A couple Sundays ago, as I was preaching from Romans 3, I mentioned the danger of having a “Debtor’s Ethic” as it regards our motivation for the Christian life. At that time, I came down hard on any perspective that might lead us to believe we must (or even could) pay God back for our salvation. I want to clarify those remarks by citing John Piper in my article this week. It is wrong for us to live for Christ on the basis that we somehow need to pay God back. However, it is not wrong to be dependent upon God, even “indebted” to Him, for the grace He grants us every single day. Here are John Piper’s answers regarding this important issue:
Is gratitude a bad motivation for obeying God? It can be a bad thing if we conceive of acting out of gratitude as returning favors, like when somebody invites you over for dinner and out of gratitude you feel the need to invite them over to dinner. If that’s the way we’re thinking about our relationship and obedience to God, it’s bad.
It’s going to be legalistic and devastating. And it’s going to dishonor God, because it says, “OK, God made a deposit in my life of some good and some kindness. Now, as I face the future and ponder what my motivation is for pleasing God or for doing good things that he commands, I must now do something good for him because of what he has done for me in the past.”
It’s that structure of thought that I think is so dishonoring to God, because when I turn to do something good for God, when I turn to take another step in the path of obedience, I need to not say, “God helped me in the past; now I must do something for him in the future.” Rather, I need to say, “God helped me in the past, and now I need his help for the very next moment of my life.”
We don’t give God anything, according to Acts 17:25, but God gives us life and breath and everything. So when a person takes a step of obedience and thinks, “I am paying back to God what he has given to me,” they’re making a profound mistake. They’re not paying anything back if they’re living the way they should. They are depending on new grace to take that step, and therefore they go deeper in debt.
That is why I sometimes call gratitude-based obedience “the debtor’s ethic.” You shouldn’t think of obedience as a mortgage payment, trying to pay God back month by month until you get the debt paid off. Rather, we should think that obedience is going deeper in debt to God every moment, because it takes more grace to be obedient this afternoon than I had yesterday.
So I get more and more from God. I go deeper and deeper into debt, and that’s the best and happiest way to live. We will never get out of debt to grace. And so the thought of gratitude ethic as a kind of payback ethic is devastating to increasing the glory of God’s grace in our lives. We go deeper into debt in grace, not pay it off.
So the greatest Christian is the one who reaches the finish line with the most debt to God? Exactly, the most conscious debt to God. I want to say “conscious” to emphasize that it is right to be dependent on God moment by moment. And if we’re dependent on God moment by moment to supply grace and ability and everything we need spiritually, emotionally, and materially, then we’ll get out of our head once and for all the notion that we will ever get beyond radical total dependence on him so as to assume a position of payback.