No More Debt

debtdrownIt is a situation that has become all too familiar: overwhelming debt that cannot be repaid. It is an image that the Scriptures know full well. But it is a situation that is easily seen from two sides – and only one of them belongs to God. The two sides are simple: the one who owes the debt and the one to whom the debt must be paid. And the Scriptures have a clear bias in this matter – God intervenes on behalf of the debtor.

The Old Testament Law instituted the system of the Sabbath. One day in seven was set aside as belonging to God. This is well-known. But the same Law also declared every seventh year to be a Sabbath year.

Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its produce, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the beasts of the field may eat. In like manner you shall do with your vineyard and your olive grove. (Exo 23:10-11)

Beyond that, there was a cycle of seven Sabbath years (49 years total) which were to be followed by the fiftieth – the Jubilee.

And you shall count seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years; and the time of the seven sabbaths of years shall be to you forty-nine years. Then you shall cause the trumpet of the Jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall make the trumpet to sound throughout all your land. And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you; and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family. That fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee to you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of its own accord, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine. For it is the Jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat its produce from the field. In this Year of Jubilee, each of you shall return to his possession. (Lev 25:8-13)

The Jubilee year was “liberty”: it represented the cancellation of debts. Ideally, the economy of ancient Israel was structured to preclude the accumulation of unpayable debt. The Jubilee represented a Biblical notion of justice – the return of things to their proper state – something that does not include debt.

Debt, particularly an accumulating debt, was considered an oppression. The people of Israel were forbidden to charge interest of one another (usury). Today, our laws describe usury as “unusually high interest.” And though Israel was permitted to charge interest of gentiles, they were specifically enjoined, in the very passage that describes the Sabbath year, from oppressing the “stranger in the land.”

…you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exo 23:9)

My point in this article is not economic – but theological. It has to do with the atonement. It has become popular (as I’ve written many times) to see Christ’s death on the Cross as a punishment – Christ suffers on the Cross in our place in order to satisfy the just demands of the Father. This is frequently described as well in terms of debt. Our sins are seen as creating a debt that must be paid. Indeed, they are seen as an “infinite” debt that could be paid by no human being – other than a perfect human being. Therefore God becomes a human being and pays our debt through His death on the Cross.

But this account badly misunderstands the place of debt in the Scriptures. Debt is a bad thing and an egregious enemy of the people of God. The good God who loves mankind gave extraordinary instructions to protect His people from the bondage of debt. To make of us debtors to God and to make of God the Keeper of Debts is a serious distortion of fundamental Biblical images.

Rather, Christ is the Destroyer of debts – specifically the debt of sin, death, disease and corruption (phthora), and the like. To whom is such a debt owed? Not to God, according to the Fathers. Indeed, the Scriptures and the Fathers are quite vague on the debt actually being owed to anyone. No doubt, the devil would like to say the debt is owed to him, but St. Gregory the Theologian says that such a thought is abhorrent. We experience all of these things as a debt that must be paid. Be we are nowhere told that God holds a debt over us. 

Instead, we hear a cosmic Jubilee proclaimed by Christ in His hometown:

So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. 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 good news 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 4:16-21)

The “Year of the Lord” undergirds the whole of Christ’s earthly ministry. The good news to the poor is the cancellation of their soul-crushing debts. The brokenhearted are healed and those held captive by all the false debt of the wicked one gain their liberty. Everywhere Christ goes these things take place – not as gimmicks to prove He is Divine – but because these are the very things that are the hallmarks of the Kingdom of God. Where the Kingdom of God is, there can be no debt. It is the Lord’s Jubilee, His Acceptable Year.

It is rather tragic that some have made God the keeper of debts, the One-Who-Must-Be-Paid. Were our debt to God, it would have been cancelled from the beginning. It is equally tragic that we have magnified debt in our culture, making the owners of debt into heroes: frugal, savvy, wise-investors. Those who are burdened by debt are thought of as lazy and foolish with only themselves to blame – and all of this as we live in a world whose debts are simply astronomical and ever increasing. Every hiccup in the economy is felt most by the poorest debtors – while the owners of debt are declared: “Too big to fail.”

It is worth noting that Christ has much to say on the topic of money, and He only speaks well of generosity and sharing, never of amassing fortunes (most of which represent someone else’s debt). Debt is something to be forgiven, though in the hands of the wicked it is used for power.

A recent article in The Guardian drew attention to this Orthodox view of debt and contrasted it with the Western view of God as the One who must be paid. It aptly applied it to the current relationship between Greece and Germany. It’s a rare thing to find such theology in the popular press.

Food for thought… 

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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79 responses to “No More Debt”

  1. Byron Avatar

    Blessings, Father! Thank you!

  2. Anglican Peggy Avatar
    Anglican Peggy

    Father, could you provide the link to the Guardian article, please?

  3. Jeff Avatar

    athanasius says ‘ For it was not the Word Himself Who needed an opening of the gates, He being Lord of all, nor was any of His works closed to their Maker. No, it was we who needed it, we whom He Himself upbore in His own body—that body which He first offered to death on behalf of all, and then made through it a path to heaven. For it was not the Word Himself Who needed an opening of the gates, He being Lord of all, nor was any of His works closed to their Maker. No, it was we who needed it, we whom He Himself upbore in His own body—that body which He first offered to death on behalf of all, and then made through it a path to heaven.

    Serious question…., was it the first time in creation at incarnation that the created / uncreated was bridged? so that there was no ontological weaknesses in mans naturalness

    As in the beginning , one could say man was still corruptable ?, the ontological wound itself being sewn into creation until the hypostatic Union of natures ?

    ‘ escaping from the natural law’ , Athanasius seems to be saying what zizoulas means by mans nature left to itself

  4. Jeff Avatar

    Sorry, think I see it ‘If they guarded the grace and retained the loveliness of their original innocence, then the life of paradise should be theirs, without sorrow, pain or care, and after it the assurance of immortality in heaven. But if they went astray and became vile, throwing away their birthright of beauty, then they would come under the natural law of death and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and in corruption. This is what Holy Scripture tells us, proclaiming the command of God, “Of every tree that is in the garden thou shalt surely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat, but in the day that ye do eat, ye shall surely die.”[7] “Ye shall surely die”—not just die only, but remain in the state of death and of corruption.

  5. Dante Aligheri Avatar
    Dante Aligheri

    What if the debt is owed to the Natural Law in an abstract sense, an Athanasian sense? It seems to me that the language of debt is secondary to, or a product of, the idea of slavery – that is, one has to pay a ransom to free someone who was taken as war captive or slave. In a debt, one is beholden to something else just as we are beholden to death and sin. When the Psalmist speaks of paying a ransom to death, he does not literally mean something is owed to death except insofar as the flesh is taken captive to it, and that under the natural law, this is the truth of the ways the world is constituted, as we experience it. If then we were slaves or, even more accurately, captives in a spiritual war to death, the flesh, and the devil, then it would seem that we pay it towards them. But that is repugnant because they only have power provisionally under the constitution of the world.

    Not that this really counts as support, but C.S. Lewis, I think, was getting at something like this in his (albeit fictional) “Chronicles of Narnia” when he wrote of the “deep Magic” by which creation was written and because of which Edmund is literally a captive to the White Witch who must be ransomed and whose debt be “paid.” The Witch couldn’t be said hold any power against Aslan except so far as the “deep Magic” permitted. Yet Aslan is not directly responsible for holding the “deep Magic” against Edmund as a matter of justice; rather, it simply is how the world is constituted that sin leads to death and un-being (I’m thinking of Lewis’ “un-man” here in Perelandra), flesh to corruption, evil to the absence of holiness and the privation of the good, etc.

