There’s a misunderstanding of the nature of gifts and giving that is pervasive in our contemporary culture and even in our churches. It’s the idea that a gift, by its very nature, requires no response from the recipient. For a gift to truly be a gift, the reasoning goes, it must be entirely and radically gratuitous, which in turn means that the recipient must be entirely passive. If any response is required, then it isn’t truly a gift.
The intention behind this construal of gift is understandable and even laudable. In Christian circles, the purpose is to highlight the radical priority of divine grace. But all too often the consequence of an unbalanced perspective on gift and grace is a humanity that views itself as bereft of any corresponding duty and thereby one that separates faith and works. This error is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and pastor, excoriated as “cheap grace.” In his classic study Discipleship, Bonhoeffer described cheap grace as “grace without a price, without costs. It is said that the essence of grace is that the bill for it is paid in advance for all time.” Costly grace, by contrast, is the “call of Jesus Christ,” which is “costly, because it forces people under the yoke of following Jesus Christ; it is grace when Jesus says, ‘My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’”
Oftentimes the perspective described by Bonhoeffer as cheap grace is taken to be synonymous with the teaching of the Reformation, which expressed the idea that we are saved sola gratia, by grace alone. But the Reformation doctrine was never that the divine gift of grace leaves the human person or their situation unchanged. Instead, as Bonhoeffer writes, “During the Reformation, God reawakened the gospel of pure, costly grace through God’s servant Martin Luther.” The distinctive reformational understanding of grace is captured in no better way than in the Heidelberg Catechism’s narrative arc, which moves from a description of sin and humanity’s fallenness, to salvation and God’s work of saving grace, to service and humankind’s response to the reality of salvation. This dynamic of sin, salvation, and service can be likewise described as the move from guilt to grace to gratitude. Indeed, we might understand the grace of salvation as a divine gift, which shows in even greater relief the necessary relationship between gift and gratitude.
This understanding of gift, which by its very nature requires a response of gratefulness and service, destroys the error of cheap grace, which Bonhoeffer called “the mortal enemy of our church.” The connection between gift and gratitude invigorates a life of stewardship and responsibility. We see the reality of this fuller view of gift as inspiring gratitude in our everyday experiences. We are taught that when someone gives us something the appropriate response is to say “thank you,” for instance. We are taught as well that when we are given a gift for a birthday the right thing to do is to write a “thank you” note.
But consider too the more remarkable case of Gorilla Pictures, a film and video production firm based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The short feature “Lift as You Climb,” part of the newly-released stewardship curriculum Our Great Exchange, describes how the gift of a digital camera, a Red One, “changed everything” for the film company. In fact, the principals behind Gorilla Pictures were given not one, but two Red Ones, an act of generosity that “changed their business completely.”
“I think that when somebody gives you something that you haven’t earned and couldn’t afford, that thing comes with an incredible amount of responsibility,” says Eric Johnson, an owner and principal at Gorilla. “Sure, you could lock it away in a closet and just say, ‘Okay, I’ve got this resource and I’m going to use it up until it’s irrelevant,’ or whatever, but then what?” The generosity of Eric Johnson and Eric Machiela of Gorilla Pictures in response to the gift of the cameras in turn created a community of dynamic and productive stewardship.
In this way, the proper posture towards a gift is gratitude. In practice this is expressed not so much in an obligation to “pay it back,” so much as it is in a duty to “pay it forward.” Gratitude is due to the giver, and generosity is due to others. This dynamic between gift, gratitude toward the giver, and generosity toward others is formed by the primary reality of divine grace: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). The initiative is taken by the giver, and when God is the giver, he empowers his people to be stewards of grace and givers to others in turn.
The relationship between gift and responsibility is captured memorably in Augustine’s prayer, “Give what you command, and then command whatever you will.” This is the costly grace of stewardship, when God entrusts people to be responsible givers in response to and on the basis of his good gifts.