The word "cheap" has a couple of connotations, of course… it can simply refer to something that doesn't cost much… even if the object in question is of acceptable quality. You might say "inexpensive." But note that even something that's inexpensive does cost something… something that costs just one dollar is not free.
Perhaps more frequently, "cheap" is a pejorative term that says something about the quality of an object, possibly considered together with the price of the object, which is usually relatively low. But even under this connotation, "cheap" costs something. A cheap pair of tennis shoes is not free.
So it strikes me that the terms "cheap" and "grace" don't really fit together all that well. But another term that keeps popping up makes even less sense than that. The term is "costly grace." Again we have the idea of a gift that's costly. Clearly, it's an oxy-moron unless the context makes clear that the cost has been borne by the giver and not the recipient. If the high cost is borne by the recipient of the gift, I think we all can understand that it's no gift at all. It's earned. It's purchased. It's deserved. And it's not compatible with the idea of "grace" in the least.
These strange terms pop up in Christian circles today and they are offered up in the context God's gift of salvation. But the question is, "How, exactly, are these terms applicable?"
Well, that depends on who you ask. But it might be more useful to ask the Apostle Paul, as he had some things to say about the matter.
Romans 4:4-5 Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.
If a man is paid wages for work that he does, Paul says, that is not grace… those wages are owed him. And notice verse 5 in which Paul clearly separates believing from working. "Believing" here is the Greek verb "pisteuo" which means "to trust" or "to rely on". So to the man who does not work, but relies on Him who justifies the unGodly, (Jesus Christ) his faith is counted as righteousness. He is saved. So, relying on someone else to do work is not doing any work of your own. This is Paul's point.
Romans 11:6 And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.
In this verse we see shades of the same idea. Paul is essentially saying that you cannot earn something that is a grace gift. A gift cannot cost you something if it is truly a gift. If you didn't earn it, then it is grace; a gift. But if you must do something to earn it, then it cannot be grace. It is of works. It is earned. In other words, you can't add works to grace. You can't pollute grace with works and still call grace "grace." Paul says these two concepts are mutually exclusive. You cannot add them together.
Ephesians 2:8-9 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.
Here Paul is talking about our salvation. He says we are saved by grace through faith. The salvation is a gift from God and is not of works (there's that idea of mutual exclusivity again) so that no one can boast about their salvation. Since it wasn't gained or secured through your own efforts, you can't boast about it. It's a grace gift. No work of your own.
Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Again, eternal life (salvation) is a gift of God.
Well, that all seems clear enough, right? Well, yes, it does. But it seems folks aren't willing to bank what Paul says here. It seems they are loathe to believe it, rest on it. Folks are unwilling to see that God's grace is free. It costs us (the recipients) nothing. (though it certainly cost God quite a bit) It depends NOT on our works, our obedience, etc. We are to rely on Christ for our salvation and if we think we must also rely on ourselves, then we are by definition not relying on Christ!
I found an article at BelieversWeb.org written by a man named John Clark called "The High Cost of Cheap Grace." In it, I found some very interesting thoughts. But before I go there, it might do us good to look at how the cult of Jehovah's Witnesses view salvation and grace. The JWs at my door have told me that God's grace gift to us is that we have the opportunity of salvation, for resurrection. The salvation itself we have to work for, the Watchtower says… but the fact that this is even possible is God's grace. So, the JW's concept of salvation (resurrection for them… they don't believe in Hell, so to them there's nothing to be saved from) is the sum of God's grace gift of opportunity plus your works and obedience. You see, they've done precisely what Paul said not to do… they've added works to grace.
Now let's look at the BelieversWeb article, where John J. Clark says the following:
…the concept of grace must be understood as a sum. The only man who has a right to say he is justified by grace alone is the man who has left all to follow Christ. Such a one knows the cost of the call to discipleship and that it is only by grace that he can sustain it.
So, a man can only be saved (justified) by "grace alone" if he has left all to follow Christ. Now, I'm sorry to sound flippant, but this is essentially saying that the only way to experience grace all by itself is to add your works to it. Add your obedience, your discipline, your effort, your sacrifice. There's basically no difference here between Clark's understanding and the JW's understanding. We have to add our works to God's grace. Here's more:
We have come to hunger more for His forgiveness than His Lordship and Leadership because we see the first as making less demands upon our personal lives. Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without demanding repentance, baptism without discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, the cross, Jesus Christ living and incarnate.