  6. Jeff Avatar

    After we had thus freely sold ourselves to the deceiver, He who of His goodness sought to restore us to liberty could not, because He was just too, for this end have recourse to measures of arbitrary violence. It was necessary therefore that a ransom should be paid, which should exceed in value that which was to be ransomed; and hence it was necessary that the Son of God should surrender Himself to the power of death. God’s justice then impelled Him to choose a method of exchange, as His wisdom was seen in executing it.–Gregory of Nyssa

    Someone’s post on FB,

  7. RVW Avatar


    Have you gotten a chance to read Douglas Campbell’s book “The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Paul”? He hits many of the themes you touch on — it might be a helpful resource.


  8. Nathaniel McCallum Avatar
    Nathaniel McCallum

    The Greek tradition generally speaks of a debt to nature. The problem is that the debt to nature is the same thing as the debt to God since God has created us as we are and with a particular end. A failure to obtain that end is simultaneously a debt to nature and a debt to God.

    I understand the theological impulse to portray God as something other than a miser; but the problem is that scripture itself does this. Most notably, the parable of the talents.

    In this parable, the servant who buries the talent in the ground and returns it has acquired a debt to the master (God). This debt is not because he took something which belonged to God, but because he failed to earn profit on what the master had given him (nature). What is owed to the master on his return is not the principal (nature) but the principal (nature) plus the reasonable profit (theosis). Thus the debt in this case takes seriously the requirement for divine/human synergy.

    So, for the servant that fails to produce this reasonable profit, does God become the “destroyer of debts”? “Cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In short: no.

    What you have not seriously considered is that a God who is merely the destroyer of debts is entirely incompatible with human freedom. In this schema where there is only divine bankruptcy discharge, monergism rains supreme. If God can cancel any debt at any time, then either He cancels all debts and human cooperation is inconsequential or He is capricious and a far greater monster than a miser: He is a sadist.

    Rather, there is a debt owed to God by virtue of our nature. It must be paid. However, God is not a miser precisely because even though it must be paid, He has paid it on our behalf. Only those who refuse to receive this aid paint God as a miser.

    God does more than cancel debts: He pays them Himself. As we heard in the Prophesy of Genesis on Holy Saturday: God Himself will provide the lamb. And this is the only way to retain divine/human synergy.

  9. Eric Avatar

    The author of the Guardian article is a well known English Anglican priest. Formerly at St Paul’s Cathedral London, Giles writes weekly columns for the paper, in his capacity as a parish priest. A lovely blog Father Stephen – the Jubilee message is outside our paltry economics. Also an interesting Guardian article

  10. mourad Avatar

    Father, Exristos Anesty Alithos Anesty
    In Coptic : Be Exristos aftonf, Khen o’ methmee aftonf.

    just a little question, why foot for thoughts and truth for spirit?
    food of thoughts a growing up title now in UK for another new move in Protestantism. While nice title anyway, it is just a new group!

  11. Dino Avatar

    Nathaniel McCallum,

    That God does everything in His power and we still have the freedom to say no is testament to the theology and anthropology (of love and freedom) that God created us as “his gods” (!) whether we use this infinite value rightly or wrongly is up to us.
    I would venture that the pedagogical parables you state are not suitable to extracting correct theological statements concerning God’s nature as your comment above seemed to have done.
    That we, ourselves sever our union with the source of life through sin, or that we increase this union through our movement towards theosis surmounts to our human cooperation/synergy (or not).

  12. Dino Avatar

    correction: amounts to our human cooperation/synergy (or not).

  13. Mike H Avatar
    Mike H


    What you have not seriously considered is that a God who is merely the destroyer of debts is entirely incompatible with human freedom.

    Wondering if you could shake that out a little more. How does this imply monergism?

    What I find so striking about the penal substitution model is how forgiveness (the legal kind) is actually not allowed. It is perceived as “unjust” to freely forgive – a FAR different view of “justice” than is portrayed in this post. God may command people to forgive, but God doesn’t do it himself. There must be “payment” – but in the case of payment the debt no longer exists. It isn’t “forgiven” at all.

    Forgive me, but the idea that the cancellation of debts is monstrous and unjust doesn’t make any sense to me.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Anglican Peggy,
    It’s in the article. Click on The Guardian

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Forgive me, but such “nuggets” can always be found. The Fathers leave no metaphor unemployed. What we do not find in the Eastern Fathers, however, is the employment of such a metaphor in a dominant position. When we read the liturgical texts, for example, the overall impact is quite as I have stated.

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Some, I think, would deny the mercy simply because of our human tendency to take advantage of the mercy and pile up more debt. We are offended when other take advantage that way. We may even recognize our own tendency to be as the one who was forgiven much but denied the say mercy to someone who owed him much less.

    Note the teaching of the parable is that the lack of forgiveness is the problem–not the debt.

    We are each and everyone forgiven on a daily basis far more than would seem prudent or just–otherwise we would likely just vanish in a puff of smoke.

    BTW, since I know I am capable of practically any bad act imaginable, I am quite surprised and grateful when I am not called out for my malefactions.

    Christ is Risen and death has been spoiled!

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have deleted my previous reply to Nathaniel. I sent the following email to him:

    I apologize for my comment. You’re right. I was way over the top. I’m deleting my comment and that part of the thread. I’m tired, following the weekend, and clearly not at my best.

    Christ is risen. Let’s try this again.

    So, trying this again…
    The parable certainly admits of the interpretation you’ve given. I don’t mean to suggest that God is “merely the destroyer of debts.” Though I think the force of the parable is first, focusing on the stewardship of what has been given, and not, properly a parable whose intent is to reveal the character of God. As parables go, this would be a far truer point to observe in the parable of the Prodigal Son. There, the Father simply sweeps the action aside, almost seeming to ignore the proffered repentance. No doubt, the repentance matters, but what the Father does is ridiculously beyond any “reward.” It reveals the Father.

    As for the Master who does terrible things to bad stewards – I think we should handle it quite carefully – certainly we do not raise it up to the level of a dominant image.

    Now. I do not think we pay God (nor do we pay His justice). I am not at all aware of a Greek tradition of a “debt to nature.” Perhaps you can share some information on the source of your assertion. And perhaps a Greek (like Dino) could comment. I greatly distrust such broad assertions if they are found in Protestant Bible commentaries. They are strangers to Orthodoxy, and therefore often clueless about anything Greek.

    The problem with “payment” is that it ignores the repeated image of the “cancellation” (it’s rife in liturgical tradition). Pascha is not a reckoning of accounts, it is the smasher of accounts. This is very much an image associated with Jubilee – particularly from the point of view of the poor. The “handwriting” that was against us – is nailed to the Cross. It is abolished – not just paid.

    The debts-payment imagery, I think, is flawed and has been misused. I’m no economist, but I hear echoes of it particularly in the widespread oppression of our economic system. We are told that debts must be paid, and we reward bankers and their like with obscene salaries. And then we are told that the poor may not be paid a living wage because of the “market.” I do not want to start a discussion of current economic theory. But it seems to me that all arguments protect those who own the debt.

    I, for example, would pretty much abolish all student loan debt in America. I think it has been a very sad mistake and will haunt the nation for many years to come. All such debt is disastrous. I am loathe to mine the Scriptures for images to promote the idea that God is the debt-master.

    I also think that you press things too far when you suggest that the cancellation of debt makes salvation monergistic. There is a cooperation that remains. In my pastoral experience, however, our cooperation is minuscule and quite minimal. Those who think otherwise, it seems to me, have too high a regard for their efforts. I must number myself among the failures in this world. We are hoping for a cancellation of debt and that Christ will kick down the gates of Hades and let our sorry souls follow Him to paradise.

