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 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.



, ,



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

  1. Byron Avatar

    Father, it seems that the idea of propitiation plays a large role in the Protestant “debt of sin” idea. Would you speak to how that is used in Scripture?

  2. Susan Avatar

    One also can look at sin as earning wages, Romans 6:23, Those wages are death, which remains the one way out of the condition of the slavery being created as one rejects Christ. Wages as debt could mean ill-gotten gains, but that’s another topic I guess.

  3. Simon Avatar

    Who is the King in Matthew 18? I am assuming we should think of ourselves as the servants. If that’s the case, who is the Master and King?

  4. Janine Avatar

    Thank you for this Father.
    In the realm of forgiveness, what you have written explains the power and commandment of forgiveness that Christ gives us so frequently, especially notably when He teaches the Lord’s Prayer. But it also magnifies the process of reconciliation, which I have felt I must separate from forgiveness as an additional step.

    As I have seen it, in other words, forgiveness is mandated by Christ. We “give up” debts to God (such as hurts or harms others have done us). I think this is necessary especially with the basic concept of not seeking retaliation or revenge. But as in the steps to reconciliation in Matthew 18, it doesn’t mean we automatically tolerate ongoing abusive behavior. Hard to reconcile at times with turning the other cheek.

    Would greatly appreciate your perspective on this, thank you!

  5. Michelle Avatar

    …and the phrase “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors?”
    Thank you Fr Stephen

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The king in Matthew 18 is a parable – not an allegory. I think it teaches a principle – that of forgiveness – rather than representing one thing or another.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The Protestant notion of propitiation – that God must somehow be placated – is simply not Scriptural. It is not in the Scriptures, except as it is being “read into the Scriptures.”

    One of the possible “odd” sources for this notion creeping into Christianity (particularly in the West), was the idea of “weregeld,” common among a number of the barbaric (sic) tribles (like my Anglo-Saxon ancestors). The idea was the “value” of a man. (were=man geld=value). If I killed your servant, then I owed you his price. It utterly permeated that society. As Latin theology evolved, the notion of propitiation, of paying the price of a man, found fallow ground in the Western post-Roman culture. It is, however, notably lacking in the East.

    I recently read a little Calvin on propitiation. It was simply repugnant in the extreme. It imaged the wrath God whose debt-demand was inexorable such that I could only reject such a thing as abhorrent. It’s been toned down a lot in most popular presentations – but the sin-as-debt imagery has permeated popular culture.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Good question. I do not take this to mean our “debts to God.” The imagery of debts is very much tied up in the Jubilee Year (as noted in the article). God is the debt-destroying God, the God who looses us from debt. But He is not the God who retains debt or who uses debt to enslave us. Perhaps it could be phrased, “Destroy our debts as we destroy the debts of others.”

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There are definitely appropriate boundaries in our lives – including refusing to accept abusive behavior. I have often suggested that in such super-charged emotional situations we pray in this manner:

    O God, do not hold their sins against them on the Day of Judgment.

    It is a prayer of forgiveness – but puts a bit of time into the action in order to create an emotional boundary. I have found it helpful.

  10. Janine Avatar

    Thank you Father! That is a great prayer guidance!
    I take tremendous comfort in knowing that God’s judgment is merciful beyond anything we can know.
    So, if I give up people to God’s judgment and not mine it is comforting. (So often the people I am upset with are people I love or trust, otherwise I probably wouldn’t be so upset!)

    Thanks also for your comment to Byron explaining “weregeld” history. Makes much sense of things.

  11. Simon Avatar

    Father, is it enough to say “sin as debt” is unconscionable without saying it’s not in the scriptures? After all, if it truly is unconscionable, then we would not expect to find it there. But, if I say it is unconscionable and it is in there, then my conscience is either wrong OR can we allow for the possibility that there are artefacts of Second Temple period Judaism in the NT? They struggled getting rid of circumcision for heaven’s sake.

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I said that it is not in the Scriptures because I believe that to be the case. Even the OT repudiates the notion (cf. Psalm 50, also in Psalm 51). Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon’s work, Reclaiming the Atonement, as well as the extremely well-substantiated scholarship that he cites, make clear that payment for sin was never a Biblical concept – Old or New Testament.

    As to your point viz. circumcision – we only know about the “struggle” over it from St. Paul’s witness (and the book of Acts). But the practice disappears from Christianity in that first generation – which is not much of a struggle.

    There are certainly things in the Scriptures that I would point to as problematic – no argument there – but the sin-as-debt teaching is not one of them. But, looking back, where did I use the word “unconscionable?”

  13. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    I may be mistaken, but I believe Simon is referring to your reaction to Calvin: “It was simply repugnant in the extreme. It imaged the wrath God whose debt-demand was inexorable such that I could only reject such a thing as abhorrent.”

