A Debtor’s Ethic

John Piper has complained that the historic Reformed understanding of the Christian faith and life produces what he calls a “debtor’s ethic.” The assumption is that a “debtor’s ethic” is something that we are supposed to reject out of hand.

I have previously criticized his rejection of the Reformation theology, piety, and practice. His rejection of the guilt, grace, gratitude structure of the faith is a rejection of the Reformation reading of Romans and the confession of the Reformed churches in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). This would seem to put the burden of proof on Piper to show how the entire magisterial Reformation (e.g., Luther, Melanchthon, Bucer, Calvin, Bullinger) and their Reformed successors are wrong.

Paul’s Theology of Guilt, Grace

What, however, if the premise of Piper’s critique is at odds with Paul’s theology? In Romans 8:12–14 Paul wrote about Christians,

Therefore brothers, we are debtors (οφειλεται) not to live according to the flesh, for if you live according to the flesh, you are about to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the acts of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit are sons of God. (my translation).1

In Romans 3:21–5:21, Paul has been preaching the doctrine of free salvation (especially justification) by divine favor alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone. In chapter 6, he turns to the implications of the gospel of free grace: our new life in Christ. We have been identified with Christ’s death in baptism, which is a ritual death. Christ has died to sin and by virtue of our Spirit-wrought union with Christ, we too must also die to sin. In chapter 7, however, Paul explains that the great problem of the Christian life is not God’s holy law. Before he was converted, Paul thought that he could keep the covenant of works and earn favor with God. Now, however, in Christ, he knows better. Now he knows what he is by nature after the fall. He is a new creature and yet the old self still exists. It is a daily, existential struggle. He concludes chapter 7 with a deeply realistic assessment of the Christian life wrapped in a doxology:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin (Rom. 7:21–25; ESV).

Paul’s Theology of Gratitude

In Romans 8, Paul returns to the new life that we have in Christ. He begins with an unequivocal declaration of our free, final justification in Christ: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1; ESV). Notice that Paul does not say that there is no condemnation for those who produce enough good works (in cooperation with the Holy Spirit). He boldly declares that those who are united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, are “now” justified. Our justification is neither temporary nor conditional.

As a consequence of what Christ has done for us, the Holy Spirit is at work in us. Outside of Christ we are under the law of “do this and live” (e.g., Rom. 2:13). Now we are under “the law of the Spirit of life,” which has set us free from the law of sin and death (Rom. 8:2). God has done what the combination of law and sinful nature (Rom. 7) could not do. Now the Spirit is working conformity to the “righteous requirement of the law” (Rom. 8:4) not in order that we might one day be justified but because we have been declared righteous once for all.

Here we see Paul explaining not the “in order that” but the “now that” realities of the Christian faith. The moralists miss this. The moralist wants to turn the “now that” into “in order that.” For Paul, however, Christ has already met the “in order that.” Not only are we unable to re-do that work, it is blasphemous for us try.

We are recipients of free favor, free salvation, and part of that salvation is the Spirit’s wonderful, mysterious sanctifying work in us. Because of Christ’s work for us and the Spirit’s work in us, certain things are true of us. Our new lives are characterized by setting our minds on “the things of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:5). We do this because we are “not in the flesh but in the Spirit” (Rom. 8:9). Notice that Spirit is capitalized. Paul is talking about the Holy Spirit. Because Christ is “in” us and we are “in” him (by virtue of our mystical union with Christ) we have been raised with Christ spiritually just as we will be raised with him bodily (Rom. 8:11).

Verse 12 here is really important. It is in light of the super-abundant favor that we have received from God, in Christ, that Paul boldly declares in v. 12 that we are “debtors” (οφειλεται). This is how the ESV translates this noun. Indeed it is widely translated as “debtors” (e.g., Tyndale, Geneva, AV, ASV, NKJV). The other approach, adopted by the NIV and NASB tends to use the noun “obligation,” e.g., “now we are under obligation.” That approach is a little more wordy and we should understand that the obligation in view here is a consequent obligation—Christ has met the antecedent requirements of the law for us!—as a matter of thanks and gratitude.

