Stop Trashing The Gospel With The Phrase “Cheap Grace”

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.

Romans 10:9 says:

…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.

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#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.

Stephen Altrogge

I'm a husband, dad, writer. I drink too much coffee and know too much about Star Wars. I created The Blazing Center. I've also written some books which people seem to like. You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook

39 comments

  • The term cheap grace is not used to refer to what we have to pay to receive forgiveness. It is used to refer to the cheapening of the unimaginable costliness of this grace to Jesus, who laid down everything He had to obtain our salvation. Grace is not cheap or free. It is very costly. The beauty is that we are not the ones bearing the cost.

    • The Bonhoeffer quote would indicate otherwise. In other words, he uses the term cheap grace to mean grace without the call to discipleship and repentance. I’ve also heard it used that way by numerous other people

      • Hey Stephen, I really appreciate your blog and follow regularly. I’m just wondering though, is that really Bonhoeffer was indicating by his quote?

        “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.”

        When he says “requiring repentance” (and the rest), I don’t hear him saying that repentance is a requirement for salvation. Or that it is the necessary pre-payment for the cost of salvation in any way. What I hear is a warning against offering one aspect of the Gospel while failing to mention the rest of it. What I hear is that when we teach people to receive the completely free gift of salvation, but fail to inform those people of the cost of discipleship, we who teach/preach/invite cause the wonderfully free gift of grace to be cheapened.

        The grace is cheapened, not because we put a price on it before it can be received, but because after receiving it, we treat it as though it were an inconsequential gift by neglecting its benefits and demands. To be clear, the problem is not that we’re failing to earn or merit the gift afterwards, but failing to treat the gift in keeping with what it truly is: the most precious, priceless gift ever.

        To use your picture of the free car, I would suggest (as a broken analogy!) that cheap grace is the receiving a Rolls Royce and then failing to enjoy it or maintain it. And for those of us sharing this gift with others, it is the offering of the Rolls Royce to another as a completely free gift but failing to also let them know the effects of receiving this gift, namely its call for your affections as well as time, the cost of upkeep, and learning to drive it according to its unique operating instructions.

        Its very rare that I post comments anywhere. The main reason I’m posting is because I’ve been thinking through Luke 14:25-33 lately and the way Jesus called people to discipleship (and I believe that call to be hand in hand with the invitation to salvation). And practically, I’ve been wrestling with what needs to be included when inviting someone to follow Jesus. I see a difference between telling people the implications of following Christ (as they’re considering whether or not to follow Christ) versus making those out to be requirements prior to following Christ.

        So, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that Luke passage, especially the manner (and demands) in which Christ called the crowds to come to him, and how they relate to your closing statements in this blog post. God bless!

      • Yun Aiseng excellent and well said. There is Cheap Grace out there being taught. I’ve encountered much of it. Been accused of legalism because all the rest is done away. The Lord says, whatever you do in word and in deed, or say do all in the Glory of Jesus. So what I do determines how I view or better yet receive This Well undeserved Grace. What do I watch? What do I Listen to? Who do I Associate with? This isn’t a to do list but really it will show who I am putting First then determines my Gratitude For His Grace. Cheap? Or Honored

      • Hey Yun – Great thoughts! I certainly agree with your general sentiments. I don’t know for certain if that’s what Bonhoeffer meant. I simply think that using the word “requiring” is slippery and dangerous. And I also think we need to be clear that repentance is not part of the gospel. It’s the result of receiving the gospel.

        I think it’s essential to look at how salvation was preached and received and the NT. Salvation was freely offered. Then the call to discipleship came when that was received. I think that when we bunch the offer of the free gift of salvation immediately with the call to repentance, it can confuse the two.

  • While I agree grace is not “cheap,” I do not believe it is wrong to reject the phrase as Bonhoffer intended. There is an abundance of cheap grace in the Church. I believe the bigger issue is not “cheap grace” but the “cost of discipleship.”

    • AMEN. Was hoping I was wrong. The news is now saying we are living in a Bonhoeffer time. Thank God this is just about A theological opinion.

