Cheap Grace, Costly Grace, and the Justification of the Ungodly

When preachers are troubled by the many nominal believers in their congregations, or perhaps by their own nominal faith, they often begin to stridently declare Bonhoeffer’s distinction between cheap and costly grace: “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Cheap grace is the easy word of absolution that we speak to ourselves as a way of justifying our personal status quo and protecting ourselves against repentance and spiritual transformation. Eastern Orthodoxy is often, and rightly, presented as a way of being Christian that eschews all forms of cheap grace. With its rich ascetical and liturgical tradition Orthodoxy is that “strong medicine” that every sinner needs and yearns for, a way that offers liberation from self-bondage, not through instant magical recipes but through patient perseverance in self-denial, prayer and fasting. “There is no more ascetic feat more difficult, more painful,” Elder Sophrony states, “than the effort to draw close to God Who is love.”

But there is a danger here. I know this danger from almost thirty years of pastoral ministry. On too many occasions I found myself scolding my parishioners for their (apparent) lack of commitment. I have heard it in the law-dominated homilies to which I have listened during since my retirement. I have seen it embodied in the eucharistic disciplines of traditional parishes that seek to protect the “unworthy” from the consuming fire of God. 1 Corinthians 11:27 (“Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord”) has been ripped from its pastoral context and elevated as a divine law above all grace and mercy. Something more, we feel, is needed than simple faith in Christ, and inevitably this more becomes a conditioning of the grace of God. We must first become worthy and pure before God will forgive and enter into a saving communion with us.

But perhaps there is another way to think of the cheap and costly grace distinction.

“Grace is not cheap but costly,” writes Thomas F. Torrance, “costly for God and costly for man, but costly because it is unconditionally free: such is the grace by which we are justified in Christ Jesus” (“Cheap and Costly Grace,” in God and Rationality, p. 56). Grace is infinitely costly to God, for it is “grace through the blood of Christ.” We are not speaking of a sentimental affection that merely affirms and accepts, excuses and blesses. The God whom we know as unconditional love is the God who has entered into the depths of our fallen reality, appropriated our sin, and borne it unto death and resurrection. Only in Christ, through his passion and sufferings and paschal victory, do we know the unmerited and unconditioned mercy of the Creator. We know it not as a philosophical principle but as a living, personal, concrete reality who is the Crucified. Grace is costly but not in the sense that we must first make ourselves “worthy” before we may receive it. The grace of God is unconditionally free. In Jesus Christ the Father “will only be grace and nothing but grace, immutably, unrelentingly, invincibly sheer grace” (p. 66). As the Apostle Paul so powerfully expressed the scandalous love of the Savior:

While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation. (Rom 5:6-11)

Christ died for the ungodly. Do you qualify? I am reminded of a story related by James Stewart about a young woman who refrained from partaking of the Holy Communion because of her unworthiness. The old Scots minister, knowing her life and history, presents her the sacred bread and whispers, “Take it, lassie–’tis meant for sinners!”

But we must not think that the unconditional grace of God entails no cost to us, for this grace means for us nothing less than our death and resurrection. By grace God embraces us in our sin—Christ died for the ungodly!—yet he does not leave us in our sin. He will make us fit for the kingdom of heaven. Repentance alone will not suffice. More radical surgery is needed. We need not entertain scholastic notions of created grace, yet our existential condition calls for something far more drastic, and painful, than mere change of mind. “If righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Gal 2:21). The unconditionality of divine grace means that we must abandon all hopes of justifying ourselves before God. We can only renounce our egocentrism and surrender ourselves to God in faith and allow him to accomplish in us in his transformative work of redemption. To be loved by the Father is to be to be slain and raised to new life in the Son and reborn in the Spirit. “Truly, truly, I say to you,” the Savior declares, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). In the words of the Apostle: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17).

And immediately the objection comes: if the love of God is truly unconditional, then we may delay conversion and simply continue in our self-will and sin. Let the status quo remain status quo. Why not exploit the grace and mercy of God? But this is not a new objection. It was raised against the teaching of Paul while he was still alive. Observe how the Apostle responds to the objection:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Rom 6:1-14)

We are new beings in Christ. We have died to sin in baptism and been raised with Christ to new life. We are no longer the kind of people who seek to abide in sin (that we do so is the mystery, scandal, and challenge of our baptismal existence). What Paul does not do is to dilute the explosive radicality of his proclamation. In Christ we are free for God; our lives have been set on a new foundation. We now live in the coming kingdom.

