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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.
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"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.
The "ridiculous doctrine" of which I speak is that people go to heaven or are rewarded with eternal life no matter what they do. That interpretation of "free gift" violates what we know in our hearts to be true and contradicts so many Scriptures that it is impossible to list them all.
The "god" of that doctrine is mocked all the time by those who live according to the flesh, yet they don't die spiritually (contradicting Rom. 8:12-13), they still inherit eternal life (contradicting Gal. 6:7-9), they still inherit the kingdom of heaven (contradicting Matt. 7:21; 25:31-46; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:5-7; 2 Pet. 1:5-11), they will still walk with Jesus in white (contradicting Rev. 3:4-5), they are still justified (contradicting Jam. 2:14-24), and they still have righteousness imputed to them (contradicting 1 Jn. 3:7; 2:3-4; and most of the rest of 1 John).
In the end, almost everyone who says they believe that a person can go to heaven no matter what they do doesn't really believe it. They know at the very least that Hitler wasn't a Christian, but most realize that a lot of other people they know aren't Christians and aren't going to heaven even if they profess to be Christian. Their defense of the "free gift" doctrine is that good works are the result of being a Christian rather than actually playing a role in our going to heaven. To me, that's nothing but semantics, and the apostles labored under no such semantic taboos.
Paul made it clear that, at least in some cases, we can see who is going to heaven by their works:
They profess to know God, but in works they deny him, being abominable and disqualified for every good work. (Tit. 1:16)
For many walk, of whom I have told you often and now tell you with weeping, that they are the enemies of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, who glory in their shame, and who mind earthly things. (Php. 3:18-19)
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.
I use the Online Bible for searches for Greek words. I search for an English word, ask the program to reveal the Strong's numbers, then I search for the Strong number as though it were a word. The program then kicks up every occurrence of the Greek word. This can be done with Hebrew as well.
There are other Bible programs, even free ones, that will do this.
Years ago, before I had a PC, I did this with Strong's Concordance. I looked up the English word and found the Strong's number for the particular verse that I was interested in. I then went to the back of the Strong's, to the lexicon, to find all the ways that Greek word is translated into English. I would then go back to the front of Strong's to look up each one of those English words, checking the right column (the Strong's number) to make sure I only read the verses that used that Greek word. That was easy when I researched charisma. It was a gigantic chore, but very rewarding, when I looked up parakaleo, the Greek word for comfort, encourage, exhort, and a number of other words.
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!
You have a few names, even in Sardis, who have not defiled their garments. They shall walk with me in white because they are worthy. The one that overcomes, that one shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot his name out of the Book of Life, but I will confess his name before my Father and his angels. (Rev. 3:4-5)
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