The Debt of Sin and the Sin of Debt

There are a number of ideas and phrases that most Biblically literate Christians would swear were in the Bible, but are not. Among those is the phrase (or concept) of the “debt of sin.” It is simply not there. Nor is there a phrase that describes sin as something that we “owe.” Again, it’s simply not there. The phrase, “the debt of sin,” or “sin debt” is extra-biblical. It is an idea that has been created by the theory of penal substitutionary atonement theory and frequently “read into” Scripture. But the phrase, and the idea, are simply imports. More than that, they run counter to Biblical thought and the traditional theology of the Orthodox faith.

Debt is a very strong and significant Biblical concept, but is no where depicted as belonging to God. God does not work on the principle of debt.

To justify this last statement, it’s worth seeing what the Scriptures do teach about debt.

Debt, in the Bible, is largely seen as evil – it is a means by which one person enslaves another. There are strict limits placed on debt within the Old Testament Law.

You shall not charge interest to your brother– interest on money or food or anything that is lent out at interest. To a foreigner you may charge interest, but to your brother you shall not charge interest, that the LORD your God may bless you in all to which you set your hand in the land which you are entering to possess. (Deu 23:19-20 NKJ)

More interesting is this:

At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts. And this is the form of the release: Every creditor who has lent anything to his neighbor shall release it; he shall not require it of his neighbor or his brother, because it is called the LORD’S release. Of a foreigner you may require it; but you shall give up your claim to what is owed by your brother, except when there may be no poor among you; for the LORD will greatly bless you in the land which the LORD your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance–only if you carefully obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe with care all these commandments which I command you today. For the LORD your God will bless you just as He promised you; you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow; you shall reign over many nations, but they shall not reign over you. If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs. (Deu 15:1-8)

Debt is compared to Israel’s bondage in Egypt. To be indebted to someone is to be owned by them to a certain degree. And though in the right circumstances such debt is allowed, no debt can extend beyond seven years. 

In the Law of the Jubilee (50 years), even the property sales that have occurred over the past 49 years are undone. All property reverts back to its original owner. Debt is not everlasting. Needless to say, these laws were significant parts of Jewish life in ancient Israel. All commerce worked beneath the shadow of such regulation. A debt incurred in the sixth year, could not extend beyond that year.

Christ used the imagery of debt in a number of His parables. In most cases His point was towards the forgiveness of debt – letting else someone go.

Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying,`Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying,`Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying,`Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him,`You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. `Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses. (Mat 18:23-35)

When Christ stands in the synagogue in Nazareth, He is handed the scroll of the book of Isaiah from which to read:

And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed;  To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.” Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luk 4:17-21)

Christ’s proclamation that the Scripture is fulfilled is the announcement of a Jubilee Year (for it is this to which Isaiah refers). The “coming of the Kingdom” that Christ announces wherever He goes, is nothing less than a “cosmic” Jubilee. He has come to cancel debts. And we see the mark of that cancellation: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the outcasts are reconciled, and the debts of many are cancelled (cf. Zacchaeus).

Mankind indeed has a debt, but not to God! God is not a creditor. Creditors are seen as oppressors and the enemies of God’s people. Some would look at the parable cited earlier and say, “But the king was a creditor!” Indeed he was. But the king is not cited as an example of righteous man – simply of a wealthy man.

There is a rabbinical technique known as the kal va-chomer (light to the heavy). It argues: “If this light thing is true, then how much more must this heavy thing be true.” Christ uses it on a number of occasions. That is the thrust of the parable, not God as a creditor.

The debt that mankind labors under is the debt of sin, the oppression and bondage of death itself. It is not a bondage created by God, but something alien to us that drains our very life. Debt is not the creation of wealth but its diminishment.

Christ’s victory over death and hell, His Pascha, tramples down death by death and frees us from our debts. We no longer owe anything to death or sin.

St. Paul invokes the image of debt in his letter to the Romans (ch. 4). But he places debt within the realm of the flesh and of the law, such that those who are righteous “according to the Law” live in accordance with “debt,” in that they seek what is “owed” to them. But He contrasts this with the salvation we have in Christ, which is according to grace, a “free gift” rather than a debt.

It is certainly the case that sin and death operate like debt in our lives – but it is not God who drives this frightful burden. More vaguely, the creditor is most often described as “sin” itself, or “death” itself, as though these were independently existing things.

We may easily infer that this burden is magnified by the wicked one – but we are not taught that we owe the devil a debt. We only know that what we experience as debt has been abolished in Christ. God’s great Jubilee is an announcement of freedom to all flesh from the bondage of the enemy. In the Jubilee year, the debts are cancelled, not paid. Debt has no substance or being in and of itself. It’s emptiness is revealed to us in Christ’s resurrection.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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17 responses to “The Debt of Sin and the Sin of Debt”

  1. Margaret Avatar

    Very interesting, very enlightening way to ponder upon these ideas, most of which I was raised with as a protestant Christian. You have added even more to my joy in being Orthodox Christian, Fr. Stephen, thank you! I really appreciate the idea of Jesus heralding the jubilee! Glory to God for all things!

