I have heard the charge a number of times: “That’s just ‘cheap grace’.” Usually it has been levelled when I have been encouraging people not to be so hard on themselves, to move beyond guilt, pressure and self-condemnation.

The expression “cheap grace” originated in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship,” where he defined it as,

the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is 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, living and incarnate. p. 36

The problem with the concept of “cheap grace” is that it sets up a false dichotomy. Either grace is “cheap” or it is….. what? Presumably the opposite of “cheap grace,” is expensive grace. But if grace is “expensive” it is not grace. By definition grace is neither “cheap” nor “expensive.” Grace is free.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8,9)

Grace does not depend upon my “own doing; it is the gift of God.” In order to be a gift, it must be freely given. A gift with strings is not a gift.

If avoiding “cheap” grace requires imposing conditions upon God’s gift, then I am guilty. I do not believe God “requires” repentance before extending forgiveness. I cannot imagine what baptism “with church discipline” could mean when I hold a helpless infant and pour upon his brow the holy water of Christ’s unconditional embrace. And I am not sure which “confession” or what degree of “confession” is demanded before people merit “Communion.”

Grace is the power of God at work in my life. It is poured out unconditionally upon the world and into the hearts of those who open to the beauty and truth of God’s presence. Grace fuels the universe. It is the force that flung the stars into the cosmos; it is the origin of every human life. Grace is the active force of love. It is never static.

There can be no such thing as “grace without discipleship”, or “without the cross,” or “without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Bonhoeffer has set up a straw man. Grace that is grace always results in a closer walk with the truth, light and beauty that, as Christians, we believe we see incarnate in Jesus Christ.

I cannot be unchanged by the presence of grace in my life. When I open to grace, I am transformed more fully into the image of God in whose likeness I was created.

My part in the transaction is to open my heart. I am called to abandon myself to the power of Christ at work in my life and live in response to the grace that is God’s Spirit.

My task is to surrender my attachments, demands, expectations, and desires, and trust the work of grace. This is what it means to “carry the cross” and die to self.

As the great eighteenth century French Jesuit Jeanne Pierre de Caussade wrote,

Your duty is, therefore, to keep the hall well swept and clean with the help of grace, and, then, give place to him who will make it his own business to supply the beautiful furniture with which it is to be enriched, and who wishes to arrange it according to his own taste. (Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence and Letters on the   Practice of Self-Abandonment. 133)

God arranges the furniture of my life to express the beauty of that Divine Presence who is the Source and only true longing of my being. Touched by grace, I will repent; I will confess; I will live a more deeply holy life. As a recipient of grace I will dwell more fully in communion with the love of Christ.

This is why Jesus was able to promise,

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)

When I start with the free gift of grace, my life flows with “rest,” free of weariness and liberated from “heavy burdens.”

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