What do people hear when you say that the gospel is a ‘free gift’?

What do people hear when you say that the gospel is a ‘free gift’?

It is very common to describe the gospel as being a free gift. Salvation is something that is done for us rather than what we do. It is a component in my favourite gospel presentations because it resonates with me. The idea of getting a gift I don’t deserve makes sense and helps me understand grace.

Of course, this is not only a modern way of explaining the gospel; the language of receiving a gift from God is all through the Bible. Jesus uses this language when speaking to the Samaritan woman in John 4:10. Peter and John rebuke Simon the sorcerer when he tries to purchase the gift of God with money in Acts 8:20. And, famously, Paul describes justification as a gift in that incredible passage in Romans 3:24.

Yet it has occurred to me lately that when we describe the gospel like this to people, it is possible that they are not understanding it in the way we might intend it. I minister to many people who have grown up in Asian cultures. Gifts are common in these cultures but there are also obligations attached to many of them. You must give a gift to certain relatives on Chinese New Year. Certain gifts are customary at weddings or at funerals. And if you do receive a gift, it may well be customary to return the favour with another gift. So the idea of a free gift might not be the same in every culture.

Likewise, in a wider cultural sense, we are being taught to be more sceptical of things we receive for free. We might be able to enter a competition for free, but our personal details are then sold onto marketers and we receive advertising for ever. Social media might be free but many companies are paying to access you to sell you something. As a common Australian saying goes, “there is no such thing as a free lunch”. The gospel is free for us, but it cost God a great deal. The element of costliness of Jesus’ sacrifice to enable the gift to be offered must be there in our gospel message.

The free offer of the gospel is critical to our faith. We must understand that we are saved through what has been done for us by Jesus and his work and not by our work. But as we try to communicate that with others, we must consider how our message is heard. What we think we are communicating might not be what is being received.

I don’t think this means that we never speak of the gospel as a free gift. It is a useful illustration and a Biblical one. I think we need to use a number of different ideas to explain it so that people understand. Contrast it with cultural gift giving to show the superiority of Jesus’ gift. Explain the costliness of it so that we don’t take this gift as a light thing, or something with a nasty catch later on.

We don’t need to earn God’s favour; we have it offered for free because of Jesus. What incredible news!