There are a lot of misconceptions floating around out there about our salvation and what is expected of us in the process. Two misconceptions fall on the extremes of the pendulum of what is required of us to be saved. On one side, you have the misconception that because salvation is a “free gift” that comes by grace that there is nothing we have to do or are required to do to receive it. On the other side of the pendulum you have the misconception that because God places requirements on us that somehow we earn our salvation through faith and/or works.
Both misconceptions have elements of truth in them. It is true that salvation is a “free gift” but that does not mean it has no requirements. But those requirements do not mean we earn our salvation. Here is a passage from Romans 3 that serves to unravel some of these misconceptions and help us come to a more biblical understand of the cost of our salvation.
“21But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement,[i] through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”
Here, Paul says that righteousness comes from God, apart from the law (implying obedience to the law). It comes from God through faith in Jesus Christ. If righteousness comes from God it does not come from us. In other words, we are unable to make ourselves righteous because of what verse 23 says. We cannot accomplish enough good things in order to be declared righteous apart from God’s work in us. Keep in mind what righteousness is. It is a big word we use for a simple concept – being in the right. You are not “in the right” if there is even one wrong thing in you or about you. So because we all have sin, we are not righteous in and of ourselves or by our own merits.
In verse 24 he says all have sinned and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Notice, this is not a universal statement that all people, everywhere are justified no matter what they believe. He is writing to a specific group of people for some specific reasons that we cannot go into here. Next Paul tells us that justification comes by grace and it is free. What is justification? It is the verb that means being put into the right/being made right. It is the verb that has the result in making someone righteous or in the right again. How does this happen, this justification or act of making us righteous? Paul tells us plain and clear. It happens through redemption that came by Jesus Christ (vs. 24). What does that mean? Justification is free (3:24) in that we don’t have to pay for it. But someone did have to pay for it, through the redemption (a financial/marketplace term) that came by Christ Jesus”. So being justified came at a price to Jesus Christ and with that price being paid in order to redeem us from sin we were justified and therefore made righteous.
Notice that this is all free to us (3:24). That does not mean that we are not involved in the process. Here is where people get confused. They believe that if they have any part in the process (faith, repentance, baptism, etc) that it is no longer free because they partnered in it. They did what God required and so God brings salvation because they met his requirements. But Paul says flat out that justification is free.(That doesn’t make baptism and repentance any less important or any less required, by the way…it just means that those acts don’t pay for or merit/earn salvation. Salvation is still a free/already paid for gift).
So how do you make all that fit together in a way that is consistent with scripture? God freely paid the price for our salvation. He did it through Jesus’ reconciling and redemptive work on the cross. Through his blood (which was the price to be paid) he has removed all debt from those who put faith in Christ Jesus (= redemption, remember…a financial term). Our responding in faith doesn’t “pay” for anything. If we actually could pay anything toward our salvation it could only be accepted if we lead perfect lives of obedience as Jesus lived and died with no sin, perfect. But we cannot do that and so we do not contribute toward “paying” the debt of our sin. We contribute to meeting the conditions God has set for those who will receive the justification he has already paid for (through the blood of Jesus, the perfect sacrifice – 3:24-25). So we do contribute through faith but that contribution does not pay /merit/earn our salvation in and of itself. Only the blood of Jesus can do that. Read Romans 4-5 and catch the language Paul uses about salvation being a gift, not paid out of obligation as if we had earned it.
So let’s not get caught up into thinking that because we have to meet certain conditions means we contributed toward the actual cost of our justification. Paul makes it clear, that is only done through the blood of Jesus. We can’t pay that price. But that doesn’t mean we don’t contribute by faith to meet the conditions God set forth for us to meet in order to receive the justification he has in store for those who want to receive it freely from him.