"Grace as free gift. We are now 'justified by God's grace as a gift' (3:24). What does that mean? In Romans, Paul's Greek word charis is usually translated 'grace' and understood to mean a free gift. He speaks about being 'justified by his grace as a gift' (3:24), about 'the free gift in the grace of one man, Jesus Christ' (5:15), and, like a drumbeat, about 'the free gift . . . the grace of God and the free gift . . . the free gift . . . the free gift . . . the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness' (5:15-17). But be very careful here. There is no such thing as a free gift. There can only be a free offer, which becomes a free gift when it is accepted.

"As a physical analogy, think about the air we breathe. It is always and equally available for everyone in any normal place or time. We do nothing to obtain it, nothing to merit it, and it is there unconditionally for good people and bad people alike. On the one hand, it is absolutely transcendent, since we depend on it totally. On the other, it is absolutely immanent, since it is everywhere inside and outside us, all around us. Indeed, we hardly notice the air unless something goes wrong with us or with it.

"Air, however, is a free offer that only becomes a free gift when we accept it and cooperate with it. We are always free either to take in too little air and choke or to take too much and hyperventilate. Furthermore, if we choose asphyxiation or hyperventilation, we should not say that the air is punishing us. It is always a matter of collaboration and participation with what is already there everywhere.

"Paul's good news (gospel) is that God's righteousness — that is, God's very character as distributive justice — is a grace, a free gift offered to us all absolutely and unconditionally for our justification — that is, for our collaboration with God in the transformation of God's world. In other words, God's primary distribution is of God's own self, own nature, own being, own character, or, as Paul prefers to say, God's own Spirit. It is from that primary distributive justice, which is God's gift of self, that the secondary distributive justice, which transforms the world, must come.

"Faith as total commitment. As any free offer must be activated into a free gift by free acceptance, so must the gift of God's self, the grace of God's universal offer of a Spirit transplant, be accepted by faith. To continue our analogy: believing is to grace as breathing is to air. And, as always, watch for misunderstanding. Faith does not mean theoretical assent to a proposition, but vital commitment to a program. Obviously, one could summarize a program in a proposition and believe in that proposition, but faith can never be reduced to factual assent rather than total dedication. Faith (Greek pistis) is a total life-style commitment.

"Furthermore, faith as commitment is always an interactive process, a bilateral covenant that presumes faithfulness from both parties with, of course, all appropriate differences and distinctions. As Paul emphasizes in Romans, therefore, God and Christ are faithful to the world and so, in faith response, is the world meant to be faithful to them. God's righteousness in Christ is faithfully consistent, and Christians should be consistently faithful in response to that gift of grace."