Dietrich Bonhoeffer was as far as I know, the first to use this phrase, in his 1937 book, THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP. It is thrown around quite casually by many today, often in accusations against those who preach or teach salvation through faith. Many of those who use the phrase have little if any knowledge of who Bonhoeffer was.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany, prior to and during the Second World War. He was part of what was known as “the Confessing Church,” a small minority of pastors who opposed the interference of Nazism with the church, and the church’s catering to it. He saw a comfortable church, a church that was doctrinally sound, yet with no real commitment to Christ. He attributed this to “cheap grace.”
He begins his book with a tirade against it:
-- “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church.”
-- “Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares.”
-- “Grace without price; grace without cost!”
-- “Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system.”
-- “An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins.”
All that and more on the first page! We can hear the echoes of his spiritual forebear, Martin Luther, in his contentions against the sellers of indulgences.
But the title of the first chapter of this book is “Costly Grace.” Costly grace is the opposite of cheap grace. “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. … Above all it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son. … and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us” (pages 47 and 48).
Powerful words! We who have committed our lives to Christ can’t help but say “Amen! Yes, this is true and it is true for me!” And as we minister to other people we sense Bonhoeffer’s frustration with those who profess faith in Christ but show little if any evidence of the Savior in their lives. We teach simple truth but they don’t get it. We give what we feel is biblical counsel to those in pain, but they continue in their self-destructive behavior. We see discipleship reduced to church attendance and a few legalistic rules.
But is the solution to this to make grace more expensive for the believer? It is with fear and trembling that I venture to disagree with this saint. But I must.
In the first place, I agree that grace is costly. As Bonhoeffer points out, it is costly to God, because it cost him the life of his Son. That’s an infinite price. And Christ paid that cost on the cross – for me. It can’t get any costlier than that!
In the second place however, grace is not costly to me the sinner. Nor is it cheap. IT’S FREE!!! That’s what grace is all about! “For by grace you have been saved through faith and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8, 9). As the old hymn says, “In my hand no price I bring; simply to thy cross I cling.” To add any cost for myself to the infinite price is to cheapen grace.
There are those who try to raise the price of our salvation to exclude those who show no evidence of it. They demand a total commitment and include that in their definition of faith. But that’s not costly grace. That’s “cheapened grace.”
When I was a teenager (my pre-Christian days :^) ), I spent Friday and Saturday nights at a local dance hall. Although alcohol was not served, there was plenty consumed on the premises. Frequently deputy sheriffs were called in to collar the drunks, break up fights, etc. It got to be a hangout for those who were referred to by the owners as “riff-raff.” Finally the owners of the dance hall decided the solution to their problems was to raise the price of admission to “keep out the riff-raff.” As I recall, the price went from 25 cents to two dollars (big money in those days). It wasn’t too long, however, before the place closed. It seems that the only ones who went there were the “riff-raff.” Heaven’s sort of like that. Only riff-raff get in. If we try to shut them out, there’s no one left. “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:5).
But paradoxically, free grace does make demands on those who have experienced it. It doesn’t allow us to “continue in sin that grace might increase” (Romans 6:1). It puts us in a new position in Christ. Grace makes us saints and expects us to live up to our name. It tells us “as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:19). Elsewhere we’re told to present our bodies as “a living and holy sacrifice” to God. Paul says this is “our reasonable service” (Romans 12:1).
Bonhoeffer is right. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (page 99). I would add, however, not in exchange for eternal life, but as the only rational response to God’s “costly grace” which is free to us in Christ.