For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

(Romans 6:23)

Valerie had with an interesting discussion with a friend the other night. She was trying to address that friend's actions when it came to giving gifts to a mutual friend. The giving friend (we’ll call him Sandy) has held on to the idea that he holds power over the receivers of his gifts. He has the right to dictate what that gift (once it has left his hands) will be used for, and by whom it will be used. Valerie was telling him that this wasn’t appropriate. He didn’t have that right. He needed to let go of his self-appointed authority and allow the receiver to determine the usage of the gift received.

To shore up his purported authority, Sandy pointed to a parable. “The parable of the talents [1] shows that the giver still has rights over how a gift is used.”

“No, that parable isn’t about gift-giving. That would be like saying that when you donate to your RRSP’s, you’re giving your money as a gift to your investment broker,” Valerie responded. “That parable is about temporary assignment of stewardship over some money.”

Ultimately that conversation got me thinking about Romans 6:23 and the line, “the free gift of God”. This verse is proclaimed throughout the church.

It is true that salvation is a free gift from God, but we cannot take this scripture on its own. When we do that, when we isolate “free gift” from all other scriptures, we can create a false idea that once we have received salvation it is our right do with it as we please. It is after all a gift, is it not?  Once we receive a gift we have the right to break it, play with it, spend it, return it, and so on.  

In our era of ”pick and choose” spirituality, the translation of a “free gift of God” is now a danger to Christendom.  When taken in isolation, rather than in concert with all the scriptures, we create a false impression.

Those other scriptures talk about our salvation as akin to redemption from a slave market. We are now to honour God with our bodies, because we have been “bought for a price” [2]. Our situation has changed; we are no longer slaves to sin, but to righteousness [3]. We are also members of the family of God, adopted children in the kingdom of heaven, and are required to submit to Christ as our head.

While the isolated concept of a free gift may give one the entitlement to do with salvation as we please, none of the other imagery in the Bible gives us such permission.

In evangelism, there’s a reason why we do not use those other verses quite as often as the one highlighting salvation as a “free gift”—it is simply not as enticing.  There is a cost to entering the kingdom. The road is narrow. We must be willing to lay down our rights in favour of the One who laid down everything for us.

If Christians today focus only on the free gift, it is easy to follow Christ “in my own way”, and do with salvation as “I” please.

Our society’s definition of “gift” has shifted over the years [4], so I think it’s time to consider updating our Bible translations to reflect this change. As Strong’s Dictionary puts it, the gift of salvation is “a favour which one receives without any merit of his own”. [5] It is a gift in the sense that we haven’t earned it. It’s not a gift as far as how we’re allowed to treat it.

[1] See Matthew 25:14-30.
[2] 1 Corinthians 6:20.
[3] See Romans 6:18.
[4] As societal wealth has increased, the obligation from receiver to giver has diminished.
[5] Olive Tree Enhanced Strong’s Dictionary. Spokane: Olive Tree Bible Software, 2011, g5486.