Confronting the Cognitive Dissonance over Grace


Historic Christianity’s teaching that salvation is solely a gift of God’s grace stands at odds with all other religions of the world. The New Testament explicitly teaches that salvation is not earned by human moral effort but is a divinely imparted gift or endowment (χάρις [charis] is the New Testament Greek word for “grace” and means “unmerited favor”). Historic Christianity affirms that salvation comes by God’s grace alone, exclusively through faith in Jesus Christ’s unique life, death, and resurrection.

A Religion of Grace, Not Self-Help

Christianity at its heart is a religion not of self-help but of divine rescue. The apostle Paul summarizes the gracious formula of salvation in the New Testament as follows:

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. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

–Ephesians 2:8–10, NIV

And here is another critical passage where the apostle Paul again explains the specific relationship between grace, faith, and good works:

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

–Titus 2:11–14, NIV

Scripture therefore informs us that we are saved by grace, not by works. But that same saving grace motivates the believer to pursue godliness (good works). So here’s the biblical teaching enumerated:

  1. Salvation is by grace.
  2. It comes through faith (in Christ).
  3. It is not earned or merited by works.
  4. But saving grace motivates good works.

Thus, good works are the fruit, but not the root, of salvation. Or as the Protestant Reformers said concerning the relationship between faith and works, “Faith alone saves, but saving faith is never alone.” Martin Luther liked to say that saving faith is always pregnant with good works.

The Cognitive Dissonance over Grace

Given that God’s grace is the indispensable component in our salvation, it would seem obvious that as the recipients of God’s great generosity, we should endeavor to allow that grace to transform us. In other words, since God has been amazingly gracious toward me, how can I not at least endeavor to be gracious toward others? But that is where we encounter the cognitive dissonance (the psychological state and tension of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes). When I say that God’s graciousness toward me is the most important thing in my life but show little or no grace to others, then my actions are in conflict with my deepest beliefs.

I have known Christians who preach, teach, and even screech, “SALVATION BY GRACE ALONE!” But their lives show very little grace toward other people. In fact, this sad and deeply disconcerting cognitive dissonance is one that I personally wrestle with. For if the grace that I preach and teach about is, for all intents and purposes, absent in my treatment of others, then undoubtedly that cognitive dissonance is evident for all to see. Yet by God’s grace, I know this is a problem, and it bothers me. So I sense and feel the inner dissonance. But I have asked the triune God to transform me, at least so the dissonance is not so glaring.

Christians, as forgiven sinners who have a long way to go in the process of sanctification, will always struggle with the problem of believing one thing but acting in conflict with that belief. Hypocrisy is a challenge that all Christians face. Thus, there’s bad news and good news. The bad news is that we Christians are very likely more sinful than we consciously realize. But the good news is that Jesus Christ is assuredly a much greater Savior than we realize.

Endeavoring to Be a Gracious Person

It is obviously not easy to treat all people graciously and charitably. That may be especially true on social media and the web. But I believe God greatly blesses our sincere though imperfect attempts at being respectful and gracious to others. If our deepest theological beliefs affirm God’s immeasurable grace toward us, then the logical and moral extension of that belief is to endeavor to treat other people, maybe especially the people with whom we disagree, as graciously as possible.

Even in my struggle to treat others graciously, I’m grateful for God’s unmerited favor toward me.


For more about salvation by grace and the attempt to live the Christian life by grace, see chapters 9 and 10 of my book 7 Truths That Changed the World.

  One thought on “Confronting the Cognitive Dissonance over Grace

  1. April 24, 2018 at 9:44 am

    > “For if the grace that I preach and teach about is, for all intents and purposes, absent in my treatment of others, then undoubtedly that cognitive dissonance is evident for all to see.”

    Indeed. Sounds much like the man whose very large debt was forgiven going out and extracting the much smaller amount from his fellow servant. We forget that Jesus was speaking to us.

    • April 24, 2018 at 10:46 am

      Thanks, Lawrence.

      Ken Samples

  2. Carl van Niekerk
    May 27, 2018 at 2:47 am

    This is a difficult one, mostly due to our emotional connection or intuitive perception of cause and effect. The average human do not realize that we are not in control of what we do. If we were, then we either would not have had to act according to our level of maturity, or we would have been in control of how mature we are. Both of which is false. Firstly, nobody can be more mature or less mature than what they are. I can make as if I am more mature or less mature than what I am, but it will always backfire, so that on average, I acted according to my level of maturity. Secondly, my level of maturity is determined by age as well as the amount of love I received throughout my life. Obviously I’m not in control of my age, but less obvious, I cannot control the amount of love I receive. Love cannot be guaranteed (otherwise it would have been called trading) and it may seem that the probability of receiving love can be manipulated by exercising love toward others, but my capacity to love is in the first place dependent on my level of maturity. This is why everyone wants to be as mature as they can be, because we are all suckers for love. We cannot live without it.

    The mystery of the Gospel lies in distinguishing between unloving behavior and guilt. The truth is that we are no longer guilty, no matter what we do. Every act is justified. Unloving behavior is simply a cry for love because there has been a lack of it. When I behave unlovingly, I do so not because I had a choice, but because I did NOT have a choice. I am completely justified, righteous and even perfect because there is nothing wrong with being immature or making mistakes for that matter. The million dollar question is whether sin is unloving behavior or whether sin is being guilty because I had a choice. If sin is what separates us from the Father, then it is definitely the latter, which was destroyed on Calvary. Then John the Baptist made perfect sense when he said: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world”. Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh (2Cor 5:16). Why, because we see the truth. This is why we can turn the other cheek.

    • June 14, 2018 at 6:34 pm


      If you believe in salvation by grace and you strive to be gracious to others but you struggle through immaturity or other challenges then that’s just the normal Christian life of long, hard sanctification. But if you believe in salvation by grace and you’re not concerned with being a gracious person then you have a real problem either in your understanding of the Gospel or with your will.

      According to Scripture, you’re saved by grace, through faith, in Christ, not by works, but the grace that saves us motivates us to pursue godliness and to strive to be gracious to our neighbor (Eph. 2:8-10). The striving to respond in graciousness may be weak, immature, and inconsistent but if there is no concern to strive then there’s a real internal problem.

      All the best in Christ.

      Ken Samples

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