Taking God’s amazing grace for granted.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 November

Legalism is the opposite of grace. But we’re quick to cry legalism if it gets us out of stuff.

CHEAP GRACE /tʃip greɪs/ n. Treatment of God’s forgiveness, generosity, and loving attitude, as if it’s nothing special; as if it cost him little.

Whenever I bring up the subject of cheap grace, some Christian invariably objects: “Grace is not cheap.” Even if I’ve explained in advance what I mean by cheap grace; even if I’ve written an entire essay defining the idea.

Every. Single. Time.

’Cause some Christians don’t read. The title’s about cheap grace, so they skip to the comments and object: “Grace isn’t cheap!” They see a link to an article about cheap grace, so they respond to the link or the Tweet or the post, “Grace isn’t cheap!” While speaking, I use the words “cheap grace” in a sentence, and they wait for the first chance to interrupt: “Grace isn’t cheap!”

YES. I KNOW. I’M TRYING TO MAKE THAT POINT. I WOULD IF YOUD LISTEN. So can you please keep your knee from jerking just this once, and give me a minute? Okay? (Betcha I’m still gonna get those comments regardless. You just watch. Ugh.)

Adam Clayton Powell Sr. gets credited with coining this term, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer with popularizing the heck out of it in his The Cost of Discipleship. It’s used to describe “grace”—whenever this grace is misdefined and malpracticed by irreligious Christians. As Bonhoeffer put it,

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. “All for sin could not atone.” The world goes on in the same old way, and we are still sinners “even in the best life” as Luther said. Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin. […] Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. 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, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Bonhoeffer 44-45

That’s cheap grace: Taking expensive, valuable, amazing grace, and demeaning it by using it as a free pass to sin. Taking God’s safety net, and bouncing on it for fun like a trampoline.

Part of the reason people object to the term “cheap grace” is they don’t like to see God’s generosity taken so casually like that. Well, me neither.

Part of it’s ’cause they don’t think God’s grace actually can be cheapened. No matter what we do with grace, it’s still awesome, still worthy, still priceless. It’s like when accidentally drop your phone down a porta-potty: Doesn’t matter how foul that commode is… okay, for some of us it really does matter, and they’d never fish around for it. But many of us would. And grace is far more valuable than any mere phone. So since grace has inherent worth, nothing could cheapen it.

If that’s the way you imagine grace, I get why you’d balk at the concept of “cheap grace.” Nothing cheapens grace. But I’m not describing the grace itself; I’m describing the rotten attitude people have towards it. If they treat it like it has no value, that’s cheap grace. If you wanna call it something different, go right ahead. “Cheap grace” has already caught on, which is why I’m using that term.

Sinning so grace can increase.

Romans 6.1-4, 12-14 KWL
1 So what are we saying?—“Continue to sin, for there’s plenty of grace”?
2 Never gonna happen. We died to sin. How could we live in it?
3 Did you miss this?—We were baptized in Christ Jesus. We were baptized in his death.
4 Because of baptism in his death, we were buried with him.
So, just as Christ was raised from the dead,
thanks to the Father’s glory, we likewise can walk around in newness of life.
12 So never let sin rule in your mortal body. Don’t listen to its desires.
13 Don’t set up your body parts as sin’s tools of immorality.
Set yourselves up, instead, for God. Like life from death;
your body parts as God’s tools of morality.
14 Sin isn’t to rule over you:
You’re not under Law, but under grace.

If cheap grace is your thing, only one of those verses I quoted is relevant. Namely the first one: “Continue to sin, for there’s plenty of grace.” The rest? Ignore ’em. They’re too confusing—now that we’re dead to sin, we don’t have to sin, so don’t sin? Yeah right; you try struggling all your life to conquer the sin in your life. You try living by rules and laws and customs and commandments. Me, I have freedom in Christ! I’m gonna sin myself sticky. ’Cause no worries—I’m saved by grace! And the blood of Christ will wash away anything stuck to me.

