Driving around I saw a church sign that said: "The gospel is free, you just need to receive it." Clearly free is not a good descriptor here. If it was free then you end up with a universalism which I'm sure is not the intent of the little Baptist church with that sign. So what is free about the gospel?
I actually think the opposite - the gospel is costly.
Not only does it cost receiving it - hardly a passive action. It involves investing your whole life into. Perhaps what bugs me about the free statement is that it promises something it cannot really deliver. What does it mean to receive the gospel? Does it mean some intellectual nod of the head at what God did with little following implications? That hardly fits with any evangelical doctrines of salvation I know about. I'm not advocating a works here - but rather a responsibility. The gospel isn't free, it will demand our whole lives. It is costly.
There is a cost that is paid for - at least in terms of substitutionary atonement - but that is not the part of the gospel that I think we are trying to get at. We are not trying to compare God's cost against ours and say that in comparison what we have to do is pretty much free. I doubt that. In fact if anything the command to take up our own crosses implies that the gospel has the same potential (cost-wise) as it did for Jesus. It could very well demand out lives.
Why do we want it to be stripped of this cost? Do we think that a costly gospel is less appealing? Maybe we sugar coat the gospel and tell people lies like "God has a wonderful plan for your life" in order to con them into the Kingdom. It doesn't work. A costless gospel is not a gospel at all. It is a fatalism, an easy believism, that is not good news at all. What I mean by this is that it is not good news because it has no ability to do anything in the world except lull individuals into a false sense of security. If the gospel is really good news it has to be good news for the whole of creation, anything less undersells God and turns the gospel into a farce.
I think we should drop the lame slogans and return to a costly gospel. That pearl of great price that once you find you are willing to give up everything for. A free gospel is really only worth the price you paid for it - nothing. I have a hard time believing that Jesus would be willing to lay down his life for something so meaningless as a so-called free gospel.
I think the only sense in which we might be able to talk about a free gospel is in terms of money - but even there the gospel makes huge demands on us. Sure I can offer it to you without charging you money. But what I'm offering, when I present the gospel, really demands your everything. And you can bet that will impact your pocketbook at some point. The gospel is costly. I'm actually quite ok with that. Only a costly gospel is worthy of the God who is willing to risk everything for us.