Grace is not free

Grace is not free.

The Christian concept of grace (charis, Χάρις) has puzzled me for years.  Its definition seems a good place to begin.  Still, I hate to start with a definition, so I’ll start with a story.

During a British conference on comparative religions, the participants were heatedly discussing what’s unique about Christianity.  C. S. Lewis wandered into the room.  “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.” (Yancy, p 45) *

It’s a good point, but not strictly true.  Hindus and Muslims believe in Grace, understood as God reaching out to humanity with love.  Jews believe in chen (חֵן), a version of grace.  Nevertheless, it is Christianity that has developed the concept most fully. 

The standard definition

In Christianity, grace is the love and mercy given to us by God as a free gift.  It is nothing we have earned.

Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become . . . partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.  (Catechism of the Catholic Church)

This definition leads some to see grace as part of a faith over works teaching.  It leads others to think that if grace is free then it must be easy.  Both conclusions are wrong.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls this “cheap grace.”

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.   (Discipleship, location 604-606)

The last point about discipleship is especially important, for it means that while grace may be freely given, the gift comes we strings: we must live as though we deserve it.  That’s the cost of discipleship—a ball of string. 

What does discipleship cost?   Everything.

It’s probably the most important and difficult question Christians face today: how to live as a Christian in today’s world, a place that seems to have no time and room for faith.  A well-known Bible story refers to a rich man who approaches Jesus, saying that he had filled the Commandments.  What other good thing must he do to earn eternal life? 

If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.  (Matthew 19:21-22)

I struggle with this question almost every day of my life.  Peter Singer, a famous professor, gives almost all his disposable income to charity. (

I’m not a famous professor, but I make a comfortable living, and I can’t imagine doing what Singer does (by the way, the New Testament says nothing about tithing 10%).  Sometimes I ask God for forgiveness for my selfishness, but I’ve realized that if I don’t intend to donate my savings to the poor, then asking for forgiveness is hypocritical.  Once I wondered if grace would save me, but now I realize that it won’t.  As Bonhoeffer says, grace may be given freely, but it is the costliest gift you will ever receive. 

When he spoke of grace, Luther always implied as a corollary that it cost him his own life, the life which was now for the first time subjected to the absolute obedience of Christ. Only so could he speak of grace.  Luther had said that grace alone can save; his followers took up his doctrine and repeated it word for word. But they left out its invariable corollary, the obligation of discipleship.  (Discipleship, loc 684-687)

Original sin and the cost of serenity

Almost everyone knows the Reinhold Niebuhr’s  serenity prayer, even if they don’t know what it’s called or who wrote it.  It seems to be the official prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous, where many people learn about it for the first time.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Some have softened the original prayer to read “things that can be changed.”  No, not merely can, but “should.” 

            A different sense of grace

I’m puzzled about this prayer because its sense of grace is different from that usually invoked.  Not God’s gift, but human acceptance of an all too harsh and often cruel world is the point.

How can we understand these two different senses of grace: Grace as God’s love and mercy for flawed humanity, and grace as human acceptance of an often harsh and cruel world? 

I think the key is original sin, which Niebuhr called “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of Christian faith.”  Niebuhr refers not to some inherited stain on humanity, but the observable fact that humans are generally selfish and self-centered, if not about themselves then about their family, group, tribe, or nation.

If this is so, then God’s grace must be met with human efforts to make this bad world better, to heal those who suffer, and care for the afflicted. 

 Conclusion: grace is not free

God’s grace may be freely given.  What most people don’t tell you is that it is only then that the real work begins.  If people are naturally sinful, then our work is cut out for us.  Not just to change ourselves so as to be worthy of grace, but to change the world so that it is a worthwhile place to live.  There is time and place for serenity, but only after we have completed our work for the day. 


* By the way, I disagree.  The idea of a God who chooses to suffer as humans do is Christianity’s most important contribution.  If God is eternal, then so is his suffering.  I believe this is unique among the world’s major religions.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.  London: SCM Press, 1959.

Philip Yancy, What’s So Amazing About Grace?  Zondervan, 1997.

4 thoughts on “Grace is not free”

  1. I’m not sure I believe in God, but I believe in grace. I also agree that it’s not free. I experienced grace when I stopped drinking over 30 years ago. It was a gift from somewhere or some thing that had been unreachable for me even after many years of sometimes very difficult psychotherapy. But AA taught me that there’s a difference between being “dry,” and being “sober.” That’s why your conclusion is so meaningful to me. Sobriety comes “only after we have completed our work for the day.” For me at least, that work never stops.

  2. Marc, I think you are right to enlarge the concept of grace. The formal definition as the free and unmerited favor of God is not very helpful. Grace comes in it’s own way, and in it’s own time. But we have to be open to the experience. You were. Fred

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