Let’s assume we haven’t likewise adopted their hedonistic attitudes, and their ridiculous explanation for why it’s okay to live like sinners. (We haven’t, right?) How do they answer us? Simple: They call us legalists. They know we’re saved by grace. Our insistence on following standards—on being religious, as they put it—means we must not be trusting God to save us. We believe in works-righteousness or something. Whatever it is, it’s not grace… and good for them, bad for us. Not only do they get to live like pagans; they get to feel self-righteous about it too.

They glom onto any passage which even hints it’s okay to reject laws, including God’s laws, in favor of their lifestyles. And there are some. In context, these passages trying to make the point we’re not saved by works (’cause we’re not), so stop making works mandatory for the purpose of salvation: God doesn’t save us because we’re circumcised, because we’re up to date on our ritual sacrifices, because we’re so good at obeying every little Pharisaic detail of every little command, or even because we have our theology straight. It’s grace. He saves us ’cause he loves us. No other reason.


Once God saved us, there oughta be some sign he saved us, right? Something we can see, and say, “That person’s gotta be a Christian.” Something others can see, so they can confirm that salvation. We shouldn’t just spend the rest of our unchanged, untransformed, unregenerate lives wondering, “Am I really saved, or was that just wishful thinking on my part?” Yeah, there are plenty of Christians who actually teach that’s how the Christian life works—you actually never can know, they tell us, but that’s what faith is for; just believe really hard, and die hoping. I teach no such thing, because not only is that stupid, but any made-up religion could teach that and get away with it. “Go ahead and drink the poisoned Kool-Aid; you’ve got faith that you’re going to heaven afterward, right? Then that’s all you need.”

That is not Christianity. Jesus doesn’t leave us wishing and hoping and thinking and praying. He tells us what to look for: Fruit.

John 13.14 KWL
“This is how everybody will know you’re my students:
When you have love for one another.”

He didn’t save us so we can live the same sinful lives yet go to heaven anyway. He saved us so he could make us daughters and sons of God. Jn 1.12 Which means we should adopt God’s attitude: We don’t like sin any more than he does. We don’t want to sin. We’re gonna make an effort to not sin. We’re gonna try, anyway.

And we’re gonna fail, ’cause we’re not perfect. But y’know, when we do fail, we have Jesus, who dealt with our sins so we can continue in right standing with the Father. 1Jn 2.1-2 In other words, when we screw up, there’s grace. Yep, that’s what grace is for. It’s not for the jerks who keep getting arrested for driving drunk, who never intend to stop drinking and driving, yet expect Dad to bail ’em out every single time, ’cause he’s Dad, and Dad’s an easy touch. Grace is for the kids who actually love Dad, seek his will, and try to live up to his expectations. And when we don’t, it’s okay: He loves us anyway.

Those who proclaim cheap grace, treat God as a resource to take advantage of. Those who proclaim actual grace, treat God as a person we love.

Thing is, those people who take God for granted? There’s a better than average chance he’ll save them anyway, and let ’em into the kingdom. Oh, don’t kid yourself; they’ll have the lowest rank imaginable in his kingdom. Mt 5.19 He’s not giving them any position of honor. They got in by the skin of their teeth; they got in because God is just that generous.

But there’s also a chance they’re not getting in at all.

Matthew 7.21-23 KWL
21 “Not everyone who calls me, ‘Master, master!’ will enter the heavenly kingdom.
Just the one who does my heavenly Father’s will.
22 At that time, many will tell me, ‘Master, master! Didn’t we prophesy in your name?
Didn’t we throw out demons in your name? Didn’t we do many powerful things in your name?’
23 And I’ll explain to them, ‘I never knew you.
Get away from me, all you Law-breakers.’”

