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As sure as April showers bring May flowers, the end of the semester—spring or fall—brings some version of this request from students:

“Sorry to email this to you so late, but when I uploaded my final exam, it was not double-spaced. I’ve attached a properly spaced one. I hope I can have some grace. Thank you!”

Grace is the theologically loaded term students use for requesting an extension or some act of kindness beyond the letter of the syllabus’s law.

Students don’t just deploy the word in their requests. They use it to say thanks. Perhaps you’ve also received some version of this email from students after granting them a second chance:

“Thank you so much for your generosity and your grace. I know I haven’t been the best student, so thank you for sticking with me.”

Who could resist the initial request if that’s how every student responded?

But beyond the theological equivocation (shouldn’t these students ask for and commend our mercy?), we know what students mean when they ask and give thanks for “grace.” They want an unmerited opportunity.

The problem arises when that opportunity becomes an expectation. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us, not all grace is given and received equally. Some grace is costly, and some is cheap. In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer announced, “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.” (43) Bonhoeffer saw cheap grace as dangerous because it involves forgiveness without repentance. In this blog post, I offer Bonhoeffer’s distinction as a helpful way to frame how we give and receive grace in our classrooms.

Cheap grace in the classroom means a particular posture from professors and students, as though merely emailing the word “grace” back and forth over a late assignment could substitute for us honoring the standards we set or students learning to submit their work on time. In other words, we grant students leniency without requiring accountability, and as a result, we and our students miss an opportunity for academic and spiritual growth.

Cheap grace in the classroom also distorts God’s character. Students learn about grace in our classrooms, and what they learn from us should point to what they should learn about God. God treats grace as costly. Bonhoeffer explained, “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it, a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy, for which the merchant will sell all his goods.”1

Bonhoeffer’s reliance upon biblical descriptions reveals the stakes of deploying grace in our classroom while exposing the reason for cheap grace’s abundance. For, of course, a passing grade is not equivalent to salvation, nor does failing to receive an extension on a paper’s submission equal eternal damnation. You have students who see your class as more important than it is. “Please,” they write, “Getting a D instead of a C will make such a difference for my future.”

I wish I could say the examples I’m using here are hypothetical, but they’re not. I don’t doubt the student’s sincerity when I receive this kind of message. He believes his grade in freshman composition will determine the next ten years of his life. Consequently, if I propose to him that the grade is not as important as he thinks it is, he’ll simply turn that argument on me to insist that, if the grade doesn’t matter, why don’t I just give him the C?

Therefore, we are obligated to teach our students a lesson larger than our area of expertise. Namely, grace means something other than eliminating standards. In fact, without standards, grace is meaningless. Cheap grace is another word for license.

Students deserve feedback, even on their final semester projects. That’s more costly than entering their score for the assignment and moving on, but it reinforces what I’ve been telling them all semester. The goal is growth, not a grade.

I may feel the tension between cheap and costly grace more acutely because I teach writing. On the one hand, students see writing assessments as subjective. How, they ask, could I quantify the difference between a D or a C paper? On the other hand, writing favors process, which is much easier to quantify. Students can count the hours they’ve spent on a paper or the number of revisions they’ve submitted for comments, so they’re more likely to invoke the labor theory of value when they cavil for grace.

If I can’t grade a paper objectively, why shouldn’t I just grade the student’s efforts? Did the student submit a paper seven times for comments? That should be worth at least the improvement of one letter grade, the student insists, even if Version 7.0 of the paper failed to incorporate any of the changes I demanded of Version 2.0.

While revision is a crucial part of every class I teach, it assumes even more importance in the spring semester because of Easter. Observing Christ’s death and resurrection provides a rich opportunity to connect God’s grace with the grace we give and receive from each other. Bonhoeffer commented that grace “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.” 2

We are still living in the wake of that costly grace. Each semester, students on our campus discover the justifying and sanctifying grace God has preveniently provided them through Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. The grace we receive through Christ is costly, but it makes possible true restoration with God.

Cheap grace, on the other hand, substitutes superficial community for that restoration. It’s easier to get through a semester when students aren’t upset with you about their grades. But that copacetic environment doesn’t invite transformation. I don’t have to change my teaching if I never ask myself why my students always have to ask for grace. And if students don’t change, they’ll leave the class with a cheapened idea of grace and education.

Education is another way of talking about discipleship, and Bonhoeffer invoked Peter as an example of the relationship between grace and discipleship. Of all the disciples, Peter was the one who “had received the grace which costs.”3

Before and after the resurrection, Peter had received Jesus’ call to be his disciple—to love and follow him. In between those calls, Peter acknowledged Jesus as Lord before denying Jesus after his arrest. And so, in John 21, Jesus extends grace to Peter while asking for a deeper commitment, one that ultimately involves martyrdom.

Peter received this offer of costly grace. But—and this is crucial—his acceptance came at least partly because he had seen Jesus sacrifice himself.

And so, my recommendation is to demonstrate costly grace for your students. I’ve found the most effective way to do that is to do the same work I’ve asked of my students—namely, writing rough and final drafts in response to the very essay prompts I’ve assigned them. This commitment requires vulnerability. I hold my breath every time I hand out my work. Will my students see it as exemplary, unsatisfactory, or—worst of all—exemplary and yawn-inducing all at once?

As I worked alongside my students this semester, I found I could better answer their requests for grace. Specific assignments were a struggle for me, but when students struggled, I could hear them and extend costly grace from my own experience.

I also discovered the difference between writing for a grade and writing something that was the best I could do. My rough drafts were generally better than the best student final drafts. And they should be! I’m the subject matter expert. But as I worked on revisions, I realized I was demonstrating to students what it looked like to work hard for transformation.

This practice also gave students the chance to sit in my seat during peer review. Beneficial feedback is costly, and I remind them that the most important part of such an exercise is giving feedback, not merely receiving it. Occasionally, my drafts had embarrassing typos, and my final drafts had lapses in argumentation that made me cringe. And then it was the students who offered me grace. They still found the models more of a help than a burden.

As another semester ends, remember Bonhoeffer’s distinction between cheap and costly grace. Then, with Paul’s letter to the Romans, we can boldly tell students who ask for cheap grace, “Should you continue procrastinating so you can receive more gracious extensions? By no means!” However, we can also positively declare, alongside Paul’s letter to Titus, that the grace that brought us to salvation has transformed our lives (Titus 2:11–12).

Yes, that grace is costly, but that’s why it’s so precious.


  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 45.
  2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 45.
  3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 46.

Jonathan Sircy

Jonathan Sircy, PhD is a Professor of English at Southern Wesleyan University in Central, SC, where he is Interim Chair of the School of Religion and Humanities.


  • Josh Slade says:

    Beautifully put! I don’t know why, but as I read through this I say myself working along side my small children on our farm and how often these principles play through. Thank you for this article.

  • William Tate says:

    This post is a helpful framing of a persistent problem. Thanks, Jonathan!

  • Michael Hylen says:

    Beautiful piece, Jonathan! Completely made me rethink my own personal thoughts on grace, never mind mine students. As a professor I have struggled with this issue. Thank you for insights from personal experience.
    Blessings, my friend!

  • Yonathan Winardi says:

    Thank you very much for the clear and concise post.
    It triggers me to do more research in that area, grace in higher education or in English classrooms here in Indonesia.