2 Kinds of Cheap Grace You Need to Avoid
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“Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
Cheap grace is worthless. It tries to rob you of your peace and rest in Christ. Christians always need to be on the lookout for cheap grace and stay far away from it. Here are two kinds of cheap grace that pretend to be the costly grace God gives us in Christ:
1. Grace without Christ
Some people think that God saves us by his grace in Christ, but we must be obedient to get and keep God’s grace fully. There have been various words used over the years to describe this kind of cheap grace, including legalism, prevenient grace, works-righteousness, and covenant faithfulness. You can always recognize this kind of cheap grace by this one test: If someone is telling you that there is something you need to do to add to Jesus’ completed work on your behalf—that Jesus’ finished work is not enough to save you—then you need to run away from this false teaching.
Many Christians are told that this kind of grace is true grace; the people who teach cheap grace may be ignorant, thinking that conditional grace is God’s grace—but it isn’t. There are many verses in the Bible that affirm the truth that salvation comes from outside of us through the work of Christ, not from anything we do (for some examples, see Rom. 5:1; 6–8; 15–17; Rom. 8:1–11; 2 Cor. 3:4–5; 5:17; Eph. 2:8–9; Titus 3:4–7). The works James is talking about in his letter are the fruits of the Holy Spirit’s work in the lives of believers (James 2:14–26). These works do nothing to save a person; rather, they are evidence of a person’s adoption into God’s family in Christ.
2. Grace without the Spirit
Some people think that, because believers are saved by God’s grace in Christ, they can sin whenever they feel like it because God will forgive them anyway. A fancy word for this is antinomianism. This kind of cheap grace does not take into account the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification in the lives of all Christians (John 16:7–15). All believers bear the fruit of the Spirit because they are branches attached to the vine of Christ (John 15:4–5; Gal. 5:22–23; Col. 1:10).
Followers of Christ must continually fight against sin, but that doesn’t mean they will do a perfect job of it in this present world. In fact, they can’t do a perfect job, no matter how hard they try. It has been said, “If you’re still livin’, you’re still sinnin’.” Christians will fail to keep all of God’s commands in this life because, although they are declared righteous in Christ, they are still sinners. The Spirit convicts believers of their sin and leads them to repentance (John 16:8; Rom. 8:14). Believers will experience true sorrow over their sin because they have been bought with a price and have the Spirit living in them (Rom. 7:14–25).
One of the signs that a believer is growing in holiness is the increasing awareness of one’s sin and corresponding desire to stay away from all ungodliness. Christians show gratitude to and love for God by keeping his commandments (John 14:15; Heb. 13:15; 1 John 2:3; 5:3). This obedience is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving the believer offers up to God; it is never a means to keep—or earn—God’s grace. Just as sometimes children disobey their parents and are disciplined accordingly, God disciplines us because we are his beloved children in Christ, and he will use our failures to teach us through the work of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.
So, what is costly grace? Costly grace is God’s unmerited favor because of Christ’s unfathomable sacrifice for all who trust in him (John 3:16; 1 Cor. 6:20). Because we are sinners, there is nothing we can do to earn the favor of a holy God (Rom. 3:23). God sent his Son to be born in the flesh because there was no other way we could be saved. Jesus did all the work to earn God’s favor on our behalf, so that we could have peace with God and eternal life (Rom. 5:1).
By God’s grace, Christ’s righteousness is counted to us and our sin is counted to Christ, who gave his precious blood as the perfect sacrifice once for all (Rom. 5:12–21; Heb. 7:27; 10:14; 1 Pet. 1:18–19). This grace comes through faith in Christ alone, which is also God’s gift (Eph. 2:8–9). God’s costly grace is amazing, because even though we are guilty before him based on our own insufficient works, God declares us righteous in Christ.
Don’t let the devil rob you of your joy in Christ, for Jesus has already won the victory. The devil’s attempts to make you doubt your salvation will never change the fact that you are declared righteous in Christ alone through faith alone by God’s grace alone—regardless of what the future holds. Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ (Rom. 8:35–39). Cling to your Savior and be at peace.
Putting Amazing Back into Grace: Embracing the Heart of the Gospel by Michael Horton; foreword by J. I. Packer