The term “cheap grace” can be traced back to a book written by German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, called The Cost of Discipleship, published in 1937. In that book, Bonhoeffer defined “cheap grace” as “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” Notice what is emphasized in Bonhoeffer’s definition of cheap grace and what is de-emphasized. The emphasis is on the benefits of Christianity without the costs involved; hence, the adjective cheap to describe it.
A similar debate regarding cheap grace erupted in the 1980s and 1990s in the Lordship Salvation controversy. The controversy began when pastor and theologian John MacArthur objected to a teaching that was becoming popular in evangelical circles called “carnal Christianity.” The reference is to a statement that the apostle Paul made in his first letter to the church at Corinth: “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1). The phrase “of the flesh” is the Greek word sarkinos, meaning “flesh.” The word carnal comes from the Latin word for “flesh.” In the New Testament, flesh can simply mean “skin, flesh, body.” However, Paul often uses it to speak of our sinful nature—that unredeemed part of man with whom the new man in Christ must battle daily (Romans 7; 1 Corinthians 3:1-3; 2 Corinthians 10:2; Galatians 5:16-19).
The idea of carnal Christianity essentially teaches that as long as one makes a profession of faith in Christ, he or she is saved (Romans 10:9), even if there is no immediate obedience to the commands of Jesus and the apostles to live a life of holiness. It is the idea that we can have Jesus as Savior, but not necessarily as Lord. People who advocate for carnal Christianity, or “free grace” as it’s often called, do not deny the necessity of good works (i.e., holy living) for sanctification, but they distinguish the call for salvation from the call to sanctification (or discipleship).
There are many Scripture passages that free grace advocates use to support their position. It is not necessary to cite them all, but two of the most popular and forceful passages are John 3:16 and Romans 10:9.
• For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
• Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)
Clearly, these passages, and others, teach that the one who believes in Jesus Christ “has eternal life” and “will be saved.” There is no disputing this. However, what people like John MacArthur and others were objecting to is not that salvation and eternal life are free gifts of God’s grace, but rather the teaching that the call to salvation does not also include a call to repentance and holy living. In other words, they were objecting that the doctrine of free grace was becoming a doctrine of cheap grace. What the proponents of Lordship Salvation assert is that salvation is a call to discipleship, that one cannot have Jesus as Savior without also acknowledging Him as Lord.
The New Testament uses the word for “Lord” (kurios) 748 times, and 667 of those times it is used in reference to God or Jesus (e.g., “Jesus Christ our Lord,” Romans 1:4). In contrast, the New Testament uses the word for “savior” (soter) only 24 times. It seems clear that the emphasis in the New Testament is on Jesus Christ as Lord, not as Savior. Now in saying that, it is not meant to downplay or denigrate the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross. What a glorious and gracious provision God has made for His people in providing Jesus Christ as our atoning sacrifice who thereby guarantees salvation and eternal life for those who believe in Him. Jesus Christ is most certainly our Savior, but this cannot be separated from the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord, and as Lord, He commands and we obey.
Jesus, in His Great Commission to the 11 remaining disciples, commanded them to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to observe all that He had commanded them (Matthew 28:19-20). Evangelism and discipleship go hand in hand. A disciple is one who observes (keeps, obeys) all that Jesus has commanded. There is no two-stage process in Christianity—first, be saved; then become a disciple. This arbitrary distinction is foreign to the New Testament and therefore foreign to Christianity.
To play off the title of Bonhoeffer’s book, let’s look at what Jesus said to His disciples about discipleship in Luke 14:25-33. In that passage, Jesus says to the crowds that no one can be His disciple unless they first hate their family (v. 26). Furthermore, the one who cannot bear his own cross cannot be His disciple (v. 27). Two conditions are given by Jesus in order to be His disciple. The first is to be willing to renounce family in order to follow Jesus. The second is to be willing to die, both literally and metaphorically (“die to self”) in order to follow Jesus. Jesus then gives two examples of “counting the cost.” The first is an example of a man who desires to build a tower without first counting the cost of building the tower. After realizing he cannot complete it, he gives up in shame and embarrassment. The second is that of a king preparing to go to battle and making sure he can defend against the superior foe. The point Jesus is making is that discipleship has a cost.
Furthermore, discipleship requires repentance and obedience. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the message He preached was a message of repentance (Matthew 4:17). The message of the apostles after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension was also one of repentance (Acts 2:38). Along with repentance comes obedience. Jesus told a crowd of listeners that salvation and obedience go hand in hand: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). Jesus then goes on to differentiate the one who builds his house on the sand from the one who builds his house on the rock, that is, the man who not only hears the words of Jesus, but does them, too.
Cheap grace seeks to hide the cost of discipleship from people. It seeks to claim that as long as we make a profession of faith, we are saved. God’s grace covers all our sins. Again, that is a wonderful truth! The apostle Paul says as much when he writes, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:20-21). Yet, right after writing that, Paul follows it with this: “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?” (Romans 6:1-2). Salvation by grace alone through faith alone is so much more than simply mouthing the words “Jesus is Lord.” We are not saved by a profession of faith. We are not saved by praying the Sinner’s Prayer. We are not saved by signing a card or walking an aisle. We are saved by a living and active faith (James 2:14-26), a faith that manifests itself in repentance, obedience and love of God and our neighbor. Salvation is not a transaction; it’s a transformation. Paul says it best when he says we are “new creations” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). There is nothing “cheap” about grace!