“If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell…” (Matthew 5:29-30; see also: Mark 9:43-47).
Would you be surprised to learn that heaven will cost you an arm and a leg? And maybe even an eye?
I believe the above passage presents a great – indeed, an insurmountable – difficulty for those who believe that we incur no cost in our own salvation. Does our obedience to the gospel turn God’s grace into a payment for services rendered?
Something may be freely offered by one party (the giver), but still cost the other party (the recipient) quite a bit. Did you know that winning contestants on television game shows, and winners of drawings of all sorts often must pay gift taxes on their winnings? This is an example of freely offered by the giver, but with costs incurred by the recipient.
What about the recipients of salvation? Do they incur no cost in the transaction? In other words, since salvation is a gift from God, is the recipient of salvation entirely passive to all the benefits and blessings of that transaction? Does he incur no cost whatsoever?
Let us imagine salvation as a Christmas gift – a sweater. There are only so many possibilities with respect to giving and receiving this gift:
One possibility is that the potential giver decides not to offer the sweater at all. The recipient may need the sweater, but the giver is not inclined to offer it. The recipient may beg for it, but it is not offered.
Another possibility is that the giver purchases the sweater, wraps it, delivers it, and then opens it himself and put it on the recipient. He also embeds the fabric with a particular kind of glue that activates with body heat. This way, once the sweater is on, it is not removable.
A third possibility, is that the giver offers the sweater, but allows the recipient to choose whether he or she will accept it, or open it, or wear it, or keep it. There is a certain amount of cost and effort involved in both the giving and receiving of the gift.
Which is the biblical scenario? Let’s examine them:
The first possibility – that there is no offer of a sweater (salvation) at all – is obviously not biblical. God’s gracious character moves with compassion for the helpless (Titus 2:11-12). God wants everyone to have a sweater, you might say (2 Peter 3:9). If no one is being offered salvation in the first place, Jesus’ statement about giving up an arm or a leg or an eye to attain it, is nonsense. This is the position of the unbeliever. There is no need for a sweater, therefore there is no sweater. It is all a delusion.
The second possibility – that the gift is not only purchased, wrapped and offered, but also opened by the giver and put it on the recipient apart from his or her will – is also un-biblical. God does not force anyone to wear his sweater – i.e., to accept his salvation. How would Jesus’ statement make sense in this scenario? In this instance, no one would be required to give up anything, much less an arm, leg or eye, for the reception of the gift. You get to keep your limbs, your peepers and your salvation. This is the wildly popular model of Calvinism – the predeterminism that is preached and practiced in most denominations.
The third possibility – that the sweater is purchased and offered as a gift, and that you may exercise your will to receive it or reject it – is the biblical one. It is the only scenario that allows for salvation to be the product of nothing at all but the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8-9), while at the same time demanding cost from the recipient.
The third version of the Christmas sweater strikes the right balance. Just as God’s act of grace incurred great expense to him, the obedient exercise of our faith involves great cost for us.
Now, someone will say the third scenario is flawed, because any action on the part of the recipient constitutes an exchange of payment for labor. In other words, our obedience changes the transaction. The sweater goes from gift to payment. Here is the simple reason why this is wrong.
In twenty years of purchasing gifts for my children and wife for Christmas, they have all had to exert their own efforts to get up in the morning, sit around the tree, examine the packages, search for their names, unwrap those gifts, and then utilize them in the way they were intended. It involves a good bit of effort, actually.
But did their actions somehow transform my gifts into wages? Do I magically morph from husband and father into employer on Christmas morning? Did they magically turn into my employees? Should they bill me for the unwrapping? Who believes it? Further, did they have to exert an amount of energy equivalent to the cost of the gifts? Certainly not. They were willing to incur whatever cost was necessary to receive the gifts that I, in love, offered freely. Indeed, much less than a chore that demands payment, the unwrapping was a responsive act of love.
The offer of salvation cost God his precious Son. Will we see his glory having incurred no cost to ourselves (Romans 8:17)?
What is an arm or a leg – or an eye – in exchange for an eternity?