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

jailWhen preachers become troubled by the presence of so many nominal believers in their congregations, they typically 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. If God loves us always, absolutely, and without qualification, then there seems to be no compelling reason for us to change our behavior and cast ourselves on his mercy. We have all the time we need. God will always be there to take us back, just as he welcomed home his prodigal son. God’s OK. I’m OK. We are all OK.

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, both for the Orthodox and for all Christian traditions—confirmation in self-righteousness and the reduction of divine agape to a conditionalist love. I know this danger from thirty years of pastoral ministry. On too many occasions I scolded my parishioners for their (apparent) lack of commitment. Needless to say, my scolding accomplished little. It certainly did not effect the repentance and change that I prayed for, but I certainly felt righteous in my “prophetic” stance. Since my retirement I have heard it in the law-dominated homilies to which I have listened and seen it embodied in eucharistic disciplines 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”) is 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, the priest tells us, 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. But asceticism and the moral life only make evangelical sense when they are understood as life in the Holy Spirit.

If 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.

(This article is a very mildly edited version of a piece published on 10 June 2013)

(Go to “Justification as Eschatological Existence”)

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

  1. It seems it is generally forgotten that we need not be worthy to be made worthy and we need not be pure to be made pure. The whole thing with deification is it is becoming by grace what we cannot be by our own nature. It is an acts of grace itself to be made worthy and pure. This does not mean we mustn’t simply go on and sin all we want of course. We must ultimately allow God to dominate us as our Lord and then have him as our Father. To have him as our Lord means that we understand first and foremost that he is the perfect father and we understand that when we sin, it hurts him (apophatically of course) because he wants much more of us.


  2. Andrew says:

    Thank you for reposting this Father Aidan, I wasn’t reading your blog at the time of its first posting. Did you ever pick up the anthology of works published by Gorgias Press called “An Anthology of Syriac Writers from Qatar in the Seventh Century”? It contained first English translation of Isaac the Syrian’s “Third Part”. I bring this to your attention (if you aren’t aware of it already) because several homilies in this work directly relate to the subject of this post. Actually, they are not only astonishingly beautiful, but also very significant if I may say so, because they speak so directly to this question of what the real nature of God’s grace is from the context of strict asceticism (which St Isaac is of course known for from part I).

    To give you an idea-
    (from Chapter VI):

    “10. Whoever therefor supposes to be justified in accordance with the Law of by bodily works, what righteousness awaits him? For nature is always deficient, and the penalty of its deficiency after being judged according to the Law is determined by divine punishment. Therefore if one would come to expect to be considered righteous before God, this would be a perilous matter, even to the loss of one’s salvation. Because human nature is not able to be without sin and to fulfill all righteousness as God desires since not even one has been found who has never fallen. Behold, it is written:”Anyone who does not do all which commanded will perish.” This is the righteousness according to the Law!

    11. But if you say: “I am justified by conscience and by the will of he soul and I reveal my heart to God,” behold you have requested grace! While not having accomplished any work, or having stumbled, or having fallen short because of issues, you are convinced that such a conscience is reckoned as a deed. But if you have work, you who boast about work, why the boast? It is brought to naught. What joy can there be from our way of life?

    12. Let every mouth be silenced: the Lord alone has granted victory! One is redeemed by grace and by works and by faith one is justified, not by one’s way of life. In such a way that one who has not worked, but only believes in the One who justified sinners, the faith of his conscience is reckoned by God as righteousness. This is what the Apostle said: A man is justified by faith and not by works. But if righteousness were reckoned on the basis of work, it is written: “All who do not do everything which is commanded will perish.” Behold the righteousness which if from one’s way of life!

    13. This is righteousness, however, which is from grace when one does a little according to one’s strength and fulfills is with one’s will, even if the work is not done well. God, on account of His grace reckons it as the fullness of righteousness, ascribing the whole action to him. For myself, even if I am not able to be without blame or without sin. But O God, for a minimum of work, You give me righteousness!

