What Is Grace?
- Friday, September 23, 2005
Many years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer coined a term that has come to characterize much of evangelical Christianity-it's the term "cheap grace." Cheap grace is in reality a self-imparted grace, a pseudo-grace, and in the end the consequences of living by it are very, very costly.
Cheap grace is not at all a reference to God's grace; it's a contemptible counterfeit. It's a grace that is "cheap" in value, not cost. It is a bargain-basement, damaged-goods, washed-out, moth-eaten, second-hand grace. It is a man-made grace reminiscent of the indulgences Rome was peddling in Martin Luther's day. Cheap? The cost is actually far more than the buyer could possibly realize, though the "grace" is absolutely worthless.
Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and Nazi resister. He was hanged in 1945 by SS guards, but not before his writings had left their mark. Bonhoeffer's theological perspective was neo-orthodox, and evangelicalism rightly rejects much of his teaching. But Bonhoeffer spoke powerfully against the secularization of the church. He correctly analyzed the dangers of the church's frivolous attitude toward grace. After we discard the neo-orthodox teachings, we do well to pay heed to Bonhoeffer's diatribe against cheap grace:
Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian "conception" of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure the remission of sins. The Church which holds the correct doctrine of grace has, it is supposed, ipso facto a part in that grace. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.
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 (The Cost of Discipleship [New York: Collier, 1959], 45-46).
Cheap grace has not lost its worldly appeal since Bonhoeffer wrote those words. If anything, the tendency to cheapen grace has eaten its way into the heart of evangelical Christianity. While verbally extolling the wonders of grace, it exchanges the real item for a facsimile. This bait-and-switch tactic has confounded many sincere Christians.
Many professing Christians today utterly ignore the biblical truth that grace "instruct[s] us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present age" (Titus 2:12). Instead, they live as if grace were a supernatural "Get Out of Jail FREE" ticket-a no-strings-attached, open-ended package of amnesty, beneficence, indulgence, forbearance, charity, leniency, immunity, approval, tolerance, and self-awarded privilege divorced from any moral demands.
Sadly, the rank-and-file Christian is further cemented in an unbiblical view of grace by what comes out of some seminaries. There are scholars who actually legitimize the error as a correct understanding of grace. They call their teaching "grace theology" and their movement "The Grace Movement."
They advocate a "grace" that alters a believer's standing without affecting his state. It is a grace that calls sinners to Christ but does not bid them surrender to Him. In fact, no-lordship theologians claim grace is diluted if the believing sinner must surrender to Christ. The more one actually surrenders, the more grace is supposedly watered down. This is clearly not the grace of Titus 2:11-12.
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