Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Cheap grace – a false gospel and a deadly enemy of the church

Many evangelicals are suspicious of ethics. They think it undermines grace and distracts from the preaching of the gospel. They also fear that it leads to legalism.

They want to emphasise, quite rightly, the fact that salvation is a gift that we cannot earn. Salvation is through God’s grace alone and received by faith alone.

Two of the texts most commonly used to establish this are Ephesians 2:8,9 and Galatians 2:16:

‘ For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.’ (Ephesians 2:8,9)

‘We know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.’ (Galatians 2:16)

These verses of course teach great biblical truths rediscovered by the Reformers, and all of us would say to them, a hearty ‘Amen’.

But is there a danger of emphasising the gift aspect of salvation without reference to the rest of Scripture?  Is there a risk of imbalance in the opposite direction?

Let first me dispel any doubt that I am in any way attempting to undermine the absolute centrality of the cross and the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.

The idea of substitutionary atonement, that Christ died in our place for our sins, is absolutely central to both Old Testament and New Testament.

It underlies the Passover, the Jewish sacrificial system, temple worship and the Day of Atonement and is clearly taught throughout the Gospels and Epistles.

As the prophet Isaiah said of Christ, ‘Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering…
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed…
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ (Isaiah 53:4-6)

Paul teaches that Jesus died ‘for us’ (Romans 5:6-8; 2 Corinthians 5:14; 1 Thessalonians 5:10) and also that he died ‘for our sins’ (1 Corinthians 15:3; Galatians 1:4).

Jesus through dying on the cross took the wrath and judgement that our sins deserved; and because he has taken that wrath and judgement in our place we receive mercy and are thereby forgiven. 

These things are all givens, the foundation from which we start.

But my real concern is that in emphasising ‘grace’ conservative British evangelicals have fallen into what the German war-time Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer termed ‘cheap grace’ in his book ‘the Cost of Discipleship’.  

I read this book as a teenager and it had a profound effect on me – so I was most interested to see that Mike Ovey had picked up on it in his address last month to those at the GafCon conference in Nairobi, Kenya. Bonhoeffer defines cheap grace as follows:

'Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. 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’

But what does this cheap grace look like? Bonhoeffer points especially to two things that mark out cheap grace from real grace.

  • Cheap  grace is without repentance
  • Cheap grace is a grace we bestow on ourselves, in other words, it is a grace we give each other when we see fit, rather than according to the pattern of God
It’s my conviction that the current misunderstanding about grace amongst evangelicals results from a lack of understanding of the true nature of repentance and faith. And that furthermore this misunderstanding of the true nature of repentance and faith is built on a failure to appreciate the holiness of God, seriousness of sin and the necessity of judgement.

I believe it also explains many evangelicals’ discomfort with the kind of questions the new atheists are now raising about the character of God in questions around the problem of suffering, the eternal destiny of unbelievers and God’s acts of judgement in the Old Testament.

Scripture tells us that both repentance (Acts 5:31, 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25) and faith (Ephesians 2:8) are themselves gifts of God’s grace – he enables us to repent and have faith because we are incapable of doing it on our own.

But what is the nature of this repentance and faith?

Repentance and faith

Repentance is much more than saying sorry, or even being genuinely remorseful about our sin. It involves an active turning from sin to obedience. We leave our former life behind and follow in Jesus’ footsteps. He becomes our Lord and master. Furthermore it is a lifelong orientation; an on-going lifelong turning from sin in response to God’s word. 

The parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23) is not just about conversion – it addresses our on-going lifelong response to God’s word. It’s not just about starting off well, but persevering through both hardship and temptation.

John the Baptist, at the beginning of his public ministry in Luke 3 tells those who come to be baptised by him to ‘Produce fruit in keeping with repentance’. When they ask him what he means he outlines specific steps of obedience that they must take.

He tells the crowd, ‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.’ He says to the tax collectors, ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to.’ He tells the soldiers, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely - be content with your pay.’

Jesus takes the same approach: to the rich young ruler, ‘sell your possessions and give to the poor’; to the healed cripple by the pool of Bethesda, ‘stop sinning or something worse will happen to you’; to the woman caught in the act of adultery, ‘leave your life of sin’.

To say sorry, and to then continue in sin, is not repentance. It is presumption.

In the same way faith is more than mere belief, mere intellectual assent to a doctrinal checklist. It is trusting obedience. James tells us that even demons believe – and shudder.  Demons however, do not possess saving faith. They do not trust and obey.

As evangelicals we are quick to assert that we are saved by faith alone, but in fact the only verse in the Bible which uses the two words ‘faith’ and alone’ together (James 2:24) appears to say the very opposite.

‘You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone’.

Of course this does not mean in any sense that we contribute something to our salvation. We are powerless to do anything to save ourselves, but nonetheless the evidence of genuine saving faith is a changed life – actions. James gives us the examples of Abraham and Rahab who demonstrated the genuineness of their faith by what they did.

They were, we are told, ‘considered righteous for what they did’. If we were in any doubt, James summarises it for us, ‘Faith without deeds is dead’ (James 2:26)

The faith heroes of Hebrews 11 who are held up to us as examples all demonstrated their faith through what they did: Abel offered a sacrifice, Noah built an ark, Abraham left his home, Joseph gave instructions about his bones, Moses refused to be known as the son of Pharoah’s daughter, Rahab welcomed the spies, Gideon conquered kingdoms, and so on.

