Taking God’s amazing grace for granted.

by K.W. Leslie, 17 October
CHEAP GRACE tʃip greɪs noun. Treatment of God’s forgiveness, generosity, and loving attitude, as if it’s nothing special; as if it cost him little; taking it and God for granted.

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

Every. Single. Time.

It’s a knee-jerk response. They were taught all their lives how grace isn’t cheap at all; how it cost Jesus his life. So whenever someone brings up the subject of cheap grace, they’re offended, therefore emotional, therefore irrational, about it: “Grace isn’t cheap!” Someone tweets a comment about cheap grace, and they tweet right back, “Grace isn’t cheap!” Someone uses “cheap grace” in a sentence, and they wait for the very 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 practice some self-control just this once, and give me a minute? Okay? (Betcha I’m still gonna get these comments regardless. You just watch. Ugh.)

Adam Clayton Powell Sr. gets credited with coining this term, and if you think it came from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it’s only because Bonhoeffer went to Powell’s church and got it from him, then popularized 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 believe 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 you accidentally drop your phone down a porta-potty: Doesn’t matter how foul that commode is; they’re making some really expensive payments on that phone, so they’re going in up to their armpits to fish it out. (Although yeah, some people would never. Because they’re rich, and buy $1000 phones as stocking stuffers, and would casually pay $1000 to avoid touching poo-poo. The rest of us have real jobs. But I digress.) Grace is far more valuable than any phone, and has inherent worth, so nothing could cheapen it.

If that’s the way you imagine grace, I get why you’d balk at the concept of “cheap grace.” But I’m not describing the grace itself, nor devaluing it. I’m describing the crappy attitude people have towards it. When 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 KJV
1 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? 2 God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? 3 Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
 
Romans 6.12-14 KJV
12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. 13 Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. 14 For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.

If cheap grace is your thing, only one of those verses I just quoted is relevant. Namely the first one: “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” The rest? Ignore ’em. They’re too confusing. We’re dead to sin! So why should we struggle with trying to stop sinning? You try fighting spiritual battles all your life to subdue your flesh. You try living by rules, laws, customs, commands, and Jesus’s teachings. Me, I have freedom in Christ!—so 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 adopted this hedonistic attitude, and the ridiculous explanation for why it’s totally okay for Christians to live like pagans. (We haven’t, right?) How do these fleshly Christians respond whenever we object to their irreligion?

Simple: They call us legalists. They claim we’re only sticking to the rules because we don’t really believe in grace; we think we’re saved by our goodness or something. Whereas they understand our goodness doesn’t mean squat—and that’s why they’re barely gonna try to be good. Oh, they’ll be good enough to avoid prison and public condemnation… although frequently not even that. They’ll be good enough in their own minds. But they’re not gonna bother to be anything more, because to their warped minds, being good is like telling God we don’t really trust him to save us. They understand grace; the rest of us are relying on our own efforts. (So not only do they get to sin like pagans; they also get to feel mighty self-righteous about it.)

These folks glom onto any proof text which even hints it’s okay to reject laws—including God’s laws—in favor of their preferences and pleasures. In context, these passages do make the point we’re not saved by works, so we (and Pharisees) must stop requiring new Christians to clean themselves up before they can be saved. God doesn’t save us because we made any initial efforts to be saved; Jesus died for our sins long before we made any such efforts. God saves us because he loves us. It’s grace. No other reason.

But.

Once God saved us, there oughta be some sign he saved us, right? Something we can see, and say, “That person’s Christian.” Something others can see; something even pagans can see! 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: They tell us we actually never can know, but that’s what faith is all about; 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 you’re going to heaven afterward, right? Then that’s all you need.”

That’s not Christianity. Jesus doesn’t leave us wishing and hoping and thinking and praying. He tells us exactly what to look for: Fruit. Fr’instance love.

John 13.35 KJV
By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.

