Cheap Grace

This article’s title is certainly eye-catching and puzzling. The very use of this phrase would seem to devalue the most precious gift every given to mankind. For by no means is God’s grace cheap, but rather when only blood is sufficient to appease God’s wrath and atone for our sin, God sent forth His Son, Jesus, to live a perfect life and die on the cross for all of our sin. Therefore, what is meant by the phrase cheap grace?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran theologian and pastor during World War II. He fought valiantly in the German resistance against Naziism and would ultimately be arrested in 1943 and executed at the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp. The reason his story is mentioned is because of a quote that was penned by him in 1937 in his book, The Cost of Discipleship. He said,

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...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

From this quote we learn a good definition of cheap grace and man’s willingness to make anything of God’s into his own image. For that reason, we want to better understand the concept of cheap grace and ensure ourselves that we are not guilty in making God’s grace into anything less than what He has designed for it to be.

Bonhoeffer said, “Cheap grace is the grace that we bestow upon ourselves.” No greater illustration of this definition is shown then in Jesus’ parable of the pharisee and publican (Luke 15:9-14). In this parable, we are introduced to two different men who prayed to God in vastly different ways. The first man was represented by the pharisee who thought quite highly of himself. He prayed not in humility before the Almighty but rather in praise of himself and his works. The pharisee’s prayer brought an arrogance to his salvation, as if God owed His grace to him because of his mighty works. While we would certainly agree that it is impossible for man to be saved by his own works, the pharisee’s prayer represents those who trust in their own merit for their eternal salvation.

This first prayer is contrasted in the parable with the second prayer recited by the tax collector. The tax collector is depicted as standing some distance away, not willing to raise his eyes toward heaven, but beating his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” This prayer captures the correct attitude of a man’s heart toward a righteous and just God. The tax collector acknowledged his unworthiness and humility by emptying himself in the eyes of God, who is the only One able to save him from his wretched condition. The grace bestowed by God is not cheapened by man’s merit or self-worth, but rather is magnified for saving “a poor lost soul like me.”

Also found in this parable is a simple phrase that sets a part these two prayers. While we would all agree the tax collector’s prayer originates from a humble heart, it was Jesus’ declaration of the pharisee’s prayer that should capture our attention. Jesus said, “the pharisee stood and was praying this prayer to himself.” The greatest lesson we can learn from this parable and our definition of cheap grace, is that God’s grace will not be cheapened by man’s own ideas. The pharisee may have felt salvation was owed, but it is only extended to those who faithfully obey its conditions.

Another point we can learn from Bonhoeffer’s quote is that preaching anything less than what is exactly commanded by God produces only a cheapened grace insufficient in the eyes of God. It was God that foreordained the message of the cross, its doctrine, and the life of His Son. While we live in a pluralistic society that desires to create many avenues to entering heaven, the terms are rather clear in the words of Jesus – “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). The world desires a highway to heaven without any lane changes, or detours, but “now He commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30, ESV).

The final and most important lesson we can learn about cheap grace as defined, is that you will not be able to reach heaven by trusting in a more lenient God. As God said, “The person who sins will die” (Ezekiel 18:20a). God is not partial both in granting salvation to all of mankind and judging all of mankind according to their deeds (Acts 10:34; 2 Corinthians 5:10). We will either be found faithful to the call of the gospel and all its conditions, or be found lost and unwilling to fully comply with all of God’s revealed commands. Just as mankind is guilty of making God into their own image, so they are guilty in changing the conditions of God’s grace. God’s grace will never be cheapened or made into something that He has not desired. Therefore, it is imperative for each one to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). On the day of judgement, there will be no one else to blame except yourself for not being prepared. Therefore, are you dependent upon a cheapened form of grace that is manmade, or does your hope rest upon God’s grace manifested in the Bible?