The Book of Matthew

Monday: Nominal Christians

Matthew 7:21-23 In this week’s lessons, we look at the dangers of nominal Christianity, and see what is really involved to be a Christian.

I do not like the phrase “cheap grace,” which Dietrich Bonhoeffer has made popular and which he deplores. For grace in a very real sense is cheap, or, what is even better to say, is without cost entirely. It is true that grace cost God the Father the death of the Son. But for us grace is bestowed totally without payment, and it is abounding even though we fall back into sin or abuse it. I believe that without an explanation the term “cheap grace” obscures this.

Nevertheless, the phrase has some value. We can refer to it profitably now at this point in our studies on the final verses of the Sermon on the Mount. The Lord Jesus Christ has been warning His hearers against the things that can hinder a listener from going on to that fullness of faith in Christ’s person and commitment to Him that is the true gate to salvation. He has warned against the belief that this can come to a man in the normal course of things; that is, without true personal decision and conversion. He has warned against the false teacher who would share doctrine but who would not lead the one who is learning from him to Jesus. Now He turns to a danger that lies within the heart of the individual himself. It is self-delusion or deception.

Jesus said, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father, who is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? And in thy name have cast out demons? And in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matt. 7:21-23). This means that the listener to the Gospel must not count on a mere belief in Christ’s person, on the one hand, or the performance of great works in His name, on the other hand, as proof of his own salvation. These things will not save him. Rather, he must assure himself of his relation to Jesus Christ personally.

Now Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew the reality of this kind of self-delusion from the context of the Lutheran Church in Germany in his day. And “cheap grace” was his term for describing it. Here was a church, like many of the denominations in America, in which the profession of faith was present and in which good works were done, but in which most of the people had simply not been born again. They were taught “grace,” but it was grace without conversion. As Proverbs says, “There is a generation that are pure in their own eyes, and yet are not washed from their filthiness” (Prov. 30:12).

Bonhoeffer writes, “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.”1

1Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1966), 47.

Study Questions
  1. In what sense is God’s grace without cost? In what other sense did it cost an infinite amount?
  2. What does Bonhoeffer mean by his term “cheap grace”?

Reflection: What evidences of “cheap grace” do you see around you?

For Further Study: Download and listen for free to James Boice’s message, “Marks of a True Disciple.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)

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