Eastern Christians may be particularly concerned about the impact of the Pauline gospel on our commitment to the ascetical life. Why pray and fast? But why draw the inference that because God loves us unconditionally we do not need to embrace the spiritual disciplines? This is but another form of the question posed to Paul in Romans 6. The concern has some validity, given Protestantism’s historic difficulties with integrating the ascetical life into its understanding of justification by faith; but this only means that we must learn from Protestantism’s failure and read the Scriptures within the wholeness of the catholic tradition (see George Florovsky, “The Ascetic Ideal and the New Testament“). Hidden beneath the worry, I suspect, is our attachment to self-justification. Perhaps we can save ourselves through our ascetical practices and good works, we secretly hope. But asceticism and the moral life only make sense when they are understood as life in the Holy Spirit.

If you are a pastor and preacher, and no one ever accuses you of preaching antinomianism, then you are not faithfully preaching the gospel given to St Paul.

What is the solution to the desire of the baptized to continue in sin and faithlessness? The preaching of the gospel! Only the word of radical grace can liberate us from our bondage to self and creaturely goods and attach us to Jesus Christ. The gospel convicts, converts, and justifies; the gospel gives life and Holy Spirit. We are no longer slaves but sons in the Son. Christ alone justifies. Christ alone deifies.

(Go to “Justification as Eschatological Existence”)

[Go to updated version of this article]

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6 Responses to Cheap Grace, Costly Grace, and the Justification of the Ungodly

  1. Karen says:

    Father, thank you so much for addressing this head on. It seems to be such a key pastoral piece of the puzzle for all of us–and not just those raised in western traditions either. This speaks to the constant tug of war in my heart to understand grace aright and not accept the insidious suggestions of the enemy that somehow God’s perfection and holiness means that He must withhold the fullness of his grace from me until I perform up to a certain standard. It is also why the fullness of Orthodoxy is so satisfying–asceticism and grace rightly related to one another.

    Having majored in Psychology in college, I find the insights of behavioral psychology comparing the relative usefulness of rewards and punishments in shaping motivation and behavior are instructive. By far, the greatest reinforcer of learning and behavior is reward (over punishment)–and what guarantees the consistency and strength of behavior once it is learned is a random schedule of reinforcement where the behavior sometimes earns a reward and sometimes doesn’t in an unpredictable pattern. This explains why gambling is so addictive. Does it perhaps explain why neophytes find their prayers so speedily answered, while the more mature must learn to wait upon God and persist in prayer through certain stages? The fear of hell is impotent to do anything more than push us toward the pursuit of God’s grace (which is to admit that it sometimes has its usefulness), but until we lay hold of that grace and catch a clear glimpse of God in his love, we are impotent to fulfill love’s demands. My experience has been that the clearer my vision of God’s mercy, the more powerful the attraction holiness has. It doubtless explains also why the enemy works so hard to cloud the issue for us.

    (Btw, this past weekend we just adopted a new young Corgi/Shepherd mix dog and will be taking her to obedience training. She definitely has the intelligence and drive to “rule the roost” around here if she doesn’t get proper training, and anyone who has experienced this knows what a disorderly and unhappy family would result if that were allowed to be the case. I suspect this training period will provide ample opportunities for me to reflect on how it is God accomplishes his good purposes of shaping us into His image, where He is infinitely more wise in his superiority to us than we are to this dog. :-))

    “If you are a pastor and preacher, and no one ever accuses you of preaching antinomianism, then you are not faithfully preaching the gospel given to St Paul.”

    Well said. Amen to that!


  2. Rhonda says:

    Hi Karen,

    I’m getting ready for a career change from Corrections to Counseling. I just completed a summer Psychology 101 class in preparation for taking a full semester of Psych classes this August as I plan on entering a graduate program in marriage & family counseling in Jan. I originally took Psych 101 in college 32 years ago when I was 16. This time around I was surprised by how much psychology I had unwittingly used over the years…apparently something did sink into my 16-yr. old head 😉

    I too have seen first-hand the ineffectiveness of purely punitive approaches…In 1/2 of people (recidivism nationwide) & 2/3 of people (recidivism rate for my state) it does not work & only results in a permanent stereotype/label that actually works against the desired behavioral change in their lives, thus the bad behavior continues to another generation. Yet, many religious thinkers focus solely on the punishment of God in order to bring people to salvation, or rather their concept of salvation. Just as with the penal system it is not enough to tell people “don’t do…”, they must be taught “can do…” & then assisted “to do…” In my experience this is what the Orthodox Faith does with us…it teaches us what we can do while God Himself assists us in the doing.

    Also just as with the penal system the hard part is not telling them “don’t do…” nor the assistance “to do…”, the hard part is changing the heart & mind to believe that they “can do…” This the Church Fathers had great insight into, thousands of years before the advent of Psychology!


  3. dino says:

    This certainly reminds me of the immense value of ‘approaching’ faith, ascesis, God ‘like a child’; it proves a method that overcomes a great many obstacles and complexities in one fell swoop.


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