    14. Sometimes I am lacking even this minimum. Not only do I not have a work to give, but many times even that sincere will which I have acquired with a good desire, turns aside from You and becomes involved with evil and is separated from You. I am almost emptied of a sincere will towards You. But then when I am empty of works or of will, with only a hint of conversion which You obtained from me, in an instant You give me the fullness of righteousness while the deed is distant-righteousness which neither time nor bodily labor could yield.

    15. But while I remain waiting for all of this, You Yourself receive me, and by means of grace without works, You justify me. You establish me in my former high place. And only because of the conversion of my while I am not capable of anything, You take from me the death of conscience, and You give me righteousness without fault. Who is righteous so as to be able to renounce this grace? And by whom have these things not been received along the path of one’s way of life? ”

    (There is much more, I though section was worth typing out, forgive the typos!)

    I find this particularly moving:

    Chapter VI

    “3. The perception of one’s deficiency regarding the promised recompense {the general resurrection? not sure} is equal to not understanding the measure of God’s love. Perfect recompense is in fact the completion of the work which is God’s. The fact alone that we perceive that He loves us, is sufficient I place of the work we ought to do if we are not capable o fit. And our discovery that we are ignorant of the measure of His Love is reckoned by Him as the principle of all knowing. When are times we find ourselves in this situation, how our soul is enlightened by it! And who is capable of this joy?!”

    from the end of that chapter:

    “61. Morover, not even this is alien to the love of a father: while we act in this world as rational creatures, being diligent about all that concerns us, yet we live this irrationality because we scarcely take cognizance of the life to which we have been led, in which God does not consent to punish for eternity. But when we learn what would have been due in punishment, with what evils we have been complicit, we will receive in ourselves an experience of what would have been due in punishment.

    62. How great, indeed, is our ignorance! God, then, proceeds with His work according to His eternal intelligence, as becomes His great love. Regarding this, one may consider His entire will from the beginning, by means of insight into what He has indicated in each of His economies in every generation. So that henceforth we may be roused from our sins and after our departure for the life beyond, we will be then be chastened especially by the goading of His love. As is said: The one who has been forgiven much, loves much, and then will come to pass that word which is written: God will be all in all. “

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  3. Andrew says:

    There is also an amazing (to be perfectly honest!) chapter regarding “unworthiness” and “worthiness” when coming to Communion (which also touches on the efficacy of the Liturgy for those who have died and or are being chastened after death):

    a sample from Chapter XI

    “11. This is like what the Apostle said: Whoever eats the bread of the Lord and drinks of his cup, while not being worthy, eats and drinks his own condemnation, because he has not discerned the body of the Lord. In fact, “unworthy” and “worthy” here do not depend on bad or good deeds, the Apostle says, but on mental discernment. And on the occasion of writing these things, the Apostle shows clearly in the same letter the way of thinking he laid down: let no one suppose that only the righteous are permitted part in the holy mysteries, or those who are blameless or who remain sincerely repentant.

    12. But if it were not so, one must completely cease from partaking of the mysteries in the city, since in these places it is difficult to find one occupied about conversion of even concerned about things such as these. Those who understand the words of Scripture implied here wrongly, relying on their own opinion, do harm not only to themselves but many others are led astray by them, since there are many who follow because of ignorance concerning this apostolic word. But we learn this doctrine from the order of the text.”


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  4. Amen, and amen!

    I am reminded of two passages that are near to my heart:

    “My life is a witness to vulgar grace–a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up a ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifs, ands or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request—‘Please, remember me’—and assures him, ‘You bet!’ A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus the Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sakes, yours and mind.