  2. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    This is a fine article, Fr. Stephen, so I’m not trying to pick with it. However, I’m puzzled by this line:

    We no longer owe anything to death or sin.

    Did we at some point owe something to death or sin? Perhaps because I haven’t had the Protestant experience, I have never identified with the language of “debt” in my spiritual life.

  3. Alban Avatar

    Father Stephen

    Christ is risen!

    Father, could you say a few words about the passage in St. John’s Gospel which talks about remitting/not remitting sin (20:23) in the light of your blog piece on sin as debt? How does the Apostolic prerogative of binding sin relate to the “Lord’s year of favour”.

    Forgive me if this question is not pertinent to the current discussion.

    Your blog, and the comments after each entry, are daily reading for me. I always come away edified and enlightened.

    In Christ

  4. davidp Avatar

    Quote: The debt that mankind labors under is the debt of sin, the oppression and bondage of death itself. It is not a bondage created by God, but something alien to us that drains our very life. Debt is not the creation of wealth but its diminishment.

    Excellent article, Fr Stephen. It is “not” created by God. It is created by our sinful actions.

  5. PJ Avatar

    Man “owes” God a kind of “debt” of love, worship, thanksgiving, adoration. “Through Christ then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Hebrews 13:15). The Merciful One created us in an act of sheer, gratuitous love. In return, we owe him our very selves, expressed in the joyful sacrifice of thanks and praise. “What shall I render to the LORD for all his benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD” (Psalm 116:12-13). This is righteousness, this is justice: the sacrifice of the heart, the oblation of the will. “Lift up your hearts / We lift them up to the Lord / Let us give thanks to the Lord our God / It is right and just.” Adam and all his progeny, to a greater or lesser extent, failed to render this spiritual service to the Creator. Christ “paid” this debt, in his immense and absolute gift of self. He was not only the “Yes” of God to man, but the “Amen” of man to God (cf. 2 Cor 1:20). Christ offered himself to the Father through the Spirit in life and death, by way of unfailing love and obedience: insofar as we partake of him through faith and charity in the sacraments, we partake of this self-giving. This is our salvation — this is the settlement of our “debt.”

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    It is certainly possible to use “debt” to speak of our love, worship, thanksgiving, adoration. But we do not offer these things as debt – we offer them as gift. For if God “freely” gives, then He gives without expecting in return. And that He does so is made clear by the fact that He is kind to the “evil and the ungrateful” as stated in St. Luke 6.

    Debt has bondage, not love. It is not part of our relationship to God. I think of my relationship with my family. Were “debt” to be any part of it, it would be an introduction of diminishment. The free gift is not at all like debt.

    We might correctly say to someone – “but you owe God everything.” We might do so. But God does not. For He “gives freely and does not reproach.” (James 1:5).

    At most we can cite passages in which man feels this obligation – but God does not become our creditor. He has not created us only to turn on us as ungrateful. Our lack of gratitude and lack of giving are part of the disease of spiritual death – because we fail to be like God who gives freely.

    We are commanded to give freely to other human beings as well. But we have become a society of debtors and creditors, a forensic community of envy and bondage. We have created hell on earth. Paradise is found in a single moment – as gift – “freely you have received, freely give.”

  7. PJ Avatar

    I readily grant that the language of debt is not ideal.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    PJ, more than not ideal – it is wrong and clearly leads to mistaken ideas about the nature of our relationship to God and especially of His relationship towards us – directly contradicting many clearly stated matters of His generosity and kindness. It is language that is commonly used by many, but it is the language of slaves and a spirituality of slavery.

    Our growth in the faith requires that we understand that this is a false “mind” (phronema).

  9. Fr. Seraphim Avatar
    Fr. Seraphim

    Thank you for this article. Concise, well-written, and it is a timely and wonderful response to the Protestant idea of penal substitutionary attonement.

  10. Andrew Tatusko Avatar

    Thank you for this article. This is perhaps the sole reason I exited the true bondage of Calvinism and came home to Orthodoxy. I then found the many other gifts of the Liturgy and life of the church. I came to view God the Father as a gangster eager to shake me down for what I owe. Jesus the Son was my bodyguard protecting me against his wrathful Father. And the Holy Spirit helped me to find Jesus. What a mess this makes of the Trinity! It goes directly against what Jesus says in Matt 3:25 by dividing God and putting God at enmity with Himself not to mention invalidating works and the hope that I can actually do anything to work out my salvation.

