You Owe it to Him, Right?- John Piper on the Debtor’s Ethic of Christian Living

April 26, 2009

Talking about stewardship yesterday I mentioned the “debtor’s ethic”, an idea that we should do things out of gratitude to God in order to pay him back for his blessings and/or the gift of salvation.  As I said, this was not a unique creation of my own but is something I read in the writings of Dr. John Piper.  Today I think I would like to expound on this ethic a little further.

The written idea of the debtor’s ethic, at least as I encountered it, occurs in John Piper’s book on pastoral ministry entitled Brothers, We Are Not Professionals.  In the fifth chapter of this book Dr. Piper makes the statement, “Brothers, beware of the debtor’s ethic.”  He then goes on to describe the debtor’s ethic writing that,

[i]t comes packaged as a gratitude ethic and says things like: “God has done so much for you; now what will you do for Him?”  ”He gave you His lfe; now how much will you give to Him?”

[In this] the Christian life is pictured as an effort to pay back the debt we owe to God.  The admission is made that we will never fully pay it off, but the debtor’s ethic demands that we work at it.  Good deeds and religious acts are the installment payments we make on the unending debt we owe God. (p.34)

From just this much I would imagine that many of us know exactly what Piper is talking about.  This mindset is especially prevalent in Catholic homes and communities, where the ideas of penance and works righteousness are widely accepted as biblical truth.  Of course, from this Piper then asks teh question, “Have you ever tried to find a Biblical text where gratitude or thankfulness is the explicit motive for obedience to God?”  He admits that there are passages which elevate the position of gratitude in our service, but states that not a single verse or passage exists which explicitly suggests this philosophy as being commended by Christ.

Why is this so bad though?  Is it not okay simply to serve God and do good things regardless of teh motivation behind it?  No, it’s not.  In fact, a key characteristic of Jesus’ earthly ministry was that he charged people to take the primary focus in obedience off of the observable physical acts and placing it on the intentions of the heart (cf. Matthew 5-7).  Having right motives in serving God is what makes our service acceptable to him, as Hebrews 11.6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”  Clearly, the focus of God is upon faith and our trusting in him.  Paying back an obligation can be a very apathetic action; acting in faith cannot.

I believe that we need to test for this in all aspects of our Christian lives.  The debtor’s ethic is an easy sin to fall into, yet a deadly mindset to overlook.  Even if we as believers have encountered and become aware of the yoke that the debtor’s ethic brings, we still manage to be in danger of succombing to it at any time.  The moment we sour on doing something, be it teaching Sunday School, loving our spouse, witnessing to the lost, or any other point of service in our lives, we find ourselves one step from continuing on sinfully trying to pay back a debt instead of proceeding to act in faith towards the one who has established us.  

Be on the lookout.  Burdening us with a sense of obligation to repay God is one of the more prevalent tricks of the devil today.  This is for sure a yoke we cannot bear; and yet, in light of God’s free gift of forgiveness through the sacrifice of Christ and our faith in this, it is not a yoke we need to bear either.