Paul elsewhere describes himself as a debtor. E.g., in Romans 1:14, he described himself as a “debtor” (ὀφειλέτης) to Greeks and Barbarians, to wise and foolish. He is not averse to thinking of himself as a debtor. Though it is a relatively unusual way of speaking for Paul—the New Testament uses debt in other contexts—the force of “debtor” seems fairly clear.

This is how Christians respond when they are impressed with the marvel of God’s grace. As Bob Dylan wrote c. 1980, “What Can I Do For You?” Should someone lavish an extraordinary gift upon us, what reasonable person would not ask, “How should I respond?” A benevolent uncle might say, “use it wisely.” Paul calls us debtors to grace because God, in Christ, has lavished favor and blessing upon us. We ought to be dead and under judgment. Instead, we have been made alive with Christ, we have been justified, we are being sanctified, and we shall be glorified freely.

It is perfectly according to the nature of the favor we have received to think of ourselves as debtors. Paul is not ashamed of the gospel. Neither is he ashamed of his “debtor’s ethic.” He knows what he was and he knows what he is now, how much he has been given.

He has been given a sacred trust. So, too, it is with us. We have been given an uncountable trust to administer in union with Christ, in the Spirit. This is what it is to be “sons” (v. 14). We are no longer slaves (v. 15). We have been adopted (v. 15). The Spirit confirms in us what the preached gospel announces. We are “children” and “heirs” (v.17).

Should you ever receive a letter from a lawyer inviting you to a meeting, you may experience something of what Paul has in mind, but when you do it will be as one who has already received a much better letter indeed. The lawyer’s letter and your uncle’s estate will decay and rust but the grace of Christ only shines more brightly as time goes on.

Let us not be ashamed of being debtors to Christ and grace. He has freely saved us and given us everything. We ought to ask, “what can I do for you?” It is only right and proper.


1. Ἄρα οὖν, ἀδελφοί, ὀφειλέται ἐσμὲν οὐ τῇ σαρκὶ τοῦ κατὰ σάρκα ζῆν, εἰ γὰρ κατὰ σάρκα ζῆτε, μέλλετε ἀποθνῄσκειν· εἰ δὲ πνεύματι τὰς πράξεις ⸂τοῦ σώματος⸃ θανατοῦτε, ζήσεσθε. (Rom 8:12–14; NA28).

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. “Notice that Paul does say that there is no condemnation for those who produce enough good works …” should be “Notice that Paul does not say that there is no condemnation for those who produce enough good works …”

  2. Dr. Clark, spot on as usual, but I think you meant to say “Notice that Paul doesn’t say that there is no condemnation for those who produce enough good works…”

  3. Important edit missing:

    “Notice that Paul does [NOT] say that there is no condemnation for those who produce enough good works (in cooperation with the Holy Spirit).”

  4. “Paul elsewhere describes himself as a debtor. E.g., in Romans 1:14, he described himself as a “debtor” (οφειλεται) to Greeks and Barbarians, to wise and foolish.”

    Should be: ὀφειλέτης (sg.)

  5. You put it so well: “The moralist wants to turn the ‘now that’ into ‘in order that.’ Not only are we unable to re-do the work, it is blasphemous for us to try.” It is blasphemous, because when we want to do “our part” we are rejecting Christ as a complete Saviour. Heidelberg Q&A 30

  6. Not an inspired source, and the author had his own struggles, but..

    “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be; let that grace, Lord, like a fetter, bind my wand’ring heart to thee.”

  7. I’m curious, is what Piper is expounding a direct result of his leaning toward, if not outright affirmation of, Federal Vision? If this is the logical outcome of said “vision”, then it’s no wonder R.C. Sproul made such an emphatic plea to jettison this at the PCA GA.

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