  • Hey Stephen,
    I really enjoy reading your work. I can’t think of anything I’ve disagreed with you about…until today. Don’t worry, though. It’s just the part about rom-coms. (and maybe a few of those country songs.) 🙂 But I’m totally with you on the Patriots!!! And I agree with your assessment of grace and salvation. And I agree with what we bring to the table, which is absolutely nothing. And I see why you warn us about the dangers. I don’t think I’ve ever even used the term cheap grace, but I will probably avoid it in the future for exactly the reasons you outlined. But I have to say, I thought it meant something else. Salvation is free because it’s a gift. A really, really, really costly gift. I always assumed that the “cheap” referred to the price paid by the Giver. I thought it meant that when we don’t disciple people, we are effectively teaching them that the salvation we wanted them to receive isn’t really a big deal. After all, it was cheap. Now that you’ve pointed it out, I can see the danger in using the phrase. And I can see how it could be understood heretically, even from the original quote. Thank you for your writing. Thank you for always being willing to challenge us, and quick to encourage us. Keep it up!

  • I’m not going to get into that argument, because I do not argue the Bible, it is the Word of God and what He wrote is what He wrote or said and that’s that. Yes, Grace is not cheap, Jesus died for it and that is a very high price. As always, Stephen you are right on, keep up the good work and keep us posted on your thoughts.

  • I am delighted with your commentary. Especially the Pat’s part. You have hit the nail on the head with your insight. Nothing about receiving grace is cheap. It is glory in the purest form. Rejoice!

  • Thank you for your article. “Cheap grace” is a big concern in the church I’ve gone to all my Christian walk. In fact, it seems feared at times. My church doesn’t want to baptize anyone until they’ve shown that they’ve repented. (“faith without deeds is dead” is one of many scriptures they use to confirm this) For instance, if someone is living with their boyfriend, they have to move out before they’re baptized. After all, I was told, she needs to be set up for success. She would find it hard to follow Jesus while living with him. The temptations are too great. This sounds reasonable. But I can’t help think it’s unbiblical. But I change my mind again thinking of Acts 2:38 where Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” NIV

    A lot of people think repentance means you stop sinning. I used to.
    Looking up the Greek for “repent” Strong says it’s a change of mind. Not some deed you do or sin you stop doing.
    Repentance will eventually lead to a change in behavior. When I think of repentance this way, Acts 2:38 becomes different in meaning.

    Because of Acts 2:38 and other scriptures my church believes baptism is the point of salvation. I know a lot of people will say baptism is a work. I’ve studied it out hoping they were right, but I couldn’t agree with them. I’ve looked at so many articles full of scriptures written by people that believe baptism is a work and I left disappointed because they didn’t convince me.
    So baptism being the point of salvation isn’t an issue with me so much as requiring someone to change their behavior before they’re baptized. This has been a huge hinderance for me with my church family.
    Suggestions are welcome, but I don’t want to argue.
    Thanks for reading this!

  • Living in the heart of the Bible Belt, where cultural Christianity is a veneer too easily and commonly worn, I see great value in the phrase “cheap grace” to warn people of its power. To put a Southern spin on Bonhoeffer, cheap grace is the kind of “grace” that assumes good people go to church, and bad people don’t – that prompts professions of faith in 11-year-olds followed by decades of prodigal lives – that makes Sunday have little to do with Monday. Bonhoeffer’s rant on “cheap grace” – in fact, his entire “The Cost of Discipleship” – ought to be strongly urged on every professing Christian in the Western world.

  • Jesus Christ is full of grace and truth. God became a man, lived a sinless life, died on the cross for our sins, and rose bodily on the third day from the dead. Only God gives grace. Every good and perfect gift comes from above. I agree that the grace of Christ Jesus is not cheap but rather cost His blood as well as Him bearing our sins, being separated from the Father.

    No one does good, no not even one. We can’t believe the Gospel on our own power. Even that belief is a gift from Him, giving us the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of our salvation and eternal life both now and forever, knowing God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. We repent (change our minds) about who Jesus Christ is and what He did, thus believing the Gospel. That changing of mind comes from Him. He is our Sanctification; it comes from Him. He is our Wisdom; it comes from Him. He is our Salvation; it comes from Him. He is our Way, Truth, and Life; it comes from Him. I could go on. All good things come from Him, all summed up as “His grace” as shown to us through the Lord Jesus Christ.

