Common sense would seem to tell us that a thing cannot be both costly and free at the same time. If I must pay a high price for something, then it is not free; if it is free, then I am not required to pay for it. This commonsensical observation, however, leads to a theological puzzle: do the promises of the gospel come to us for free or at great cost? The Bible uses both kinds of language. To cite just two of many examples, compare these statements:

And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost. (Revelation 22:17)

Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, to see if he has enough to complete it… So therefore, no one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions. (Luke 14:27-33)

So which is it? Are we to count the cost, or are we offered something without cost? One simple (but wrong) solution would be to see two offers being made in the Bible: one for salvation and another for discipleship. Salvation is free and unconditional, and all believers accept this offer. Discipleship, however, is costly, and only some believers pay the price and reap the rewards of being a disciple. As some have said, one can accept Jesus as Savior without accepting Him as Lord. Now, discussing the “lordship salvation” debate is not the purpose of this article (I wrote on this topic at length in my book Righteous Sinners). Rather, I want to untangle the seeming contradiction between “costly” and “free.” Indeed, we will find no contradiction: salvation is free in one sense and costly in another, and both truths are equally important in understanding our lives as believers.

In our day-to-day lives, we are quite familiar with the ways in which something can be free in one sense and costly in another. Imagine that a young woman has been accepted to Gutenberg College and offered a full scholarship. Her tuition is fully paid for four years, and her rent, books, food, and other living expenses are paid as well. In one sense, then, to be a student at Gutenberg will cost her nothing. She does not have to give any money or qualify in any other way; she can just bring herself, freely, without charge. As any Gutenberg student could tell you, however, being a student here is not without cost. To be a student at Gutenberg requires “payment” of time and energy and commitment. To say “yes” to Gutenberg costs a certain amount of freedom. Even if someone had the opportunity to attend Gutenberg for “free,” that person would still have to ask whether the price (in time and energy) is too high.

The same thing can be said of the gospel: in one sense salvation is offered to us freely and graciously, but in another sense to accept that offer can cost us dearly. To illustrate this point, let us look at the context in Luke 14 where Jesus speaks of “counting the cost.” Some have argued that Luke 14 is proof that we must distinguish between salvation, which is free, and discipleship, which is costly. Jesus tells a story about people being invited to a banquet (Luke 14: 16-24); this invitation is gracious and free and extended to all. Then Jesus changes subjects and says that no one can be His disciple unless he hates his father and mother, picks up his cross, and gives up all his possessions (Luke 14: 26-27). Thus, some argue, Jesus is clearly making two different calls: one is the call to a free salvation; the other is the call to costly discipleship. I would argue, however, that to call the invitation to the banquet “free” is misleading. While certainly “free” in one sense, the invitation is quite “costly” in another sense. To see how this is so, let us look at parable of the banquet from Luke 14:

A certain man was giving a big dinner, and he invited many; and at the dinner hour he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” But they all alike began to make excuses. The first one said to him, “I have bought a piece of land and I need to go out and look at it; please consider me excused.” And another one said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please consider me excused.” And another one said, “I have married a wife, and for that reason I cannot come.” And the slave came back and reported this to his master. Then the head of the household became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the city and bring in here the poor and crippled and blind and lame.” And the slave said, “Master, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.” And the master said to the slave, “Go out into the highways and along the hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste of my dinner.” (Luke 14:16-24)

As Jesus tells this story, the offer to attend the banquet is free in one sense and costly in another. In one sense, the banquet costs nothing. A lush meal is graciously provided free of charge. Those who are poor and crippled cannot even hope to return the favor; the host of this banquet will never eat a lavish meal at their house, and yet he still invites them freely. The invitation is wide open: anyone who is hungry, come and eat. In another sense, though, attending the banquet is very demanding; look how many people turned it down. They all had things in their lives that meant more to them than attending the banquet, things they were not willing to give up. Their personal property and relationships meant more to them than the banquet did, and so they did not attend, even though the banquet was “free.” In the end, they lost out entirely because they were not willing to pay the price.

Now we can see that when Jesus goes on in Luke 14:25 and following to speak of the cost of discipleship, He does not intend a contrast with the parable of the banquet that preceded it. Rather, what He goes on to say about the cost of discipleship is exactly in keeping with the banquet parable.

Now great multitudes were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:25-27)

Here Jesus uses the language of obligation and cost: a person cannot follow Him unless he or she does these things, unless he or she pays this price. A person must “hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life.” I would paraphrase what Jesus means as follows:

If you follow me, you may face a choice. The important people in your life—your father, your mother, your wife—may not approve of you following me. The people of this world hate me, and if they hate me, they will hate you. And so you must choose: do you want to follow me and find eternal life, or do you want to keep the approval of those around you? The world being what it is, you can see that to follow me might even cost you your life.

Notice that nothing in what Jesus says suggests that we are earning His approval or making ourselves worthy of salvation. He is not saying, “Leave your wife and children, and then I will know that you are worthy to be my disciple.” Jesus is making a free and gracious offer: just bring yourselves, as you are, and I will give you life. In a world such as ours, however, accepting that offer can cost us much. In a world hostile to God, seeking to be God’s friend can make you a target. We might like to follow Jesus and keep everyone happy with us, but that choice might not be open to us.

Furthermore, the costs of following Jesus are not always tangible and external. Sometimes we must pay an internal cost as well, giving up cherished beliefs and ideas. Paul grieved because most of his fellow Jews did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but he understood why:

Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Romans 10:1-4)

They did not come to Christ because they were seeking to be justified based on their own performance, not on the forgiveness Christ offered. To follow Christ, they would have had to pay the price of abandoning their previous ideas. Ironically, some of the Pharisees came as far as believing that Jesus was the Messiah, and yet they still could not abandon their self-righteousness. Thus the “Judaizers” said they believed in Jesus as Messiah, but they continued to believe that obedience to the Jewish law—circumcision and eating kosher and such—won God’s approval. But a gospel that tied salvation to performance of the law was not really the gospel at all; in Galatians Paul called this a “different gospel.” Believing that Jesus was the Messiah was not enough; they had to believe that Jesus was the Messiah who saved unworthy sinners such as themselves. The Judaizers found that too high a price to pay.

Costly and free—the gospel is both. To say that everyone can freely receive salvation while only some need pay the price of discipleship is to make a serious mistake. Salvation is totally free in one sense and highly costly in another, and we must understand both senses in order to understand the Christian life. Salvation is free in that we can do nothing—we can pay nothing—to earn our acceptance from God. We are evil, but God accepts us anyway, without reservation. We are guilty before the court of God’s justice, yet He frees us from paying what we owe. God is not waiting to accept us until we meet some standard; we do not meet the standard, and yet He blesses us now. If we do not understand how freely and graciously God is acting toward us, then we can fall into self-righteousness and/or despair: self-righteousness because we have forgotten that we do not deserve God’s kindness; despair because we have forgotten how freely willing God is to overlook our guilt.

Yet, salvation is also costly, and we must understand that as well. By its very nature, to believe the gospel is a huge shift in our lives. To believe that Jesus died for our sins costs us our self-satisfied belief that we are good people. To believe that God is willing to forgive us costs us our bitter unwillingness to forgive others. To believe that the true riches are found in the kingdom of God costs us our delusion that money matters. To ask Jesus to be on our side may cost us the approval of others. If our faith is genuine, then it cannot help but confront us with some hard truths and hard choices. This confrontation is not optional; what Jesus offers is not what the world offers, and to have them both is impossible. To deny this is to distort our picture of faith itself.