(The following is the next entry in a 31-day blog journey through John Piper’s, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for a Radical Ministry [Broadman and Holman, 2002.] The content of chapter 5 can be read in a different and expanded form in “The Debtor’s Ethic: Should We Try To Pay God Back?” in Future Grace: The Purifying Power of Faith in Future Grace [Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2005]: 31-39.)
The debtor’s ethic has a deadly appeal to immature Christians. It 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 life; now how much will you give for Him?”
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 to God.
Have you ever tried to find a Biblical text where gratitude or thankfulness is the explicit motive for obedience to God…?
God takes pains to motivate us by reminding us that He is now and always will be working for those who follow Him in the obedience of faith. He never stops and waits for us to work for Him “out of gratitude.” He guards us from the mindset of a debtor by reminding us that all our Christian labor for Him is a gift from Him (Rom. 11:35-36; 15:18) and therefore cannot be conceived as payment of a debt. In fact the astonishing thing is that every good deed we do in dependence on him to “pay Him back” does just the opposite; it puts us ever deeper in debt to His grace…. Let us teach people that is exactly where God wants us to be through all eternity, going ever deeper in debt to grace” (34, 35).
Living apart from grace takes many forms. Often it takes the form of a guilty conscience: “I have not done enough for God,” “I should have been able to do better by now,” “I cannot understand why I am not further along in my Christian life, for I am trying so hard,” or “Life would go better if I would just do more for God.” Sometimes, however, it takes the form of (false) gratitude, as Piper notes above.
When a believer is riddled with guilt over sin, foolishness, and an apparent lack of (expected) progress in life, we readily have answer for that brother or sister: “The Lord would not have you to spurn the blood of Christ by trying to work out your sanctification in your own power; live by grace through faith.” However, when a believer is riddled with works before God motivated by thanksgiving, our answer is not as Cross-centered: “Amen! If you are thankful, you should show it!” Smell the sulfur of works burning?
When I give a gift to one of my children, I do expect a thank you—a simple acknowledgement of gratitude received. I never expect the child to say, “Dad, I am going to work to earn the money to give a good gift back to you,” or “dad, I want to work harder now that you have given me this gift.” My gifts are not buying gifts back, nor are they bartering for hard work to be returned. They are gifts. They do not seek to gain, but only to be received and acknowledged. If one of my children was to give me a transaction reply rather than thanksgiving alone, I would have to respond, “What are you doing? Do you not know the gift was free? Just enjoy it!”
As shepherds, we do not want to create people who try to pay back a God who does not need our sheep (Psalm 50). Thankfulness-motivated works do not produce preachers or missionaries; they produce pimps and mercenaries: “Look at what God has done for you! You need to give more to him” (in order to secure more blessings), or “I will do more for you (sheep) when you are more thankful for me (shepherd).” Scores of Word of Faith and Prosperity Gospel preachers have transferred the debtor’s ethic into the miser’s Gospel and ruined the lives of many among my people. The leap from debtor-to-God to paying-off-debts-to-God is simple, and it sounds holy. But it is siphoning the church of grace and poisoning the individual soul with duty. The world needs to hear “Your debts are paid!” Let other religions say, “now work to repay the gods to whom you are thankful.”
What cuts through the debtor’s ethic is joy. Sheer delight in the Giver behind the gift with no thought of payment due is holy motivation for works. The Father is the Giver and the Son is the Gift given to pay the debt. We must tell our people not to serve in order to repay God, but serve because it is the overflow of their joy in God.