Stewarding Grace and the Costliness of Christmas

By Dr. Scott Rodin    

December 1, 2023

Christmas is a very costly celebration, or at least it should be. The temptation we face this holiday season is to make Christmas cheap. Let me explain.

The Apostle Peter tells the church that they are stewards of the grace of God (1 Peter 4:10). What does it mean to steward grace? To steward anything means to be a caretaker of something that doesn’t belong to you. It means acknowledging that someone else is the owner and you have been asked to care for it and use it as the owner directs. When scripture tells us we are stewards of the grace of God, it calls us to treat grace as something holy and entirely outside of us. We don’t own it; it’s not ours to manipulate for our convenience, conform to our biases, or mold to fit our version of the truth. Quite the opposite. Oswald Chambers makes a rather shocking claim about grace,

“We have to realize that we cannot earn or win anything from God through our own efforts. We must try to receive it as a gift or do without it. The greatest spiritual blessing we receive is when we come to the knowledge that we are destitute. Until we get there, our Lord is powerless. He can do nothing for us as long as we think we are sufficient in and of ourselves. We must enter into his kingdom through the door of destitution.”[1]

This word will not sit well with our self-indulged, individualistic culture. Understanding grace brings us to the great divide that Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes so well in The Cost of Discipleship. In his discussion of cheap grace versus costly grace, he describes the former this way,

“Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! … 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.”[2]

This version of grace is preached by pastors who are more concerned with offending people than offending God. They’ve discovered that the best way to avoid conflicts with culture is to preach grace without cost. As followers of Jesus, we may all be uncomfortable talking about sin, and why shouldn’t we be? One person subscribed Sin as ‘our claim to our right to ourselves’. That is the theology of our day; everyone claims that they have a right to determine what they believe, how they choose to live, and what is true for them. In this entitlement mindset, this cheap, costless counterfeit is the only acceptable form of grace. In this understanding of grace, everything is lost. This grace has no power to transform. It sets no one free. And ultimately, it does not save. How many of us will go through the entire Christmas season hanging onto cheap grace so as not to be confronted with the need to change to follow the babe of Bethlehem?

In this distorted understanding of God’s greatest gift, Bonhoeffer speaks powerfully of true grace, what he calls ‘costly grace.’ Listen to his words as you prepare for this Advent season.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God. [3]

Preaching such costly grace in our culture today will truly be costly. But can we celebrate the Incarnation and avoid such a cost? Can we come to the manger in Bethlehem and consider the power of ‘God with us’ and not be brought to our knees? When we consider the holiness of God, the humility of the manger, and ultimately the sacrifice of the cross, can it work anything less in us than acknowledging our absolute destitution before a holy God? We dare not blithely smile at the nativity scene with a romanticized version of the nativity story and then continue with our Christmas shopping.

God help us if we do not preach costly grace at Advent. My question is, how can we help our family, neighbors, and friends not miss the cost of Christmas? How must we change our behavior to not cheapen grace by dumbing it down and selling it like cheapjack wares? How do we surrender ourselves fully to the cleansing work of coming destitute before the natal child and placing our life in the hands of the transforming love of Christ? Only in this position of total surrender can God’s amazing grace wash over us, transforming us to be conformed to the image of his Son.

As you celebrate this Advent, I encourage you to steward this costly grace. Begin your Advent journey on your knees, confessing your sins as one who is destitute and the lost. Then, side-by-side with singing ‘Away in a manger no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head,’ let us also sing, ‘Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now am found was blind, but now I see.’

May this be, for all of us, a most costly Christmas!

[1] Chambers, O. (Nov. 28). “The Riches of the Destitute” in My Utmost for His Highest – The Most Beloved Devotional of all Time.

[2] Bonhoeffer, D. (1991). The Cost of Discipleship, p. 157-158. Touchstone.

[3] Bonhoeffer, D. (1991). The Cost of Discipleship, p. 158. Touchstone.

Dr. Scott Rodin    

Dr. Rodin is the Founder and Content Expert of the Center for Steward Leader Studies. He also serves as President of Kingdom Life Publishing and Rodin Consulting Inc.

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