Posted by: Philip Rushton | November 22, 2011

The Grace vs. Works Dilemma

Many Christians do not know how to reconcile a life of costly discipleship with a doctrine of grace. If Christ offers us grace and forgiveness why is it necessary for us to work at a life of righteousness? For example, throughout Paul’s letters we read that we are saved by grace not by works (Eph 2:11-12); yet, most of his letters conclude with a list of ethical actions we should pursue. Similarly, Jesus teaches us that we are saved by grace through faith (John 3:16), yet he calls us to live a radical life of discipleship in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). As I have been journeying through the New Testament this fall with our bible read through group I’ve been constantly coming up against this question – why is the pursuit of holiness so important if we are saved by grace? How do these two emphases work together?

This is an issue that Bonhoeffer deals with in his book The Cost of Discipleship. The book begins by differentiating between cheap grace and costly grace. Cheap grace is an understanding of grace where people do not feel the need to surrender to Christ because they have forgiveness of sins in the atoning work of Jesus. Bonhoeffer summarizes this view saying, “The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing” (43). People say, “Grace alone does everything and so everything can remain as it was before” (43). In this perspective of grace, no contrition or repentance are required and people do not have a desire for deliverance.

Bonhoeffer contrasts this perspective of grace with what he calls costly grace. Costly grace is the active pursuit of the gospel by the disciple. Bonhoeffer explains that, “such Grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life” (45). In this perspective the ability to follow Christ is grace because following Christ is a life of fullness and truth. For us to experience the benefits of God’s grace, then, we must surrender our lives in obedience to Christ.

The consequence of cheap grace is that it leads people away from the joy of true discipleship. Bonhoeffer says, “the only effect that such a word could have on us was to bar our way to progress, and seduce us to the mediocre level of the world, quenching the joy of discipleship” (54). Cheap grace damages our soul because it does not lead us to Christ and to the joy that comes in following him.

In essence, Bonhoeffer suggests that the notion of cheap grace totally misses the point of the gospel. The good news of the gospel is that we now have an opportunity to live a new kind of life. As we work toward righteousness we have the ability to experience reconciliation, peace and wholeness. We are not saved by works; rather, because of God’s grace we have the opportunity and the ability to live in a better way. The hard work of discipleship, then, is permeated by grace, for it brings us into union with Christ, it is made possible by the power of Christ, and it leads us to a life of fullness.

So what are your thoughts? How do you make sense of the purpose of ethics within a gospel of grace?


  1. Good thinking, good writing. N.T. Wright spends quite a bit on this also in his book on what to do after conversion. There will probably always be a bit of tension between our effort and just the relaxing in the arms of God’s wonderful grace. Maybe unrelated but a great puzzle to me is how does the gospel have any attraction to masses of people who don’t seem to think about anything, let alone thinking about moral issues and what they should do about such issues. Am I the only one who worries about this?

    • Hi Gil,

      Thanks for your thoughts! Regarding your question about how morality relates to the masses – Timothy Keller has found that there is actually lot of interest in moral issues among non-believers today. At least that has been his experience working in NYC. Caring for the poor, and caring for the environment is almost ‘trendy’ among younger secularists these days. What Keller finds, however, is that there is a lack of philosophical foundation supporting these interests. You do not get a ‘love neighbor as self’ ethic from modern or post-modern philosophy.

      So one of the inroads we have with our culture is a means of providing a foundation for these moral concerns. I think there is a lot of room for dialogue.

      At the same time this probably does not cross the moral spectrum. For example, we may get a hearing on caring for the poor, but not regarding Christian sexual ethics.

      The way I approach conversations with non-believers over issues of morality is to explain the link between morality and wholeness. It is not enough to say “don’t do this because the bible says so,” we need to explain the wisdom behind the ethic – why Jesus promotes the ethic that he does. I do think that this gets a better hearing. I think there is an inevitable disillusionment people face when they live a life with unchecked boundaries.

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