Cheap Grace

August 24, 2021

Since 1935 people have enjoyed playing the board game called Monopoly.  Players roll dice and draw cards to move around the game board and accumulate cash value.  The goal is to end up with the most money.  Players can lose hotels, lose money and even end up in jail.  But if you're lucky, you can avoid spending time in jail by drawing a "get out of jail" free card.

Some people believe that salvation is like a "get out of jail free card.”  After repeating what has become known as the sinner’s prayer, they are told, “Welcome to the family of God!”  There is no cost, no expectations, and God’s grace somehow covers you to go back to living the same life, apart from faith and obedience or God, as you lived before.

The question is, is the free gift of God's grace for you and me really free?  Did it cost anybody anything?  Does it cost me anything?  Is God's grace considered to be a 'good bargain' or even 'cheap' because it costs you nothing to become a disciple of Jesus?  Let's go deeper with this question as we are introduced to a man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


Imagine yourself a German citizen in early 1933, and a voice came on your radio with the following proclamation from a well-known German pastor, Hermann Gruner:

The time is fulfilled for the German people of Hitler.  It is because of Hitler that Christ, God the helper and redeemer, has become effective among us.  …Hitler is the way of the Spirit and the will of God for the German people to enter the Church of Christ.

After the defeat of World War I and the subsequent economic depression, the German people were so despondent that the charismatic leadership of Adolf Hitler appeared to be the nation's answer to prayer—at least to most Germans.  One exception was theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was determined not only to refute this idea but also to stop Hitler, by whatever means necessary.

Bonhoeffer graduated from the University of Berlin in 1927, at age 21, and then spent some months in Spain as an assistant pastor to a German congregation.  Then it was back to Germany to write a dissertation, which would grant him the right to a university appointment.  He then spent a year in America at New York's Union Theological Seminary and, for a brief time, taught Sunday school at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

It was at there that Bonhoeffer first heard Adam Powell Sr. preach and use the term "cheap grace" to describe the way the church compromises the gospel when it down-plays the cross and repentance in order to sell an easy discipleship that requires little commitment and suggests there is a pain-free path to heaven.  The take-away for Bonhoeffer was, to echo his own words, "His religious phraseology quickly transformed into real Christian action."

Hitler rose in power, becoming chancellor of Germany in January 1933 and president a year and a half later.  His anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions intensified, as did his opposition, which included the likes of theologian Karl Barth, Pastor Martin Niemoller, and Bonhoeffer.  Together with other pastors and theologians, they organized the Confessing Church which announced publicly in its Barmen Declaration (1934) its allegiance first to Jesus Christ, not to any man:

We reject the false doctrine that, apart from this ministry, the Church could, and could have permission to, give itself or allow itself to be given special leaders [Führer] vested with ruling authority.

In the meantime, Bonhoeffer had written The Cost of Discipleship (1937), a call to more faithful and radical obedience to Christ and a severe rebuke of comfortable Christianity:

Cheap grace is preaching 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.

Bonhoeffer's commitment to transition from the comfort of a university theologian to living out the life of a true disciple of Jesus, his resistance to Nazi tyranny, and his unbridled passion for personal abandonment and absolute trust in Christ eventually found him spending two years in prison, corresponding with family and friends, pastoring fellow prisoners, and reflecting on the meaning of "Jesus Christ for today."

As the months progressed, he began outlining a new theology, penning enigmatic lines that had been inspired by his reflections on the nature of Christian action in history.  Eventually, Bonhoeffer was transferred from Tegel to Buchenwald and then to the extermination camp at Flossenbürg.  On April 9, 1945, one month before Germany surrendered, he was hanged with six other resisters at Hitler's personal order.


Several of the doctrinal positions Bonhoeffer defends are controversial for evangelical Christians.  Nonetheless, his commitment to uncompromising discipleship has, and will continue to be an inspiration to any Believer who is committed to taking up their cross and truly follow Jesus.

Discipleship requires repentance and obedience.  At the beginning of Jesus' ministry, the message He preached was a message of repentance (Matthew 4:17).  After Jesus' resurrection and ascension, the apostles' message was also one of repentance (Acts 2:38).

Along with repentance comes obedience.  Jesus told a crowd of listeners that salvation and obedience go hand in hand: "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do what I tell you?" (Luke 6:46). Jesus then goes on to differentiate between the one who builds his house on the sand from the one who builds his house on the rock, that is, the man who not only hears the words of Jesus but does them, too.

Cheap grace seeks to hide the cost of discipleship from people.  It seeks to claim that as long as we make a profession of faith, we are saved. God's grace covers all our sins, which is something to celebrate!  The apostle Paul says the same thing when he writes, "Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 5:20-21).  But notice that right after writing that, Paul follows with, "What shall we say then?  Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?  2 By no means!  How can we who died to sin still live in it?" (Romans 6:1-2).

Salvation by grace alone through faith alone is so much more than repeating a sinner's prayer or signing a church membership card.  A profession of faith does not save us.  We are not saved by praying the sinner's prayer.  We are not saved because we walked down an aisle in church.

A living and active faith saves us, just as the bible claims in the 2nd chapter of James.  We are saved by a faith that manifests itself in repentance, obedience, and our uncompromising love of God and our neighbors.  Salvation is not a transaction; Transactions do not make us “new creatures in Christ.”  Salvation is a transformation of the heart and mind, initiated by a miracle work of rebirth, which is a work of the Holy Spirit.

We are living in a time where we have to guard against false gospels and monopoly versions of grace.  I, for one, am grateful for the Bonhoeffer's of the world, whose courage reminds me that the words “grace” and “cheap” do not go together.  There is nothing cheap about grace!  Amen?

Keep giving em’ heaven out there, and never lose your zeal for growing as a disciple of Jesus and discipling others wherever you go!

About The Author

Terry Miller

Terry Miller is Cornerstone’s Associate Pastor with responsibility for overseeing men’s ministry, adult leadership classes, Cornerstone School of Ministry, assimilation, media and pastoral leadership in the absence of the Lead Pastor.