In the classic work, Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of those who desired the blessings of the gospel without having to become disciples or commit their lives to God. He described this idea as “cheap grace.” It describes those who want God’s grace, but refuse to give anything in return.
With this reference point, Dallas Willard states the following in his book The Divine Conspiracy (p. 301):
It is now understood to be a part of the “good news” that one does not have to be a life student of Jesus in order to be a Christian and receive forgiveness of sins. This gives a precise meaning to the phrase “cheap grace,” though it would be better described as “costly faithlessness.”
Dallas Willard is right. Attempting to attain God’s grace without a life of discipleship would be truly costly and short-change any individual who tried it (not to mention God). It is in a life of commitment, devotion and discipleship that God’s grace accomplishes its true intent and bears the most fruit.
First of all, grace reaches its greatest degree of effectiveness in relationship. In covenant, there is a pledging to one another and a sense of reciprocity. There is greater opportunity to make requests, and those petitions are heard in the context of relationship. Both grace and discipleship and intended to draw God and humans closer together, and they are best understood in this context.
Second, discipleship combines with God’s grace to transform an individual. Sin sickness infects every human being. While humans will never be able to fully escape sin and its consequences in this age, there can still be transformation in individuals. The dominating influence in life can change from sin to God. Interest in the Kingdom of God can replace the interests of self and the kingdoms of men. As wet clay, disciples can be shaped and molded into something new.
Third, God’s grace is sufficient to complete his work in us. Suffering is a natural part of being a Christian, and it can have a discouraging effect. God’s grace can strengthen and enable an individual in times of trial, and his grace is strong enough to see us through to the end.
Grace was not cheap to God, who paid the price with his Son. Grace truly undestood will not be “cheap” for us either. It demands nothing less than total commitment and faithful discipleship.