The Unbelief of Believers

The Difference between Cheap Grace and Costly Grace

In the book, Atheism in Our Time, Ignace Lepp, a psychoanalyst and convert to Catholicism from Marxism, offers explanations for the unbelief of believers.

His writing is based on his experience as a therapist, a communist, and an atheist. In the Introduction to his book he confesses that when he became a Catholic at the age of 27, he admitted that as a student of theology, he was not impressed by the proofs offered by the Council of Trent and those of the Second Vatican Council which he said “prove nothing to one who does not have faith.” He concluded that “no defined proposition could serve as an argument against a man’s personal experience.” 

What did impress him were the social and cultural explanations for the function of religion. He found that most non-believers associate religion with indoctrination that can lead to persecutions and wars like what occurred from the Middle Ages and leading up to the twentieth century.

 The Enlightenment, they also would claim, offers proof that religion was a denial of the facts and truths discovered by the various sciences. Even Communism was seen as a more reasonable alternative to religion because it demanded equality for all people which resulted in the reality of the goals of Christianity without the creeds, dogmas, and belief in the supernatural. But the world quickly learned that autocracy and communism do not work. 

What the social and cultural explanations for religion did for Lepp was to verify that all humans have some belief in a power beyond themselves and that the existence of that power somehow gives significance and meaning to the universe, nature, and humanity. This was also the subject of a book by William James entitled, The Varieties of Religious Experience in which he defines faith as “the sense of life by virtue of which man does not destroy himself but lives on. It is a force by which he lives.”

With all this noted, one may ask, “What is the unbelief of those who believe? 

Let’s begin with the gospel of John who recalls that Jesus confronted the Jews about their unbelief. “Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: “Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” For this reason, they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.”

For this reason, they could not believe!

The apostle Paul explained that the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Christ should cause us to be loving towards others. It accomplishes this first by making us humble. In Romans 3:9-12 this fact, coupled with the truth that righteousness is not merited through works but “is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Rom. 3:22),  lays the foundation for unity within the church.

The apostle says as much in Romans 3:27 when speaking against boasting, and he also stated in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Because we are justified by God, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

The apostle James in his letter criticizes those who call themselves Christians because they think it sufficient to believe in God. He writes that “a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone” and that “faith without works is dead.” So, James tells us that if someone claims to have a commitment—faith—and assumes that on this basis they will be saved or delivered in the final judgment, but they don’t have the works of charity or other forms of obedience to God, then they are deceived.

It appears that Paul and James are preaching two messages. Since Paul is the most often quoted and the more influential of the two, many Christians adhere to his teaching without considering that of James.

Searching the Scriptures, we see that Paul also says: faith also involves assent to God’s truth (1 Thessalonians 2:13), obedience to Him (Romans 1:5, 16:26), and it must be working in love (Galatians 5:6). These are just as crucial as believing and trusting. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3) 

Paul speaks of faith as a life-long process, never as a one-time experience (Philippians 2:12). He never assumes he has nothing to worry about. If he did, his words in (1 Corinthians 9:24-27) would be nonsensical. He reiterates the same point again in his second letter to Corinth (2 Corinthians 13:5). He takes nothing for granted, yet all would agree if anyone was “born again” it certainly was Paul. Our Lord and Savior spoke of the same thing by “remaining in Him” (John 15:1-11).

Do our works mean anything? According to Jesus, they do (Matthew 25:31-46). The people rewarded and punished are done so by their actions. And our thoughts (Matthew 15:18-20) and words (James 3:6-12) are accountable as well. These verses are just as much part of the Bible as Romans 10:8-13 and John 3:3-5.

Faith is an inheritance (Galatians 5:21), freely given to anyone who becomes a child of God (1 John 3:1), so long as they remain that way (John 15:1-11). You can’t earn it but you can lose the free gift given from the Father (James 1:17).

James makes the case for combining what he and Paul say: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” James 2: 14-17

Now we can try to describe what the unbelief of those who believe is. Lepp claims that the unbelief of believers, much more than that of genuine atheists, is the real cause of the desacralization of the modern world, of its descent into the most sordid of pragmatic materialism. Those who claim to have FAITH in Jesus yet do nothing to implement his message of love, forgiveness, compassion, and mercy become more of a scandal than an atheist. St. Francis of Assisi wrote “Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds” – Chapter XVII of the Franciscan Rule

What is the fullness of belief in God? Is it expressed in our attendance at Mass and recitation of the Nicene Creed every Sunday: “I believe in one God……”?  Is our presence there enough to show that we believe in God and want to follow Jesus? According to Paul and James- our faith should change the way we live and act. It should influence our decisions and lifestyle. It should contribute to the building up of the Kingdom of God.

