Is Grace Free, Cheap, or Outrageously Costly?

I’m currently teaching a Wednesday Bible class based on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship. Since I didn’t preach this past Sunday I thought I’d use this week’s post to summarise some of the discussions we’ve had in this class.

The first section of the The Cost of Discipleship bears the heading, “Grace and Discipleship”. Within this section Bonhoeffer presents a perspective on grace that has seriously impacted my understanding. He describes three types of grace:

  1. Free grace;
  2. Cheap grace; and
  3. Costly grace.

I’ll look at these one at a time in order to compare and differentiate them.


Grace must always be free. Conditional grace is not grace. Earned grace is not grace. By definition, grace cannot be merit based. It must be free. Consider these verses:broken heart 01

  • Acts 15:11 “…We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved…”
  • Romans 5:20b-21where sin increased, grace increased all the more,so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
  • Romans 6:23 “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life inChrist Jesus our Lord.”
  • Ephesians 2:4-5 “because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy,made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.

Our salvation is a result of God’s grace, not our behaviour, not our intentions, not our efforts. I particularly like Romans 6:23. The only thing earned (wages) is death. On the other hand, eternal life is a gift because of Jesus. When we try and deserve our salvation, we’re actually moving closer to death than life.

Grace must be FREE!


It would be very easy for me to fill up this section with Bonhoeffer quotes, but I’m not sure that would be helpful. The point of reading this post is that you don’t have to read the book. 🙂 So here’s my description of cheap grace with some help from Jon Walker in his book Costly Grace (Leafwood, 2010).

  • Cheap Grace is really Fake Grace. It deceives. It contradicts Romans 6:1-2 and says “As long as you’ve entered the church, you’ll be okay in the end. God’s grace will cover you.”
  • Cheap Grace thrives in impersonal broad and general discussions. The less we personalise faith, the more we cheapen it. Cheap Grace says, “Christ died for sin”, but doesn’t say “Christ died for the lie I told last week.”
  • Cheap Grace is grace we give ourselves. Cheap Grace prompts us to rationalize our behavior and conclude it wasn’t a sin. Or we maintain the delusion that “we’re not that bad”. Cheap Grace occurs when we tell ourselves that “nobody’s perfect”. Or we comfort ourselves with the reminder that “God will forgive me”. We find reasons to avoid dramatic transformation. Cheap Grace that we give ourselves makes our lives easier, rather than challenging us.
  • Cheap Grace says a person can have their sins washed away, but they don’t need to follow Jesus or make significant life changes. It teaches forgiveness, without obedience and reward without suffering.


Costly Grace recognises that forgiveness of sins cost God the life of his Son (John 3:16). It acknowledges that a person freely receives a gift, but that the transaction always involves a cost for the giver. Here are some verses to remind us what our adoption cost God.three crosses

  • John 12:23-26: A grain of wheat must die to bring a harvest.
  • Romans 6:3, 6-9: Grace = baptized in Christ Jesus; Cost = baptized into his death.
  • 1 Corinthians 6:20:Bought with a price
  • Philippians 2:5-11: Jesus humbled himself to the point of death.

Understanding “Real Grace” also inspires people risk everything to obtain it and retain it. A tension definitely exists between the concepts of Free Grace  and Costly Grace. Perhaps it is best explained by these teachings of Jesus:

  • Matthew 13:44-46: The Pearl of Great Price – Costly grace will prompt us to give up everything to receive it.
  • Matthew 5:27-30: Pluck out Your Eye – A person will cut off their hand rather than risk losing costly grace.
  • Matthew 7:7-8: Ask, Seek, Knock – Costly grace requires determination on our part to receive it.

Of these three examples the parable of the pearl best illustrates the relationship between grace and cost. The merchant can’t take credit for creating the pearl, but when he discovers it he gives up everything to obtain it.

This mirrors Jesus’ call to discipleship. Jesus extended grace to Levi, Peter & Andrew by calling them to follow him. He gave them the opportunity to spend three years at the feet of the Messiah. There was no American Idol audition. They didn’t beat out the competition. It was a gracious invite. Yet if they didn’t immediately leave their nets and change table they would not have benefited from that grace.

Christians will so value the gracious call to discipleship that we will give up everything to accept it. We will submit in obedience to Christ. We will die to self, and live in Christ. The old man is gone replaced by a new person of God’s creation.

As a closing contrast between Cheap (Fake) and Costly (For Real) Grace, consider Jesus’ call to “count the cost” of following him. (Luke 14:25-35) In contrast, we see a prime example of cheap grace in the ease that anyone in a “Christian nation” can call themselves Christian. You were baptised as an infant, you’re a Christian. You were born into a Christian family, you’re a Christian. You’re not a Buddhist and you celebrate Christmas, you’re a Christian. You live a good life and believe God will look after you in the next life, you’re a Christian. The entry bar is low or nonexistent. The cost has been removed.

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 without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.  Bonhoeffer, “Cost of Discipleship” (44-45)

If you have any questions about these categories of grace, please leave a comment and perhaps the broader community can answer them with a clarity that I haven’t communicated. 🙂

For other discussion questions, please visit THIS BLOG POST on a similar topic. The discussion questions are at the bottom of the page.



  1. johannasawyer


    Thank your for bringing some clarity to a topic where generalities sometimes rule.

    I do sidewalk evangelism where we discuss the Cost of Discipleship with people. This works better than it may sound. We discuss specific people who are being persecuted (using a flyer w/their story) and their need for international support. This can lead into a discussion of the difficulty of following Jesus and to why the Cross is meaningful to us as Christians.

    • ozziepete

      Johanna, thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I’m glad you found the article worthwhile. I’m glad you’re finding that evangelistic approach to be working. It sounds confronting, but then Jesus often confronted people with his call didn’t he?

      • Johanna

        I do like it because it seems in my own mind at least to be closer to the type of “cost” discussions Jesus had with people. Some would call it pre-evangelism of course. I think it might be better understood as evangelism proper.

        But regarding just how confronting it may be, it actually is probably far less so than the norm, simply because it probably fits into a somewhat more familiar script, that is the sticking up for one’s “tribe” idea. I approach people and discuss the problems Christians are facing in hostile countries. People “get” that, and are generally pretty sympathetic. Then I let the person lead the conversation as much as I do, so it keeps pretty cordial on that score.

        Ironically the other type of evangelism I do is where, Greg Koukl style, I ask them about their views, and listen as they expand on that. And then ask if they consider any specific reasons or evidence to be a part of their beliefs or if they just intuitively believe them. That is quite a bit more putting-people-on-the-spot oriented than the “cost” discussion, where I’m doing more of the talking.

        Anyway, thanks for replying. I lost track of your blog but have now put it into my Bloglovin, so I look forward to visiting again.

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