  11. Jay K Avatar

    “In the Jubilee year, the debts are cancelled, not paid.”

    I love this. Christ did indeed “die for our sins”, but not to “pay the price” for them, but to completely cancel them out. The charges have been dropped (to use that metaphor) instead of the punishment being fulfilled on my behalf.

  12. Todd Moore Avatar

    Christ is risen! Thank you for this post, Fr. Stephen. I realize you have to limit your comments, but I am surprised you did not deal with Matt 6:12, “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” It seems that “debts” is clearly a reference to our sins as the parallel in Luke 11:4 shows, “and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.”
    I would appreciate any additional comments you might have to this part of the Lord’s prayer dealing with our debts. Would you say God is addressed, not as the creditor, but as the One able to release us from our debts? And what about the very fact that, though the acceptable year of the Lord has already come in Christ, we still pray and sincerely petition God in this regard as something not yet completed or attained?

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    You’re the second commenter to point to the “forgive us our debts…” It’s true that no article in this format can hope to be exhaustive. Here “debts” is rather synonymous with “sins.” God is not the author of those either. He is the “forgiver.” God is the one who let’s us go, and we should likewise let others go. We could turn this around and say, “Help us not to be creditors even as you are not a creditor.”

  14. Ian Attila Avatar
    Ian Attila

    Hello Fr. Stephen,
    In light of what you have said here and in the recent posts before this, I have two questions.
    One, what do you think of Fr. Thomas Hopko’s take on the matter and language of debt, and his understanding that there is a legal aspect of the atonement. Here’s a link to a talk he gave on Ancient faith radio called “Redemption in Christ”

    Second, I have read more than once, that in your view, the wrath of God should be considered a metaphor, something that is not truly in God. If that is the case, should we view the love of God as also being metaphoric?

  15. Yannis Avatar

    I always thought “… and forgive us our debts …” was about our debts to others, not to God. And by debts to others, I have always understood the good things we failed to do for others, and the bad things we did do that gave cause for others to have something against us.

    I suppose it can also be looked at in parallel with the parable of the cancellation of the debts, which would make our debt one to God, but I do not like it; I think that parables should be interpreted in the light of the straight teaching, rather than the other way round.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think that Fr. Thomas and I would be in general agreement were we to have a conversation on the topic. I think he strives to balance the conversation some what. I have striven to correct an error and therefore state the case rather strongly on one side. But I owe much, if not a majority, of my understanding of the Orthodox faith to Fr. Thomas and hold him in the highest regard.

    But from this talk here are some quotes:

    “Jesus on the Cross is not sufficiently punished so that God’s wrath could be satisfied, His Law could be completed and therefore we could be forgiven the sins we have committed because Jesus has paid the punishment for all the sins we have committed.” [Fr. Thomas talks like St. Basil writes…]

    “I would submit that the Holy Scripture teaching doesn’t have to do with punishment…. God doesn’t send His Son to be sufficiently punished so that His wrath could be satisfied…. that God needs that pain [of Jesus’ suffering] for His Law to be fulfilled…that’s a terrible teaching, actually.”

    Fr. Thomas and I are in full agreement. I think what he says is that there are words like “wrath” and “debt” and “ransom” and “Law” and “sacrifice” that cannot be ignored. I agree. But I think we also agree that those words are not part of a substitutionary punishment theory of the atonement – “that’s a terrible teaching…”

    Second…Should love be considered a metaphor. Absolutely. The love of God is utterly beyond our own love. It is transcendent, but we have no other word for it. That something is a metaphor should also be taken as a “call” a summons to enter more higher and deeper into the knowledge and love of God. To know “the heights and depths and breadth… of the love of God which is ours in Christ Jesus.”

  17. Ian Attila Avatar
    Ian Attila

    Fr. Stephen,
    I understand that you and Fr. Thomas are against PSA. That is very clear. But there does seem to be a difference in terms of what you affirm.

    Fr. Thomas says, “And then you have Jesus as the great High Priest who offers the perfect sacrifice in his own body on the tree of the cross giving himself into the hands of God on the cross, and thereby paying the debt that we owe in order to be delivered from the curse of the law, in other words to over come our guilt….And in some sense there is a kind of legalistic dimension to this understanding. –Redemption in Christ (13:25-13:55).

    Now, as I have read your writing over time, it seems to me that you do not think there are any legal dimensions to the atonement and salvation.

    Cannot there be legal realities to redemption and salvation that come with the ontological ones? Cannot ontological realities also have legalistic dimensions that show forth the love of God?

    Getting to the main issue: Would you agree with Fr. Thomas that “in some sense there is a kind of legalistic dimension to” redemption?

    Thank you for your time Father Stephen.

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