In recent years, one common way to refer to the gospel is “the free gift of salvation.” There are several things that “free gift” can mean. In this context, some—many, or perhaps even most—are true. But there are a few ways in which salvation is not free, some of which seem to be perpetually overlooked. Today, we’ll take a look at some of these facets of meaning, from both subsets.
First, there’s what is perhaps the most obvious meaning, the one that most people seem to mean: “without immediate cost to you the recipient”—or, to put it more briefly, “without monetary price.” Scripture makes it very clear—from the Prophets through the Gospels and the Epistles—that God’s gift of life is definitely “free” in this sense of the word. He doesn’t charge us anything, and in fact that’s part of the point we couldn’t and can’t pay for it, so he provides free salvation.
But, second, “free” also means “freely given”, “given without constraint”. And salvation is also a “free gift” in this sense. Scripture is very clear on this point too: God is not forced or coerced to save us—in other words, he doesn’t have to save us. He arranged and arranges everything for our good by his free choice because he loves us. It’s all grace: unmerited favor. God doesn’t—and didn’t—owe us anything, let alone this costly (more on that in a moment) gift, but he gives it anyway—freely.
On the other hand, there are at least two senses in which the gift of salvation is not free. First is one that certain segments of the Church do emphasize loudly and often, especially during Passion Week (if not, for some reason, the rest of Lent …): “without cost.” There is no immediate cost to us, but that doesn’t mean there was none at all. In fact, the cost of our salvation was immense: to turn away God’s wrath on us and our sin required the sacrifice of his own Son. This is a price beside which silver, gold, and in fact every other possible source of value in this material universe pale in comparison. We could and can never repay him.
Lastly, while there is no up-front cost to us, and we are not required to repay the cost, to accept the gift (as if we whom God has decided to save could refuse!) does impose obligations on us. Gifts that impose obligations are not unknown in our cultural heritage; ever hear of the story of the white elephant—a gift that is so prestigious that one could not refuse, but that would bankrupt even the wealthiest family? Another, more prosaic example, would be a child receiving a pet (a kitten, say) for Christmas: it’s up to that child to care for the pet in perpetuity. In much the same way—but for largely orthogonal reasons—accepting God’s free gift of salvation ought to impel us to live holy lives. Like Israel’s journey across the Red Sea, God’s gift to us is not merely salvation from death—a “one way ticket”, as Keith Green’s humorous but uncomfortably apt song “So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt” puts it—but a covenant (in which, like his covenant with Abraham, he graciously accepts the penalty of our failure to keep it) that makes him our God and us his people. We have still more reason—we have been saved from eternal death and torment, not merely slavery, and have been given eternal life—and more help—in the form of the Holy Spirit living within us—to live holy lives; if we continue to live according to the pattern—the “detestable practices”, as the Law puts it—of the unregenerate people around us, that is not a good sign.
Update: Later I found that Bailey of the Big House in the Little Woods blog had written a much more winsome, much less ponderous account of these same basic ideas, about a month before I wrote this.