Thursday, August 17, 2006

Some Food for Thought on the "Debtor's Ethic"

I recently finished reading Piper's Future Grace. At the risk of being accused of carrying a "boyish crush" (just a little jab there, Chris), I'll share a concept from that book that I've been thinking about and to which I plan to be attentive in the Scriptures:
There is an impulse in the fallen human heart—all our hearts—to forget that gratitude is a spontaneous response of joy to receiving something over and above what we paid for. When we forget this, what happens is that gratitude starts to be misused and distorted as an impulse to pay for the very thing that came to us "gratis." This terrible moment is the birthplace of the "debtor's ethic." . . . God meant gratitude to be a spontaneous expression of pleasure in the gift and the good will of another. He did not mean it to be an impulse to return favors. If gratitude is twisted into a sense of debt, it gives birth to the debtor's ethic—and the effect is to nullify grace. (32)
Is it just my perception, or does this run contrary to a broad spectrum of evangelical and fundamentalist teaching?


NeoFundy said...

It seems that Paul thought the concept of a being a debtor is a profitable understanding of how the believer is to respond to the inward work of the Holy Spirit. Consider:

Romans 8:12 "Therefore, brethren, we are debtors––not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.

Being a debtor to do right is not incompatible with gratitude! However, viewing our debt as a way to "pay back" God would, of course, be wrong.

Chris Anderson said...

I'll have to think on this, Ben, but it does seem like Scripture uses the goodness of God as motivation for our grateful, even obligatory response. For example:

* II Cor 8-9 urges the Corinthians to give by highlighting Christ's giving for them (8:9) and reminding them of God's unspeakable gift (9:15)

* Scripture commands us to live as those who have been bought with a price (I Cor. 6:20)

* My favorite example is Paul's not mentioning (wink, wink) to Philemon how he owes Paul his life (Philemon 19)

Am I missing Piper's point? Would it make my case stronger if I said that I received this post as a miraculous revelation??

(And be thankful I didn't say "girlish crush.)

Don said...

Would this verse also apply?

Romans 13:8 Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.

The snippet you quoted sounds a lot like Swindoll's Grace Awakening to me, but that could just be me.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3
my practice blog:

Ben said...


Thanks for your suggestions. But I think you're reading more into this quote than Piper actually says. Piper never (in this quote or the two related chapters) contends that our debtor status is wholly unrelated to our response to the work of the Spirit in sanctification. Certainly, for example, redemption speaks to Christ's ownership and lordship rights over us.

But that doesn't mean we can repay what we owe. That's Piper's point. He's saying not only that we can't but that we shouldn't try to repay. That's what nullifies grace. There are other motivations for love, worship, and obedience besides repayment.

I'd love to talk a little more about the specific texts you guys are referring to. Suffice it to say that I don't see them giving any indication that repayment of the debt is our object. To suggest that they do challenge us to repay our debt would raise some serious questions in my mind about your views of salvation by grace through faith alone. Perhaps I'll be able to add more later.

Oh, and I don't think the Romans and Philemon texts about debts between people are legitimate apples to apples comparisons with Christ's work of grace.