Grace is God's unmerited favor to sinners. With that as a working definition, I once tried to give a Bible study to a Hindu friend on the Christian doctrine of salvation by grace. But I didn't get too far. My friend had too many questions about this business called unmerited favor. He extended that kind of favor every day to a number of people: the beggar on the street did not deserve the favor of his generosity; the accountant who swindled a large sum of money from his business received an unmerited forgiveness that kept him from jail; his mother-in-law, grouchy and complaining all week, got a new sari for no particular reason. My friend's argument was simple: the beggar, the crook, and his mother-in-law did not deserve any favor from him, but he did show them unmerited favors. Was he practicing grace?
Let's get one thing straight. When we speak of divine grace, we are not talking of human goodness, and we are not talking of humanistic noble-mindedness. We are referring to God's basis of redemption of us sinners. As sinners we deserve death; God offers us life. We are separated; He offers us reconciliation. We are under judgment; He provides us freedom. We are prodigals in swineland; He brings us home. All for free. And the basis of God's redemptive initiative and operation is grace. When Paul says "The grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men" (Titus 2:11),* he is not referring to any ethereal or abstract quality of God, but to the dynamic, concrete, historic event of Jesus Christ more specifically, the act of Christ on the cross. God chose to deal with the problem of sin through the cross, and because of that sovereign choice, forgiveness and freedom from sin are possible only through the cross. Thus grace is God's sovereign initiative and activity for the salvation of sinners who through faith accept that provision of divine grace.
Paul devotes the entire Epistle of Romans to the singular theme that salvation is by God's grace, and not by human works. The apostle lays down the summary principle: "But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; other wise grace would no longer be grace" (Rom 11:6). To the apostle, so far as salvation is concerned, grace and works are mutually exclusive principles. Salvation is by grace through faith alone; there is no such thing as divine grace plus human something.
The Galatian heresy forced Paul to challenge the legalists: "If justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose" (Gal. 2:21). Very strong language, indeed. Any attempt to give any human element (call it what you will circumcision, performance, standards, character development) a role in God's redemptive process is to make a mockery of the cross. Grace plus some thing of the Christian legalist (can there be a Christian legalist?) is just as dangerous a doctrine as the position of the humanist or the non-Christian that salvation can be attained by human striving and relational ethic. Both positions make the cross unnecessary. At least the humanist and the non-Christian are consistent in their approach to life: they either deny sin or affirm that it can be over come by ethical will-to-be. But the Christian legalists are in a hopeless and inconsistent situation: they want to hold on to cross and at the same time add some thing of their own to it, as though God's act on the cross were not sufficient. Paul would have no such thing: Christ need not have died at all if salvation required any human work.
Paul made it clear that divine grace needs no human addition; grace is all-sufficient: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God not because of works, lest any man should boast" (Eph. 2:8, 9).
Free, but costly
But to speak of grace as free does not mean that it is not costly. It is free only so far as the recipient is concerned. To the Provider, the price was enormous. The cost is inestimable. God's choice of dealing with sin through the manifestation of His grace cost the life of His Son. Who can estimate the value of that act of divine love? Gethsemane and the cross, the dreadful wrath of God against sin witnessed there, show not only divine abhorrence of sin but also the divine cost to effect the plan of salvation. When Paul speaks of "God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself (2 Cor. 5:18), He is putting the Father and the Son together in the act of salvation, and shows that Both paid a great price for making divine-human reconciliation possible. Ephesians 1:7, 8 spells out clearly the price paid: "In him [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, ac cording to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us." God and His grace, Christ and His blood, and our sins and our forgiveness are all brought together in this one beautiful passage to show that we have nothing to do or to add to what has already been done by God. Ours is only to respond in faith and let the blood of Jesus free us from our sins (Rev. 1:5).
Free, but not cheap
Grace is free. Grace is costly. But grace is not cheap. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who ministered against formidable odds and bore witness to his faith at considerable cost, coined the term cheap grace. Coined during the tumultuous days of the Nazi era, in the face of a passive church that spoke of redemption but knew little of its meaning and its impact on daily life, cheap grace denotes not only corporate indifference to the demands of discipleship but also personal blindness and deafness to the call of Jesus to follow Him. "Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace with out Jesus Christ, living and incarnate." 1
Cheap grace has nothing to do with the call of Jesus. When Jesus calls a person, He offers him a cross to carry. As Luther defined, a Christian is a crucian, a person of the cross. To be a disciple is to be a follower, and being a follower of Jesus is no cheap trick. To the Corinthians Paul twice wrote of the obligations of grace. First, he speaks of his own experience: "By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them [the apostles], though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me" (1 Cor. 15:10). See how Paul acknowledges the supremacy of God's grace in his life? And immediately he adds that this grace was not given to him in vain. The Greek eis kenon literally translates "for emptiness." That is to say, Paul did not receive grace in order to lead a vain, empty life—but rather a life filled with the fruits of the Spirit, and even that not in his own strength but by the power of the indwelling grace. Similarly he pleads with the believers "not to accept the grace of God in vain" (2 Cor. 6:1).
The grace of God has not come to redeem us from one kind of emptiness to place us in another kind of emptiness. God's grace is His activity to reconcile us to Himself, to make us a part of the family of God. We come into that family, not because of any good works that we have done, but because we have accepted through faith what God has done through the cross of Jesus. Having come into the family, we live in the family, bearing fruits of God's love through the power of His amazing grace. Thank God for that reality.
* All Scripture texts in this editorial are from
the Revised Standard Version.
1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
(New York: The MacmillanCo., 1967), p. 47.