Last week’s Planet Money Podcast unknowingly stumbled upon a Law-Gospel goldmine! Exploring the economic dynamics of “free” (see also here!), the podcast specifically looks at what happens when something that was free is now no longer free. What happens when you charge money for something that was once free of charge?

Ask any veteran of WWII about the Red Cross and surprisingly to this day many distrust and despise what most people consider to be a beacon of benevolence (Katrina debacle notwithstanding). Apparently it all goes way back to the Red Cross’s decision during WWII to begin to charge soldiers for the coffee and doughnuts it served to solders overseas. The Red Cross had previously given coffee and doughnuts away for free, but when the presence of free doughnuts created dissension and envy between Allied forces, President Roosevelt insisted that the Red Cross must charge a small fee for its doughnuts and coffee. The backlash was fierce. False rumors began to spread that other goods the Red Cross provided for free would now be charged as well: cigarettes, knit sweaters, and even blood were all thought to now cost money. Surprisingly, seventy years later, the Red Cross is still trying to recover from its doughnut blunder. No matter how many free doughnuts it gives out, the charity is still viewed with suspicion.

The mistake of the Red Cross that lead to such irreparable harm was that by charging a small fee for what were free doughnuts the nature of the relationship between soldiers and the Red Cross categorically changed. What was once a place were soldiers could go for a small piece of relief became just another corner store looking to make a buck. A relationship of free charity now became a commercial relationship founded upon supply and demand.

The analogy to the church and its preaching is pretty obvious. Most churches preach differently to non-Christians than it does to Christians. Non-Christians need to hear the Gospel of free grace, Christ’s unmerited and unconditional love for unworthy sinners. The Gospel is not about what we have to do, but what God has already done. In a world overwhelmed by voices of conditionality, the unconditional message of the Gospel powerfully sounds out loud and clear. However, the message of the church is altogether different once one becomes a Christian. Christians need to hear about things like responsibility, obedience and 10-steps to live the Christian life. Becoming a Christian is easy, being a Christian requires discipline and effort. One may be justified by faith alone, but a true Christian goes to the 7am Saturday morning men’s Bible study. While most church wouldn’t separate the two messages so sharply, I would argue that it is still (rightly) heard as an abrupt bait-and-switch.

This type of duplicitous double-speak can irreparably change the nature of the relationship between the church and its converts. What was free now seems to have a cost. What was once the gospel of grace becomes just like every other self-help book at Barnes and Noble.

Theologically, this is why the Law must only ever precede the Gospel and never the other way around. The reintroduction of the law categorically changes the relationship of Christians to God; to move from Gospel to Law is to implicitly introduce the exact kind of conditional relationship which the gospel overturns. Like some twisted game show, the return to the Law after the Gospel undermines the power of Gospel as it calls into question the reliability and truthfulness of the Gospel itself and plays into the inherent incredulity toward anything which seem too good to be true.

If Christianity is to survive at all, we must cling to the word of the Gospel to the unworthy as our only source of life, never again submitting to the yoke of slavery (Gal. 5:1).