For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
There are numerous other passages in the New Testament that speak of salvation as “the gift of God,” including, for example, John 4:10, Acts 8:20, Ephesians 2:9, nearly every verse of Romans 5, from verse 15 on down to the end, and others.
It is, of course, a tautology to say that a gift is free. A gift is a gift. A gift is not part of a deal or a bargain, else it is no longer a gift. A gift is not given in exchange for anything else. A gift is not bought, and a gift is not earned. As St. Paul writes (Romans 11:6), “And if [election is] by grace, then [is it] no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.”
The thing to notice here is that the gift of God not only is no gift at all if we earn it, but also and equally is no gift at all even if Jesus Christ earns it.
Earlier this week somebody tried to tell me the gift was free to us, but not for Christ, Who had to earn it on our behalf. Of course this is not biblical. The biblical doctrine is: “The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into his hand.” (John 3:35) and “For as the Father has life in himself; so has he given to the Son to have life in himself;” (John 5:236).
Nevertheless, an attempt was made to support with Scripture the idea of Christ having earned eternal life on our behalf, and what intrigues me is the passage chosen, 1 Peter 1:18-10. “…knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.”
There are two or three reasons I was intrigued by the use of this passage.
One is that there are other passages available from which the heterodox could make a somewhat stronger case (which I’ll come to).
Another is that this verse, when used to support the theory that Christ earned our salvation, is always quoted without its middle portion, thus: “…knowing that you were ransomed … not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” That omitted middle portion is key, because it tells us exactly what St. Peter is talking about in this case. Among all the things from which Christ freed us, it tells us which one the Apostle has in mind. And it is neither God the Father nor yet the devil, nor sin, nor death, nor hell. It is “the futile ways inherited from your forefathers.” Now of course “the futile ways inherited from your forefathers” have no way of accepting any payment, which tells us the word “ransom” is not to be taken absolutely literally. It’s a very apt figure of speech, because freeing us by great suffering certainly strikes us as very similar to paying a huge price to get back your prisoners of war. But it’s still a figure of speech: there is no way you can literally pay off “the inherited ways.”
And the third thing that intrigued me about the use of this passage is its ending: “the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” That phrasing calls to mind the Passover Lamb. The Passover Lamb was not a sin offering. The Passover Lamb was offered so that (1) its blood, smeared over the doors of the Israelites, would tell the Angel of Death to skip this house, and (2) its flesh would nourish the Israelites on their journey out of slavery. Indeed, of all the kinds of offerings to God prescribed by the Law, the Passover Lamb is the type par excellence of Christ. That’s why Christ died at Passover, and why His last supper was a Passover meal. “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us,” says St. Paul (! Corinthians 5:7). The other sacrificial animals are comparatively lesser types of Christ. The scapegoat, for example, was not slaughtered, its blood was not shed; hence, it makes a less apt type. The goats and calves were slaughtered, but nobody ever says, “Behold the Calf of God!” or “Behold the Goat of God!” It’s the lamb. There was a lamb used as a sin offering, but for ordinary people (excluding the VIPS of the day) that lamb had to be female, so again, it isn’t all that good a type. Christ is specifically our Passover Lamb.
In short, I Peter 1:18 is not talking about Christ buying anything for us.
There are, as I said, a few other passages that at first glance seem to say Christ has indeed paid off someone in exchange for our salvation. For example, in I Corinthians 6:20 and again in 7:23. St. Paul writes, “For ye are bought with a price.” Acts 20:28 speaks of “the church of God, which He has purchased with His own blood.”
But again, when you start to try to pin down the meaning of these verses, you find out they are not to be taken absolutely literally. That is because if you ask from whom we were bought, there is no good answer, just as there is not in I Peter 1:18-19. Did Christ buy us from God? But God is not the one who was holding us captive. Moreover, as we have seen, God has already, from all eternity, been giving the Son all things. (John 3:35) Were we purchased from satan? But that is outrageous, to pay that outlaw anything, much less give him Christ! It would mean God the Son had sold himself to the enemy.
So where we see language about ransom or purchase, we recognize a figure of speech referring to the severe ordeal Jesus had to undergo in the course of rescuing us from sin and death and the devil. And from a thousand other things, such as "the useless traditions of our forefathers". Jesus pays the ultimate price in the same way some of our soldiers do in Iraq and Afghanistan. We don’t mean they are literally paying anybody off; we mean they died. My son-in-law ran the Marine Marathon earlier this week and finished in 3 hours, 40 minutes, and the price he had to pay, besides months of rigorous training, was a lot of pain for two days afterward. But when we speak of the price he paid, we do not mean he bribed the judges or paid off other runners or that anything literally changed hands. We mean he had to undergo a lot. And that’s how we mean it when we speak of the precious price Jesus paid; we mean He set us free, but had to endure a horrible ordeal in the process and shed His precious and life-giving Blood. We do not mean He paid off the Father or the devil.
A gift is a gift. A gift is free. A gift is UNEARNED! Even Christ can’t earn it for us, because the Father is already giving it for nothing. That’s what Grace means. To believe Christ had to bribe God on our behalf is to underestimate, very considerably, God’s love. It also underestimates His sovereign power and, as I think I could demonstrate, it is a bad parody of His Justice as well.
It’s just very, very hard for us, isn’t it, to accept that God loves us that much? Especially when we’re keenly aware of how we SO do not deserve it!