    We take His name in vain when we, as believers in Him, choose not to obey Him in discipleship or believe His Word, taking up our crosses and following Him, dying daily. In this sense, our behavior may cause us or others to view Him as not as great as He truly is. Perhaps in this sense His grace is cheapened, but only from our self-centered perspective, when we take our eyes off of Jesus Christ. His grace, His Name remains pure, perfect, magnificent. We cannot change it. We can only affect our or others’ viewpoint of Him. Let’s represent Christ Jesus properly according to who He is and what He’s done, resting in His pure and perfect grace as shown to us through Jesus Christ our Lord.

  • Acts 3:19 “Repent and be converted that your sins may be blotted out”
    Rom 2:4 “the goodness of God leads you to repentance”
    Acts 5:31 “Him God has exalted to his right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.”
    2 Tim 2:25 “in humility correcting those in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth”
    John 6:65 “No one can come to Me unless it is granted him by the Father”

    In Luke 24:46-48 Jesus in His Great Commission said, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem”.

    I am no theologian, but it seems to me that repentance is not a condition or requirement for salvation but a work of God on our behalf. A gift just like faith is a gift. It is God seeking us first, loving us first, bringing us to repentance … because if He didn’t, we wouldn’t come to Him – there is “none who seeks for God” Rom 3:11). And honestly? Why does one need a Savior from sin if they don’t realize they are a sinner and in that realization repent?

    • Good points, Pam. To further emphasize the point that repentance is a gift from God rather than a work of man I’d add 2 Timothy 2:24-26. God grants repentance to the lost (those who are in opposition).

    • Pam I challenge you to search the word repentance out in the Greek. It is the word metanoia. It literally means change your mind. Did you know the Scriptures records that God has repented? Meaning He changed His mind when Moses prayed.
      Repentance isn’t required for salvation, that is the latin definition to turn away. Peter in Acts 3 was speaking to Jews to change their mind about who Jesus is, their need for a Savior, and to then trust in Him. The Apostles were all about teaching embracing right thinking and rejecting wrong thinking.
      When the Good News is proclaimed, people do experience a change of thinking. As for the actual plan of salvation, look at Acts 16. Paul was asked what must I do to be saved? He responded “believe in Jesus and you will be saved.” Simple Gospel. 🙂

  • Cheap Grace is ” I do what I wish”, because the Law no longer applies. Grace isn’t cheap but the individual is living as though it’s cheap. It’s one thing to say I’m saved by His Grace and then live as though you have freedom to do as you please. On the other hand one lives In a manner of Gratitude, “his purpose”. He says, it is to walk worthy of his calling. So like many who walk around and say this and that, or poor me a sinner, who will deliver me from this Body of death? Surely the MASTER would say, depart from me I never knew you. Those who LOVE me keep my commandments. Plain and simple. We don’t come up with somthing to defend our twisted thinking or our self proclaimed theology. Cheap Grace is Cheap Grace. Those who don’t Love nor respect the Savior walk in Cheap Grace. How else are you to say it. The Cover looks good, but the the content reveals deception.

  • I can come up with free and free only indicating all else is works. So then the final end is do as I please. By the way the evidence that God’s Grace has recked our lives is our repentance, and evident that I’m walking in faith not by my works. Faith without works is dead. My faith in Christ should produce my works compelled by The holy spirit. Therefore works are a byproduct of my TRUE CONFESSION OF CHRIST which is given freely bar none. Therefore one who claims salvation by Grace BUT yet fails to “not produce” but, “rather Display”, ACT THESE FRUITS OUT, therein lies Cheap Grace. It is what it is. Jesus said not everybody who says Lord Lord will enter the Kingdom. Anything that falls short of Evidence of His Grace is Cheap.

  • He’s not saying God’s Grace is Cheap but those who claim Grace but yet walk like they never knew HIS GRACE. Yea today we have a rack of so-called believers claiming Grace and I’m free to do as I please. Yes that’s CHEAP grace. Don’t forget Jesus said REPENT the Kingdom is at hand. NO THE LAW IS NOT DONE AWAY. NO THE GOSPELS IS NOT LAW. Retance isn’t a work it’s a byproduct evidence of God’s Free Grace received. Repentance is a changing of the mind towards Christ. So then a gospel (Grace), preached with out repentance is HERESY….R.C Sproul

  • I have never heard the term “cheap grace” in the UK Praise God. Thanks fof your article on this.

