There’s a notion in Christianity called Cheap Grace. The phrase originated in Bonhoeffer, whom I have not read (and am thus unqualified to comment on). The authors of a devotional I’m going through describe this idea as “…as long as you have ‘prayed the prayer’ you can live like hell here on earth and still go to the deluxe apartment in the sky when you die.”
They prefer to think of Gods gift of grace as a white silk tailor-made jacket that you wouldn’t want to roll around in a mud puddle with. In other words, lovely, but useless for having any fun with whatsoever. They say of the jacket, “…you would do everything in your power to keep it as clean as possible.”
Quite frankly, this is a horrible vision of grace. But it gets worse.
“To put it a different way, as a Christian, you wouldn’t want to take advantage of the grace afforded to you, but you would be motivated to strive for excellence (not perfection). …How do you demonstrate your appreciation for God’s grace…? …Do you take advantage of God’s grace, or do you show a high regard for holiness? God’s love for us was expensive. God’s grace is free, but it is not cheap. If you have abused God’s grace in the past, confess it, ask for His forgiveness, and pray that He will restore a passion to follow Him.” (p. 28, emphasis mine)
“You wouldn’t want to take advantage of the grace afforded to you.”
“Do you take advantage of God’s grace?”
“…Abused God’s grace…”
“…do everything in your power not to get it dirty.”
In the first place, it’s not even clear whether grace can be abused! Paul writes more about grace than any other New Testament writer, and he doesn’t suggest that such a thing is even remotely possible, still far less, likely! He says, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” and responds, “μή γίνομαι,” (mē ginomai, “No” and “will arise). Basically: “No happen.” “How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” How indeed!
In his fantastic book Between Noon and Three, Robert Farrar Capon points out that Paul says elsewhere “I am crucified with Christ, therefore I no longer live, but Jesus Christ lives in me.” He says, “Shall we continue in sin” is preposterous not because it proposes an absurd act, but because it proposes a nonexistent actor. In short, without Christ, there is no “I” to do any sinning anyway, because “I” am dead, and I am hidden with Christ in God.
One does not even need to go that far. It is obvious that even if Capon is wrong in his belief that sinning requires a nonexistent actor, the act is still in and of itself absurd! Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Shall we continue in prison that we may get pardoned more? Shall we live longer in hell that we may gain more heaven? Shall we refuse to eat that God may give us more food? Even if it doesn’t propose a nonexistent actor, it most definitely proposes an absurd action!
Taking Advantage of Grace
Suppose a grocery store gives me a coupon. If I walk into the store and use it, I have taken advantage of the coupon. Suppose God gives me grace, and I accept it. If I do so, I have taken advantage of the grace of God. Surely that is not what these authors mean!
Perhaps we shall take “taking advantage” in its more negative sense. If you sell me something that is worth $5 for $25, you have taken advantage of me. But if I intend to give you something for nothing, then you certainly cannot take advantage of me, no matter how much and how often you take it! Suppose I fill your bank account with $10,000 every single day. Now suppose that you withdraw that $10,000 every single day and use every penny of it. You have taken advantage of my generosity only if I am stingy and do not have it to spare. But God is neither stingy with grace, nor does He not have grace to spare; on the contrary! God has available an unlimited supply of grace, grace enough for all of us, and more. In William Langford’s words,
“…all the wickedness in this world that man might work or think Is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal in the sea…”
Not Getting it Dirty
This is perhaps one of the worst analogies that I have ever heard. God doesn’t give us a tailor-made white silk jacket! Jesus gives us life, and life to the fullest! The white silk jacket analogy is horrible because it almost guarantees that no living will be done, and that no mud-puddles will be enjoyed! If God gives life, then who (might we ask) gives us a white silk jackets with a subtle message that we should wear it constantly and should never get it dirty? The only person I can imagine being such a spoil-sport as to thus ruin our opportunity for life, real life, is the devil.
Taking Grace for Granted
One of my friends gave me a new iMac. He didn’t want me to spend all my time telling him how thankful I was to him that he had given it to me; he wanted me to enjoy it! Taking something for granted means that we take it as though it had been granted to us, free of charge, a gift. When we live under, “Don’t take grace for granted,” we live constantly under the impression that grace may be taken away and that we should do everything we can to make sure that we remain worthy of it, which is oxymoronical because grace is something that no one has ever received because they were counted worthy.
Imagine God as a wellspring, willing to fill the whole world with His good water. Now imagine that I recieve God’s good water but am ever careful to try to repay it and not take advantage of it. Imagine that I put God’s water back in the well, trying to return everything to God that He has given me (for I do not want to take advantage of God’s grace!). If I do that, I am not helping God’s cause of covering the earth with His good water; I am actually running counter to it!*
I spent a long time in fear of the parents of the girl I am now dating. On several occasions, they invited me over, and I spent the night at their home. The first few times, I was incredulous. I fell down on my face before God in gratitude. Who were these people, so kind to someone who (I thought) was such a horrible person?
But slowly, something happened: I got used to it. I became accustomed to being treated like a human being. And when I realized that I was getting used to it, I was all the more grateful because my illusions of how they “must feel” about me were disappearing and I was starting to get comfortable in their kindness toward me.
And why should we not take God’s grace for granted? “Don’t get used to it” are the words of a stingy person with a limited supply of kindness, the sort of person that God is not. We should certainly not take God’s grace for earned! Further, if God’s grace is not granted, then what can it be but not-grace or not-granted? And if God’s grace is either not grace or not granted to us, then it is of absolutely no use to us! Is God’s grace of no use? μή γίνομαι!
So by all means let us take God’s grace for granted! Let us get used to it and live out of it! By all means let us take advantage of it! Let us take God’s grace into us and pay it forward, not back, for God has plenty of grace, and He desires that it cover the whole world. Let us honor Christ’s sacrifice for us so that we may live – by living, not by spending all our time in saying thanks! There is indeed a great place for expressing our gratitude, and we should certainly do so, but I believe one of the most God-honoring things that we can do with God’s gift of life is to live. To get used to living. To sometimes even forget that grace is there because we are so much alive in it. To let grace be like air to us, and water to fish. For God knows that we all run better on grace than on fear.
*The water is metaphorical, and the metaphor only goes so far. If God’s water covered the whole earth, everyone would drown, I know. But maybe we all need to have our pride drown in God’s grace.
The devotional book I am reading is called Devotions for Dating Couples by Ben Young and Dr. Samuel Adams. Apart from the section on cheap grace, it has actually been quite good.
David M Schell
I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.