    “This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.” – Brennan Manning, All Is Grace, 193-194

    “I’ve always had a problem with the phrase ‘cheap grace.’ As far as I’m concerned, nobody can make God’s grace in Jesus any cheaper than it already is: It’s *free*. I suppose if a person *thinks* he has to do something to earn it or buy it, and then does less than that, you might say he’s cheapened grace. But since he was wrong to start with—since it wan’t really grace he was dealing with, but only a false notion of it in his head—he hasn’t even gotten close to the subject, let alone ‘cheapened’ it. But what I really object to is people who use the so-called danger of cheap grace as a way of browbeating others into thinking there’s some level of performance they have to achieve before they can be worthy of grace …

    “I guess what I really don’t like is the way people start out by defining sin as ‘moral failure,’ and then go on to think that if they commit ‘sins’ they’ll cut themselves off from grace. That’s all nonsense, of course: ‘sinners’ are the very thing God gives His grace to—lost sheep, lost coins, lost sons. As a matter of fact, the true New Testament opposite of sin isn’t virtue, or moral success, or getting your act together: it’s faith in the grace that takes away all the sins of the world. Paul says, ‘All that is not of faith is sin.’ And Jesus says, ‘The one who believes is not judged.’ We’re not on trial: ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ And we shouldn’t weaken that by giving a narrow interpretation to ‘those who are in Christ Jesus’: the whole world is in Him, reconciled and made into a New Creation by the Mystery of Christ.” – Fr. Robert F. Capon, The Mystery of Christ, 171-172

    I was born and raised in the Orthodox Church, and still remain a communing, confessing member of my local parish. The liturgy is close to my heart, and the image of God given to us by the services, hymns, prayers, and the writings of the fathers of the Orthodox Faith is the most beautiful I have ever seen, in spite of all the problems in the church, of which we are all intimately aware (indeed, perhaps because of these problems – after all, “where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more”!).

    Nevertheless, the most troubling thing to me about Orthodoxy as a lived faith—at least insofar as I have grown up in and experienced it—is that I have very rarely, in fact, almost never, heard the Gospel message preached in the church, aside from the annual reading of the Paschal Homily. There are lots of sermons about why we need to pray more, why we need to fast more, why we aren’t living up to the great heights of asceticism that is expected of us. But I don’t think that I have ever in my life heard an Orthodox priest tell me that God’s grace is sufficient, that Jesus is enough. Thankfully, the services and hymnology of the church are very clear on the subject, so I can more or less ignore the homily and focus on the prayers – provided they’re in English.

    This is why I read and listen to “dangerous” people like Manning, Capon, Brian Zahnd, Brad Jersak, and others (such as this very blog!): I am desperately hungry for the Gospel, and I’ll take it anywhere I can find it.

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    • Nicholas says:

      Right there with ya, Bard. I’ve been reading Capon for years and recently read The Ragamuffin Gospel. I’m a convert, but I was lucky enough to convert in a parish where the Gospel was preached on weekly basis. They are out there! Since then I’ve moved and it’s more like a few times a year.

      I’ve read everyone else in your list, so I’ll have to check out Brian Zahnd. I’m sure you know of Fr. Freeman… any others that you could recommend?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Brian Zahnd is an interesting chap. He runs a fairly large non-denom church in St. Joseph, MO. At first glance it looks like a standard evangelical sort of thing, but it turns out they believe in the real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which they celebrate every Week using a regular liturgy, follow the liturgical calendar, and practice the Jesus prayer. Brad Jersak is a good friend of Zahnd’s and preaches there on occasion. I reccommend his sermons from Lent of 2014, called “The Crucified God,” especially “The Beautiful Gospel” – [incidentally, the exercise with chairs he uses in this one was orginally thought up by an Orthodox priest]. The only caution I’d give is that in some of the sermons by the assistant pastors, etc., on the church website go in for a lot of woo-woo (enneagrams and other bull****).

        I also have found some of Greg Boyd’s sermons helpful – especially “The Covenantal Love of God” ( and, somewhat surprisingly and despite the provocative title, “The Motherhood fo God” ( Do bear in mind that he’s a theistic personalist and an open theist, though.

