What Is Cheap Grace? (1 of 2)

by jpserrano on December 6, 2012 · 2 comments

I often hear seminarians and pastors throw out the term “cheap grace” in theological conversations (primarily in Lutheran circles).  These people will cry afoul about something and declare that someone’s theology portrays “cheap grace.”  My problem is that using this term usually (9 out of 10 times) makes no sense in the context of the discussion. Kind of like people’s misuse of Luther’s term SIN BOLDLY.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book entitled The Cost of Discipleship.  In the first chapter he writes about two kinds of grace, making a clear distinction between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.”

Here is a small bit of Bonhoeffer’s writing on “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 a Christian ‘conception’ of God.  An intellectual assent to an idea is held to be itself sufficient to secure remission of sins.  The Church which holds the correct doctrine of grace, it is supposed ipso facto a part of that grace.  In such a church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still any real desire to be delivered from sin…Cheap grace means justification of sin without justification of the sinner.  Grace alone has done everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before” (43).

According to Bonhoeffer “cheap grace” is an intellectual idea of grace that ends in the mind and requires no change in lifestyle.  He goes on to show what “cheap grace” does to the mind of people who hold onto it.

“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 of sin.”

He calls this understanding of the Christian life “heresy.”

Bonhoeffer sums up nicely his whole understanding of “cheap grace” in this way.

“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.”

Cheap grace is ubiquitously poured out like sunshine on all of humanity; everyone has it and nothing is required.

Side note: (This may seem like a jump.) The above is why universalism-as it is commonly thought of-doesn’t work for me.

Cheap grace holds that God lavishes ambiguous grace on all people and “saves” them whether there is repentance or not, whether they like it or not.

Grace necessitates something post facto: repentance, and discipleship in Jesus Christ.  If it does not have these two elements, then it is not the grace of God, it is a grace we have bestowed on ourselves.  It is a Gospel that is ineffective for the forgiveness of sins.  We need real forgiveness because we have real sins.  We need real repentance because we are called to turn away from ways that diminish the fullness of our humanity.  The grace of God calls for repentance, death of the old nature and resurrection of the new nature in Christ.

I can’t help but think that a good portion of Lutherans have bought into the idea that aspiring to live out the righteousness we have been given in Christ is “presumptuous.”  I hear often people claim that within the Christian life there is a saint/sinner dichotomy that is a hindrance to holiness.  But, they mainly focus on the sinner part using it as the primary hermeneutical lens through which a person walks through life.  With this view living out our saintliness is seen as an impossibility.  We claim we are primarily sinners with a little saint thrown in.  This is cheap grace.

Friends, we need to give this up.  We need to claim our saint nature as primary with our sinner nature as the aberration.  We claim our saintly nature by living into it with daily repentance and discipleship.


Read part 2 here.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sara December 6, 2012 at 8:56 am

Very thought provoking – thank you!


jpserrano December 6, 2012 at 4:05 pm

Thanks for reading this Sara. I hope you can use this.



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