    Sorry about the earlier conversation. Truly. Christ is risen!

  18. Jeff Avatar

    For sure, …, I wonder about the ontological question?, a little overboard on ontologese , I’m sure, but was the prelapse state ontologically only in danger if the given mortality was activated , already inherent in creatureness ?,

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I cannot speculate on a pre-lapsarian state. We know nothing about it. Some Fathers go there. I think it almost always leads to trouble.

  20. Nathaniel McCallum Avatar
    Nathaniel McCallum

    My point is simply this:

    1. The debt language is used by the scripture, fathers and the liturgical tradition. Yes, not the *only* metaphor. And it shouldn’t be. But it is one. Therefore, it cannot be inherently defective. It can, however, be used improperly. I’m not defending improper uses, but proper uses.

    2. If any cooperation with God is required, then this cooperation can be rightly phrased as a debt which must be paid. One of the problems of Calvinism, for instance, is that “Jesus paid it all” and nothing remains for me to do. But when rightly deploying debt language, to insist that no debt need to be paid corresponds to apokatastasis.

    The right language both scripturally and traditionally is that a debt is owed and Christ has paid it. We just choose whether to accept this and to be slaves of Christ or to reject it and be slaves of sin. This is the Pauline language. God is both “just and justifier.” God destroys debts by paying them himself.

    I would very much like to explain what I mean in much greater detail, but while typing this I received word that my grandfather is likely near death. Please pray for him and me.

  21. Dino Avatar

    My thoughts are that our knowledge of God is proportional to our knowledge of the Cross. The vaster our experience of darkness, the greater our experience of Light. The deeper the roots of our tree, the higher it soars. This firmly ontological knowledge reveals to us a God who created little gods with freedom to say yes as well as no to Him, a God whose respect of our freedom to self-determine in this way towards Him or away from Him is revelatory of True love. The Cross is therefore present from the beginning of time (as we see in the Father of the Prodigal accepting to be considered as dead -to be inherited by his son even before his death). It is this gift of freedom to self-determine even against Him that crucifies Him by His creature. He desires this from the very beginning (against our utilitarian reasoning -because we are not love), He is love. This is the last thing to know about Him in a sense however.
    That the end result of this movement away from God is dire for the creature (which needs its creator more than anything) is part of having “contingent being” rather than being God ourselves. This kind of brings us back to the first thing to know about God, being that I am not Him.
    Now concerning this debt to nature idea:
    Our ‘calling’ towards Him, to which we can respond positively or negatively, automatically implies that there is a response according to nature – as it should be (or owed to be “ὀφείλει”)- and one that doesn’t. I know of no other instance than the use of this word (owed to be “ὀφείλει”) that makes the Greek tradition lean towards any notion of a ‘debt to nature’. Maximus speaks of moving according to our logoi using these words sometimes but the notion of “debt” in English (to something) is a different kettle of fish altogether…

  22. Dino Avatar

    As we read in the Akathist to the Theotokos:

    “Wishing to grant pardon for ancient debts, he who cancels the debts of all people came himself and dwelt among those who were estranged from his divine grace; and tearing apart the record of sin, he hears from everyone: Alleluia.”

    It might look like there is a ‘debt to something’ but the words ὀφλημάτων (debts), χρεωλύτης (‘he who cancels the debts ‘debts ) and χειρόγραφον ( ‘record’), are all to be understood simply as what happens when one “moves away” (ἀποδημεί) like the prodigal at first rather than “moving towards” his Father. One does not function in accordance (as he “owes” to) with his nature, that’s all…

  23. Alison Cloonan Avatar
    Alison Cloonan

    I always thought of it as just a consequence of breaking God’s Law. We touched the stove after our mom told us not to, the hand is burned, and the pain and suffering remains until the Great Physician anoints us with the healing balm, who is Christ Jesus.
    Jeremiah 8:22
    “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?”
    It’s all about mercy from suffering the consequences of our foolishness.
    Sometimes we think too much.

  24. Byron Avatar

    Prayers for your grandfather, Nathaniel McCallum. Blessings to him and your family and friends!

  25. Mike H Avatar
    Mike H

    The right language both scripturally and traditionally is that a debt is owed and Christ has paid it.

    This hits on the impasse. Paid to who? What is the form of this “payment”?

    In the legal language being employed “debts” are either cancelled/forgiven or they are “paid” for. Not both.

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Prayers for your grandfather, Nathaniel.

    I well understand the danger of apokatastasis. And I think that the Fathers (especially in Paschal homilies) often sound plainly, and flatly, apokatastatic. I think the faith, rightly preached, will often sound like that. I indeed think it is right and fair to explain Pascha as Christ’s universal, “Olly, Olly, Olly Oxen Free!” to use the child’s expression. I think the debts have been cancelled, rather than merely paid. He abolished the handwriting that was against us (this is how the English renders χειρόγραφον that Dino mentioned. It’s also in St. Paul. But, as we sing in the Akathist, the debt has been cancelled χρεωλύτης (literally “the destroy of necessities or what is owed”). The transactional character of salvation has been greatly popularized. I don’t deny that references within the Scriptures can be read that way, and that it has been greatly popularized in Western thought and conversation. But, it simply is not how the Church sings its Pascha. And, in Orthodoxy, how we pray and have prayed for lo these many centuries, is the most important controlling image for reading all things.

    I think that many of these images of debt cancellation are indeed, shamelessly apokatastatic. But, as Met. Anthony was quoted, we cannot go that far. But it must be noted that the language of the Church sings that far and some of the Fathers preach and wrote that far (without disapproval). I do not, and have not here, taught that far. But if you hear echoes of an apokatastasis, then you’re probably passing your hearing test. It is the sound of the Church’s triumphal Pascha, in all of its primitive fullness.

    May St. Isaac bear me witness!

  27. Dino Avatar

    Mike H,
    the debt is not owed ‘to someone’, it is simply a case of the creatures “owing to move towards their Life source and Creator” -not away from Him. We did not do what we “ought to have done” and therefore suffered the consequences of moving away from Life; Christ, took creatureliness, like us -including the consequences- and did what we ought to have done, inaugurating the movement towards God and grabbing Adam and Eve from their wrists along the way. He takes us out of our lifelessness – from “death unto life, and from earth unto heaven, as we sing the triumphal hymn: Glory to thy holy resurrection oh Lord!”

  28. neal Avatar

    Actually, not “oxen free”. Hillbillies know this is “outs in free.”
    As in prodigals, and outliers, and resets. And only the one guarding the prize does that. Of course, that is just a game.

  29. Marjaana Avatar

    I have nothing to add to the theological part of the conversation but emotionally it feels more like Christ at some point “wipes the slate clean”. And at least for me, more than once…

  30. Dino Avatar

    I really love the succinctness of the “outs in free” image that you brought to our attention Father! It’s a pedagogical treasure.
    In Greek it’s even stronger as we say “Freedom to all” with a nice twist to it (“Φτου, ξελευτερία για όλους!”)

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Google it or Wikipedia it. I grew up saying, “In come free.” But there’s a wide variation in usage and an amazing array of explanations as to why it is said as it is.

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mike H,
    I do not believe there is a debt owed to God on Biblical grounds. “Cancelled” is indeed appropriate language – but “abolish the debt” is the literal rendering of “chreolytes,” a title given to God in the Akathist Hymn of St. Romanos quoted earlier.

    And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (Col 2:13-14)

    The word translated “handwriting” (cheirographon) literally means “handwriting,” but it means a “list of debts.” They are nailed to the Cross and abolished, not paid for.

