Is God’s Grace Really Free, or Does It Cost Me Everything?
The grace of God is absolutely free, and it costs you everything. Balancing this out is a trick, as we hear in today’s question from a young preacher named Ryan, a leader who listens to the podcast. Ryan writes: “Hello, Pastor John! I’m stumped as to how to preach two truths. (1) People cannot work to be saved. Christ did all the work for them and now they must trust in him. (2) I want them to realize following Jesus is costly and not an easy path of self-indulgence. Can you give me any helps for explaining that Christ is both free, as Isaiah 55:1 says, and will also cost us everything, like the treasure in a field in Matthew 13:44?”
I very much enjoyed thinking about this question. I’m eager to say what I’ve been thinking because it sheds a lot of light on the nature of salvation. Here’s what I need to do. Just to make things more precise, I’m going to rephrase the question (and you’ll see why).
When Ryan says Christ is free and yet costs everything, the word Christ there is shorthand for “enjoying God through Christ as our all-satisfying friend forever.” That’s what we get when we get Christ. That’s what Christ offers. To say, “You get Christ, or you come to Christ” — that’s what you come to. You come to God through Christ and find your all-satisfying friend forever.
The paradox that Ryan is concerned about would go like this: “Enjoying God through Christ as our all-satisfying friend forever is free and costs you everything.” Now, with that paraphrase, we can explain the paradox.
There are two massive obstacles that have to be overcome before I can enjoy God through Christ as my all-satisfying friend forever. The first obstacle is legal — namely, that God, outside of Christ, is not my friend. He’s my enemy. God is a holy, just, righteous judge who sees me as a guilty sinner.
“Enjoying God through Christ as our all-satisfying friend forever is free and costs you everything.”
That is the main obstacle that has to be overcome — God’s just and holy wrath. He’s not my friend. If I get brought into his presence, I’d get incinerated. I don’t get happy.
The second obstacle we could call emotional or moral. The first one is legal. This one is emotional; namely, I don’t find God all-satisfying, thank you very much. I don’t see him as beautiful or supremely desirable in my natural state. In fact, I prefer other things for my satisfaction. I have exchanged the glory of God for images and other things.
Those are the two obstacles that have to be overcome if I’m going to enjoy God through Christ as my all-satisfying friend forever. Overcoming one would make him my friend. Overcoming the other would make him all-satisfying.
Maybe you can see now where this is leading. God takes the initiative to overcome both of these obstacles so that we can enjoy him through Christ as an all-satisfying friend forever. He does it first by the work of justification and second by the work of sanctification.
In justification, God pays the debt of our sin through the blood of Christ, cancels our guilt, satisfies his holy wrath against sin, and imputes to us the righteousness of Christ. Now, God is totally for us. Totally merciful to us. He is our friend forever.
You could see it in text like Galatians 3:13, which says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” The curse of God landed on Jesus and not on us. Isaiah 53:5 states, “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.” The crushing of God’s just, penal wrath fell on Jesus so that it doesn’t fall on us.
Romans 8:3–4 reminds us, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin” — key words here — “he condemned sin in the flesh.” Our sin is condemned in Jesus’s flesh so there’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. God is for us forever. He is our friend and our Father, our protector and our provider. He is everything from now on will work for our good. So the first obstacle is removed to enjoying God through Christ as our all-satisfying friend forever. He is our friend forever because of what Christ achieved for his elect. That is what Jesus bought.
Help Finding Treasure
Now, what about the second obstacle? The natural mind is hostile to God. He may have overcome his hostility towards us on the cross, but what about our hostility towards him? “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Romans 8:7).
We have exchanged the glory of God for other things. We do not, by nature, enjoy God. We enjoy his gifts, not him. So if we are to enjoy God through Christ as our all-satisfying friend forever, God is going to have to do a second great, miraculous, redeeming work. He will have to take out of us the heart of stone that hates God and put into us the heart of flesh that loves God, delights in God, is satisfied in God, and treasures God above all things.
“God, outside of Christ, is not my friend. He’s my enemy.”
He’s going to have to radically change our emotions and our moral preferences, which is precisely what he promised to do in the new covenant. Ezekiel 11, Ezekiel 36, and Jeremiah 31 talk about this new covenant of taking out the heart of stone, putting in the heart of flesh, and causing us to have new affections for God. Jesus bought that when he shed his blood, according to Luke 22:20: “This cup . . . is the new covenant in my blood.”
Once Christ has died for us, God moves in by his Spirit, lays hold on us, and causes us to be born again to believe. He takes out the heart of stone; he puts in the heart of flesh. He opens our eyes to see the beauty of God in Christ as more desirable than anything in the world.
He overcomes this second obstacle — namely, our preference for other things in the hardness of our heart. Now, you got justification, making us friends with God forever by removing his enmity and his wrath and justice. We got sanctification, taking out the heart of stone and making us find him all-satisfying forever.
What Money Can’t Buy
How does that resolve Ryan’s perceived contradiction or paradox? The treasure of having God as our friend, not our enemy, and of having him as all-satisfying rather than boring — that treasure is totally free. That treasure, the all-satisfying friendship of God in Christ forever, is totally free. Bought for us by the blood of Christ. No one can buy the friendship of God, no one can buy a new heart that delights in God.
You can’t buy it. It has been bought by the blood of Jesus. It is free for the what? It is free for the having. More specifically, it is free for the enjoying, which simply means that to be saved — that is, to enjoy God through Christ as my all-satisfying friend — I have to enjoy him above all things. More than food or sex or family or fame. Not equal with them. I have to enjoy him above those things. He has to be that sweet and precious; he has to be my treasure. If don’t enjoy him, he will not be all-satisfying to me.
That is all Jesus meant when he said Matthew 13:44, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up” — an all-satisfying treasure which a man found, covered up, and then — here’s the key phrase — “Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
In his joy, he now finds this treasure supremely satisfying. In his joy, he goes and sells everything he has and buys that field. The point of that parable is not that we pay for what Jesus already paid for. The point of that parable is that we now prefer the kingdom over everything in this world, and because we do, he gave his life as a ransom for us. We now will enjoy God through Christ as our all-satisfying friend forever.