Emphasis on Law-breakers. No, it’s not primarily because these folks violated the Father’s will and broke the Law, for all of us do that from time to time. Sinning is a symptom of the much bigger problem: They had no real relationship with our Master. Back to our drunk-driver simile: It’s like calling out to some guy while we’re in lockup: “Hey, Dad? Bail me out, wouldya?”—but this guy hasn’t a clue who we are. Even though we’ve stolen his identity years ago, and know plenty about him, all he knows of us is we’re some criminal. Why else would we be in lockup?

Yeah, the simile falls apart ’cause God’s omniscient and does know who we are. Even so. It’s his prerogative to let us out anyway… or not. And possibly not. I mean, if it weren’t a real possibility, Jesus wouldn’t have warned us. God has an infinite supply of grace, but it’s for those who love him. Not those who figure, for no good reason, they’re his chosen ones; they’re the elect; they’re getting grace. According to God’s track record, “elect” doesn’t count for as much as you’d think. Ro 11.21-23 If we’re taking God’s safety net for granted, it may be a sign it’s not actually there.

Cheap grace in action.

Cheap grace doesn't produce fruit of the Spirit. But it definitely produces works of the flesh. For those who’ve invested a lot of time and faith in cheap grace, they’ll insist there is no such thing as cheap grace. “Grace is grace,” they insist—“total, utter forgiveness for every and any sin. It applies to Christians who are trying to follow Jesus, and to Christians who aren’t following him whatsoever. Because once saved, always saved. They’re just backslidden right now. They’ll straighten up eventually.”

Sin doesn’t offend them. Closing their loopholes: Now that offends ’em. Proclaiming anything other than, “Christians aren’t perfect; just forgiven”—that offends ’em. Expecting them to practice self-control and discipline and at least try to obey Jesus—that offends ’em.

Saying God meant it when he gave his commands to the Hebrews? Offensive. Saying Jesus meant it when he gave commands to his students? Offensive. Saying the apostles meant it when they trained Christians in righteousness? Offensive. Any rules, any religion, anything which doesn’t permit them full and unrestricted libertarianism, offends them. The bible is a thousand-page list of suggestions. And cheap grace nullifies them all. How dare we suggest otherwise.

Cheap grace takes the beauty of God raising his kids to be fruitful, powerful examples of what resurrection power can do in anyone’s life. It trades this for the ashes of a person who’s just as sinful, dysfunctional, fruitless, powerless, destructive, and joyless as a pagan. Who’s just as unlike Christ as any pagan. Then cheap grace claims, “That’s Christianity. You thought it’d be harder? Not at all! Christ does all the work.”

Yeah—all the work of salvation. But once we’re saved, there’s work to do. The Hebrews weren’t freed from Egyptian slavery so they could run amok in the wilderness. God meant to turn the descendants of Israel into children of God, who resemble their Father and stop being slaves to sin, and patsies of the devil.

Cheap grace produces fake Christians: People who think they’re saved, but sure don’t act it. Really, they never expected it to. They figure all their transformation, in its entirety, will take place once they’re resurrected. (Or once they die, and leave behind their sinful human body—as if it’s the body’s fault their minds were undisciplined and warped.) They cling to God’s “promises” of salvation, little realizing these promises only apply to people who were sealed with the Holy Spirit—and if that’s them, we’d see evidence of that relationship. Namely fruit. Got fruit? No? Nothing? Yikes.

Costly grace.

The real stuff isn’t just valuable; it helps transform us into those daughters and sons of God.

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. Bonhoeffer 45

True grace must be taken seriously. It doesn’t dismiss sin with the flick of a hand. It forgives sin because it paid for it, in blood. It doesn’t nullify sin; nothing does. It only nullifies sin’s penalty, and frees us from sin’s captivity. It’s not a free pass. It’s a very, very expensive pass.

It picks us up when we fall down. Whereas the cheap stuff says, “Stay down. You needn’t get back up. Jesus didn’t come to free you from sin. He only came to save you from hell. If you sin, relax. Grace is abundant, and there’s more where that came from.”

Real grace is for people who live in the light where God is, who admit we sin and submit to God’s correction and forgiveness. Real grace produces real Christians. Accept no substitutes.