Loser’s Guide to God’s Grace 04: What about “cheap grace”?

OK, if you were raised in church and grew up hearing about the heroes of the faith, then you have heard about Dietrich Bonheoffer who gave us the idea that we ought to be ashamed of ourselves if we don’t shape up after receiving God’s grace because then we’re making it into “cheap grace.”

First off, Dietrich Bonheoffer was a very heroic guy, and I admire the hell out of all he did to try to save people from Nazi death camps prior to and during World War II. And even to bring down Hitler’s government. His heart was obviously in the right place, and his legacy is undisputed.

The fact remains, though, there’s just no such thing as “cheap grace.”

I will let our spiritual father Brennan Manning answer this, with words from his autobiography, All Is Grace.

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.”

And I think maybe the incomparable Robert Farrar Capon wouldn’t be out of place here, either, from his The Mystery of Christ — and Why We Don’t Get It.

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 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.

OK … one more quote, in case you were raised in a fundamentalist church, and you think that my telling people not to worry about “cheap grace” may cause people to abuse grace and end up in hell! From Paul Ellis, in The Gospel in Ten Words:

If I am wrong about grace then one day I will have to apologize to God for telling everyone he is better and more gracious than he really is. But if the grace killers are wrong, then eternity for them is going to begin with a truly awkward moment. “Er, sorry Lord. Sorry for prostituting your love and making people pay for the free gift of grace.”

Thank you Paul Ellis, Robert Farrar Capon and Brennan Manning. You have forever obliterated the idea of “cheap grace” and taken the pressure off us losers who knew we could never live up to Dietrich Bonheoffer’s standards.

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