Published: 24 April 2016

Cheap Grace


There is a dangerous and unbiblical concept taught by some which states that people can be reconciled to God merely by acknowledging that they have faith in Jesus. There is little to no emphasis on instructing the new Christian to turn their back on sin (repent), make Jesus their king, allow Jesus to transform their life to be more like Him, live a clean life filled with good works, etc.

In other words, the emphasis is on the benefits of Christianity without acknowledging the commitment. The end result of this teaching is a person who believes they have obtained eternal life from Jesus, but displays no signs of a changed life and gives no indication that they understand the need to obey Him.

This kind of teaching is often referred to as “cheap grace”. The phrase “cheap grace” was coined by German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his book, “The Cost of Discipleship”, he wrote:

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.”

The Bible warns about this kind of teaching in an unexpected place:

See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; (Heb 12:15 ESV)

It was common practice among the teachers of the Jews (aka Hebrews) to quote a few words from the old testament scriptures with the expectation that their students would recall the context. If someone says “we’re not in Kansas any more” or “Houston, we’ve had a problem” we instantly understand the reference and the context from “The Wizard of Oz” and the troubled Apollo 13 moon mission.

Cheap grace in the Old Testament

The “root of bitterness” the author of Hebrews is alluding to is from this old testament passage and describes the attitude of “cheap grace” which is the poisonous and bitter fruit the scripture is speaking of:

Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, (19) one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike. (20) The LORD will not be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the LORD and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and the curses written in this book will settle upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven. (Deu 29:18-20 ESV)

It is not unusual to meet people who profess their Christianity and yet use foul language, lie, gossip, are sexually impure, drink in excess, and so on. As the passage in Deuteronomy says, they have pronounced a blessing upon themselves (I believe, therefore I’m saved), and say that they are safe even though they continue to deliberately sin.

To be a disciple is to be transformed

We must not be deceived; God expects His disciples to begin a process of transformation that results in them becoming more and more like Jesus. The Bible is filled with the exhortation to turn our backs on sin by turning toward God. For example:

1Pe 1:14 ERV In the past you did not have the understanding you have now, so you did the evil things you wanted to do. But now you are children of God, so you should obey him and not live the way you did before.

Rom 12:1-2 GNB So then, my friends, because of God’s great mercy to us I appeal to you: Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him. This is the true worship that you should offer. (2) Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind. Then you will be able to know the will of God—what is good and is pleasing to him and is perfect.

Luk 13:3 ESV … I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Acts 17:30 ESV … he [God] commands all people everywhere to repent

2Co 5:17 ESV Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

Some Christians have gone to the opposite extreme in reaction to the error of cheap grace by adopting the idea of intermittent salvation. These Christians also fail to grasp the biblical concept of grace and are afraid of it! They fear that it will encourage people to sin because they have witnessed cheap grace lived out in the lives of others. This is not a new concern. The apostle Paul was falsely accused of teaching that Christians should sin more so that grace would abound (Romans 3:8, 6:1, 15). God’s generosity (grace) does not grant us permission to sin all we want.

Billy Graham said, “It should not be surprising if people believe easily in a God who makes no demands, but this is not the God of the Bible. Satan has cleverly misled people by whispering that they can believe in Jesus Christ without being changed, but this is the Devil’s lie. To those who say you can have Christ without giving anything up, Satan is deceiving you.”

God demands that we give up our continuous, deliberate sin. God does not expect us to do this on our own. He has given each Christian the gift of His Holy Spirit who lives inside us to help us with this transformation.

Php 2:13 ERV Yes, it is God who is working in you. He helps you want to do what pleases him, and he gives you the power to do it.