Years ago I opened an account with a new bank. I picked the bank because it had the tallest building in town. After opening the account, I got a letter in the mail from the bank. Inside was what looked like a check for one hundred and fifty dollars. It appeared to be some kind of promotional bonus for banking with that institution. Cool, I thought, free money. To cash it I had to go to the bank. This was before the days of mobile app deposit. I took that check to the teller, excited about what $150 could be used for. She looked at me sheepishly almost as if she was embarrassed.
“Uhh. You don’t want to cash that.” She said in a bit of a whisper. She glanced around as if she were a part-time spy.
“What do you mean? It’s free money right?”
"Not exactly. Look at the fine print," she said as she turned it over in my hand. There were all kinds of stipulations and qualifiers. I don't remember the specifics, but I remember that she was right. I was extremely appreciative of that teller, and her honesty is one of the reasons I still use that bank. She was looking out for my interests over and above the interests of her employer.
It's experiences like this that make us feel as if nothing could truly be free, but there is a type of free that we can relate to. In fact, there are many times in my life when I have enjoyed a free benefit. In the cases when I received something free, it was always paid for by someone else.
One time my wife and I went to a local travel agent because we heard that Spirit Airlines was giving out free tickets to fly. The ticket was good for a year, and it would allow us to fly free to one of about a dozen locations. We had an anniversary coming up and thought it might be a good chance to go somewhere on a tight budget.
We wound up with a free trip to Myrtle Beach. The tickets were free, but that didn't mean they didn't cost anything. They didn't cost me or my wife a single penny, but they cost Spirit Airlines something. They offered those tickets free to us because they believed it would benefit their business to do so. In the long run, it did because we've used them for a number of trips since.
Another example of this kind of free gift might be illustrated by the way I pay for my kids' food, clothes, and lodging. Their food is free to them, but it certainly isn't free to me. I give them what they need, and it doesn't cost them a dime. My children's provisions are given to them as a gift. If I forced them to do hard labor for their dinner, I could no longer call it a gift.
So, it's both true and false that there is no free lunch. It all depends on how it's framed. Every lunch has to be paid for, but not every lunch is paid for by the person who's eating it. I have a buddy who buys my lunch from time to time. Free to me means paid for by him. Grace is both free and costly in this sense: It's free to me, but it cost Jesus. It's incredibly important to remember who paid for our grace. It wasn't, isn't, and never will be you who pays for eternal life. That's because it cost too much. It's free to you, but it cost so much you couldn't afford it.
I like what Lewis Sperry Chafer wrote, “Grace cannot be exercised where there is the slightest degree of human merit to be recognized.”1 You can’t pay for it, and it would negate it’s freeness if you tried. Jesus exemplified this notion in his famous well-side chat. In speaking with the woman at the well in Sychar, Jesus refered to what he offers mankind as a gift.
Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water….” but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:10, 14)
The Greek word for gift meansthat which is given or transferred freely from one person to another.2Barclay translates this verse with the phrase,“the free gift that God is offering you…”3 By using this word, Jesus is making it clear that eternal life is not a reward, repayment, or recompense for work. Each of those words has an entirely different Greek equivalent. Jesus' use of gift makes plain His meaning. Eternal life cannot be earned by merit. You can’t afford it. Your pockets just aren’t deep enough. The only way you’ll have eternal life is if you get it as a free gift.
A few years ago, I was talking with some Mormon missionaries, not because I wanted to become a Mormon, but because I wanted them to stop being Mormons. I know, I'm a theology nerd. Anyway, I was trying to get an understanding of who pays for salvation in Mormon theology. Essentially, I wanted to know if they believed that Jesus paid it all. Here's how they described it:
“Our sin-debt was too much for us to pay. So, Jesus paid the debt. Now we owe Him. He’s reduced the debt to something we can pay by doing good works.” As they said this, it occurred to me that many evangelicals would probably agree. Yikes!
The Mormon view, and possibly many others, is that Jesus is a debt consolidator. Their idea is that Jesus has bought out your debt and refinanced it so that you can afford the payments. In their system, and in many evangelicals’ understanding as well, Jesus paid the big debt justification and requires us to pay a smaller debt of continuous good works to earn salvation. If you stop paying your salvation bill, then you'll be evicted, or at least that's what they say. What a frightening idea. That is not the definition of a free gift. If it sounds remotely similar to what you believe about grace, it might be time to reconsider what grace means to you.
