Cheap Grace or Transforming Grace?

This article is based on a sermon I delivered several years ago at People’s Church, Long Beach, NY. This is an almost verbatim transcript of my sermon, published in my church’s (Nassau International Assembly) newsletter shortly thereafter.

(Please read: Isaiah 55:1–9; 1 Corinthians 10:1–13; Luke 13:1–9)

The theme of God’s grace permeates each of these Bible passages. In First Corinthians and Luke, it is mingled with warnings of judgment. But even there, God’s grace is revealed.

I realize many people cannot comprehend how you can talk about a gracious God and a God of judgment in the same breath. This is because many Christians misunderstand grace. Since the New Testament consistently teaches that eternal life is received by grace through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8–9), we should understand what God’s grace really is, so that we can understand the foundation of our relationship with Him.

In seminary I learned the textbook definition of grace: “unmerited favor.” In other words, grace means that you receive a good thing that you do not deserve; in fact, you might deserve bad instead of good. It is certainly true that we all need God’s grace, because as Romans 3:23 tells us, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We do not deserve eternal life.

Many Christians think grace means they can somehow buy an easy ticket to heaven. In many churches, people are invited to the altar at the end of the service to say a sinner’s prayer. Many pray assuming their motives do not matter; they might have gone up only because of a friend’s nudging. Some say the prayer after being moved by a really well-preached sermon which they will probably forget tomorrow. I once knew a guy who went forward at an altar call simply because he wanted to meet this well-known preacher!

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer coined a phrase for such a distorted understanding of grace. He called it “cheap grace.” In his classic devotional, The Cost of Discipleship, he spoke of it as preaching “forgiveness without requiring repentance,” offering “communion without confession” and “absolution without contrition.”

I ask you: do you treat the means of grace in this manner? Do you come to church and assume God forgives your sins during the week just because you worshipped for one hour? Do you partake of the Lord’s Supper as a mere ritual, or do you sincerely seek and expect a meeting with Christ through communion? Do you expect easy entry into heaven someday just because a priest or minister sprinkled or poured water on your head when you were younger, or because you said “amen” to the prayer at the end of a Billy Graham broadcast one night?

This cheap grace mentality was the issue Paul was confronting when he wrote 1 Corinthians 10. Perhaps as you read you noticed the parallels he drew between baptism and communion and the experiences of the Israelites when they left Egypt. They were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea (v. 2); we have been baptized with water in the name of Jesus Christ. They ate the spiritual food, manna, and drank a spiritual drink of water that flowed miraculously from a rock (vv. 3 and 4). We partake of spiritual food and drink when we participate in communion. Yet, Paul points out, many of these people who had been delivered from slavery and called to enter the Promised Land did not finish the journey. They assumed they could live like the Egyptians God just judged: they engaged in idolatry and worshipped false gods; they committed acts of immorality; they grumbled against God; they tested Him, daring Him to prove Himself on their terms. In First Corinthians, Paul mentions such activity in the church and, twice in chapter 10, points out that the judgments upon the Israelites were recorded as examples to us. The Israelites could not point back to the Red Sea and say, “Ha! There you go, God. You won’t judge me after going through all that trouble to deliver me from bondage, will you?” Nor can we say, “Hey, now that I’ve done my religious duty, God will ignore all my sins for the rest of the week.” Paul warns us: “Let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (1 Corinthians 10:11).

But then comes the good news: “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (v. 13). God’s grace does not just bring you out of your personal Egypt; it does not merely give you the opportunity to hear the Gospel and believe. Grace provides forgiveness of your sins, along with the means for obtaining victory over your current temptations. When you truly understand grace, you realize that God not only desires to forgive you of your sins, but to help you overcome them. Even though sin shows one’s reckless disregard for God, He still offers to forgive. He realizes how much sin holds you back from the abundant life He intended for you to live, and He is eager to lead you into that abundant life. He is more eager to give it than we are to receive.

Transforming grace provides the way of escape from temptation. Temptation is inevitable in this life. People are going to do things that test your patience. Old habits that you have not given in to for a while will still entice you. But, God will provide a way of escape. Too many Christians think their faith just guarantees forgiveness after they sin. But, it also provides resources for resisting temptation. Many do not realize that things as simple as prayer or memorizing Scripture can help one resist temptation. The spiritual power we receive in the baptism in the Holy Spirit enables us to withstand temptation. And just like the Bible records cases of judgment as examples to us, it also records the lives of godly people and how they faced problems and temptations, so that we can follow their examples when we are tested.

We see God’s transforming grace as He holds back the hand of judgment. A friend of mine once tried to prove there was no God by saying, “Okay God, if you’re there, strike me dead…. See, no God.” Of course, God did not answer that prayer. Just because God did not answer that prayer does not mean He does not exist. It only proves that He means everything He says in the Scriptures: 2 Peter 3:9 tells us that God wishes that none should perish, but that all may come to repentance.

We see this divine patience in Jesus’ parable in Luke 13. What vine dresser would allow a fruitless vine to take up space for three years? But, the vine dresser, in response to the call for destruction, pleads for one more year and more diligent effort on the vine’s behalf. Likewise, God frequently gives fresh opportunities for repentance, even when from a human perspective all hope seems lost.

As long as you have breath, God calls with the invitation to transformation. He invites you, in the words of Isaiah, “Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost” (Isaiah 55:1). He invites us to eat and drink of the true spiritual nourishment. He invites us to seek the Lord while He may be found; to call upon Him while He is near. He invites the wicked to forsake his way, and the unrighteous man to forsake his thoughts.

Have you been relying on cheap grace? Come to Christ; receive the goodness He offers. He will have compassion and abundantly pardon all your sins as you turn to Him for true, transforming grace.

Categories: Bible meditations, Spiritual reflections | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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