Jesus didn’t save us so we can go back to the same sinful lives we had before him, yet enter his kingdom anyway. He saved us so he could make us daughters and sons of God. Jn 1.12 Which means we should be like our Father, and share his attitudes: We don’t like sin any more than he does. We don’t wanna 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 when we 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 get the charges dropped every single time, ’cause he’s Dad, and Dad loves us… and Dad’s a sucker. Grace is for the kids who actually love Dad, seek his will, try to live up to his expectations, and don’t treat his forgiveness with contempt, but actually appreciate it.

Those who live by cheap grace, consider God a resource to exploit. Those who live by actual grace, love God back. Why wouldn’t we? He’s awesome!

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

But occasionally Jesus says something which indicates he’s not letting them in at all.

Matthew 7.21-23 KJV
21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? 23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

Emphasis on iniquity. The original word for it is ἀνομίαν/anomían, “no law.” These folks recognize no law, and in Jesus’s day that’d be the Law, the 613 commands the LORD handed down to Moses. Many of those laws don’t apply to Christians, but many still do—and breaking them is the very definition of sin, and willfully breaking any command you please, just to show off your contempt for them, shows utter contempt for the LORD who decreed them. (Even if they don’t apply—it’s our job to learn why they don’t, and nonetheless appreciate God’s original intent when he decreed ’em.)

This level of contempt for God reveals such people have no relationship with him. Nor his Son. Back to our drunk-driver simile: It’s like mistakenly phoning some random guy instead of Dad while we’re in lockup: “Hey… Dad? Bail me out, wouldya?” But this guy hasn’t a clue who we are. Even though we think it’s Dad, and insist Dad must know who we are, and has to get us out of there, all the other guy on the line knows is it’s some drunken criminal, who probably deserves 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. Jesus wouldn’t have warned us if this wasn’t a real possibility. God has an infinite supply of grace—but it’s for his kids. Not for those who figure, for no good reason, they are his kids; they are the chosen ones, the elect, who’d better get grace after believing in God so hard. Thing is, being “elect” doesn’t count for as much as you’d think. Ro 11.21-23 We might take God’s safety net for granted, but we might’ve jumped out of the airplane not realizing he didn’t set one up for us, ’cause we’re not actually his.

Cheap grace in action.

Cheap grace doesn't produce the Spirit’s fruit, but it definitely produces fleshly works. Sin doesn’t offend them at all.

Now, telling them they need to quit sinning? Definitely offends them. Closing their loopholes?—that offends ’em too. Telling them “Once saved always saved” doesn’t apply to people who were never saved to begin with—it quickly fills them with arguments about they are too saved, and maybe we’re the ones who aren’t saved, ’cause we’re apparently so hung up on works.

Saying God means it when he tells his people to quit sinning? Offensive. Saying Jesus means it when he expects Christians to obey his instructions? 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 libertarian freedom to do as they please, offends them. To them, the bible’s a thousand-page list of suggestions, and “grace” nullifies them all. How dare we suggest otherwise.

Cheap grace erases 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 any 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.”

True, Christ Jesus does 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 wild in the wilderness, like the 15th-century BC equivalent of Burning Man. The LORD meant to turn the descendants of Israel into his children, who resemble their Father and stop being knee-jerk 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 to act any different… but be different, magically, because the Spirit’s fruit happens automatically, with no effort on our part. Any more transformation is gonna happen once we go to heaven. And such people cling to God’s “promises” of salvation, little realizing these promises only apply to people who are sealed with the Holy Spirit—and that if we’ve been sealed, we’d see evidence he’s within us. Like 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 grace paid for it in Jesus’s blood. It doesn’t nullify sin; nothing does. It only nullifies sin’s eternal consequences, 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, “You’re not down! So you needn’t get back up. Jesus came to free you from hell, not sin; all sins are canceled, and nothing’s a sin anymore! (Except, of course, the things you personally don’t like. Like people who don’t speak English around you, people who take government handouts, and gays.) Grace is abundant, and there’s plenty 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.