I can’t tell you how much I hate the phrase “cheap grace”.
More than I hate bro-country music (sorry Florida-Georgia Line).
More than I hate those online quizzes which “predict” your perfect spouse based on the type of fruit you like.
More than I hate the Star Wars prequels.
Those things are trivial. The words “cheap grace” are not.
Why am I huffing and puffing and steaming so much about it? Because using the phrase “cheap grace” is an insult to the gospel and to Christ.
Let me explain.
Bonhoeffer and Cheap Grace
The phrase originated with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote in his book The Cost of Discipleship:
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.
First, let me say that I really do understand what Bonhoeffer was getting at. He was concerned that forgiveness and salvation were being offered and that discipleship was being neglected.
It’s a legitimate concern.
And I too think it’s absolutely essential that we call followers of Christ to discipleship, church membership, baptism, and daily taking up the cross.
But there’s also a huge problem with the phrase “cheap grace”.
It’s Free Grace or No Grace At All
The testimony of scripture, from beginning to end, is that the offer of salvation in Christ is completely and totally free.
No strings attached.
I come sinful, broken, and needy to God and he gives me the righteousness of Christ. I don’t have anything to offer God. The only thing I contribute to my salvation is my own sin. Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.
Revelation 22:16-18 puts it this way:
And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.
…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
The glory of the gospel is that it is extravagantly free. Anyone can come and receive the full pardon that comes through Christ.
Drug dealers, church kids, prostitutes, and members of the PTA all get the same deal: free forgiveness, redemption, and adoption in Christ.
When we use the phrase “cheap grace”, we imply that there is some cost to salvation – that something must be done to receive it.
After all, a cheap car costs more than a free car. A cheap pizza still requires you to shell out a few dollars.
The gospel isn’t cheap. It’s free. Gloriously, delightfully, dizzyingly free.
Jesus really did pay it ALL.
But What About Repentance?
Before you digitally stone me as an antinomian heretic, let me be clear on a few things.
I firmly believe in calling people to repentance. Christians are called to carry their cross, cut off their hand, and gouge out their eye. I don’t take sin lightly because God doesn’t take it lightly.
I also don’t think that the solution to every struggle is to somehow believe the gospel harder. We’re called to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, which is serious business.
But repentance is the fruit of salvation, NOT a condition of it. Repentance is not a prior requirement for salvation.
We have to be really, really careful how we parse this out. Small missteps can lead to huge problems.
At least two reasons why repentance is a fruit of salvation and never a condition of it.
#1 – We’re Dead In Our Sins
Before God saves us and causes us to come alive in him, we are fully, truly, completely dead in our sins. We have zero power or desire to obey God. When you are dead in your sins, you can’t repent. In fact, repentance is repulsive to those who are dead.
In Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan puts it this way:
The truth is, a repentant sinner first believes that God will do that which he promiseth, namely, pardon his sin, and take away his iniquity; then he rests in the hope of it; and from that, and for it, he leaves sin, and will forsake his old course, because it is displeasing to God; and will that which is pleasing and acceptable to him.
#2 – Repentance Is A Work
Repentance is, to use the terminology of Ephesians, a “work”. In other words, it’s something that honors God and is pleasing to God. And while this is a wonderful thing, we are absolutely NOT saved by works. If repentance is a condition of salvation, then we are saved, at least partially, by our own works. This is heresy.
In his absolutely amazing book The Whole Christ, Sinclair Ferguson says:
At the end of the day, we cannot divide faith and repentance chronologically. The true Christian believes penitently, and he repents believingly. For this reason, in the New Testament either term may be used when both dimensions are implied…But in the order of nature, in terms of the inner logic of the gospel and the way it’s “grammar” functions, repentance can never be said to precede faith. It cannot take place outside of the context of faith.
But Isn’t This Just Splitting Hairs?
You may be thinking, Geez Stephen, calm down with all this cheap grace talk. Why are you frothing at the mouth so much about this? It’s just splitting theological hairs.
Except that it’s not.
The moment we add a single condition or requirement to the gospel, we have totally castrated it. It’s no longer good news.
If we call a person to repent before assuring them of their free forgiveness in Christ, we’ve added a demonic barrier to the gospel.
The phrase “cheap grace” implies that there is a price we must pay in order to receive salvation. That’s a damnable heresy.
Yes, let’s exhort each other toward ongoing repentance. Let’s encourage one another in discipleship. Let’s throw off the weight of sin.
But let’s eliminate “cheap grace” from our vocabulary.
Salvation cost Jesus everything and it costs us nothing. Let’s keep it that way.