In Matthew 5, Jesus shows unambiguously that the greatest obstacle to getting the gospel is not “cheap grace” but “cheap law”–the idea that God accepts anything less than the perfect righteousness of Jesus. (By the way, the proper response to the charge of “cheap grace” is not to make grace expensive by adding a thousand qualifications and footnotes, but rather to declare that grace is free!)
Jesus shows that because God’s demands are unqualified and undiluted, the grace we desperately need must be unqualified and undiluted. In fact, the way of God’s grace becomes absolutely indispensable only when we finally see that the way of God’s law is absolutely inflexible.
John Dink strikes gold again, showing how the great problem in the church today is the same problem Jesus addressed in Matthew 5–cheap law, not cheap grace:
The compassion of our heavenly Father is the gift of his only Son. I am nothing. And in my nothingness, I have come to know that the gift is fearfully and wonderfully near. In the words of Augustine, the Son “is more intimate with us than we are with ourselves.” He tabernacles among the brokenhearted. Without a shred of ignorance, he can call every skeleton in your closet by name. Yet, Jesus is not ashamed to prepare a room for you in his Father’s house. He loves to share his reward with sinners. But, I must warn you. To those who think they deserve a place at my Father’s table… not even a stale crumb is reserved for you. If you trust in some personal display of good fruit to save your seat, you have received your reward and my Christ will not vouch for you. I beg you to listen to the voice of your first love: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” But, there are some who seek to escape their need for grace and deceive us by lowering the cost of God’s righteousness. They preach a cheap law that sells indulgences to those who pay with the appearance of sanctification. But God’s law – costly law – never negotiates with sinners. It is holy and righteous and good – but it is not patient with law-breakers, it is not kind to the ungodly, it keeps every record of wrongdoing. However, we need not fear costly law because Jesus has proclaimed that he will pay our way through the flood of demands with himself. Nor should we fear the liberty of justification, and sanctification, by grace alone through faith alone (the children of the gift work harder because they don’t have to work at all). What we must fear is the baptism of shallow, luke-warm water: “cheap law.”
Cheap law weakens God’s demand for perfection, and in doing so, breaths life into the old creature and his quest for a righteousness of his own making. And what I’m telling you is this: what doesn’t kill him, makes him stronger. Lowering the bar lets the Old Adam peek into the Promised Land. It allows the flesh to survive by rebelling in a form of external piety. And – it’s a perfect hiding place for the Old Being. We don’t think to rebuke such a moral, well-mannered creature. But cheap law offers mercy in the wrong place. It offers mercy to those who are offended by the gift. It creates a people of great zeal, but they lack knowledge concerning the question “What Would Jesus Do?” Here is the costly answer: Jesus would do it all perfectly. And that’s game over for you. The Father is not grooming you to be a replacement for his Beloved Son. He is announcing that there is blessing for those who take shelter in his Beloved Son. Cheap law tells us that we’ve fallen, but there’s good news, you can get back up again. Therein lies the great heresy of cheap law: it is a false gospel. And it cheapens – no – it nullifies grace. It is a sacrifice of God’s law replacing the sacrifice of God’s Son. And when we make sacrifices regarding God’s law, we create something that is not strong enough to stop the mouths of self-sanctifying little sovereigns. It simply teaches us to exchange true godliness for a pursuit of godness. And as long as we cheapen the price of righteousness, the Old Adam will never cease in his bidding war against the freeness of the gift. As time goes on, he may even be willing to accept that “it is God who justifies” if we allow him to change the subject soon after – then, he’ll simply use that as his ticket back to Egypt. In other words, cheap law will always let the flesh pervert sanctification into the process of needing grace less and less. Don’t you see? The Old Being will stop at nothing to get back to the old system. He will not mend his ways – the third time is not the charm! The demands cannot be used to sanctify any more than they could be used to save. They’re meant to reveal your nothingness and corner you before the Christ “who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification.”
Cheap law will never quiet the self-righteous being because it invites him to keep haggling over what he can do apart from Jesus. And that is why law must be costly. It must always get to the heart of the matter. It’s not only murder that deserves death, but hate. It’s not only adultery that condemns, but lust. Not only theft, but coveting. It’s not only what is done with your hands that is judged, but what is done in your heart. And so – it should be clear – this is not “let’s make a deal.” The deals have been cut. The law of Moses is more than you can afford. The Son that God did not spare is priceless. The grace Jesus gives is free. That’s all there is. But cheap law keeps us searching for something to leverage against our poverty. Only costly law will bring that search to an end. It empties our pockets and opens our hands – revealing this: unless the religious expert becomes a beggar, he will not be given the kingdom. Costly law closes in on us and puts this prayer in our mouth: “Be merciful to me, a sinner.” Don’t you know, it’s only those who have been bankrupted by God’s costly law that are eligible for the riches of His grace? Don’t you know, it’s only those who have been silenced by the demands of the law that become hearers of the promise? And so, here we are. Trapped by unmet legal demands on every side. Who will rescue us from this sentence of death? On trembling knees we hear the power of sin accusing us from every angle… until we become still and finally know we aren’t God. The Old Adam is held captive as he waits for the arrival of the master… the master that he expects will be a hard man who reaps, but never sows. His conditional heart races on… “what do I do, what do I do, what do I do.” Then, suddenly – the announcement. And we’re all ears. But the Master – the Last Adam – speaks the unexpected: “There is nothing left for you to do. I’ve done it all for you. It is finished.” Jesus has finished the job and rendered the Old Adam permanently unemployed. And that fact, as Forde says, “is the death of self and the birth of the new creature.” Nothing in our hands we bring and Jesus gives us everything. The Gospel kills us with kindness and raises us anew, to a life of self-forgetful love. And all this, by speaking something the Old Being fears worse than punishment… charity. A hand-out from a nail-pierced hand. A word of surprising grace.
2 Corinthians 3:7-18