Mother Theresa Oscar Romero

Are we expected to live like Mother Theresa or Oscar Romero, Aren’t they saints? By the fourth century, martyrs and people who had confessed their faith not by dying but by word and life—began to be venerated publicly after they died. Their names written in headstones and their likenesses carved into statues and pictured in stained glass windows were and are reminders that we should imitate or exemplify them in some manner. They lived the teachings of Jesus- they let HIS light shine through them.

Yet, most Catholics seem to pray to saints for favors or simply remember them on their feast days. The legacies of St. Patrick, St, Nicholas, St. Valentine are occasions for great celebrations and parties but not necessarily seen as role models of discipleship. One example of this oversight is the life of St.Nicholas, the bishop of Myra, and his legendary habit of secret gift-giving to the poor which later gave rise to the traditional character of Santa Claus (“Saint Nick”). Most of us think of Santa as the bearer of gifts for children and for us as a reward for being nice instead of naughty instead of an opportunity to sacrifice and give to those in need.

We can also ask ourselves what is the difference between those of us who go to church and those who do not. We all must know non-believers who do good works by serving, volunteering, indeed even working in occupations that protect and defend us or clean up after us. Isn’t that service even though they are paid for their service. 

Isn’t the Sermon of the Mount, the Beatitudes as we call it, one of the many teachings of Jesus that we are supposed to incorporate into our lives in addition to intellectual and theological belief? 

Parables about Good Works and Virtues

Parables about responsibility and Grace

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Mt 7:21

The Parable of the Bags of Gold teaches us that we are to use the gifts and talents that God has given us, for the good of others.The master chastises the man who didn’t do anything with the gold he was given.  “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.“‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”              Mt 25:24-30

Holding onto Catholic rituals, devotions, and spiritual 

insights is of no use unless they produce good fruit. Our spiritual life is not just about saving our souls but about saving the lives and souls of others. We can’t serve mammon and God. It’s one or the other. As a disciple of Jesus, we should work to bring about the Kingdom of God in all we do. Every Christian must let the Light of Christ shine through all their actions no matter what their occupation of status.

Then the question is: Does Capitalism fit the paradigm of Jesus’ command to follow him, to do as he did, and pay attention to the plight of others? Isn’t socialism more in keeping with building up the Kingdom of God instead of building up our own kingdom of riches and securities? The gospel of prosperity is not the gospel of Jesus!

Prosperity theology (sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, the gospel of success, or seed faith) is a religious belief among some Christians that financial blessings and physical well-being are always a reward for doing the will of God and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth.

The gospel of prosperity is not the gospel of Jesus!

Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver security and prosperity. The doctrine emphasizes the importance of personal empowerment, proposing that it is God’s will for his people to be blessed or well off. The atonement (reconciliation with God) is interpreted to include the alleviation of sickness and poverty, which are viewed as curses to be broken by faith. 

The “Eye of the Needle” has been claimed to be a gate in Jerusalem, which opened after the main gate was closed
at night.

Some 1st-century rabbis portrayed material blessings as a sign of God’s favor. Jesus’ statement in Mark 10:25 that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” is evidence to oppose the prosperity gospel of today’s world.

Paul’s words are very true, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Because we are justified by God” but GRACE can be of two types. 

Finally, the difference between the Unbelief of Believers and the Belief of true discipleship is best explained by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s,  Cheap grace that required very little of disciples and Costly grace that required leaving everything, to follow Jesus. 

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?…

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, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is 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 Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer,  a German Lutheran pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, was accused of being associated with the 20 July plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He was quickly tried along with other accused plotters, including former members of the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Office), and then hanged on 9 April 1945 as the Nazi regime was collapsing. He believed that his discipleship required him to try his best to eliminate the source of the evil that was responsible for the murder of almost 6 million Jews and those who supported them. 

“Costly grace is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.” This is the Belief that is more than creed and worship but is alive in the actions and life of the disciple.

About Dr. Ernie Sherretta, D. Min.

Retired Director of Religious Education for the Catholic Church since 2014, granted a B.A. in Philosophy from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Religious Studies from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Immaculata University, and a Doctor of Ministry from the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Spiritual Well-Being Counselor
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