        I also highly reccommend Dr. Michael Hardin’s series on Romans ( and on Galatians ( His stuff is generally very good, though he can a little new-agey for my tastes at times. I have his book The Jesus Driven Life, and the accompanying lectures he did to go with it on video, but life intervened before I had a chance to read through the whole thing.

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      • Also, I’ve been doing some reading in the Reformers lately. I can, with very little reservation, commend to you Martin Luther’s two treatises on Confession and On Christian Liberty/The Freedom of a Christian, along with pretty much all his hymns (I frequently find myself singing “A Mighty Fortress” to myself in times of stress). Incidentally, George MacDonald translated all of Luther’s hymns.

        Which reminds me, if you haven’t given a listen to George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons, you really ought to:


  5. Mike H says:

    Something more, we feel, is needed than simple faith in Christ, and inevitably this more becomes a conditioning of the grace of God.

    What constitutes a simple faith?

    Paradoxically, for me at least, faith that God loves and forgives me in Christ regardless of the sufficiency of my faith (for example), is what enables me to have any faith at all.

    But I’ve observed at times that the very word “faith” gets all tangled up in a mess of conditions.

    It might be a sort of “mental works” measured by the degree of certainty about a set of particular dogmatic statements, perhaps about the person or work of Christ. A faith in faith. Perhaps it’s measured aesthetically. Or by taking sacraments properly. Or morally. Faith is measured in some way in order to be “sufficient”.

    Quite literally the only pearl that I associate with Calvin (and perhaps I shouldn’t because I read it as an interpretation of Calvin). It’s the difference between “legal repentance” and “evangelical repentance”. Legal repentance = if you repent sufficiently you will be forgiven. Evangelical repentance = because you are forgiven, therefore repent.

    And that “evangelical repentance” isn’t merely a mode of communicating the gospel. Of course Calvin wrapped it all up in legal (rather than ontological) language and a particular doctrine of election that turns existence into a nightmare. But other than that….


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mike, you comment on faith reminded me of Gerhard Forde’s very Lutheran definition of justifying faith:

      The faith by which one is justified is not an active verb of which the Old Adam or Eve is the subject, it is a state-of-being verb. Faith is the state of being grasped by the unconditional claim and promise of the God who calls into being that which is from that which is not. Faith means now having to deal with life in those terms. It is a death and resurrection (Justification by Faith—A Matter of Death and Life, p. 22).

      Here faith is finding oneself within the event of the gospel proclamation.


  6. SB says:

    I don’t know, it may be theologically problematic to put it like this, but as a practical matter I think the whole thing can be simplified quite a bit. In short: we are saved simply because God loves us unconditionally, but if we want the fruits of the spirit in this life, we have to struggle for them. And while the up-front cost might be higher, it feels a lot better to come to Christ as fully as possible as soon as possible.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I agree completely. The whole point of being loved by God is to embrace that love and enjoy its deifying fruits.


    • Fariba says:

      I like the way you put that SB. I think knowing the unconditional love of God frees us to focus our attention on this world and its needs – the Kingdom on Earth


  7. Nicholas says:

    Thank you, Father. This is the true Gospel, above and beyond disagreements on universalism. This is what Christians ought to preach. After I became Orthodox two years ago, it took me many months to see how this Gospel fits together with our ascetic lives. But it does! So many Orthodox priests and bloggers see things another way. Even today, the sermon at my parish was about how the paralytic had to obey before Jesus would heal him. Nonsense! He was healed first, and then he gave his obedience. It’s right there in the story if you pay attention. Why are we Orthodox more content to play the role of the Pharisees, interrogating the former paralytic about his healing rather than being amazed by it?

    Christ is Risen!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      A few years ago I heard an Orthodox sermon on Jesus and Zachaeus. The preacher thought that the important point of the story is Zachaeus choosing to come down from the tree. Sigh.

      Liked by 1 person

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