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This teaching on the free gift of salvation is a response to an email I received. I will give you the question as it was put to me first, and then my response.
"Free gift" is used at the end of Romans 6, and it looks like there's four occurrences in the bible of it being used. (They're all in Romans.) It seems to me that the phrase has been twisted so badly in modern Christianity that I hate to hear it used, but if the bible uses it I don't want to hate it. I'd like to understand it better.
It irritates me that "the Bible" uses "free gift" because Paul's letter to the Romans doesn't. You'll only find it in English, added by evangelical translators who aren't honest enough to put in a note telling you that they added the word "free." There is no Greek word for "free" in any of those passages.
There is a common discussion in grammar circles, having nothing to do with the Bible, about whether an author should ever use the term "free gift" because it's redundant. I suppose I should be more gracious then because the very nature of the word gift implies free.
But the word gift does not imply "unworthy." Santa Claus bestows gifts on the nice children, and he does not bestow gifts on the naughty children. Does that mean that Santa Claus' gifts are not free? They have to be earned?
Of course it doesn't. The evangelicals addition of the word "free" to "gift" is just a word game, meant to prop up a doctrine that, deep down, even most evangelicals don't believe because it's too ridiculous.
There are two Greek words for gift. One is dorea, and the other is charisma. Evangelical translators only use "free" gift when translating charisma. They do so because charisma comes from the Greek word charis, which means grace, and they're trying to add in the sense of "unmerited" because they define grace as "unmerited favor."
I think, however, that if you look up charisma and all its occurrences in the apostles' letters, you will find that charisma is best understood as an empowering gift. In 1 Corinthians 12, where it occurs five times, we understand them to be "spiritual gifts," such as the gift of healing. 1 Peter 4:10 uses it that way, too.
This would line up with charis, or grace, a lot better, as you can see from the verses I sent on grace (Rom. 6:14; Tit. 2:11-14; Heb. 4:16; 1 Pet. 4:10-11). Grace is God empowering us. A charisma is the particular grace that we have received.
Thus, in Romans 6:23, what we need to pick up is not that the gift of eternal life is free. We have to pick up that the gift of eternal life is empowering. It's not just a dorea, which could be an object. It's a charisma, a "packet" of grace, like the gift of teaching or service (1 Pet. 4:11) or gifts of healing (1 Cor. 12) would be. It would transform us.
Let me finish by saying that, as I pointed out above, gifts are free. If you have to purchase them, they're not gifts but purchases. Adding "free" to gift is both redundant and dishonest because "free" is not there in the Greek. There should at least be a note in modern Bibles, which are already full of much less important notes.
But a gift does not cease to be free just because you must be worthy of it!