Sunday, March 22, 2015

Thoughts on Cheap Grace and Presumption

Modern Christianity seems to have many problems that boil down to one fact—that we have convinced ourselves we don’t personally need to change. Others may need to change—if their behaviors go against what we dislike—but not us and not those who think like we do. All we have to do is convince ourselves that we’re not as bad as those people who we deem worse than us and convince ourselves that because God loves us He won’t send us to Hell, and we can just rest comfortably with no need to change ourselves. Anybody who says we must change, or that there are things that are always wrong, are obviously judgmental bigots who can be safely ignored. Any Scriptures that tell us that God condemns the things we do as evil are labeled the products of an "unenlightened time” and can also be safely ignored.

The problem with this view is it has nothing to do with what God the Father has taught, and nothing to do what His Son has taught. What has been taught is the call to repent and turn back to God. We are called to take up our cross and follow Him. We are told to obey His commandments. We are not told that we can go back to behaving like we did before we were called.

The problem is, we have been deceived by what is known as cheap grace. I’ll share with you a passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), who defines the concept quite well:

Cheap grace means justification of sin but not of the sinner. Because grace alone does everything, everything can stay in its old ways. “Our action is in vain.” The world remains world and we remain sinners “even in the best of lives.” Thus, the Christian should live the same way the world does. In all things the Christian should go along with the world and not venture (like sixteenth-century enthusiasts) to live a different life under grace from that under sin! The Christian better not rage against grace or defile that glorious cheap grace by proclaiming anew a servitude to the letter of the Bible in an attempt to live an obedient life under the commandments of Jesus Christ! The world is justified by grace, therefore—because this grace is so serious! because this irreplaceable grace should not be opposed—the Christian should live just like the rest of the world! Of course, a Christian would like to do something exceptional! Undoubtedly, it must be the most difficult renunciation not to do so and to live like the world. But the Christian has to do it, has to practice such self-denial so that there is no difference between Christian life and worldly life. The Christian has to let grace truly be grace enough so that the world does not lose faith in this cheap grace. In being worldly, however, in this necessary renunciation required for the sake of the world—no, for the sake of grace!—the Christian can be comforted and secure (securus) in possession of that grace which takes care of everything by itself. So the Christian need not follow Christ, since the Christian is comforted by grace! That is cheap grace as justification of sin, but not justification of the contrite sinner who turns away from sin and repents. It is not forgiveness of sin which separates those who sinned from sin. Cheap grace is that grace which we bestow on ourselves.


Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.


Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, for the sake of which people go and sell with joy everything they have. It is the costly pearl, for whose price the merchant sells all that he has;[6] it is Christ’s sovereignty, for the sake of which you tear out an eye if it causes you to stumble. It is the call of Jesus Christ which causes a disciple to leave his nets and follow him.[8]


Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock.


It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live. It is costly, because it condemns sin; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s Son—“you were bought with a price”—and because nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God. Above all, it is grace because the life of God’s Son was not too costly for God to give in order to make us live. God did, indeed, give him up for us. Costly grace is the incarnation of God.


[Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, ed. Martin Kuske et al., trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, vol. 4, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 43–45.]

Cheap Grace is how there can be Christians who live like pagans, where it seems that the only verses they know of the Bible are Matthew 7:1 (“Judge not”) and 1 John 4:8  (“God is love”) but never seek to know the context of what these verses mean nor realize that Our Lord also spoke of repentance and judgment.

The Catholic Church has another term for this topic. The term is Presumption. The Catechism defines it this way:

2092 There are two kinds of presumption. Either man presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God’s almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit).

St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of presumption as an opposition to God’s justice, refusing to accept the call to change:

Now presumption is an appetitive movement, since it denotes an inordinate hope. Moreover it is conformed to a false intellect, just as despair is: for just as it is false that God does not pardon the repentant, or that He does not turn sinners to repentance, so is it false that He grants forgiveness to those who persevere in their sins, and that He gives glory to those who cease from good works: and it is to this estimate that the movement of presumption is conformed. (Summa Theologica, II-II q.21 a.2 resp.)

Basically put, the modern concept of a God who does not punish those who refuse to repent and seek out His will is nothing more than a perversion of what God has actually revealed Himself to be. Either we think we are good and don’t need salvation or we think it doesn’t matter if our life includes wrongdoing because God loves us anyway.

It can be fascinating talking to the proponents of presumption/cheap grace and see the mental gymnastics they are willing to do in order to keep their belief. I recall talking to one woman who was a proponent of “Once saved, always saved” (which is held by some Protestants), asking her if one could be a Christian porn star. Her answer was, "Yes but such a person would not be an effective Christian.” Yes, she thought such a person shouldn’t do this. But she couldn’t come out and say such a person could be damned if he/she would not repent after accepting Christ.

This woman was trying to be a sincere Christian, but her views blinded her to the fact that some things can be contrary to the word of God and that a person who refuses to change himself or herself from behaviors that God forbade will have to face God’s justice.

The same mindset (albeit held for different reasons) can be found with the people who try to say “God doesn’t care about X!” They have no basis for such a claim—especially when the Scriptures have quite strong statements about it. Rather, they don’t want to consider their obligation to change, resenting anyone who tells them otherwise.

Ultimately, it makes one ask what they think the purpose of Our Lord’s death on the cross was about. Saving us from sin was obviously so important, that Our Lord suffered death on a cross to accomplish it. But if we don’t respond to the loving act, then for us He died in vain.

In a sense, it seems that a lot of the culture war involves the issue of cheap grace and the sin of presumption. Those who think they do not have to change as a condition for following Christ have taken a leading role in changing anything in Christianity that calls for change of mind and heart (μετανοια—metanoia) towards following Christ and rejecting the things that go against Him. Metanoia is a concept that rejects cheap grace and presumption. It recognizes that grace is costly and that regret and repentance for our past are part of the response. But presumption assumes that either one has done nothing that needs repenting over or that repenting is unnecessary—because God will forgive anyone anyway.

So the Church, in preaching Metanoia, is labeled as being intolerant. It is alleged that her opposition to certain behaviors is not due to calling people to the right path, but due to the “fact” that she hates people who live in certain ways. The Church is accused of ignoring Christ when she says “X must never be done.” But when one reflects on it, the Church teaching does not hate, but invites people to undertake a change of heart and mind. The person who refuses to undertake that change, but instead denies that it is necessary, and thus makes a mockery of the crucifixion of Our Lord.

Cheap Grace causes a person to cling to a counterfeit Christ. Until such a person let’s go of this counterfeit and turns to follow the true Christ, they are endangering themselves. Insulting the Church for making this warning is just another sign of this blindness. All of us need to consider our own lives and see if we cling to such a counterfeit in any way, and if we find it to be true, we need to call out to the Lord for the grace to let go of the counterfeit and cling to Christ instead.


  1. "Cheap grace means justification of sin but not of the sinner". What a great quote. I think this cheap grace is seen when certain folks say we should be "pastoral" meaning instead of "doctrinal."

    I especially appreciate your opening sentence of your last paragraph, "Cheap Grace causes a person to cling to a counterfeit Christ." Wow.

    1. Thanks. I encountered the term first in Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's "Jesus of Nazareth" volume 2, which led me to Bonhoeffer. The research led me to notice that "cheap grace" sounded a lot like America's current approach to the moral teachings of Jesus and His Church.