  33. Karen Avatar

    Death to debts! If you will, this is the message of Christ’s Pascha.

  34. Byron Avatar

    Father (and all), would it be correct to see the cancellation of debt in the same light as all people being resurrected by God and brought into his presence in the end (however one wishes to define that)? Instead of equating God’s abolishing humanity’s debt as universal salvation, could it rather equate to the universal resurrection into His presence? Just wondering aloud here.

  35. Mike H Avatar
    Mike H


    “the debt is not owed ‘to someone’, it is simply a case of the creatures “owing to move towards their Life source and Creator” -not away from Him”

    Yes, I think that the nature of the “debt” what it means to “pay” it and the nature of the “payment” are hugely important. The paradigm goes a long way in defining the terms.

  36. Fr. Marty Watt Avatar

    When thinking of apokatastisis, I’m frequently reminded that many people – very many people – will not accept payment of a debt on their behalf. So I think, perhaps, that apokatastisis is not an “all or nothing” proposition (meaning all are saved or apokatastisis is not true). If all are endowed with the free gift of salvation – free for the taking – it seems to me that is apokatastisis, but perhaps not in the purest “technical” sense. I think it is possible to reconcile apokatastisis with the idea that not all will be saved – but all *can* be saved.

    The debt is cancelled – but some (even a majority) are so prideful and self-sufficient that they cannot accept that. The debt must be repaid from within their own self-effort.

  37. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    And what part does the blessing of the priest following confession: “Arise and having no further care for the sins which you have confessed, go forth…” have in all of this?

    There is much in the attitude of the penitent’s will in the sacrament–or so it seems to me even though the process covers unknown or forgotten sins as well. Quite comprehensive.

  38. Mike H Avatar
    Mike H

    “The Jubilee represented a Biblical notion of justice – the return of things to their proper state – something that does not include debt.

    This was the most important line in the post to me- the idea that divine “justice” is returning things to their proper state (is restorative).

    So much seems to depend on how “justice” is defined.

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Certainly it’s possible. It should be born in mind that the Scriptures are actually kind of fuzzy on the End Stuff (the Last Things). Death, the Judgment, etc. If we go back to say, the first 4 to 5 centuries, you get a lot of variety, everything from universalism to other extremes.

    Various things come along and grow in popularity. At the Reformation there is this huge reaction against some of the silly things that had proliferated in the Catholic West. And from that time forward, both Catholic and Protestant begin to sharpen their swords and increasing refine the entire picture of the Last Things. It becomes so certain for some that no possible fuzziness remains.

    Orthodoxy is not uneffected by this. However, the Orthodox Church, unlike Protestants and most of Catholic life, lives with a much larger body of older material in its regular worship life. It never reformed. Because of that, the “fuzziness” remains, or certain texts that come from fuzzy times remain.

    I personally think that the tidiness of Protestant and Catholic world-views on what happens after death and at the end of all things goes way beyond what has been revealed and has an overweening desire to systematize, rationalize and explain.

    And though Christ has some things to say that touch on the topic, He sure must not have cared too much about it to have not said more or cleared up a few things.

    For example, there were very reputable millennialists, who expected a very material 1000 year reign (St. Irenaeus for one), and others who would have laughed at such. And these things cannot be reconciled with each other honestly.

    It is why I tend towards questions of “dominant” metaphor and the like – trusting the liturgical life of 2000 years to have at least gotten the general sound of things correct. My hope is in Christ, not in knowing details of His plan for me. When I die, I will commend my spirit into His hands, and then be extremely curious.

  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mike H,
    I generally see all people as victims. Even most of the really bad ones. No one invents themselves, either their virtue or their vice. The more I actually get to know someone, the more their lives make sense, even in its more stupid moments.

    But sometimes, even the slightest adjustment, say a single painful memory taken away, would completely change everything in their lives. And memory is a weird thing, nothing at all as we imagine it. What precisely is the soul, and what is its relationship to the brain and its neurological pathways (that we call “habits”)? And I could go on.

    What I know for sure is that Christ loves all of us and died in order to save us. Frankly, the more heavily the system (if you will) is weighted towards our proven idiocy and incompetence, the likelier we are to all go to hell. I see people in hell all the time, everywhere. Most people, in fact.

    But I think that things are not overly weighted in our direction (favoring our incompetence with some theological nicety called “synergy”). Of course we are involved in our salvation. It couldn’t be otherwise (else it wouldn’t be “our” salvation). But who will save me from my own incompetence?

    Christ “became” sin for us. Christ became my incompetence that I might be saved (to paraphrase it). I can’t manage my money. Most of us can’t. We’re all in debt to such a degree that it boggles the mind. And that is just money. My spiritual life certainly doesn’t look any better than my money life.

    But, oddly, we are told that it is the rich who are most likely not to be saved. The rest of us incompetent bunglers are in much better shape.

    I volunteer regularly in an alcohol and drug treatment center. It is a collection of the world’s “losers.” But I find them far more “saveable” than the many wealthy that I have served through the years. Way more!

    Justice is not an abstract in the Scriptures. It pretty much means things being properly balanced. Things were pretty evenly distributed in Israel to begin with and every 50 years they were supposed to be redistributed, without regard for competence or talent.

    In truth, over 50 years, the smarter and the more wily will get richer. And their smart and wily children will be richer still. Before long you have the 1% (which is really not 1% – but .01%). And they’ll build their enclaves and schools and institutionalize their wealth.

    But the OT destroyed those institutions every 50 years (it was unbearable and often ignored). But a lot of theology reads like it was written for the top 2 or 3 per cent. My bets are with the drunkards and harlots and any reading of Scripture that gives them an edge.

  41. Vuk Uskoković Avatar
    Vuk Uskoković

    Dear all,

    I dare say that debt is a very real problem at least in the sense that to so many people the feeling of indebtedness is the fundamental manner in which they conceive and experience God. We may write it off as simple delusion (prelest) or ascribe to it real existence but it is painfully obvious that it holds in thrall the hearts and minds of so many people. It is perhaps natural that we should feel indebted to those we love, but if our reaction to an unequivocal, universal, triumphant, absolute writing-off of all debts is to insist that the debt had been of this or of that kind to begin with then it is perhaps a sign of our inability to receive the pardon. Anyone struggling with some ruling passion will tell you how disabling even the faintest attachment to it can be in accepting the absolution from it; it seems to me that stubbornly held theological and other notions can be as disabling and enslaving as any passion, if not more, for they can make us into our own oppressors and usurers of our talents. However we may conceive of this supposed debt to God or Nature or whatnot, it is most certainly unorthodox to value the conception more than the writing-off of both the conception itself and that which it signifies, if it signifies anything at all.

    Pax Christi!

    Vuk Uskoković,
    Bar, Montenegro.

  42. Byron Avatar

    Nicely said, Vuk. I wonder if we have a tendency to fashion our theology in a self-destructive manner? Is a person attracted to their debt? Does a “martyr complex” appear in some. I think so; it has, at times, appeared in my life in this manner. Sometimes it is more comfortable to wallow in our debt/sin than accept that we cannot use it as an excuse (if only to ourselves) anymore….

    And many thanks, Father!

    My earlier post could have been said simpler; I mainly wanted to consider if we were taking the abolition of debts too far in equating it with salvation as opposed to it being more in line with bringing us back into an opportunity for communion with God–one that we either accept or reject in our lives as we seek or ignore Theosis. Hence, my focus on resurrection, which I understand will happen to all as God wills.

