Some years ago a certain, very dysfunctional couple made a ‘profession of faith’ while undergoing marriage counselling with a brother in the Lord. They seemed sincere and were recommended to our house church for nurture, because of geographics. We welcomed them unconditionally, and I can honestly say that lots of acceptance and love was shown to them by our group. We expressed practical help over a good few years in terms of food parcels, rental, counsel, etc. The children particularly bonded with my wife and myself in a special way, and it was a joy ministering to them. Then, from time to time, some of the children would confide in my wife as to neglect at home – parents working and drinking at a pub until the wee hours of the morning, quarrelling, possible infidelity, children not coping at school, etc. We felt the need to lovingly challenge the parents about these issues, feeling that out of years of relationship and trust we could do this for the common good. Along the way the parents had been attending a mid-week group which espoused a ‘hyper-grace gospel’ (i.e. a gospel of grace, but which doesn’t transform or lead to responsible living). At our challenge they took offence, wrote me a letter to the effect that they were under grace and not under law (which I agree with 110%) and therefore did not feel the need for a change of lifestyle. They left our group and continued with their libertine lifestyle. Sadly I buried the husband a few weeks ago and the family continues in its dysfunctionality. They, imho, had fallen prey to a ‘gospel of cheap grace,’ which I will define more closely in a moment.
This ‘gospel of cheap grace’ increasingly preached today is probably in reaction to the equally false ‘gospel of legalism’ preached by many institutional churches for so many years. I personally suffered under the tyranny of legalism for most of the early years of my Christian life. I am sure I was also guilty of preaching it at times during my traditional church days. Then some years ago I encountered Christ’s grace in a powerful, liberating new way, and everything changed. If you read my blogs you will notice that I espouse the ‘gospel of grace’ revealed supremely in Jesus and taught in the Gospels and the Epistles fully. The Letter to the Galatians, for example, is the joy of my life! Having said that, my heart often breaks when I see the effects of cheap grace, a new libertinism and universalism (‘all people are saved – they just don’t know it’), and so on. These things are hardly building a robust Church. Check out the best-sellers in your local ‘Christian Bookshop,’ the DVD’s, Facebook banter between the ‘twenties ‘n thirties’ and even older, etc. Hence my feeling constrained to put ‘a few pieces of bread on the table’ for my fellow-pilgrims to sample, praying that a crumb may help here and there, and by God’s grace contribute just a little to a purer and healthier Bride for the coming days/Day.
Seventy seven years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) (one of my favourite theologians and spiritual heroes) wrote a book called ‘The Cost of Discipleship,’ an exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. It gives some inkling of that vision of Jesus and his Church for which Bonhoeffer was ready to suffer torture and death (he was executed by special order of Himmler in Flossenburg Prison just a few days before it was liberated by the Allies).
Bonhoeffer began the first chapter with this statement (from his Lutheran perspective), ‘Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting to-day for costly grace.’ What does he mean by ‘cheap grace?’ “Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using it and spending it are infinite.”
He continues, “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 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 desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.”
Bonhoeffer is not the only prophet who speaks to the 21st century Church, often so diseased with ‘cheap grace,’ easy-believism, egoism, materialism, self-help gurus, self-therapy and so on.
- Check out Frank Viola’s recent blog on ‘The Message Most Needed, But the One Few Want to Hear.’ In it he essentially expounds Bonhoeffer’s dictum, ‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.’
- Check out Scot McKnight’s book, ‘The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited,’ highlighting the crying need for a new understanding of the Gospel which heralds Christ’s Kingdom and Kingship in place of the oh-so-popular ‘four simple steps to eternal salvation.’ And so we could go on.
May I suggest a few possible contributing factors to today’s popular ‘cheap grace’ gospel?
- Because the Church is in so many places biblically shallow or even illiterate, we are unable to distinguish between true gospel and false gospel. The true gospel Jesus, Peter and Paul bought into is one that summonses one and all to believe, repent and be baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. All this is prompted and attended by the gracious gift of God’s Spirit (Scot McKnight, ‘The King Jesus Gospel’). When last did you hear preaching/teaching consistently calling for repentance (not only as ‘a change of mind’) under the lordship of Christ? Surely Jn. 3:1-8, 1 Jn. 2:29 and Tit. 3:4-8 speak of a birth from above, a washing and a renewal of the Holy Spirit. In declaring the Good News about Jesus, the Spirit is at work to awaken humans to faith, and this awakening leads to a new, transformed life! This transformation is not immediate, but God works within us and through us to transform us increasingly into his image. ‘Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession’ (Bonhoeffer).
- Because the Church has in many places bought into a shallow discipleship, based on church meetings and seminars and programs rather than on the true Gospel and the transforming work of the Spirit, as we learn to obey that Gospel by grace. ‘Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate’ (Bonhoeffer).
- Because the Church in recent times, due to popular dispensationalism among other things, has been separating the Pauline Epistles from the Gospels. Some even see the Gospels as part of the ‘old dispensation,’ whereas the Pauline Letters introduce the ‘new.’ It has taken a Pauline scholar like N.T. Wright to correct this heresy, pointing out that the Church has often been preaching the gospel without the Gospels. Should we not be hearing what Jesus himself understood by the Good News? [I so appreciate my College Principal, so many years ago, challenging us as seminarians to preach the gospel from the Gospels and not only from the Pauline Epistles (often the easier, lazier way?)]. Sweet and Viola in their ‘Jesus Manifesto’ convey the same point when they refer us to the disturbing modern trend of many Christians separating the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. They either focus on the Jesus of the Gospels to the neglect of the Christ that Paul presented in his Letters, or they focus on Paul’s revelation of Christ (usually as Saviour in both Romans and Galatians) and make the Jesus of the Gospels an endnote. Neither view lands us in the saddle.
- Because the Church in recent times, in a desire to be popular and acceptable has often put the emphasis on the individual as the end of God’s purpose that we have missed God’s ultimate purpose in Christ which is to glorify his Son in all things (Col. 1) (see the writings of T. Austin Sparks and DeVern Fromke on this critical issue).
- Because the Church in recent times, in its largely self-centred gospel, has often failed to promote Jesus as ‘the Man for Others.’ Jesus came to seek and save the lost, Jesus came to show us how to love God above all else and our neighbour as ourselves. And so we could go on…
In Part 2, I hope to define ‘costly grace,’ suggest some ‘cures’ for the deadly disease of ‘cheap grace,’ and conclude with a glimpse at the marvellous and triumphant grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that explodes across the Bible pages.
Thanks for travelling with me thus far!