Generally God’s forgiveness is touted as a free gift made available through the sacrifice of Christ. All anyone needs to do to avail oneself of this gift is to “accept” it. The tricky part comes in trying to determine what acceptance entails. Suddenly the free gift seems less than free because I have to perform certain requirements in order to receive it. The doing is not supposed to be a work because a man clearly cannot work his way to forgiveness. That was the reason for Christ’s sacrifice in the first place, to make salvation available for those who could not achieve righteousness by their own efforts.
In this way standard theology must clarify what is and is not a “work”, to the further dismay of the audience. To the unconditioned mind, any performance requirements can seem like an act of accomplishment if not of merit when I thereby satisfy what is required in order to be saved, achieving acceptance by God.
As if the confusion about what free actually means was not enough, the message about the free gift has a further caveat. There is a threat associated with not accepting the gift. It’s accept or else face dire consequences. Traditionalists would probably counter that the dire consequences were a reality before the free gift was offered, so the threat is not a consequence of the gift itself. To their thinking the free gift is the route of escape from a pre-existing threat and so the threat is not a consequence of the gift. Here again the message becomes convoluted. A free gift is being offered. The gift is forgiveness, the ability to escape dire consequences. However, I must do something in order to receive the gift and escape. I must perform certain rituals, pray a model prayer, or respond to whatever the prevailing doctrine prescribes. After getting the process right, then I receive what is advertised as free. It sounds too much like Madison Avenue’s idea of free, free with strings attached. What it doesn’t sound like is a plan devised by a loving, omnipotent God.