Grace Isn’t Cheap If Somebody Paid for It

By Chris Sparks

One of the most common traditionalist criticisms of the Divine Mercy message and devotion is that it emphasizes unearned mercy or (borrowing a phrase from the great Protestant thinker Dietrich Bonhoeffer) cheap grace. They see claims like “Divine Mercy is the greatest attribute of God” or:

I perform works of mercy in every soul. The greater the sinner, the greater the right he has to My mercy. My mercy is confirmed in every work of My hands. He who trusts in My mercy will not perish, for all his affairs are Mine, and his enemies will be shattered at the base of My footstool (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 723)

and they find them wildly over the top, far too gratuitous. Where is the call for repentance? Where is the enforcement of the laws of God? Where do we see justice done by way of reparation, of penance?

I understand the impulse to raise such criticisms. After all, our faith trains us in penance through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We hear from the Magisterium of our Church, as well as the teaching and example of many saints, of the power and importance of prayer, suffrages, and acts of mortification on behalf of the dead. Somehow, the temporal punishment due to sin must be erased, whether through suffering that punishment in Purgatory or through the Church’s gracious application of the merits available to it in the treasury of merits, the inexhaustible store of merit filled to overflowing through Christ and His saints.

But even as I understand where such criticisms are coming from, I can’t help but think they’re also overlooking the many, many sufferings and acts of reparation that St. Faustina was burdened with throughout her life. Indeed, the Lord called her the Secretary and Apostle of Divine Mercy. She is a necessary part of the message.

And her life tells us a crucial truth about Divine Mercy: It shifts the burden of penance from sinners to saints. Just look at Jesus and His work of salvation! The high point of His life on earth, the peak event, is His Passion, death, and Resurrection. For this He was born. Everything He said and did was building to this moment, to this work of redemption, of inviting sinners into Heaven by means of His great self-sacrifice.

The grace that comes from the Cross of Christ is not cheap grace, but it’s also not grace that we can earn. It comes to us as a gift, obtained for us by Jesus. This tells us the central dynamic of the Divine Mercy message and devotion, as well as the whole Christian life: Those of us who are ostensibly closest to Christ have the greatest burden of penance on behalf of the rest of the world.

We are the rich. We are the ones with infinite resources in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, in message and devotion, in the Spirit, in faith and hope and charity. By our prayers, fasting, and almsgiving through uniting our sacrifices and sufferings to the Eucharistic sacrifice, and thereby with Jesus’ on the Cross, we may bring people to conversion. We may rescue the lost sheep, bind up the wounds of the man beaten by robbers. We may help lighten the burdens of our fellow man. We may be Simon the Cyrenian, helping to carry the crosses of our brethren.

We are not allowed to tie up heavy burdens of law, of Christian morality, of decent behavior, and not lift a finger to help others carry them. We are summoned to try to help lighten loads wherever we can through mercy — prayer, word, deed (see Diary, 742).

So we need to ask ourselves, “How do we make matters easier for the sinners? How do we pay the debts of others? How do we help people carry crosses?”

Yes, justice is indispensable in any society, but so is mercy.

We Marian Helpers and Divine Mercy devotees who tend to self-identify as traditional, conservative Catholics need to look at the falling and fallen modern world and not condemn it, but rather ask, “How do I lighten the load? How do I alleviate some of the guilt of my neighbors? How do I make it easier for us all to bear the consequences of our sins?”

So let us look at the world around us with the mind of the Church, noting where we are suffering from the consequences of error and sin. Then let us commit ourselves to including reparation for those errors and sins in our devotional prayers, in our Mass intentions, and as part of our works of mercy. As we make our daily offering, let’s be mindful of the burdens borne by our neighbors, and ask God that our daily prayers, works, joys, and sufferings may go a long way toward helping and healing our communities.

Pray for me, that I may practice what I preach. I’ll pray for you.

Chris Sparks serves as senior book editor for the Marian Fathers. He is the author of the Marian Press book How Can You Still Be Catholic? 50 Answers to a Good Question.

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Image of icon written by Vivian Imbruglia

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