Why We Don’t Disciple #1: Our Churches Preach Cheap Grace

The growth of the evangelical church has been ocean-wide, but often puddle-deep. Why so shallow?

Over the next five weeks, I’m going to suggest five reasons why those of us in evangelical churches often do a poor job of discipling one another. (For the biblical reasons we should be discipling, here’s last week’s post).

Firstly, our churches very often teach “cheap” grace.

You’ll remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian. He defined cheap grace like this:

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” (The Cost of Discipleship, 43-44)

When we preach the gospel, what do our hearers hear? Do they hear, “Of course you’ve sinned, but now everything is forgiven. Everything’s ok.”

The problem with this is that it contains no demand for discipleship. No repentance is required. Isn’t that at odds with Jesus’ insistence in Mark 8:34 that anyone who wants to follow him must deny themselves and take up their cross?

Grace may be free. But it is not cheap. It cost Jesus his life. And it will cost us our lives too, if we want to follow him. The invitation may be extended to all, but only those who obey Jesus’ call – to deny self and take up their cross – can receive it.

And the question is, are we teaching this uncomfortably Christian gospel in our local churches? Does our gospel contain the demand for discipleship? Or do we cough loudly over Mark 8:34, and relegate it to the small print, hoping no-one will notice until after they’ve signed on the dotted line? Are we lowering the cost of discipleship in the hope that more will buy?

Another, related question: do we speak of God’s love as “unconditional”? If we do, we unwittingly contribute to the problem of cheap grace. Because in one sense, God’s love is not unconditional at all.

Listen to what David Powlison says here:

“While it’s true that God’s love does not depend upon what you do, it very much depends on what Jesus Christ did for you. In that sense, it is highly conditional. It cost Jesus his life.”

If we fail to teach the “conditionality” of God’s love, we’ll serve up cheap grace. Grace that requires no radical obedience, only a sleepy nod. Grace that cannot stir, only sedate.

My fear is that in our evangelical desire to get “decisions” from people, we may have rendered many of those “decisions” meaningless. It is one thing to “pray the prayer”, another thing entirely to repent and believe. It is much easier to walk the aisle than it is to walk the Calvary road. You don’t even need to change your footwear.

Cheap grace may help churches to fill, of course. But they will fill with people who aren’t disciples, and don’t particularly want to be. Can we expect such a person to be discipling others?

Next week, assuming you’re not already depressed beyond retrieval, I’ll suggest a second reason we’re not discipling well.

10 thoughts on “Why We Don’t Disciple #1: Our Churches Preach Cheap Grace

  1. Agree with this wholeheartedly.. it’s so important to think through the mystery of repentance… although repentance is fully owned as an act of will by the repenter, it’s not a ‘work’ that we get saved by or gain approval by, but a continuing work of grace in our hearts by the spirit of God. My hope is that no one will be reading this ticking their repentance boxes thinking “I’ve repented, I believe, I’m ok” which is just cheap grace with different language, what I think you meant was, and what we need is “I’m turning from sin to Jesus, I need Jesus now, I want to follow Jesus no matter what it costs because it can never cost more than I receive in him”.

    Great series, much needed.. not depressed, looking forward to the next post!

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  2. Very thought provoking – and I think your conclusions are right, fear is a major factor in why we have watered down the gospel in western evangelicalism (which I’d differentiate on this subject from growing evangelical populations in other parts of the world). However, I think it goes beyond the fear of how it may or may not be received by hypothetical converts to fear of how teaching this aspect of the gospel might affect us as individuals. A leader who teaches the concepts you’ve outlined above will have to implement or accept their implications in his or her own life. They too will have to open themselves and their lives to being held accountable – and they’ll have to expose themselves to what repentance, full submission and denial of self means (and Luke 12:48 is admittedly a little intimidating when applied to this particular subject). There are plenty of warnings in the Bible on the actual cost of entering into a relationship with Christ and being reconciled to God (Matthew 24:9 is a particularly cheerful one).

    On a slightly related and very depressing note there was a study published last year which confirmed some of my own personal experience, that despite widespread interest in the larger church (75%) only 48% of North American pastors would ever be willing to preach about persecution taking place in other parts of the world, because – and this is an actual quote – “it’s a downer”.

    Stopping myself now – I could go on and on and on and on about this… looking forward to the next installments!

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      • 🙂 I promise in real life I’m actually a pretty optimistic and happy person. I do think if we did start teaching the hard truths about grace, we’d also start learning the truths about the enormous blessing, hope, joy and peace that are tied together with it – and what an amazing Church that would be!

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  3. excellent. SOOOOO so grateful to be in a Church and with a group of believers that don’t cheapen grace, but treasure it as valuable, and regularly exhort others to treasure it, as well.

    Love this series… looking forward to the next post!

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  4. This an excellent article thanks very much for thinking about and articulating this point of cheap grace Barry. Cant wait for the next.
    On the point of depression – why should we as Christians be depressed about the point of Grace and Repentance. This is how God made us, and so we are made free by dying to self indeed we can then face up to the reality that we are Justified and Glorified.
    Yes facing up to my sin and repenting is a fight against my self but always brings about joy. What brings about depression is hanging onto self and being a slave to sin !
    The world and culture says giving into a piece of delicious sin is great and denying ourselves of that is depression. Lets lead on this and tell people about the joy that comes from repenting, believing and being saved.

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