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The Transformational Gospel of Jesus #31: Is salvation free?

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16

I just celebrated another birthday. This is one of the two days a year where I receive gifts—the other day being Christmas. These gifts bind me to the givers because they come from the people who love me. As I open them, I am reminded that I have family and friends who care about me. It is because of this shared human experience that I have gained clarity about God’s gift of Jesus. While we have the tendency of calling the salvation that is gained through Jesus’ death and resurrection a free gift, it is not exactly free. But it is transformational.

Some of you reading this are probably outraged by my saying salvation is not a free gift. But before you grab your Bible and hunt up verses to refute me, let me put this in its context.

When Jesus lived a human life on earth, the concept of gift giving was quite different from how we understand it today. When gifts were given, an obligation came along with accepting the gift. If you chose to receive the gift, you were essentially saying that you were now obligated to the giver in some way. Often this meant that the giver was to receive gifts back. It also could mean that the giver could call on you for favors, for help in times of need or support when he or she was seeking to accomplish some deed and you could not now say ‘No.’ If you did not receive the offered gift, your rejection was seen as a rejection of the giver, not the gift. While this was considered insulting, it sent out a clear message that ‘we ain’t friends.’

When God so loved the world, He gave. What he gave had to be received. But when whoever received it, the person understood from his or her culture that an obligation was being declared. “I am in your debt, Lord. I am willing to do whatever you ask.”

In this sense, salvation is not free. It creates a bond between you and God. You now have taken on an obligation. Paul puts it this way, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:12-13)

Paul gives us the key to understanding this obligation. God gave so we would be obligated to receive life rather than pursuing death. So we would not continue to live in the grip of brokenness. So we would be obligated to become the people we were created to be. And to accomplish this, God also gave His empowering presence in the person of the Holy Spirit, who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves as we surrender to our obligation. All our obligations are Spirit-empowered or we could never keep up our end of the gift-giving exchange.

If you think about it, the first payback of this gift from God is that we love Him because He first loved us. And we continue in our obligations by loving each other, loving the lost, loving our enemies. We are obligated to surrender to being conformed to the likeness of Jesus. We are obligated to abide in Jesus so we can bear fruit. We are obligated to be Jesus’ witnesses.

Why? Because we received God’s gift. It binds us to Him as people who love Him dearly. It isn’t free, but it is amazingly transformational.

Steve Smith