Everyone is familiar with the concept of debt. Most people, including folks who are quite wealthy, have personal experience with being under obligation to repay something. In our modern culture, the word “debt” primarily refers to financial obligations. We all realize, however, that financial liabilities are not the only kinds of debts.
In the world in which the Biblical characters lived, there were (of course) financial debts. People got themselves into financial trouble just as much as people to do today. Jesus’ parable about the debtors (Luke 7.41-42) was drawn from the real-life experiences of his time. However, the point of the parable is not about money. In typical fashion, Jesus was using one kind of debt (physical, financial), to explain another kind of debt (spiritual). You see, we are all indebted to God.
Not all people, however, understand or realize that they are indeed indebted to God. In fact, many people deny it altogether. “I never asked God for anything,” some people say; or “I don’t want nothin’ from God.” Such statements are pure foolishness. Even if a person says they want nothing from God, the fact is that we all take an abundance of things from God every day: the air in our lungs, the food we eat, the water we drink, the clothes we wear, the bodies we use, the life that animates our bodies, and indeed everything we know – it all comes from God, and we consume it every day, and day after day as long as we live. This idea that a person can live independently of God is simply not true, not in any sense at all.
As great as these gifts are, the Bible says there is more to God’s generosity than the provisions that make our physical lives possible. In addition to life and all its supplies, God has blessed us in an even greater way spiritually. He sent His Son to die for our sins so that we might be forgiven of the horrible offenses we have all committed against Him, and with that forgiveness we can hope to be spared from His wrath. While it is hard for most people to understand it, this is actually a far greater gift than all of those other, physical things – combined. And along with that supreme gift has come a load of other precious gifts as well: the revelation of His will that guides our steps rightly, hope, providential care, etc.
Why has God done all of this for us? The Bible boils the answer down to one word: grace. God’s kind gifts and provisions are the product of His grace, His kindness, toward us. God is, simply put, doing us all a favor. “… being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3.24). “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph 2.8).
Yet this is no ordinary favor! It is indeed the greatest favor and gift that we could possibly imagine. The magnitude and depth and richness of it is, indeed, “indescribable” (2 Cor 9.15).
It is exactly at this point that we encounter what I perceive to be a common misconception about how all of this works. It is quite common to hear grace defined not only as “unmerited favor,” but also as something that is “free.” In our modern culture, “free” is what everyone wants – something provided at no cost to the recipient, without any price (and thus without any debt). In addition, “free” carries with it the idea that you can take it or leave it as you decide for yourself. Since it is free, it comes with no obligations. [I am not including here the many abuses of the word “free” that we see and hear all the time, as when someone offers you a free vacation if you will listen to a sales pitch. In such a case, the vacation is being used as payment for your time and consideration, so it is not really free.] It seems that many people have transferred these ideas of “free” to the grace of God (how and why this has come about is a subject for another day).
What could be so wrong with thinking about the grace of God as being free? Isn’t that precisely one of the things that makes it so wonderful – that it is not for sale, so that only the rich can have it? Isn’t it wonderful that God gives it away to everyone? The problem is this: this idea of “free grace” has resulted in the idea that since God has provided salvation for me for free, I do not owe Him anything for it, and I can take it or leave it as I see fit. It is, after all, free.
If you had lived 2000 or more years ago, however, such ideas would never have entered your mind. Why not? Because the ancients did not believe that gifts were “free.” In the culture in which the Bible was written, every gift, every act of kindness, automatically brought with it an obligation to reciprocate. Every favor included a sense of debt. That’s just the way it was. No one in the ancient world believed that anything was completely free. Furthermore, in the ancient world the obligation of reciprocity included the sense of repayment on a comparable scale, with an equal or greater value. If someone did you a small favor, you owed them a small favor in return. If someone did you a great favor, you owed them a great favor in return.
Interestingly, the ancient word for a favor was the word that is commonly translated as “grace” in our New Testament. A favor was a “grace.” You see, that word had a very different “ring” to it than it does to modern ears. In our culture the term “grace” is seldom used outside of a religious context. It is what some have called “a church word.” But the fact is that when the New Testament authors spoke of the grace of God, they were using a term that was quite common in everyday life in their time.
What is the significance of all of this? It is that when the apostles preached the grace of God, everyone understood that the giving of divine grace and favor meant that we, the recipients, were now obligated, or indebted, to God. In other words, the grace of God requires a response on our part, a response that is appropriate to the value of the gift we have received.
(to be continued)
Here is a review of a new book on grace that is likely to be discussed for some time to come.