  43. Aaron I Avatar

    My 2 cents…for the little they’re worth. I’ve often conceived of the “debt” to be the gap between what we were created to be and what we have become. The “debt” is not to anyone…and is what Dino described…a debt to our ontology. This is why the fathers and monastics have always maintained that sin is quite “opposed to nature” and that it becomes a loss of “reason.”

    I think this conceptuality is suppoted in terms of the word for sin being ἁμαρτία -the missing of a mark (a goal – a target) and Paul’s statement that “all have fallen short of the glory of God”.

    As a personal mental image I simply see the “debt” as the the arrow (me) “falling short” of the target (God’s image and likeness -I.e. God’s glory)

    I imagine myself at the state fair…my arrow falls short every time. but God gives us (me) the victory (pays the price / bridges the gap / becomes sin). If God becomes the sin, He becomes “the missing of the mark”. Since He has no sin this become quite the dichotomy. And in this dichotomy He is destroying the dichotomy. He erases the gap -filling the gap and reunifying the target with the arrow- or more properly -He becomes the re-Union of man and God in the incarnate God-man. The debt (gap) cancelled is not paid to anyone…it is the mending of an unnatural division. Indeed it seems to me that the word ἐξαγοράζω is too often simply translated as pay or redeem when there is quite enough linguistic evidence for an amateur like me to accept “to rescue from loss (improve opportunity) ” as the most appropriate understanding. I have been rescued from the loss (debt) caused between the gap between the target (God) and myself. I unite myself to the TRUE arrow and there is and can never now be a gap. His arrow always flys true and can never miss the mark. There can be no debt (loss/gap) if we are IN Him.

  44. Laurie Avatar

    I can’ t get into this at all and am probably revealing my stupidity, but all this talk seems to take away from the largesse and love of Christ and the Holy Trinity that are revealed in Pascha.

    I know figuring all this out has its place (I think), but right now I just want to rejoice that I, with all my sins, fears and weaknesses, screw – ups and messes, am as loved as Our Lord’s Pascha shows I am….

    I don’t much care exactly how it works, except I will say it seems pretty clear all is gift in one way or another, and it’s lucky for me that’s so…lucky for all of us!

    Christ is risen!

  45. Laurie Avatar

    Aaron I,

    Your explanation makes a lot of sense. Thinking of it as a gap seems truer to Orthodoxy, as much or as little as I know it, as a fairly recent convert.

    Thank you.

  46. Dino Avatar

    Saint Porphyrios’ -as well many others’ – favourite quote from the Paschal Canon, “death’s demise we celebrate, Hades’ disestablishment, the inauguration of another, undying life. And exultantly we praise Him Who is its Cause”, succinctly describes our joy as well as our ‘debt’ in one.
    We have borrowed being, on borrowed time (and yet God freely bestows more than we could ever conceive on us), the more we remember this the more God’s gift to us is reinforced in us.

  47. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    An aspect of the debt question is graciousness. God is rightly understood as gracious, generous, giving, etc. One who holds a debt that must be paid is not understood to be gracious but demanding. I understand the point that He is so gracious that He pays the debt for us – but somehow – that seems to privilege the debt and makes it the one constant in the whole. It simply feels wrong. The debt becomes an absolute. It seems to me to be saying the same thing as those who proclaim that “God cannot deny His justice” – and therefore must condemn us to Hell unless we meet the proper requirements of salvation. The “cannot deny” is problematic in the extreme – even to the point of heresy.

    Consider the inner logic of this passage:

    Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, (Rom 4:4-5)

    Debt is about work (in the worst sense) and not grace (generosity, kindness, etc.). We are indeed saved by grace – something that gratuitously smashes debt. Work is abolished. But some will cry, “But what of synergy?” Yes, of course. But our cooperation with God is itself a gracious act, a eucharistic act, a life of thanksgiving, not a life of earning and paying, etc. Our energy (doing) is like God’s energy. Both are gratuitous, eucharistic, generous, freely offered and not demanded, etc. We do not respond to grace with “works” but with a “grace” of our own. All is grace.

  48. Fr Matthew Brown Avatar
    Fr Matthew Brown


    Correlating Apokatastasis with monegerism I believe is a mistake. Apokatastasis, at least in the writings of Nyssa, Isaac of Syria, and Origen, does not seem to imply that everyone gets into heaven without any effort on their own, or without their consent. It is more of a statement of ‘what will happen’ rather than ‘what must happen’. (Though it might be said to be what must happen for God to remain all-good and all-powerful. However , it does not imply a necessity that compromises our free-will and co-participation. And if we must call it a necessity it so only on God’s side, to the extent we can even speak of necessity in God. Such a necessity though would be linguistic or conceptual rather than ontic. I digress.) For example Nyssa in his “On the Soul and Resurrection” teaches that everything God does is therapeutic; no punishment is without the aim of reformation, including Gehenna. It is just the most extreme or ‘last ditch effort’ to turn man’s heart towards God. I felt that I had to correct this as many people misunderstand what the Fathers meant by the term. As a final note, the premier scholar of late antique Christianity Peter Brown, I believe in his book “The World of Late Antiquity”, argues that apokatastasis was the dominant theological position of the church in this period.

    Fr Matthew Brown

  49. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Matthew,
    That has been my observation as well viz. the early Church. It doesn’t make it the Church’s official teaching – but it is a witness to be considered deeply.

  50. (another) Elizabeth Avatar
    (another) Elizabeth

    “My hope is in Christ, not in knowing details of His plan for me. When I die, I will commend my spirit into His hands, and then be extremely curious.”

    What a beautiful expression of the childlike faith and humility our Lord commended to his disciples. Thank you for that beautiful and peaceful image.

  51. Katerina Bennett Avatar

    A Yorkshire saying “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”
    I found the lack of peace when I borrowed from a bank some years ago, to be so spiritually and emotionally crippling, that I’ve given up, and save for what I think I need. Or wait until circumstances change and, somehow, in God’s timing, bring money.
    My husband is the caretaker of our life together, so I leave finances to him and The Lord.
    Work for the necessities of life, and grow what we can = peace.

  52. […] Freeman, “No more debt” at Glory to God for All Things = Father Stephen has posted several(? or more) times on the nature of “debt” in […]

  53. Karen Avatar

    Fr. Matthew writes: ” . . . Peter Brown, I believe in his book “The World of Late Antiquity”, argues that apokatastasis was the dominant theological position of the church in this period.”

    Fr. Matthew, I read somewhere recently that St. Augustine also stands as a witness to this early Christian tradition as he complained in some of his writings that apokatastasis (in his view an error) was the dominant view of Christians in his day.

  54. Matt Avatar

    And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah.

    The following quote just showed up on my Facebook feed as a caption to an anastasis icon:

    Then your covenant with death will be annulled, and your agreement with Sheol will not stand. ~~Isaiah 28:18

    Most debts these days are, of course, contracts / covenants – with insurers, landlords, credit card companies, car dealers, mortgage banks, hospitals. (Of course, in context it is a rebuke against a sinful nation, but even then it seems to be one of those “Is it _ or _? Yes” things.)

    Some further rambling, scattered thoughts that might be helpful to some, forgive me if they are not…

    Paying out an account and cancelling/closing it, even if the balance is zero, are two distinct actions. If the crucifixion were just a paying out with no cancellation, the implication is that we still have an account, and the prediction would be that either we should be seeing Christ come down and bail us out every now and then or we are in very, very big trouble.

    Laurie: You are absolutely right! This talk about accounts and balances can get very dry and distracting. I just had to delete a sentence or two from the above paragraph when I realized I was getting terribly sidetracked respecting the analogy (with mortgages and title registration systems and all that). It is far too easy to lose sight of the core of the message: we fell into death and scarcity, Christ fell with us to pull us out.

