Common sense would seem to tell us that a thing cannot be both costly and free at the same time. If I must pay a high price for something, then it is not free; if it is free, then I am not required to pay for it. This commonsensical observation, however, leads to a theological puzzle: do the promises of the gospel come to us for free or at great cost? The Bible uses both kinds of language. Costly and free—the gospel is both.
Salvation is totally free in one sense and highly costly in another, and we must understand both senses in order to understand the Christian life. Salvation is free in that we can do nothing—we can pay nothing—to earn our acceptance from God. We are evil, but God accepts us anyway, without reservation. We are guilty before the court of God’s justice, yet He frees us from paying what we owe. God is not waiting to accept us until we meet some standard; we do not meet the standard, and yet He blesses us now. If we do not understand how freely and graciously God is acting toward us, then we can fall into self-righteousness and/or despair: self-righteousness because we have forgotten that we do not deserve God’s kindness; despair because we have forgotten how freely willing God is to overlook our guilt.
Yet, salvation is also costly, and we must understand that as well. By its very nature, to believe the gospel is a huge shift in our lives. To believe that Jesus died for our sins costs us our self-satisfied belief that we are good people. To believe that God is willing to forgive us costs us our bitter unwillingness to forgive others. To believe that the true riches are found in the kingdom of God costs us our delusion that money matters. To ask Jesus to be on our side may cost us the approval of others. If our faith is genuine, then it cannot help but confront us with some hard truths and hard choices. This confrontation is not optional; what Jesus offers is not what the world offers, and to have them both is impossible. To deny this is to distort our picture of faith itself.