Faith and Works (part 1): Cheap Grace vs. Costly Grace

Jesus on the crossI have been reflecting recently about the relationship between Faith and Works. This topic is closely related to my current sermon series on “The Jesus Way.” In this first post I will introduce some of the key issues on this topic.The word “works” is used in Christian theology to describe our deeds or actions, especially what we do in obedience or service of God. Faith refers to an attitude of trust in and dependence on God.

There has always been a tension between these two ideas. On the one hand we know that our salvation is by “grace through faith” and that it is “not as a result of works” (Eph. 2:8-9). On the other hand we read in Scripture that “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar” (1 Jn. 2:4). How can these seemingly contradictory statements fit together?

There have been various one-sided approaches to this issue. The legalistic approach gives lip service to the idea that we are saved by grace, but in practice teaches that we are not really acceptable to God unless we meet certain standards. Following this approach, we can never be sure that we are “good enough” or that God really will accept us.

The cheap grace approach emphasizes God’s grace but denies the importance of obedience. In practice, salvation becomes a free ticket to heaven without any obligations in the meantime. Obedience is seen as a desirable but optional part of the Christian life.

Both of these approaches draw on certain biblical teaching, but both of them also neglect important themes in Scripture. We need an approach that does justice to the abundant biblical teaching about both grace and obedience. The same Jesus who said “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Mat. 11:28) also said “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15).

The approach that provides a biblical balance is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “costly grace.” He describes the difference between cheap grace and costly grace:

“Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. . . .” [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 45]

“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble. It is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. . . .” [p.47]

“Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son. . . Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us.” [pp. 47-48, emphasis his]

It is essential to understand the nature of and proper motivation for obedience. Obedience seen as a means to earn God’s approval is a terrible burden, but that is not the only way to approach obedience. If we start with God’s gracious and unconditional acceptance of us then obedience becomes the thank offering of a grateful heart. Only then will be be able to become like the man who joyfully sold all that he had in order to obtain the precious treasure that he had discovered. We will come to a point that we desire to bring joy to the heart of our Heavenly Father by our acts of obedience.

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