Each one demonstrated their faith by what they did and they did these things at considerable personal risk.

The Apostle Paul’s letters are full of the same principle. His letters are full of ethical instruction: ‘Because these things are true about Christ and his work, therefore do this, and don’t do that.’

He talks to the Thessalonians of their ‘work produced by faith’ and their ‘labour prompted by love’ (1 Thessalonians 1:3). He prays that the Colossians will ‘bear fruit in every good work’ (Colossians 1:10). He tells Titus that Jesus gave himself for us ‘to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good’ (Titus 2:15).

He tells the Romans that they are called ‘to the obedience that comes from faith’ (Romans 1:5, 16:26).

The books that most emphasise that we are saved by grace through faith – Galatians and Ephesians which we quoted from earlier – also demonstrate that this faith is evidenced by good works.

In Galatians we are told that ‘the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love’ (Galatians 5:6). Not a feeling but an action.

Ephesians tells us that we are saved by grace and not by works (Ephesians 2:8,9) but that we are ‘created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do’ (2:10).

The Apostle John tells us in his first epistle that those who continue to sin have neither seen Christ, nor known him (1 John 3:6).

The Apostle Peter exhorts his readers, ‘As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy”.’ (1 Peter 1:14, 15)

Nowhere is this principle of obedient trust more evident than in the Gospels themselves. Jesus says that to those who call him Lord but do not do his Father’s will, he will say ‘I never knew you’ (Matthew 7:21-23). The difference between the man who built his house on the sand and the other who built it on the rock, is this: Both heard Jesus’ words but only one ‘put them into practice’ (Matthew 7:24-27).

The exacting commands of the Sermon on the Mount, going as they do right to our innermost heart and motivations, are intended to be obeyed.

Obedience to Christ is of course only possible by God’s grace, through the indwelling work of his Holy Spirit (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:24-27), but Christians are nonetheless called to obey him. In fact the heart of the great commission, sadly so often distorted into an exhortation merely to evangelise, is to ‘make disciples of all nations… teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:19, 20).

God intends us to grow into full maturity. Consistent with this the writer of Hebrews calls his readers to leave aside what he calls ‘the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity’. They are instead to become acquainted with ‘the teaching about righteousness’ and by taking ‘solid food’, ‘train themselves to distinguish good from evil (Hebrews 5:11-6:3). It is about actions; trusting obedience.

As a clear corollary of this teaching we are told that a life without demonstrable evidence of faith through a changed life is valueless. It is evidence of non-regeneration.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 tells us, ‘neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God’.

Galatians 5:19-21 warns that those who exhibit the ‘acts of the flesh’ - sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery;  idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions  and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like - will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Ephesians 5:3-5 echoes, ‘But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people…. For of this you can be sure: no immoral, impure or greedy person – such a person is an idolater – has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

The book of Revelation (20:12) tells us that the dead will be ‘judged according to what they have done’.

In case we are in any doubt it adds that ‘the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practise magic arts, the idolaters and all liars – they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulphur’ (21:8).

Outside the holy city will be ‘those who practise magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practises falsehood’ will not partake of the tree of life (22:15).

The book of Hebrews (10:26) tells us that ‘If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God’.

These are very serious warnings indeed and they are there to stop us falling into the error of cheap grace.

We are called not to embrace a cheap grace, without repentance and self-bestowed, but to receive God’s costly grace that only he can give.

We are called to a repentance that doesn’t just say sorry but actively turns from sin.

We are called to a faith that is not mere intellectual assent but trusting costly obedience.

We are called to carry the cross – to bear one another’s burdens and to love one another as he has loved us – because this is the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2; John 13:34, 35).

We are called to live holy and godly lives - lives set apart to show his character and display his fruit – as we look forward to the day of God and speed its coming (2 Peter 3:12).

We are called to all these things by the one, who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness, and became obedient to death on a cross, that we might be reconciled to him for all eternity (Philippians 2:6-11).


  1. Eph. 2:10 does help define the grace that saves in 2:8-9. Also, the context before 2:8-9 does the same. In 2:4-5, after writing about "God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our sins, made us alive together with Christ," then sums this up as "by grace you have been saved." Thus God's mercy and love that gives us a new life, no longer a life dead through sin, is the grace that saves us. Grace is God's transforming presence and power.

  2. Paul came to divide. Stop listening to him and start listening to the Lord you claim to serve. Jesus said repent- so repent. Jesus said if you love me, you will obey me- so believe it. Stop trying to squeeze in Paul and make it make sense when it doesn't. Open your Bible and turn to Jesus. Let the Holy Spirit be your teacher.

  3. This makes reasonable sense up to a point, but then eventually it comes to a paradox: choosing to confess, choosing to repent, choosing to cut out the sinful behaviour, are all acts of personal will. And so our own works - those acts of will - are definitely a very necessary part of salvation.

    The disturbing thing about this post is the number of absolute Biblical statements about the unpardonability of a range of sins. It's as though all of these passages require the addition of an invisible "but with God, all things are possible". But that isn't there. So to make these passage fit our understanding of God's forgiveness, we are unable to take them at face value.

  4. Peter - this is absolutely spot-on, and a brilliant exposition of Catholic teaching.


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