“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see.” The theme of this beloved hymn, grace, is the banner of the Christian’s new life in Christ. We love grace! It’s the pivotal point of sermons, articles, blogs, podcasts, Bible studies, and even our everyday conversations. And this is for good reason, since apart from the grace of God, we literally would not have the gospel! But there is always a danger present when we become overly familiar with an idea, and that is that through our familiarity we can distill its value and impact. We see a lot of this today in the American church. There are many false teachers that preach about grace, except for the fact that they aren’t really teaching biblical grace since the one they preach is detached from repentance, sacrifice, and the atoning work of Christ. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes this “cheap grace” when he says, “Cheap grace is 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.”
“Biblical grace is inextricably connected to the atoning work of Christ and His sufficient sacrifice on our behalf when He died on the cross.”
While, thankfully, I don’t think most of us are embracing every degree of cheap grace that Bonhoeffer describes, there is still a way that many of us can unwittingly downplay grace that has been a recent point of conviction in my own life. It is common for us as Christians to talk about covering a person with grace, or we even may be encouraged by a friend to give ourselves grace. In certain contexts, these are valid and good exhortations. But what is not valid, and yet is far too common, is how frequently we will use that expression to refer to non-sin issues. “Her personality is different than mine, so I just need to give her grace.” “I’m going to cover this annoying habit of his with grace.” “Ugh, I didn’t get that last load of laundry finished, but now it’s late and I’m just so tired. You know what, I’m just going to give myself grace and I’ll get to it tomorrow.” Now, I am by no means advocating that we shouldn’t overlook personal differences, quirks, or understand that we aren’t always going to get everything we set out to do done in a day. But the problem with this sort of language that I am concerned about is that it neglects to understand what grace really is. Biblical grace is inextricably connected to the atoning work of Christ and His sufficient sacrifice on our behalf when He died on the cross. As Romans 3:22b-25a says, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” This has radical ramifications for our relationships. You can’t give real grace to someone for a non-sin issue, because they haven’t done anything requiring it. And when it comes to sin issues, we must always view grace in light of the cross in order to apply it correctly in difficult moments.
“When we frame our understanding of grace with the atonement in view, and then apply that to how we respond to sin, it has so much more impact on our lives than just broad-brushed so-called grace.”
When we frame our understanding of grace with the atonement in view, and then apply that to how we respond to sin, it has so much more impact on our lives than just broad-brushed so-called grace. For example, when a fellow Christian sins against us, it is through grace that we are able to view that sin in light of the gospel. Yes, they sinned, but we can forgive them because Christ atoned for that sin perfectly with his blood. Because of God’s abundant grace, they will not be condemned for that sin, and therefore should not be brought under condemnation by us. As Paul states in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” When a non-believer sins against us, it is the reality of our own position of favor, graced by God, that equips us to extend forgiveness, to choose to not hold the offense over their head. Like the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35, it would be utterly absurd to not forgive and give grace to others, in light of the abundant blessing of grace that is ours in Christ. It is also precious when confronted with our own guilt as we process our own emotions and thoughts. A few months ago, I was battling feelings of inadequacy. I am abundantly grateful for the many ways the Lord has provided for me to serve Him, but I am also continually humbled by my own insufficiency to accomplish my callings apart from Him. When I am not looking to the Lord, it is easy to feel guilty when I don’t complete everything on my to-do list at the end of the day. This meditation on grace has been so helpful in working through that feeling in my own heart. Is there a specific sin that kept me from walking in the work the Lord has prepared for me today? Then I must repent and turn to grace! My sin has been atoned for. The cross covers that point of failure and equips me to wake up another day and seek to mortify my flesh as I learn to walk by the Spirit. Rather than wallowing in discouragement, I can glory in my redemption, being confident that He who has begun a good work in me will complete it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).
“Like the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35, it would be utterly absurd to not forgive and give grace to others, in light of the abundant blessing of grace that is ours in Christ.”
Alternately, understanding grace this way affects how we handle non-sin situations. We don’t need to cover personality differences, annoying habits, or mistakes with grace. We need to humble ourselves and not see our personal preferences as superior to others, because doing so is in fact pride. Suddenly we are not in the seemingly high position of bestowing grace, but in the low position of choosing to esteem others as more significant than ourselves. Not long ago I had the opportunity to discuss this idea with some of my youth girls. We were discussing practical situations, and one student mention a sibling had accidentally broken something of hers. When I asked her what the biblical response was, she responded, “I know, I need to show grace.” I asked her if her sibling intended to hurt her or break her thing, and she answered no. We went on to have a fruitful conversation about how grace didn’t apply in this situation, except that she herself needed to turn to God for the grace to respond to her sibling with patience, in love. As sinful anger sprung up in her heart, she was actually the one who needed grace rather than her sibling who had made an accidental mistake! This idea continues to rings true for how we counsel our own hearts as well. Returning to my feelings of inadequacy that I mentioned previously as the example, I needed to consider: was it just a busy day with unexpected interruptions that kept me from accomplishing certain tasks? If so, then it changes how I needed to approach the Lord. Rather than repenting of my human frailty, which is a gift of God to remind me of my insufficiency apart from Him (2 Corinthians 12:9), I need to repent of my tendency to look to my performance for validation instead of resting in the providence of God. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law,” (Romans 3:28). Instead of feeling guilty I can thank the Lord for being sovereign over my days and trust that as I seek to obey, He will be faithful to accomplish everything He desires with my life. That is good news!
“As we understand the high cost of grace, that indeed Christ had to die to purchase it on our behalf, we will also grow in our understanding of how we use it.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, after defining cheap grace, goes on to provide the contrast with biblical, costly grace. He wrote, “Costly grace…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.” Costly grace is what we as Christians get to live out every day as we pour out our lives as sacrifices unto the Lord. As we understand the high cost of grace, that indeed Christ had to die to purchase it on our behalf, we will also grow in our understanding of how we use it. Hopefully, the examples we looked at served to demonstrate how this change in perspective in the way we discuss grace can have such practical ramifications for our lives. As we take time to truly process and evaluate if and to whom grace need be applied as we encounter different situations and then think about how the cross-work of Christ is relevant, we will experience so much more power in our battle with sin as we fight with the truth of the gospel! It’s a simple fact that we cannot meditate on truth if we are misinterpreting the issue in the first place. Learning to distinguish between sin and non-sin issues, applying atonement-based grace, and developing a humble, kind nature, will producing fruit in our lives as we think and then walk differently towards those closest to us. It is truly my prayer that all of us would, “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and forever. Amen.” (2 Peter 3:18).