  • I really enjoyed reading the article, but I have one concern with it. I think that someone could misinterpret it as to say that repentance is not necessary at all for salvation. However, repentance and true faith are two sides of the same coin, and both are gifts of God, just as salvation itself is. I guess I’m more just curious how Altrogge feels about repentance and the gospel, which is related to the controversial lordship salvation.

  • Hello Stephen,

    A couple of thoughts that you may want to do a follow-up about. First, as others have suggested, we all need “cheap grace” (meaning FREE grace) because the truth is, none of us could afford any other kind — and if we could “buy” it then it wouldn’t be grace at all.

    Second, and hugely important — please reconsider your statement that repentance is a “work”. NO — it’s the inevitable effect of the Holy Spirit’s conviction of sin. Remember we’re called to “repentance and faith” — can’t have one without the other. Repentance never happens apart from faith, and true faith is always accompanied by repentance. Remember also that Jesus’ first recorded sermon was “unless you repent, you will perish.”

    Just sayin’.

    • Hey Bill! Great thoughts. Let me push back a little. Repentance is the action *we* take in response to the Holy Spirit’s conviction. We can’t repent without the Spirit making it possible, but it is still something that we do.

      The moment we say that repentance is a condition *for* salvation as opposed to result of salvation, we’ve placed a work into the salvation equation. We also put ourselves in a dilemma of trying to define exactly what repentance is and how much is needed. Does that make sense? In other words, how much has a person sufficiently repented before they’re granted salvation? Is it just a change of mind? Do they need to make some sort of promise to God? Or is it simply saying that they’re sorry for their sins?

      I really do think this is an important distinction.

  • Can I admit something? I hate the word grace, or the use of it. I actually try and not to use it. If you ask the average person what grace means they can’t tell you. Outside the ol’ verbiage “it’s un-merited favor” most folks are confused and frankly can’t give you a real answer. Go ahead ask the average parishioner. With the neo-cal’s and their description like it’s the fourth person of the godhead of un-deniable or irresistible grace that seems like something that blows in and takes you over and melts you into god’s arms to the descriptions in bad songs we sing. The flippant use of it without the real explanation… to me that’s what’s really cheapened it. It’s not cheap grace, it’s that most folks don’t what it is, truly is.

    • Seems like you’re going to have to talk to God about that one, given that the word grace is everywhere through Scripture. Just because it’s misunderstood doesn’t mean we should stop using it. It means we should patiently help people understand just how beautiful it is!

      • With something so wonderful… You are exactly right.

  • Amen. Very well stated article. I too despise the term cheap grace. To some, DB is as set apart as some infallible source because he stood up to resist Nazism. While that is commendable, personal courage, and activism isn’t a part of the Gospel message or plan of salvation.
    We are saved by Grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Rome was a cruel regime. How many lands and people did Rome oppress and torture and murder in their conquest? How oppressive were they to Christians? To Jews? Yet we see no record of Jesus actively resisting the Caesar. We don’t see the Apostles rise up and demand social justice for those impoverished and oppressed by the Roman Empire.
    That said, it is certainly true then activism and resistance aren’t the Gospel. When Paul was asked what must I do to be saved by the Philippian Jailer, how did he respond? Repent? Turn from all your bad deeds, stop any idol worship, forsake all the bad stuff right here and now and never ever mess up again? Nope, he simply said believe in Jesus and you and your house will be saved. That’s free Grace. That’s the Gospel. No works, no promise to behave better, nothing but faith alone in Christ.
    When we place our faith in Christ, He comes and abides within us, He gives us His perfect righteousness, exchanging our fallen nature with the new, making us a new creature in Christ. (2 cor 5:17-21) Grace is only cheapened when we put a price tag upon it that man can actually afford to pay, via some work, some promise to be good or to do better, not by proclaiming the Gospel truth that salvation is by faith alone in Christ.

  • John the Baptist would disagree with you and your collection of authors. He was the greatest prophet that ever lived by Jesus’ estimation. Abraham believed on the Lord and it was counted to Him for righteousness. The wages of sin is death. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

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