GOD'S MERCY IS FREE BUT NOT CHEAP

Fr Billy Swan



It’s an oxymoron in other areas of life. How can something be free but not cheap? If we have to pay for it, even a small amount, then it might be cheap but can’t be free. The only order in which this is true is the order of God’s grace and mercy.

First, God’s mercy is free. It cannot be earned for it is a gift. It goes before us, waiting to be discovered and accepted. ‘God loved us first’ as St John reminds us (1 John 4:19). Before we were old enough to think or do anything, God’s unconditional love goes before us. This is what Pope Francis calls ‘the primacy of grace’ in his encyclical ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ – a principle that is fundamental to the preaching and teaching of the Christian message. God’s love is available without charge to all and his mercy is given to those who turn to Him and ask for forgiveness.

In the Gospel for this Third Sunday of Easter, we see God’s abundant mercy on display when Jesus appears to his disciples in the account by St Luke. His disciples and friends had let him down. Peter had denied him and most of the others had ran away, as he predicted they would. Now he was back. But was he back for revenge? Did he dismiss them from his friendship as punishment? No. His first words to them were: ‘Peace be with you!’ For someone who had absorbed so much violence on to his own body and soul, here he was offering back the gift of peace to a wounded community. He then invites them to touch his wounds. Christ invites them to be intimate with him and to allow their vulnerability to meet his. Touching his wounds was also his way of saying: ‘See, it is really me! But see too how much I have suffered for love of you! The peace, forgiveness and mercy I offer you now was won at the high price of my blood that gushed from these open wounds you now touch’.

In his First Letter, Peter, who had known the mercy of Christ after denying his Master, puts it this way: ‘For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ’ (1 Pet. 1:18-19). Peter knew that the mercy of Christ that had given him another chance was a free gift to him. Yet it was one that came at great cost to the man who loved him. Peter knew that the mercy given him was free but had not come cheaply.

In the second reading this Sunday, we find Peter again. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he stood up to speak and what he had to say did not tickle the ears of his listeners. He was not there to ingratiate himself to his audience. His basic message was: ‘Jesus, the righteous son of God, was killed and all of us are responsible. Repent and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out’. Peter’s message was not one of God’s mercy making us feel better but that it was a power and a gift that moves us to change and repent.

This engaging and transforming quality of mercy is explained in a beautiful instruction given to newly baptized Christians in Jerusalem in the early Church. In this text the author writes of Christ’s mercy: ‘What boundless love! The innocent hands and feet of Christ were pierced by the nails. He suffered the pain. We suffer neither pain nor anguish: yet by letting me participate in his pain he gives us the free gift of salvation’ (Office of Readings, Easter Octave, Thursday). Moved by the love of God, the author knows that while mercy is free, it hasn’t come cheap.

The term ‘cheap grace’ was coined by the German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was killed by the Nazis in 1945 for challenging their human rights abuses. Being faithful to Christ and the truth of the Gospel cost him his life. He suffered for his faith. In his book ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ Bonhoeffer explains what he meant by cheap grace. ‘Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate’.

Here Bonhoeffer is faithful to the Scriptural witness of God’s grace and mercy being free but not cheap. On one hand, God’s mercy can never be earned or manipulated. On the other hand, his mercy is always effective in transforming the one who receives it when it is allowed to penetrate the pores of the conscience, will and soul. This is important for it challenges a false notion of mercy that simply ‘cloaks over’ our bad behaviour and habits, allowing them to continue and their root causes to be untouched. And while a general confession might help us to feel better in the short term, mercy’s fruits are frustrated if there is not a real conversion of heart.

To use an analogy. Imagine a compost heap in a garden. One night it snows heavily during the winter. The compost heap is covered with a blanket of white snow – it looks pleasant but underneath it remains a compost heap. The outer covering of snow does not effect a substantial change to the compost heap. It simply covers over it. God’s mercy is not like a covering of snow. Unlike Luther’s understanding of grace, mercy does not simply cloak over human dysfunction. In the Catholic tradition in particular, grace and mercy have a more penetrating and transformative effect. Like the Word of God, grace and mercy go right to the very heart of our divided wills ‘piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart’ (Heb. 4:12). That is why, within the sacrament of Reconciliation, the Church asks us to recall our sins ‘in number and kind’:

‘A member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and number all grave sins committed after baptism and not yet remitted directly through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession, of which the person has knowledge after diligent examination of conscience’ (Canon 988, 1).

The reason why the Church asks this is not to humiliate us or be intrusive. Rather it is to ensure that the light of God’s grace touches every nook and cranny of our conscience, hearts and wills so that its transforming power might be effective in us.

Perhaps C.S. Lewis describes it best with typically clarity. For him, the Spirit of Christ turns us into ‘a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine’ (Mere Christianity). He reminds us therefore: ‘The Christian life is not mere improvement but transformation – a change from being creatures of God to being ‘children of God’ (Mere Christianity).

In sum - God’s mercy is free but not cheap. The abundant offer of that mercy and our awareness of the price paid for it, moves us to joyful praise but also to repentance with those who heard Peter’s words and were ‘cut to the heart’ (Acts 2:37). His mercy is not a cover under which ‘anything goes’ and all will be well in the end. Rather it is a power that turns hard hearts and makes them new (cf. Ezek. 36:26-27). God gives us the strength to begin again. ‘It is in discovering the greatness of God’s love that our hearts are shaken by the horror and weight of sin and begins to fear offending God by sin and being separated from him. The human heart is converted by looking upon him whom our sins have pierced’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1432). By his wounds we have been healed (1 Pet. 2:24).