Christians need to take care to explain Biblical concepts when talking to non-believers. While we might be comfortable with our “Christianese,” we have to remember that the vast majority of the population does not go to church. We need to be diligent students and patient witnesses so those who do not believe are not more confused about Christ after speaking with us than they were before.
One area where I think there is a lot of confusion is the idea of free salvation. While it is true that salvation is a gift from God, the word “free” has many uses in the English language and can be misused to cheapen salvation. Salvation is not free in an absolute sense. Salvation is only “free” in the sense that you can never earn it or pay the debt of sin by good works. To declare “Jesus is Lord” is to surrender your life to Him and to give Him your heart.
I think a lot of those outside of the church, and a great many members of our congregations, hear us talk about the “free gift” (not sure if there is any other kind) of salvation and think of it in the same way they would think of a free sample at the mall food-court. You can walk up to the sample-giver (or walk an aisle to a preacher), stick out your hand (or repeat a prayer), get your sample (or your salvation) and, boom!, you’re done. Sample eaten, salvation received. Then you can continue on your merry way as you were before.
Pastors, I know none of you intend for people to view salvation this way nor would you ever preach it like this, but this perception does happen.
But does that remind you at all of what happened when people met Jesus? I don’t think so. Those people were changed. They knew Jesus. And it’s that kind of knowing — not simply believing something with your brain, but knowing the person of Christ as a friend and not just an idea — that brings about salvation.
Jesus said of salvation in Matt. 7:21-23 (ESV), “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
A person can recite the “sinner’s prayer” and even show some fruit for a lifetime and still not know Christ or the Father. For example, in the parable of the two sons (a.k.a. “The prodigal son”), we can see that the older son, representing the Pharisees, served faithfully but still did not have a loving relationship with his Father. The older son refused to come in to the party and shamed his Father in doing so. And if Jesus’s other parables featuring feasts and celebrations are any indication, parties represent the very Kingdom of God. You want to be partying!
To recap, salvation isn’t free because parties aren’t cheap to throw, and you have to know the host to get in. Our host, the Father, is throwing the most costly party possible. It cost Him His Son. Because you know the Son, the Father will welcome you in as His own. But it costs you to know the Son. The Son doesn’t want friends who do favors for Him from time to time. The Son wants lifelong companions who leave everything behind to walk with Him anywhere and everywhere He leads. Close relationships are built in close proximity.
So, maybe we need to clarify what we mean when we say salvation is free. Jesus paid all the price for you, but it still costs you your whole life. Some would say, “All you have to do is repent.” But repentance does not mean simply “being sorry.” The word repent means to “change your mind.” And to truly change your mind to follow Christ is going to result in your whole life changing.
“And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it’” (Luke 9:23-24).