    Speaking of scarcity, there’s another problem with the “paid out but not cancelled” view:

    But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.

    Christ is explicitly calling us to not bother keeping account when we lend because doing so makes us “the children of the Highest” – which can only imply that the Highest behaves similarly. Which makes sense: if I have a friend who is chronically poor and cashless and I have a more than quite comfortable income and resources, if I lend him $10 for food every now and then I’m not going to nickel and dime him for repayment, because I value the friendship (the friend not being fungible and thus not replaceable) far more than the money (which I have plenty of at the moment and will be seeing a lot more of on my next payday and would probably have spent on video games and booze anyway). How much more so, then, the Absolute who by definition cannot ever run low on any given resource?

    Wrt who the debt is paid to – why can’t it be death and the devil? On the one hand, if it’s a bad debt to a bad person who is using it to oppress the sovereign’s subjects and thereby usurp power away from the soverign, it seems like good public policy for that sovereign to legislate the debt away if they have the jurisdiction to do so. On the other hand, if Christianity posits that God would descend so low as to become man, indeed even be humiliated, mocked and tortured by His own creation and be killed and go to hell with us for our salvation, it seems a little odd to draw the line at the debt metaphor and say that the Alpha and Omega could not stoop so low as to pay off the devil.

    That said, a debt being horrible just for being there regardless of who the debtors or creditors are can also happen in a secular environment. I remember recently reading (but cannot find the issue – if someone knows the story please let us know the source!) in the local lawyers’ periodical an anecdote in which the court was suffering a long delay because of a long, complicated, highly contentious argument over some allegedly outstanding $200 damage deposit. I could only assume that the combined billable hours for all the lawyers who had to stand around and wait for the matter to conclude (or possibly even reschedule for another court date!) must have been much more than that. After a while the lawyer who was the star of the story turned to the person seeking payment, asked them how much it was, took out his wallet and paid it right then and there, saving everyone hundreds of man-hours in legal costs.

  55. Matt Avatar

    “…it seems a little odd to draw the line at the debt metaphor and say that the Alpha and Omega could not stoop so low as to pay off the devil.”

    And then (though this is not the devil it is a creature being paid) in Matthew 17:24-27 Jesus says flat out that he is exempt from the temple tax, then tells Peter to pay it on his behalf anyway – using, of course, money that is miraculously given (and to take the analogy even further, to save Peter from something he agreed to that he should not).

  56. Karen Avatar

    Matt, I suspect Fr. Stephen would contest your equating or conflating “covenant” with “contract.” They are not even close to being the same thing, albeit both having a “legal” aspect. Having a bank account is indeed a business contractual arrangement. A covenant is more like a last will and testament. It simply contains the will and instructions of one party in the event of their death. It is a sort of legal document, but not conditional upon the receiver’s agreement to the terms of a business contract (concerned with debts and obligations and the like), but only upon the testator’s death. God has made/cut a covenant with us in Christ, not a contract.

  57. Climacus Avatar

    I was taught in Protestantism that “Christ paid our debts to God the Father”. It never sat right with me for many reasons. Most importantly because it turns God into a cruel Universal policeman who takes pleasure in getting ‘justice’ no matter the cost. In fact, this very question was one of the main reasons why I am an Orthodox Christian today.
    When Dostoevsky says through Prince Myshkin that the Romanism (and its descendant Protestantism) “preaches a disfigured, distorted Christ” – I wonder whether he means just that: a distorted image of God Himself subject and subjecting everyone to this sort of “legalistic hell”, instead of the Fount of infinite bliss, life, and compassion that He really is. Dostoevsky goes on to say that “we must let out Christ shine forth…, our Christ whom we have preserved intact, and whom they have never known”.
    Gregory the Theologian deals with the same question: “To whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was It shed?” Certainly not to the Evil One! But what if to the Father? And he totally rejects this notion by noting that the Blood of His Only begotten Son would not delight the Father any more than that of Isaac, which He did not accept “but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim.” But to whom or rather for whom was that Blood shed? The answer is in John 15:13 “Greater love has no man than this, that a man [the Man] lay down his life for his friends.”
    Hristos Voskrese!

  58. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Like, Mike H, this was the most important comment:
    “The Jubilee represented a Biblical notion of justice – the return of things to their proper state – something that does not include debt.

    If I am understanding, the wrath of God ( as the justice of God) is the experience of the one who reject God’s “return of things to their proper state”.

    Is this correct, Fr. Stephen?

  59. Dante Aligheri Avatar
    Dante Aligheri


    I agree with you that the best way to characterize this, if we wanted to use this kind of language, would be to do as the early Latin medievals did, pre-Anselm and largely post-Anselm, for example in the great “Dream of the Rood,” and say that the devil (but here I would also include the legion of evil powers – i.e., death, the principalities and powers, “the flesh” which enslaved under them) is being “paid” a ransom. Our debt has put “the flesh” of Adam into slavery, war captives to the principalities.

    Here’s the problem, though: why does the devil have the legal right, even before God himself, to exercise such slavery?

    Now, this is largely post facto thinking because we know, from experience, just as Israel in Exile knew concerning both themselves and the Gentiles who were literally under the principalities, in a land of idolatrous darkness, that this state objectively exists and we are in it. We don’t get to ask counterfactuals. It’s like asking what would have happened if Adam hadn’t sinned. After all, there had been no Messianic Age, no outpouring of the Spirit and incoming of the Gentiles, no overthrow of the fallen hosts to liberate nature from her bonds and reparation of the cosmic oath sworn at the beginning, no general resurrection, no enthronement of Adam’s children, sons of God, running like “sparks through the stubble” in the place of the principalities. Apocalyptic Jews came to the realization that the Exile is in fact paradigmatic for everything post-Adam – indeed, post-fall of the angels. Everything is working towards that final end and even at the material heights of Solomon and the earthly Temple it was simply a foreshadowing of the World to Come and the celestial Jerusalem. For all intents and purposes, this world then was judgment, the state of debt and slavery reconfirmed by the Jewish Exile and the leaving of the Shekinah as it had left the Garden before returning at Sinai. We know the slavery exists and can’t speak of what situation exists outside of it.

    But the first Christians and their medieval descendants also knew that God ultimately had the rein of everything, including the devil. If the devil did in fact hold “the flesh” in bondage, then it is only by the forbearance of God that he do so – that is, a negative judgment by absence causing the creation to undo itself, hover over non-Being and vulnerable to enslavement. Here I would agree with Allen Long. This is the breach of the covenant, which would replicated again and again, the fallout in our Temple “not built of human hands,” which is washed out and vivified by the blood shed at our great and final Yom Kippur.

    Of course, in the very logical mind of Anselm, that made little sense because the devil has no legal claims to humanity since he took it by force, no rights to claim against God. So the devil could not hold the debt. Nevertheless, many people in the West after Anselm held to the old model. Still, then, God, he reasoned, must hold the debt.

    Anselm is not wrong. But what I think Athanasius would like to do is establish a buffer (which Anselm tries to do with his concept of tranquility and justice but does not succeed) so that Natural Law holds the debt. God created the Natural Law. The devil holds the debt only provisionally. So, sin leads to corruption and death under the economy of creation, and God works within that economy.

    In my mind, at least, I think it’s helpful in that debt in the ancient world is strongly correlated, not always, with the possibility of falling into slavery and so this language should be tied up with the language of ransoming war captives as well. The “debt” situation is not bloodless or neutral like in accounting but theo-dramatic and a positive act by God to free from a slaveholder.

