What I Owe (Part 2)

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In our previous article we noted that, in the context in which the Bible was written, “grace” or a favor was never considered to be something that was “free.” Everyone in that culture understood that the reception of a gift obligated the recipient to the giver. No gift came without an obligation to reciprocate in some way. In other words, every gift (or grace) created a situation of debt on the part of the recipient. In our modern culture, however, we commonly connect the notion of “free” to the concept of grace or favor. We think of a favor as something that is free, devoid of obligation on our part. The result is that many people think this way about the grace of God. “God did me a favor (and I don’t have to do anything in return).” We pointed out, however, that this is not how the concept worked for the people who wrote the New Testament. To them, the reception of a gift obligated the recipient to reciprocate in kind.reciprocity

Another part of the picture – and this is very important – is that the ancients lived in a culture of honor. To them, the maintenance of one’s personal honor was extremely important, so much that it affected everything they did. People wanted to be viewed as honorable; they avoided behaviors that their society deemed dishonorable, and they looked for opportunities to engage in behaviors that were deemed honorable (unlike the culture in which we live today).

Now in the ancient world, favor and honor were connected in at least two ways. First, if someone did you a favor, doing something for them in return was the honorable thing to do. It was more than simply paying a debt; re-payment of a favor was honorable behavior. That is, this idea of reciprocity was bound together with a sense of honor so that returning a favor was valued as the honorable way to respond to that favor. To put it negatively, one of the surest ways to dishonor yourself would be to receive a kindness from someone and never pay them back. Such behavior would mark you as dishonorable and would mean that no one would ever do you a favor again.

to whom honor is dueSecond, it was honorable to give honor back to the giver of the gift. That is, not only were you obliged to repay a favor but also to tell other people of the kindness and goodness that the giver had bestowed upon you. This was a form of giving honor to, and increasing the honor of, the giver of the gift.

We might pause right here to make an important application: in the Biblical context of thought, we all owe something to God (whether we acknowledge it or not). Every one of us has taken of God’s good gifts of air, water, food, and life. Every person owes it to God to be thankful at the very least. This is why we worship God – we publicly proclaim what a great thing he has done for us. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet 2.9). Giving honor to God is part of our obligation as people who have received His grace.

But let’s return to the idea of repayment of a kindness. There were many situations in the ancient world in which the person who received a favor was of lower means than the person who gave the favor. So what were you supposed to do if you could not match, in return, the value of the gift that had been given to you? What if you could not repay? We often hear this same sentiment expressed about God’s grace today: “I couldn’t repay God if I wanted to! (so it is a good thing that grace is actually free).” For those of us who have received not only physical blessings from God, but have also taken His (more valuable) spiritual blessings, we owe Him even more. How could I ever repay that?

The answer in the biblical world was: you repaid as you could, but you retained an ongoing sense of debt for the great gift you had received. I realize that I will never be able to repay, in kind or in value, the generosity God has shown to me. I have nothing nearly as valuable as the gifts God has given to me. But this leads us to a final consideration that is eminently practical and livable.

When I think about what God has given to me as a gift, I realize that God has given me His all. He has held nothing back. He has given us the greatest gift in the universe – the life of His Son. “He … did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all” (Rom 8.32). So how do I repay someone who has given their all to me? The answer is simple: by giving my all back to Him. I realize that my all does not come close to repayment of God’s all for me. But I give him what I have – my life, my mind, my heart, my will, my soul, my strength, my time, my love, my energies – and I retain a sense that I still owe Him even more.

A well-known theologian once complained “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. … Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost!” He went on to say “Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (Dietrich Bonhoefer, The Cost of Discipleship).

He was right. God’s grace is not free, it is not cheap. It comes with a cost, it comes with an indebtedness on our part. The biblical picture is that it is an outrage and the height of dishonorable behavior when a person takes of God’s gracious gift and fails to repay it. My response to the grace of God must be that I give Him my all in return, in a spirit of humble gratitude. Nothing less would be appropriate.


David McClister



Here is a chapter from a book that discusses reciprocity in the ancient world.