Certainly, the Bible teaches that salvation is an unconditional gift from God, as part of the New Covenant. To some, that means Christians are under no obligations. They honor God in their actions instinctively, goes the reasoning, not because God orders them to do so. Let's examine that opinion in light of the Bible.
The primary scriptural reference to the New Covenant in the New Testament is Hebrews 8:6-13. All covenants of God contain two primary elements: (1) promises from God and (2) obligations and responses from people. Hebrews 8:6 reminds us that promises are the underpinning of covenants.
There was fault with "the first" covenant (Hebrews 8:7). This is a reference to the first covenant God made with Israel and Judah, not to the first covenant ever made by God with a man. It's this first covenant God made with Israel that people today commonly call "the Old Covenant." How could there be any fault with a covenant of God? Fault could only be on the human side. Indeed, Hebrews 8:8 confirms that fact; the people did not fulfill their obligations or respond as they should have.
"They did not continue in My covenant..., says the Lord" (Hebrews 8:9), so God established a new covenant, so much improved, according to Hebrews 8:13, that it causes the former covenant to pale in comparison. The language does not imply a sudden or violent change, but rather a renewal. Possessing only a sketchy understanding of the broad picture, many people today assume that, in establishing the New Covenant, God removed virtually all obligations from it. They mistakenly believe that "grace" means a covenant that is "all promise." No one who understands covenants would make that assumption.
Indeed, it would no longer be a covenant if it contained only promises from God but was devoid of obligations and expected responses from people! Trying to sweep away every aspect of the earlier covenant also overlooks the fact that God's grace was the basis of the Old Covenant as well. We should view His rescue of Israel from Egypt as nothing less than undeserved physical salvation. The people of Israel did not earn their way out of slavery by their obedience to God. He graciously freed them, and keeping His law was an appropriate, expected response on their part.
When a person understands that God has decreed a covenant, he or she should ask, "What is expected of me?" As Paul expressed in Romans 6:18, Christians are to be "slaves of righteousness." Could God state our obligation of obedience any plainer?
However, it would be too narrow an interpretation to say that the only obligation or appropriate response to the New Covenant is obedience. God desires and expects more than mere compliance. He wants our hearts to be in the covenant and the covenant to be in our hearts. The "better promises" of the New Covenant include an enhanced capacity, through the Spirit of God, not only to obey Him, but also to love Him as a Father.
The appropriate responses of a Christian toward God are similar to those of a child toward a parent. Paul draws together three scattered Old Testament scriptures in 2 Corinthians 6:16-18 to make that point. Notice that the fundamental elements of a covenant—promises on the one hand and obligations and responses on the other—are present here. The promises include: "I will dwell in them." "And walk among them." "I will be their God." "And they shall be My people." "I will receive you." "I will be a Father to you." "And you shall be My sons and daughters."
And the expected obligations and responses include: "And they shall be My people." "Come out from among them." "And be separate." "Do not touch what is unclean." "And you shall be My sons and daughters." (Sons and daughters must obey and be subject to their fathers.)
Through the Holy Spirit, the Father leads those He calls to the truth and convicts them of their responsibility to obey Him. By placing His Spirit in them at baptism, He empowers them to meet His expectations. Thus, the Holy Spirit gives the Christian a new heart and mind, the lack of which resulted in the failure of the people of Israel to keep their obligations in the first covenant that God made with them (Deuteronomy 5:29).
Paul's plain confession of his personal struggle against his nature tells us that Christians do not instinctively honor God in their actions (Romans 7:18-21). Conversion doesn't remove human nature, the negative pull within each of us to make wrong choices and do wrong deeds. Nor does conversion remove us from Satan's world or his continuing attempts to sabotage us through temptation.
What does conversion do? God's Spirit in us—that new heart—makes it possible for us to resist temptation and to live God's way of life (Romans 7:22-25). The choice and the control are up to the individual.
So, yes, God's gift is unconditional. But there is much more to the picture, as we briefly presented here. We invite you to read our booklets The Road to Eternal Life and Transforming Your Life: The Process of Conversion to learn more about the process of conversion. They explain God's calling, repentance, baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit, as well as how a Christian can and should continue in the way of faith.