When Grace Becomes Cheap

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? James 2:14

Martin Luther once called the New Testament letter of James an “epistle of straw”. Struggling to reconcile Paul’s gospel of free grace with James’ demand for good works, Luther remarked that he would give his doctor’s beret to anyone who could do so. Years before he had come to an understanding of God’s grace, and nothing could drag him back to his old life of trying to please an angry God through a system of good works. His cry became the cry of the Reformation: Sola Gratia! (Grace alone).

It is interesting to note that this phrase is often quoted, in some form, by Christians in discussions about moral issues, and usually seen as the last words on the subject. Like Luther, we side with Paul and choose to ignore James.

Yet James’ inclusion in the canon of Scripture is no accident. James does not attack or minimise our understanding of God’s grace, but rather expands it. Grace, according to James, does not only forgive sins, but also transforms the sinner. It includes both pardon and rehabilitation. Separate the two, and it is no longer grace.
These two dimensions of grace are strikingly illustrated in the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8). We all know what Jesus said to the Pharisees and love quoting him: “If anyone is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her”, but we seem oblivious of his words spoken to the woman: “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, said Diettrich Bonnhoeffer. Let us heed James’ words, and not fall into the trap of thinking that God’s grace is a license to commit or condone sinful acts.


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