Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Perhaps you’ve heard it said that grace “is not unlimited” or that it “has its requirements.” Some even accuse those who emphasize God’s love and forgiveness as promoting what they disparagingly refer to as “cheap grace.” On one occasion my good friend, GCI Pastor Tim Brassell was accused of preaching “cheap grace.” I love his reply: “No, it’s not cheap grace I’m preaching. It’s far better than that—it’s free!”
It was theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book The Cost of Discipleship, who popularized the term cheap grace. He used it in making the point that God’s grace, which is unearned, is experienced as a person embraces and then lives out the new life that is theirs in Christ. Apart from that life of discipleship, what a person experiences will be less than God’s fullness—it will be an experience of “cheap grace.”
The lordship salvation controversy
Unfortunately, Bonhoeffer’s teachings concerning grace (including his use of the term cheap grace), along with his teaching concerning salvation and discipleship, have often been misunderstood and misapplied. A case in point is the decades-old debate known as the lordship salvation controversy. A leading voice in that debate, a well-known five-point Calvinist, often asserts that those who claim that a personal profession of faith in Christ is all that is required to be saved are guilty of advocating “cheap grace.” He then argues that to be saved, one must make a profession of faith (accepting Jesus as Savior) and produce a certain level of good works (obey Jesus as Lord).
Though both sides in this debate make valid points, I think both make errors that would be avoided if they would start their discussions not with the human response to God, but with the response of Jesus to God. By starting there they would see Jesus for who he truly is—both Lord and Savior. They would proceed by understanding that, as a gift of grace, we are being led by the Spirit to share more and more in Jesus’ own response to the Father on our behalf.
From this Christ-centered, Trinitarian vantage point they would view good works not as what earns salvation (or as something that is superfluous), but as what we are created to do in our union with Christ (Ephesians 2:10). They would also view salvation as being entirely unearned, resulting not from works (including our personal profession of faith) but from the works and faith of Jesus on our behalf (Ephesians 2:8-9; Galatians 2:20 KJV). They would then conclude that there is nothing they can do to save themselves or to add to (or to maintain) their salvation. As noted by the great preacher Charles Spurgeon, “If we have to put one stitch into the garment of our salvation, we shall ruin the whole thing.”
Grace is Jesus’ work for us in all its aspects
As we’ve noted in this series on grace, we ought to have much more faith in Jesus’ works (his faithfulness) than in our own. It does not devalue the gospel to teach and believe that our salvation is not the result of our works, but is accomplished entirely by God through his grace. As noted by Karl Barth, “No one can be saved in virtue of what he can do. Everyone can be saved in virtue of what God can do.”
The Bible teaches that anyone who believes in Jesus “has eternal life” (John 3:16, 36; 5:24) and “will be saved” (Romans 10:9). And there are verses that admonish us to follow Jesus, living out our new life in him. Any approach to God and his grace that separates Jesus as Savior and Jesus as Lord is wrong-headed. Jesus is one whole, undivided reality who is both Savior and Lord. As Savior, he is Lord. As Lord, he is Savior. Attempting to dissect that reality into two separate categories is not helpful nor is it productive. Doing so creates a two-class Christianity that opens the way for people to exert their judgment upon who is and isn’t a believer in Jesus. It also tends to separate our being from our doing.
A bifurcating of Jesus and his salvation is grounded in a transactional view of salvation that separates justification from sanctification. But salvation, which is entirely of grace in all its parts, is about a relationship with God that leads to life transformation. The grace of God that saves us accomplishes our justification and our sanctification in that Jesus himself, by the Spirit, is both our righteousness and our sanctification (1 Corinthians 1:30).
The Giver of salvation is, himself, the Gift. United to Jesus, by the Spirit, we share in all that is his. The New Testament sums it up by calling us a “new creation” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). There is nothing cheap about this grace because there is nothing cheap about Jesus and the life we share with him. Indeed, that relationship results in repentance, in leaving the old person behind, and in walking in newness of life. God, in love, desires the perfection of his beloved and has provided for that in Jesus. Anything less would not be loving. As Calvin used to say, “Our whole salvation is complete in Christ.”
A misunderstanding of grace and works
When the focus is on the exact nature of our response and understanding, and on the production of good works, some will mistakenly believe that an ongoing contribution of good works is necessary to maintain our salvation. The fear is that a focus on the grace of God through faith alone will result in the granting of license to sin (a topic I addressed last week). The silliness of that idea is that grace does not ignore the consequences of sin. Also, such wrong-headed thinking separates grace from the very being of Jesus, as if grace is a commodity for transaction that can be doled out in bits and pieces, separated from Christ. In effect, the focus on good works ends up promoting disbelief that Jesus did everything required to save us. It wrongly affirms that Jesus only began the work of our salvation and now it is up to us to behave in a certain way in order to maintain it.
Christians who fully embrace God’s freely-given grace do not believe it gives them license to sin—just the opposite. Paul was accused of preaching too much grace so that “sin may abound.” But that accusation did not cause him to change his message. Instead, he charged his accusers with distorting his message and went on to clarify that grace is not about making exceptions to rules. Rather, faith in God and his grace works itself out in love (Galatians 5:6 ESV). Paul said that the aim of his ministry was to bring about the “obedience that comes from faith” (Romans 1:5 ESV; Romans 16:26 ESV).
Salvation is by grace: Christ’s work from start to finish
We have a certifiable debt of gratitude to God, who sent his Son in the power of the Spirit to save us, not condemn us. We understand that no amount of good works can make us righteous or holy, because if it did, there would be no need of a savior. Whether one’s emphasis is on the obedience of faith or the faith of obedience, we must never undervalue our need for Jesus as our Savior. He has judged and condemned all sin and has forgiven us for eternity—a gift we receive as we believe and trust in him.
It is Jesus’ own faith and works—his faithfulness—that saves us from start to finish. He imputes to us his righteousness (our justification) and by the Holy Spirit he shares with us his holy life (our sanctification). We receive both gifts of grace in the same way: by trusting in Jesus. What Christ has done for us, the Holy Spirit works out within us. We are directed to believe that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion (Philippians 1:6). If anyone does not participate in what Jesus is doing in them, then their profession of faith is empty. Instead of receiving God’s grace, they are resisting it by presuming upon it. Certainly we want to avoid that mistake, but let’s also avoid embracing the false idea that our works somehow maintain our salvation.
Eternally grateful for the fullness of God’s grace,