  60. Meg Photini Avatar
    Meg Photini

    On the debt that crushes. I never understood why the same people who read in their Bibles “owe no one anything” (Romans 13:8) then turned around and encouraged me to sign the papers to acquire debt in order to attend a (very expensive) private Christian college. No doubt it would have been wrong for me to forswear education in order to avoid debt–but the knowledge of the accruing debt grew more worrisome every year.

    Then a relative died and her estate paid all my school loans. There’s no other feeling like that realization that suddenly you’re free.

    So far I’m lucky to have found a lifestyle that enables me to avoid incurring more debts.

    If God is the smasher of debts, whoever or whatever they may be said to be owed to, sign me up for his kingdom.

  61. Dino Avatar

    On a side note, that quote from Isahiah 28:18 is actually a rebuke of those who chose to believe in darkness/death rather than in Light/Life.

  62. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Meg (and Dante) et al
    It is absolutely worth pausing and simply thinking about debt, to exercise an extended “theoria” in the matter. First, it is important to understand that God is not someone to whom we owe a debt. It is contrary to His nature to hold anyone in debt. Debt is slavery and coercion and is not the sort of thing God needs to do. It contradicts His gracious will. Why would the Uncreated hold the created in debt? Our very creation is an utter act of grace, of unmerited gratuitous gifting. So the Creator who needs nothing whatsoever then turns on His freely gifted little creation and says, “You Owe Me!” ? It’s nonsense.

    Second, debt is slavery, pure and simple. God does not require slaves. He abhors slavery. Even the Law sets every slave free at 7 years. It’s a limit. Imagine, if you will, that all of your debts would be gone at a minimum of 7 years!

    Finally, a world that works by debt is a world whose economy depends on slavery. We are still living in a slave economy. Our “rhetoric” makes us “free” but our reality is slavery. I do not wish to be political, but I am deeply opposed to the American system that has created debt slaves out of an entire generation through college loans. These were extremely minimal when I was in school – we paid my wife’s off in about 3 years – and they were very, very small. Today, the American government has created an almost infinite amount of capital available for these loans, and passed a law that forbids them ever being forgiven (bankruptcy). That same endless amount of money has allowed colleges to raise tuition at 5 times the rate of inflation, resulting in ridiculous amounts of debt. My alma mater now costs over $250,000 for a liberal arts degree. It is simply not worth it, but young people can be (and are) lured into such nonsense.

    This is only a small example. These vast sums of money created through debt (not wealth creation, but debt creation) float around, begging for forgiveness. In the cyclic nature of economies, the forgiveness of debt is called a Depression. Various markets simply collapse. Inevitably, the weakest suffer the most. The displacement of an economy is a terrible thing – a modern plague and disaster of Biblical proportions.

    Segments of the population are deeply underemployed, or have simply quit looking for work in America. I noted that someone said today (in a newspaper article), “No one can learn the value of work if the only job they can find doesn’t pay a living wage.” Many people are rightly coming to the conclusion that “work” doesn’t pay enough and are figuring other ways to “game” the system. Gaming cannot be criticized because everyone has to figure out how to live. Survival is instinctive.

    We have foolishly built ourselves a house on the practice of debt (slavery) and the consequences are largely blamed on the slaves. We extol the virtues of the slave owners (debt-owners) and refuse to see that the “game” is always rigged in their favor because the game is being run by other slave owners.

    These conditions, mutatis mutandis, were often common in ancient societies. The accrual of wealth in the hands of a few often manifested itself as a need for “land reform.” (Land being the primary form of wealth). This brought about repeated revolutions and the like. Caesar came to power by promising land to his soldiers, for example.

    The Divine economy of ancient Israel saw the same thing, and provided the Jubilee system in which debts were forgiven and cancelled. It was (and is) simply astounding that such a thing was ever considered. It’s justice and mercy are beyond anything we know in our world today!

    I am not anti-Capitalist, per se, and certainly not a Communist or even an idealist. But Christians, of whatever political persuasion, should oppose slavery in all forms. You should not construct a world in which slavery is required for that world to operate. I am not an economist, nor a political thinker. And I would prefer that the blog not become a platform for espousing or arguing over various “solutions.”

    But when slavery (debt) is imported into our theological life and then projected into the Godhead, it must be named and thrown down. Frankly, a lot of debt-thought simply undergirds the injustice of our economic system and makes it seem divinely instituted. This is extremely wicked.

    God does not hold debt. That is like saying God doesn’t forgive. But what do the Scriptures say?

    “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. “Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. (Luk 6:35-36)

    That seems definitive to me.

    As for us – and I particularly liked Meg Photini’s story in this regard – avoid debt wherever you can. It is difficult, I know. Pay the debts of others and forgive their debts wherever you can – this is the commandment of Christ.

    My diocese is an extremely rare place in the Orthodox world. Under the gifted leadership of our late Archbishop, and a very wonderful treasurer, they have seen some of these things very clearly. The money of the diocese is repeatedly used to erase the debts of parishes. I could go into much detail, but I will only say here that it is incredible to live any aspect of life that has a “Jubilee” character. It is, indeed, an experience of the Kingdom where all debts are smashed.

    Lastly (again), it is worth noting that we live in a culture that easily entertains conversation about forgiveness, so long as forgiveness is restricted to emotional debt. We act like psychology is the thing. But extend everything you know and believe about forgiveness to the holding of debt. Then the conversation becomes heated, defensive, politicized. Money is our god, psychology is our playground. The Masters of Mammon like us to play psychological games. As long as we leave their precious money out of the conversation, all is well. Turn to talk of forgiving debts – they’ll kill you.

    Forgive everyone for everything. Even debts.

  63. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, wonderful post. I have experienced both the slavery of debt and the freedom that comes when that debt is at least minimized. As a consequence, my wife and I make it a point to give what we can to our children and grandchildren–without strings or expectations because God provides. We always seem to have enough for ourselves and others.

    Knowing and trusting in God’s provision is necessary to live without debt and be free. It is enormously difficult. It is easy to tempt God by not making any provision for oneself, fall into other types of greed and entitlement or subject oneself to debt slavery.

    It is not sufficient to simply reject debt, one must also develop the art of living in, with and by God’s bounty. I’m not good at this. I have been blessed in that both my late wife and the wife of God’s mercy I have now are quite knowledgeable.

    Nevertheless my late wife and I fell prey to the debt slavery anyway because we did not trust God enough and temper our desires at the same time. Ten years after her repose, I am still digging out. My wife is also still hobbled from debt forced upon her years ago. Part of digging ourselves out of that requires that we forgive the people who had a hand in creating this burden as well and helping each other and others as we do.

    As to “the system”–it demands dishonesty and gaming as you say–that is the only way to get what is needed. If you tell the truth, you will be denied benefits. It demands that all become con artists. Unless, you have the serenity and gratefulness of living in God’s abundance. My wife’s late husband was converted to God by witnessing how often in times of need Merry would simply ask God to meet their need and the money or other resources would show up. Just enough.

    The concept of Jubilee also extends to farming the land. Land was required to be allowed to rest every seven years so that it could regenerate. Contrast that to the rape of most modern agriculture that forces productivity out of the land and uses vast amounts of harmful additives to keep it going.

    The meditation you suggest is one that will require changes if we do it–in ourselves mostly. The ramifications are close to infinite. They indeed reverberate throughout the created world and speak to the heart of what it means to live a sacramental life.

    Matthew 9:13–Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

    BTW your mention of the way your diocese assists parishes is a wonderful witness and truly lifts my spirits.

    Thank you so much for your words and work.

