Is anything in the world really free? A saying from popular culture claims there is not. But the Bible reveals important gifts of God that are truly free.
It’s an old concept found in many cultures. Germans say there is nothing for nothing. A French expression is the razor doesn’t shave gratis. In Kiswahili the proverb is a free thing is expensive.
In American English we say: There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch (TANSTAAFL). The expression harkens back to a time when bars would advertise free lunches for patrons who ordered a drink. Often the food was heavily salted. The resulting thirsty customers would buy more to drink, particularly beer. This increased consumption allowed the bar owner to turn a handy profit. So, in the end, the lunch was not truly free.
Science-fiction author Robert Heinlein popularized the acronym TANSTAAFL in his 1966 libertarian novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Nobel Prize–winning economist Milton Friedman used the phrase as the title of his 1977 collection of essays on economics. Even Benjamin Franklin had published a precursor: Time is money (we trade one for the other).
Various versions of TANSTAAFL are still commonly used to underscore a variety of principles: Everything of value has a cost. You get what you pay for. Economic resources are scarce; therefore, if there is more of one, there will be less of another. Even the wealthiest people face trade-offs. Always look a gift horse in the mouth. Government entitlement programs must be paid for by someone—hopefully someone else.
Margaret Thatcher famously quipped that the problem with a rival political party was, “They always run out of other people’s money.”
Such guiding principles can be useful in navigating the economics of everyday life, in budgeting and financial planning. But is TANSTAAFL true on a higher plane as well? Is it true in our relationship with God? Is it accurate when we consider salvation? The Bible shines a fascinating light on these questions and gives multifaceted answers.
Saving a relationship
Every human being’s relationship with God starts out broken. The first man, Adam, made a fatal choice in the Garden of Eden. He ate fruit God had forbidden. He sinned. And his children and their children and all people since have followed the same fatal path.
We break our relationship with God before we’re even aware of its importance. This break occurs for each of us because we sin, that is to say, we transgress God’s law (1 John 3:4). This is true of every human being who has ever lived, save one: Jesus Christ (Romans 3:23; Hebrews 4:15).
Our transgressions put a wall of separation between us and God the Father, who is so holy He will have no contact with sin (Isaiah 59:2). In addition, there is a penalty that falls upon us when we transgress God’s law. The sentence is death (Romans 6:23).
By the time we’re able to understand the seriousness of the situation, we’re already guilty, under sentence of death and cut off from God. But He, knowing humans would sin, set in motion a magnificent plan to save human beings from the results of their own misdeeds. God is just, so the penalty of death must be paid for every human being. But He is also merciful; He wants the death penalty removed from us, so that we can inherit eternal life with Him.
An amazing solution
What is God’s amazing solution to save us from death? The second member of the Godhead, who had lived through past eternity with the Father, is called the Word in John 1:1. He did something that defies our imagination. He became a man.
How was this possible? We do not know how God can become a man, and we couldn’t understand the metaphysics even if they were explained to us. The Bible simply states, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
The Word was born into the world, lived a life without ever once sinning, and then was illegally and ignominiously condemned to death based on false testimony (Mark 14:56). He was railroaded through a kangaroo court conducted by men He was giving His life to save. He died by crucifixion, an excruciatingly painful and lingering way to die, used by the Romans to terrify subject peoples into submission.
Crucially, as far as God the Father is concerned, the Word who became Jesus Christ died in our place. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18).
Because the Word is the member of the Godhead who actually created all things under the will of the Father (John 1:3), His life is worth more than all other human lives combined.
Free with conditions
In the book of Romans, Paul explains that forgiveness of our sins through the sacrifice of Christ is God’s gift to us.
“But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died [Adam starting his family down the wrong path], much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many. And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned. For the judgment which came from one offense resulted in condemnation, but the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification” (Romans 5:15-16).
We are justified, made just and pure in God’s eyes, when the death of Christ is applied to us.
There is something absolutely free, and it’s the most important gift we will ever receive!There is something absolutely free, and it’s the most important gift we will ever receive! God returns us to life, and not physical life alone; He also promises eternal life. This, too, is God’s free gift: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
To receive these free gifts, we must do two things: First, we must repent, that is, turn away from transgressing God’s law and instead carefully observe it (Acts 2:38). Second, we must sincerely believe in God’s promises: that Jesus will be our personal Savior, that we will truly be forgiven, that He will care for us throughout our lives (1 Peter 5:6-7) and that Jesus Christ will return to earth to establish the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:15), at which time we will receive life eternal in the family of God.
These lifelong commitments to God are solemnized by the ceremony of water baptism by immersion, at which time the Father forgives our sins and grants us the gift of His power through the Holy Spirit.
Not by works
Christians who understand that God expects obedience to His perfect spiritual law (Romans 7:14), summed up by the 10 Commandments, are sometimes accused of believing in salvation by works. Some claim that they believe their obedience to God’s law can earn them salvation. But this does not follow.
No amount of obedience to God’s instructions can earn anyone the right to salvation and eternal life; they are truly God’s free gifts. But the Bible is clear that God does require repentance and faith to receive those gifts. We must turn away from sin and do our best to live according to His will.
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Free for us but not for God
While these precious gifts will ultimately be offered free to all, they came at a great price. They actually required the death of God.
Once again, we may ask, How can this be? How can a member of the Godhead become flesh and die? We cannot understand. The Bible simply says that it happened: “For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3).
The price to the Father and the Son was a heavy one. There was a separation They had never before known, a moment when the sins of humanity were placed on the shoulders of Jesus, and the Father momentarily turned away from Him, leading Jesus to lament: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46). This necessary loneliness was terrible.
The Father had to watch as His beloved Son was betrayed, tortured and murdered. The Son had to divest Himself of His glory, live as a poor man under foreign occupation, denigrated by the leaders of His nation, and finally accept a shameful, degrading and excruciating death, totally unmerited, at the hands of lying, devious, selfish men.
Commemorating His gift
Once each year Christians are required to reflect on the free gifts of God and on the price paid on their behalf by Jesus Christ. He gave His life for us. So we are to rehearse the story of His life and His death, to reflect on the love of God for us, and to examine ourselves to make sure we are still fulfilling the solemn promise we made to God at the moment of baptism (1 Corinthians 11:28; 2 Corinthians 13:5).
Christians then participate in the symbols Jesus instituted His last night as a human being. They wash each other’s feet to be reminded they are to consider themselves servants (John 13:1-17). They eat a small piece of unleavened bread, a symbol of Jesus’ broken body. They drink a small amount of wine, symbolizing His blood poured out in the dirt outside of Jerusalem (Matthew 26:26-29). They read the last words of encouragement Jesus gave His disciples before His arrest, trial and execution (John 13-17).
In other words, they keep the New Testament Passover, a solemn yet joyous occasion.
TANSTAAFL? Or is there ever a free lunch? It’s rare, but it has happened. On several occasions, Jesus freely fed thousands with a few loaves and fishes. Those miracles certainly qualify.
But even more, the greatest gifts human beings can receive are truly free: salvation and eternal life are the free gifts God offers you.