In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, a crowd was pressing in on Jesus. They wish to know what works must be performed in order to meet God's requirements for their lives. Apparently they had a mindset similar to my Mormon friends. He told them:
Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you…. (John 6:27)
Jesus’ words could be misunderstood as meaning one must work to gain eternal life, but the impression that one must work for eternal life was quickly corrected when Jesus added, which the Son of Man will give you. In English, the word give can mean a range of different things. However, in the Greek it’s clear that Jesus is claiming that the Son provides life as a free gift.4 Life is not the reward for work. Life is always His gift.5 Though this is expressed quite clearly, His audience resists the idea that eternal life could truly be free:
Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” (John 6:27-28)
They were incredulous that the Son of Man could give life as a gift. Their question shows that they expected eternal life would cost them a plurality of good works. They asked Jesus what works (plural) must be done in order for them to receive this life. That it is a gift is apparently lost on them, so Jesus redoubled His effort to explain. When they asked what works, He clarified that only one work is required for the reception of everlasting life:
Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” (John 6:27-29)
They expected him to lay down lists of things to do. But that is not what Jesus says at all.6 Jesus' response to their question was a flat contradiction of their thinking. There is only one work of God; that is, one thing God requires.7 Jesus makes it clear that there is no plurality of requirements that must be met, but instead that there is a single obligation. The singular work is that they believe in Jesus. In terms of unbelievers, the only work that a person can do that is acceptable to God is to believe in Christ.8
In what way is believing in Jesus work? It cannot be work in the sense that a person has earned eternal life. Human faith is a passive response that receives God’s free gift of eternal life.9 Martin Luther spoke on the passivity of faith when he explained that “…faith does nothing more than receive the gift. For it is not our doing, and it cannot be merited through our work.”10 On the idea that faith is passive, John Calvin said, “Faith, then, brings a man empty to God, that he may be filled with the blessings of Christ….”11
Believing in Jesus is only a work in the sense that it is an act. But it is a passive work as other passages in John12 clearly show.13 Faith and its verb believe can never be viewed as a meritorious work because in connection with justification and salvation they are always contrasted with works of the law.14 Eternal life is not earned by creditable works. Belief is called a singular work, and that means that the action is simply a passive one which provides no boasting rights for the one who has believed. This shows that eternal life cannot be earned, but is a free gift to those who believe in Jesus for it.
For as the Father raises the dead and gives life to them, even so the Son gives life to whom He will. (John 5:21)
Give life in the above verse comes from one Greek word that means to cause to live, make alive, or give life to15 someone or something. Jesus acknowledges that the person who has not yet believed is spiritually dead. Thus Jesus gives life to them if they believe. Since a dead person can’t do good works to merit being brought to life, it is a gift. Jesus offers this life to those who are spiritually dead and thus don’t deserve it. There is nothing you can do to merit or be worthy of the free gift of life. There is a single passive obligation that you must fulfill, and that’s believe in Him to give you life.
Let me ask you this, “How much did you pay to be conceived?” Weird question, right? I know. But think about it for a second. There was a long period of time when you didn’t exist, and then suddenly you did exist. What did you do to merit being conceived and later being born? The answer is, nothing. You didn’t earn life. Your mortal life was given to you as a gift. Everyone should be able to understand this. If your physical life was given to you as a gift, doesn’t it make sense that spiritual life is given as a gift as well. Think about what Jesus said to Nicodemus:
Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit…. You must be born again.(John 3:3, 6-7)
Jesus compares the moment you receive eternal life to the moment you received physical life. In the same way that you did nothing to earn or merit your physical life, you can’t earn your eternal life. Eternal life is just as free as mortal life. You didn’t pay for either of them. You have them both as a gift. The gift is given to all those who believe in Jesus for it. Notice how Jesus talks about giving away eternal life in another place:
And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. (John 10:28)
One of the synonyms for the Greek word that’s translated give in the above verse is donate.16Consider the tone that the verse takes if you use that synonym. “And I donate eternal life to them…” To whom? To those who believe. It’s given as a gift to all those who simply believe in Him for what He’s offering.
The Apostle Paul echoed this idea when he said, “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Eternal life is a free gift which you cannot earn. While you’re an unbeliever you are dead. The moment you believe in Him for life, Jesus makes you alive. What an amazing free gift!
1 Chafer, Lewis Sperry. Grace (p. 7). Biblos Project. Kindle Edition.
2 William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 266.
3 William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Rev. and updated., vol. 1, The New Daily Study Bible (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 2001), 176.
4 Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen, and H. Wayne House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers, 1999), 1328.
5 Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 318.
6 William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Rev. and updated., vol. 1, The New Daily Study Bible (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 2001), 249.
7 Edwin A. Blum, “John,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 295.
8 Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Ryrie Study Bible: New American Standard Bible, 1995 Update, Expanded ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 1691.
9 Réne A. López, “Is Faith A Gift From God Or A Human Exercise?,” Bibliotheca Sacra 164 (2007): 266.
10 Martin Luther, Am Pfingsmontage: Zweite Predigt, ed. Joh. Georg Walch, vol. 11 of Sämmtliche Schriften (St. Louis: Concordia, 1882), 1103–4
11 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, trans. William Pringle (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, n.d.; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 227–29
12 John 4:14-16
13 Robert N. Wilkin, “The Gospel according to John,” in The Grace New Testament Commentary, ed. Robert N. Wilkin (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2010), 395.
14 Andrew, T. Lincoln. Ephesians: Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 42 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1990), 111.
15 William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 431.
16 William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 242.