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.
Someone recently contacted my wife and said, “Hey, this sounds like Jim, am I correct? Grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, because Grace is covered! Right???” So, I thought I would answer this straight from the horse’s mouth. Our friend was quoting our old friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from his book “The Cost of Discipleship.”
For the record, I am not trying to live my life nor to preach and teach in a way that would please Herr Bonhoeffer. He is not my God nor is he my savior. Those offices belong to Jesus Christ, who earned them with His blood and His flesh, and who resurrected from the dead. And I have all kinds of problems with this quote.
Cheap grace is still grace that costs something. Cheap isn’t free. Cheap isn’t a gift. If you are receiving grace on some scale of cost, well, it isn’t really grace any more is it? You’re earning it. So Bonhoeffer is right – cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. So is costly grace. If you’re writing your own efforts into your ability to receive grace, you are not being saved. You are being a hero. You’re being your own savior. That’s the whole question here: do you believe that you save yourself (with some kind of Christian verbiage thrown in), or do you believe that God saves you? There is no in-between, no gray area. There is no balance. You either believe in self-salvation or you believe Jesus saves you.
True grace, free gift grace, is the grace that God bestows on us. Cheap grace and costly grace are the kinds of grace that we bestow on ourselves. Real grace costs absolutely nothing. Jesus paid it all. You either believe that or you don’t. The entire rest of Bonhoeffer’s quote is based upon a terrible lack of belief in that point.
Consider this alternate point from the pages of scripture:
For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.
Dumb old Paul, saying such things! Perhaps we should take a razor to Romans 5? Soon enough our entire Bible would be filled with gaps and holes, because the general message of the New Testament is radical grace! Ask yourself this, when you listen to the Bonhoeffers of the world: what does Jesus’ death have to do with his message? How does Jesus’ blood fit in with what he is saying? Does it exalt the lamb who was slain and count Him alone worthy, as the Father and all the rest of heaven count Him (Revelation 5:3-8)? Or does it count our efforts as worthy?
So, none other than Paul the apostle, right here in this quote, preaches forgiveness without repentance. Let me highlight it in big letters in case you skipped over the Romans quote, which is apparently what many theologians do:
“God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.”
So, you may say, McNeely DOES preach forgiveness without repentance! We caught him! However, the real perspective is this: I caught you, friend of Bonhoeffer! You are preaching forgiveness based on “repentance.” You are preaching justification based on something other than mere belief. You are interpreting all kinds of ominous undoable burdens into the thing that God meant to be a free gift (Romans 3:24, 6:23). Who can say how much “repentance” is enough of a cost to receive legitimate grace? How close to perfection must we get to gain the right to approach the throne of God? Yet, His throne is a throne of grace, from which we receive mercy! Free grace is the door to God, and only He can clean up our mess. Only free grace can truly say that Jesus is Lord. “Costly” grace still maintains our own lordship.
How about this little jewel: “baptism without church discipline”! So, we have to exercise church discipline on sinners before they can get baptized? Who could ever get baptized, ever? What the heck?! Maybe what he is saying is, “cheap grace” advocates baptize people, but they never exercise church discipline. Maybe they do that. Free grace welcomes imperfect believers in Jesus Christ to be baptized, because belief in Christ means you believe your sins required the death of the Son of God. Free grace says that you could never pay enough for your own welcome into the Kingdom of God. Free grace says, there is a repentance from unbelief into the universe of belief in the power of Jesus’ blood and into the mercy and kindness and grace of the Father.
As far as confession, radical grace is the doorway into authentic confession. Because we believe in the radical one-way love and kindness of God towards us, while we are yet sinners, we can confess everything! Taking communion is a confession of the supremacy of His sacrifice over our sins – our real and specific sins. That’s what communion is, and that is why we take it! If you have to clean up before you can take communion, you have no need of communion – and no one could ever approach the communion table. Either Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, or we are condemned. Communion is the declaration that His death is enough for us. That is our confession: Christ has triumphed and we are saved. Our sins are avenged and justice is satisfied over us.
When Bonhoeffer says “grace without the cross,” he is engaging in a bit of double-speak. He means, grace without our cross. You know what I’ve found in my life? Belief in the free grace of God lavished upon me despite my habitual sins and terrible guilt is the only door to the kinds of results he is demanding as the condition to grace. I have seen a great treasure, and from joy over it, I am glad to sell houses and give up careers and hang with ragamuffins and follow Jesus, because I have entered into a very great love! Jesus says, “if anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” Guess what? I have received a great great treasure in the glorious and beautiful gospel of Christ! I wish to follow Him! I do wish! I drop my nets! People want me to go back and emphasize the sacrifice and the net dropping and the following – but I won’t do it. I won’t point people to the tangential results of my faith! I don’t want anyone looking at me. I am going to keep talking and squawking about Jesus and Him crucified! When you find your treasure, you’ll be happy to sacrifice things. Real, rich, lavish, free-gift grace is not a license to sin. It is a doorway into the freedom to live from love and blessing. Your paltry sacrifice, your cheap repentance, your slipshod discipline, all mean nothing. You will always need Paul’s warnings against even gross carnal sins – because you are still not quite completely “repentant”. You need a savior, and in Christ you have one. Believe it! Rejoice! Jump in the water, sinner, and be cleansed!!!