Well, the truth is that Paul made it quite clear (and so did Jesus, by the way) that there is only ONE demand on our personal lives when it comes to God's gift of eternal life… that is that we rely on Jesus Christ. If you'd like to slap a label on that, the term "free grace" would fit quite well and would be consistent with what Jesus and the apostles actually taught. Repentence, which simply means to change your mind about something, is necessary in that at one time you may have relied on your own merit to earn the approval of God (or perhaps you didn't even believe in God to begin with). But you must change your mind about that and rely on Christ's merit instead, realizing you have none of your own. This is repentance. There isn't a Christian alive, regardless of how sincere, who has successfully "turned from their sin" (the popular--and incorrect--understanding of "repentance.") Yes, a change of mind is required. But if it's required that we literally stop sinning, then folks, no one is saved.
We also see that Clark is mistakenly equating discipleship with salvation. Jesus called His disciples to leave their lives behind and follow Him. And He meant that literally and figuratively. He actually wanted those men to come with Him and learn from Him. But note that in order to follow Jesus, either literally or figuratively, these men had to put their trust in Jesus. What I'm saying is that these men were saved independently of becoming disciples. The discipleship came later, and yes, it carried a cost. It took effort, it took sacrifice, it carried a cost. But the disciples' salvation happened the moment they put their faith in Christ. At that moment, they possessed eternal life whether or not they became successful as disciples. The idea here is that not every believer becomes a disciple. But every believer is saved by God's grace, no two ways about it. If discipleship is required for salvation, then salvation is by works and not grace, salvation depends on us and not Christ. Here's more from Clark:
Costly Grace, on the other hand, is the treasure hidden in a field. For the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is a pearl of great price to buy which will cost us everything. It's the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble. It is the call of Jesus at which a disciple leaves his nets and follows. It is grace which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
For the sake of grace, a man will gladly sell all he has? Sounds like grace must be earned, doesn't it? Earn God's grace by selling all you have? It will cost us everything? Is that what Paul says? If grace is costly to us, then it seems to me that it's something we could boast about… but that's not what Ephesians 2:8-9 says, is it? Paul says God's gift of salvation is free! That's why Paul calls it a 'gift.'
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. Costly because it costs a man his life, it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. Costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, costly because it cost God the life of His Son.
Okay, now the last sentence I can agree with. God's grace was costly to Him. But if it's a gift to us, it can cost us nothing. If it costs us anything, then it's not a gift. God's plan for salvation by grace calls us to do nothing whatsoever apart from believing in Christ; relying on Christ to do all the work. And Paul takes care to explain that relying on Christ for your salvation is not work. What did Paul tell the jailer in Acts 16:31 when the jailer asked "What must I do to be saved?"
“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved"
Paul didn't say "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, sell all you have, leave everything behind, become a disciple, turn from your sin and you will be saved", did he?
Should we follow Christ? Should we attempt to clean up our sinful lives? Should we perform 'good works'? Of course we should. And the extent to which we accomplish these things is the extent to which we earn rewards in Heaven. That is a progressive, incremental process… experiential sanctification. It requires work, effort, sacrifice. It's costly. But that takes place only AFTER we're saved and even if we fail to do these things, we remain saved. Our salvation doesn't depend on us, after all.
1 Corinthians 3:11-15 For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
Here Paul makes it very clear that Christ is the foundation, and the ONLY foundation. Upon that foundation we add our works and this will earn for us reward, but even those who are left with no work, no reward, he will still be saved based on the foundation of Christ.
Note that the reward here is not salvation itself, for salvation is a gift and not a reward. A reward is something that is earned; a gift is something that is not earned.
What it comes down to is that we are incredibly adept at finding clever ways to sneak our own works, our own merit, back into the salvation equation. Clark's view of salvation, "costly grace", is a works-based salvation. It is a salvation which depends on the individual and their effort, and not on Christ. The Bible teaches "free grace", not "cheap grace". Free grace is the idea that our salvation is just as Paul describes it… a gift from God that we neither earn nor deserve. From there, we are expected to perform good works, learn more and more about God and Christ, try to emulate Christ in our lives. But this does not impact whether we are saved or not. Our failures cannot revoke our salvation, for if they could, then our salvation would depend on us and not Christ.
Why is this a big deal? Look at Matthew 7:22-23:
Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’
Now ask yourself a question: Who or what were these people trusting for their salvation? Sure… they believed that Christ was Lord, they even called Him "Lord". But their trust isn't in Jesus, is it? Their trust is in their works! They're making their case, pointing out to Jesus all the wonderful things they did in His name. They prophesied. They cast out demons. They did wonderful works. Their trust is in themselves! They're trusting their works! And what is the result? Jesus sends them away. "I never knew you" he tells them.
Just a few verses earlier, Jesus says this:
“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. 14 Because[a] narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.
We are warned that the way to eternal life is extremely narrow, specific. That doesn't mean it requires a lot of work, per se, it just means that the requirements are very particular. What are those requirements? Rely on Christ alone for your salvation. Let Him deal with it. Give Him the credit. And yes, go and learn. Go do good stuff. That's great. Just don't think that the things you do in any way secure your salvation. Christ has already done that.