Grace and the Debtor’s Ethic

A while back, a good friend of mine sent me a text out of nowhere saying that he had a gift for me. Puzzled, any understanding I had of grace and Theology went out the window, and my immediate response was “What did I do to deserve a gift?” Of course, he said, “Nothing.” Then the error of my ways set in and I realized that you can’t earn a gift. That’s why it’s a gift! My next thought, equally wrong, was “Man, I need to buy him lunch or something.” Now, there isn’t anything wrong with wanting to respond to a kind gesture with gratitude and being generous. But, there is something wrong with feeling the need to repay someone for a gift. Then it isn’t a gift. This kind of debtor’s ethic turns a gift into a financial transaction. It turns grace into legalism.

As John Piper talks about in Future Grace, that’s often how we treat Christianity. We understand legalism. In fact, we like it. Legalism gives us the measuring stick by which we gauge our accomplishments and feed our pride. Grace makes us uncomfortable, though. Because while legalism may lay out all of the rules we have to follow and everything we need to do, grace simply says that there isn’t anything we can do. We are completely reliant upon what someone else has done. This offends our human, and specifically American, sensibilities.

In our “Pick yourself up by your bootstraps” world we are bombarded by the capitalist concept of “You get what you work for.” Granted, that’s probably a better model than most when it comes to corporate business, but it’s a horrible model when it comes to understand salvation by grace alone. But it fits so smoothly because it satisfies our need to be in control. Legalism works hand in hand with that ancient desire for autonomy. Whether the result be one who sees himself as “good” and thinks that is enough merit to earn his way to Heaven, or whether the result is someone who realizes how “bad” he is and that he deserves Hell. True, I don’t think many will hold to the latter position of their own accord, but in both cases the person looks at his situation and says “I did this.” He looks at the bed he made for himself and whether he likes it or not he takes satisfaction in the simple fact that he made it.

Part of this stems from our individualistic society versus living in a communal or patriarchal society. The concept of a father working to provide an inheritance so that his family can literally survive after he is gone is pretty much lost on us in America. Much more so the idea that the family suffers for the sins of the father. I agree that there are definitely benefits to not living in that type of patriarchal society, but I feel that it causes us to lose understanding of our situation when it comes to the gospel. Our concept of “just” and “fair” is so influenced by our individualism that we see any adverse effect on a person by the actions of another person as unfair and unjust. Yet, we see in Scripture that God punished the whole family of Achan for one man’s sin (Joshua 7). We read in Romans 5 how death and sin came to the world through Adam, and that we are all guilty because of his actions first, and then because of our own sins which are rooted in the sin nature we inherited from Adam.

Just as Achan was the head of his family, Adam is the head of man. He is our representative before God, and he failed on behalf of all of us. So we all stand guilty because of what one man did. But then came another Adam. Then came Jesus.

A new representative for man stepped out of Heaven and clothed Himself with flesh. He got it right. He kept the whole of the law. He took our place on the cross. He died the death that we deserve. He rose again so that we might live. Just as we found death in Adam, we find life in Christ. The whole of creation rests on the actions of these two men. Cursed by the actions of the former. Redeemed, restored, and reconciled by the actions of the latter.

Our individualistic sense of fair looks at our sin and says, “Well, you committed the crime. You’re guilty.”

Grace looks at our sin and says, “He has a new Head. He’s covered by the actions of a new representative. He is paid for.”

We don’t want fair! We want grace!

In your life, where do you feel that you are trying to pay God back for salvation? Where do you feel that you are still trying to earn God’s gift?

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