  64. Karen Avatar

    When I was working for a Christian publisher, they published a book by Randy Alcorn called Money, Possessions, and Eternity. I don’t think I ever completed the book, but I do remember reading in it that Jesus mentioned money (in some form) more than anything else, even the topic of prayer. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

    Today, while I was reading in the waiting room at the dentist, there was an article about the dark legacy of the famous oil baron, J. Paul Getty carried down through generations in his family where untimely death (the article was occasioned by his grandson’s recent premature death), infidelity, and addiction were recurrent themes. Once the richest man in the world, Getty was notorious for two things: his philandering and his miserliness (he had a pay phone installed in his house for guests–I reckon he’d be happy with the proliferation in our era of the personal cell phone!). Seems like he also had more than his riches in common with John D. Rockerfeller.

  65. Jazeps Avatar

    I have nothing of consequence for my own part to say about this Father. Only that I value what you’re saying and would like to read more in the future.

  66. AJ Avatar

    As an evangelical I didn’t struggle so much with the idea of debt or Jesus paying our debt… I guess I was blind to the idea of an angry God demanding his Son take my place. I thought of His extreme love for me that He would willingly choose to take my place. Verses about God’s kindness leading us to repentance were always stressed. I can see how this is bad theology and understand what is being said in this post…but since becoming Orthodox I wrestle with our cooperation with him for our salvation. There is a sense that God is disappointed in me, not angry, because I did not pray correctly, fast correctly, missed liturgy etc. Maybe it’s a holder over of me feeling indebted to God or a sense of failing in my obligation to him. Even to the point that my prayers will not be answered because I didn’t cooperate with God as I should.
    There are orthodox prayers that use words like righteous chastisement or wrath stirred up against us that create an image of a very disappointed father. What is the correct way to understand this?

  67. AJ Avatar

    It often feels like an orthodox contract…. You get baptized, chrismated, go to confession and do the right thing and you are “okay” with God.
    This is never how God is portrayed in your blog. It’s just how I am feeling

  68. Dino Avatar

    I believe that the joyous compunction and contrite joy of those prayers needs such strong expressions (the stronger the better) because the foundations on which they firmly rest is an unshakeable knowledge of God’s unconditional love towards us. The awareness that our wretchedness (even if we call it infinite) is miniscule compared to God’s (infinitely more) infinite love towards us.
    They are Chisto-centric rather than ego-centric prayers.

  69. Yannis Avatar

    Finding the idea of debt to God incongruent was, as I recall, one of the first things that started me on the course of reverting to Orthodoxy. That a book could owe something to its author, or a carving to its sculptor seemed absurd.

    Now a financial debt is owed by some person, or legal entity, to another. But maybe seeking to find to whom our debt of sin is owed to is a stretching of the analogy? The nature of sin and its effects are not *actually* financial! You might as well discuss the nature of the currency involved, or the rate of interest.

    In software engineering, there is what is called “technical debt”. The idea is that when a job is not done well enough in the first place, it not only needs to be fixed later, paying off the debt, but the work required increases with time (this is the interest), and may become crippling for an organization. Now this is clearly a very new usage of the word “debt”, but I mention it because it is a very different sort of thing, and in this case there is clearly nobody the debt is owed to.

  70. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think we are sometimes like a dog that has been beaten. Even a scowl will make us cower as though the whip were coming down again. The language of “righteous chastisement” rhymes so frightfully with the whole angry God thing (and “wrath stirred up against us”) that we really can hardly help but feel the disappointed father standing over us with a terrible frown.

    But in an Orthodox context where the “good God who loves mankind” is stressed so constantly, such expressions can be rightly softened. We need to be healed. We need to know that the debt has been smashed and that the will of God brightly shines over our life always wanting to smash every debt (moral and otherwise).

    I wrote this earlier and will probably expand it into an article but I repeat it here:

    Debt is about work (in the worst sense) and not grace (generosity, kindness, etc.). We are indeed saved by grace – something that gratuitously smashes debt. Work is abolished. But some will cry, “But what of synergy?” Yes, of course. But our cooperation with God is itself a gracious act, a eucharistic act, a life of thanksgiving, not a life of earning and paying, etc. Our energy (doing) is like God’s energy. Both are gratuitous, eucharistic, generous, freely offered and not demanded, etc. We do not respond to grace with “works” but with a “grace” of our own. All is grace.

    I will add that the “synergy” thing and cooperation have already been terribly abused in certain corners of contemporary Orthodoxy. I’ll be writing more, possibly today.

  71. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    My functional understanding of synergy is this: I make one tiny, even quantum sized move in God’s direction with intent–He responds with sometime overwhelming abundance. That makes the next more easier. It really boggles my mind what it must be like for those who really devote themselves whole-heartedly to union with Him.

    The parable of the Prodigal Son is apt: the father saw his son from a long way off and ran out to greet him. There is a whole sermon (at least one) to be developed from that alone.

    My wife tells me frequently: “You can’t out give God.”

    Part of the abundance is the grace to recognize our sins and the source of our shame without turning away.

  72. Dino Avatar

    “It really boggles my mind what it must be like for those who really devote themselves whole-heartedly to union with Him.”

    Indeed! when we see such examples (Saint Paisios and Elder Aimilianos come to my mind in particular – whose good-willed response to God was all consuming and immensely concentrated) the mind boggles in awe

  73. Eric Avatar

    And indeed why not?
    In the light of Beauty and Grace – to sell all we have is our logical act of worship

  74. Byron Avatar

    Having read through the comments on the nature of debt, all I can think about is my dog.

    I bought her for $500 (a rescue, which seems apt), pay her vet bills, provide bed(s), blankets, food, a roof overhead, a dog door with which she may go out as she desires and/or needs, and a plethora of other things for her comfort and security. I am certain I have spent as much or more on her as I have on various home upgrades over the years. I love her; she owes me nothing. I would gladly spend much more to bring her back if, for any reason, she ran away.

    For her part, Allyblu joyfully greets me with overflowing and undisguised love whenever I come home. And she clearly longs to spend more time with me.

    Seems a lot like how God views/treats us and how we should respond to God. My deepest apologies if I have offended anyone with this illustration.

  75. Karen Avatar

    Byron, we have a rescue (Corgi mix). She is a delight and blessing to the whole family (and a big expense!). I loved your comment–the illustration seems quite apt to me. (Besides, Fr. Stephen is the one who first brought up dogs in this comment thread. :-))

  76. Micahel Bauman Avatar
    Micahel Bauman

    I too, had a dog that was found on the street, a run away. He has long since reposed (2001). He ran away because he had been abused. He was a Lhasa Apso. We spent money we probably didn’t have to get him as our dog and he tried, at first to run away from us too.

    But once he believed we would not abuse him, he became the friendliest dog I have ever known and really intelligent. An absolute delight. Sparkles was his name.

    As with Sparkles the pain we feel due to our abuse in this earthly life impacts our ability to accept God’s love for us—especially when it is so often mediated for us by other broken people.

    A good reason to be mindful of the pain of others and walk in kindness and mercy.

  77. B.H. Avatar

    I don’t understand why it is necessary to dissect this terminology and focus on whether the debt was cancelled or paid or abolished. Should we not be focused on the love of our Heavenly Father coming to earth and dying the death we all deserve then rising! We no longer have to focus on the sin but rather the love of our Father because the sin is gone. It seems divisive to do otherwise.

  78. ajt Avatar

    For some it may be necessary to keep it simple…focus on the love of the Father. Others, especially in western culture, have a distorted view of God based on a theology that is foreign to the early Christian church. These teachings need to be lovingly corrected so that people can know the true and living God and not a god of their own imaginings. If these debates confuse you or cause undue angst, then continue to keep it simple. Love God, be humble, give to the poor, and try not to hold a grudge.

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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