bridges, Transforming Grace (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2008), 162.

The featured image, “Graceful Oregon Thoughts,” is courtesy of Ariel Lovewell and is used with her kind permission for Cultivating.


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