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Bargain Shopping and Cheap Grace

By June 27, 20113 Comments

Have you ever looked back on the past year and noticed a few major themes or lessons that God was teaching you? This year, one of those themes has been stewardship. In particular, I have been challenged with how I spend the “other 90%”–that is, the money that I don’t tithe or give to charity. That money belongs to God too, and I have felt increasingly burdened by how I am spending it.

As we learn more and more about where our products come from–ie. how a company treats its employees, animals, or the environment–the above issue is one I find increasingly difficult to ignore. On the one hand, we are so disconnected from the production process that it’s easy to turn a blind eye, but the reality is that the dollars we spend can perpetuate injustices all over the world. As a Christian, that matters to me.

But there is a theological component in play as well. In particular, there is a striking parallel between buying things cheaply and the Christian response to God’s grace. I know that sounds like a weird comparison, but just hang with me a second!

Consider, for a moment, stores that sell products at bottom rung prices. When I buy those products I think I’m getting a good deal. Why buy organic food or fair trade clothes when I can get cheaper versions at a big chain grocery store or mega-mart?

Here’s the problem: That product is probably cheap for me because somebody already paid the price. The cute blouse I bought at a bargain price may have been produced in a factory in a China where employees work 15 hours a day for about $12 a week. I didn’t have to pay much because a factory worker already did. She worked long hours for low wages so that I could get a good deal.

A price tag is not always indicative of worth. Many times, a good deal is only good for me. And that is where I notice a troubling parallel with the Christian life.

In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously decried the Christian notion of “cheap grace,” the idea that saving grace can be had without a cost. Because grace is free for Christ’s followers, many Christians live as if the price tag is indicative of its worth. Salvation came cheaply to us, so we treat it cheaply. We take advantage of God’s grace by trodding over the cross and making off with the goods. As Bonhoeffer summarized, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Yet the grace we have in Christ is not cheap at all. It is an immeasurably valuable grace that cost Jesus his life. Even though the gift is free to us, it is perhaps the most costly gift ever to have been bought in all eternity.

So what does all of this have to do with bargain shopping? Several things. First, it is important to note the haunting parallel between Bonhoeffer’s description of cheap grace and our modern shopping practices. In both scenarios, someone else had to make a tremendous sacrifice so that the gift would be “affordable” for us. And in both scenarios, we are prone to assess the value of the gift solely by the price tag, not its actual worth.

Second, this parallel brings a whole new meaning to Jesus’ words, “Whatever you did for one the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matt. 25:40) In a very broken way, many of the people who make our clothes are modeling the grace relationship we have in Christ. These poor and marginalized individuals are bearing the cost that should have been borne by us.

Third, this economic dynamic challenges Christians to question the entire order of our relationship to the poor. Are they to be making sacrifices for us, or are we to be making sacrifices for them? As a student who doesn’t have much money, that is a particularly difficult question. My husband and I don’t have a lot of extra money to buy fair trade goods, which means we have to cut corners elsewhere and make some sacrifices. But isn’t that what it means to be a Christian? Am I not called to model Christ’s sacrifice in this world, and thereby point back to the perfect sacrifice we have in Him? (Heb. 13:16)

Lastly, I want to shop in a way that is theologically consistent with the faith I profess. I shouldn’t cheapen the sacrifice of the poor anymore than I cheapen the sacrifice of Christ. In fact, Bonhoeffer might argue that when we cheapen the sacrifice of the poor we also cheapen the sacrifice of Christ. Cheap grace, after all, manifests itself in a life without change As Bonhoeffer put it:

Cheap grace “amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs…Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.”

When we take advantage of the poor we take advantage of God’s grace (Proverbs 14:31). So while I don’t pretend to be perfect in this area–it is an issue I am trying to think about more and more, step by step–I cannot ignore this injustice in good conscience. I hope you won’t either. While it is easy to think that stewardship is about bargain shopping, I am learning that it can sometimes be just the opposite. Stewardship is not about saving a buck, but using that buck to honor God and His creation.


  • I think you have made some great points. I wonder, however, if the “sacrifice” we as Americans see in “the cute blouse I bought at a bargain price…produced in a factory in a China where employees work 15 hours a day for about $12 a week” is viewed differently by that Chinese worker. We Christians should not knowingly financially support the exploitation of other people, but we should also be aware that the definition of “exploitation” may be different for the worker who might not otherwise have any source of income.

  • Sharon says:

    That’s a really important point! When we put sweat factories out of business, sometimes the women employed by them end up in prostitution or sex trafficking as a means to survive. That said, I think we need to support business that treat employees fairly, but we also need to influence already existing companies to improve their working conditions. It is definitely a complex issue.

  • Mae Lynn Ziglar says:

    This was such a refreshing article to read, Sharon!
    Adam and I have been striving to live this out in our local community as much as possible. I feel like the Church should lead the way in shopping locally. In doing so, we build relationships with our neighbors which in turn opens doors to evangelism.
    The fact of the matter is, we live in a very consumer-driven culture and as Christians we should not be consumed by those practices. Just as we should live lives that are spiritually different than the world’s, we should pay special attention to how we consume goods and services.
    Thank you again for touching on this subject!

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