    You did not use the word unconscionable, but Simon’s question would still apply. That is, if I personally find a doctrine about God “abhorrent,” “unconscionable,” or merely “problematic,” all such reactions are orthogonal to whether their is a scriptural basis for them.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. I can see that. But I looked for the word “unconscionable” because it seemed to be the one that was problematic, and the question involved the word “conscience.” Nonetheless, as surprising and shocking as it may be, sin-as-debt and atonement-as-payment are not Scriptural. They have become such strong cultural metaphors that we read them into texts where they do not belong. Orthodoxy is not free from this entirely. Someone quoted St. Philaret of Moscow’s Catechism (on Facebook) which describes the “debts” of the Lord’s Prayer as being the debt owed to God because He gives us all things, etc., and speaks of “debts to God’s justice” as well. I responded that St. Philaret’s Catechesim is deeply influenced by Latin writings of his time (which was quite typical of Russian theology during what Florovsky called the “Western Captivity.” I’ll likely catch some flack out there in some parts of the Orthodox world for criticizing St. Philaret. He’s a saint, but his catechism is not a dogmatic artifact of the Church.

  15. Eric Avatar

    Following on from your helpful words Father Stephen, my semi question is ‘which is why forgiveness requires no apology – no squaring of accounts – to manifest itself?’

    Truly a scandalous gospel!! Why, it would be the end of the world as we know it!

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is no “exchange” in our forgiveness – it is as radical as you say. “It is finished…”

  17. Jonathan Avatar

    Do we owe nothing to God?

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    We would certainly be correct if we said we owe Him everything: “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine Own have we given Thee.” But he does not treat us as debtors. All that He gives us, He gives us freely. In the same manner, He commands us (in Christ), to “give to Him who asks of Thee, without expecting in return.” God gives in that same manner – and it would be wrong for Him to command us to do what He Himself was not doing. No, the commandments of Christ are given us specifically so that we might be “like your Father who is in heaven.”

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, does He not also give Himself crucified without shame? Fully man just as He is fully God?
    Luke 6:38: “Give and it shall be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over shall men give into your bosom for the same measure that you mete withal, it shall be measured to you again.”

    Such words imply to me the His mercy is beyond anything we can imagine even when my heart is hardened, His mercy sustains me waiting in patience to make me whole and beyond.

  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I must confess to a certain ancestral theological errors in that my mother’s family was of the old line New England Puritans and my father’s clan came from the Bavarian agricultural cast who tended to be in favor of the Protestant restating of things. Yet despite that, they both knew that God is real and one did not reject those that came to you in need.

  21. Jonathan Avatar

    I think it was canon 8 of the Council of Carthage (418) that stated something like: when we pray forgive us our sins, it is not out of humility (as Pelagius said), but because we are sinners. Likewise then, if the Lord taught us to pray: forgive us our debts (Matt 6:12) in his eyes we must be debtors. For surely he could have said: forgive our ingratitude, if that is what he meant. And if our debt is not to God, then why do we pray that he forgive them? (The word used is much closer to legally lay aside, than to destroy.)

    Does God have no expectations of us? Do we not have obligations, bouden duties? Are these not other words for debt. For what is the judgement?

    I agree that penal substitution/satisfaction talk is not strictly biblical; and has been over-emphasized in the protestant camp; and other ways of thinking are better; but there’s something true in there.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    No doubt, we are debtors – but not to God – though we, doubtless, owe Him everything. But He does not ask us to serve Him as slaves, or even as hired hands, but as Sons. Our creditors are our oppressors – and it is not God’s way. The consistent imagery in the Scriptures is of God setting aside debts, of declaring us free, etc. There is a world of crushing theology down the rabbit hole of what is owed to God. It has not borne good fruit. What I can say of the theology surrounding the arguments with Pelagius (as in the Council of Carthage) is that they were not our finest moment.

    As to what might be true in the PSA – it would be a long, careful consideration.

  23. Byron Avatar

    That we owe all things to God, Who is our Creator, is easily recognized. In that sense, we are certainly in debt to Him and it should not surprise us that the language of debt arises throughout the history of the Church. It should also be noted that the idea of the “debt of sin”–our failure before God to be what we were created to be–appearing in the writings of the Church should not be too surprising either. The Church’s emphasis on repentance as a way of life can also thrust us into such a mindset (and the limitations of language can easily result in what sounds like God holding a debt over us that can never be repaid).

    But all these things are, I think, the result of Mankind viewing itself with despondency. The language of debt is the language of justice; of God presiding over a courtroom, handing down a verdict. It is a language of law and economics. It seamlessly fits the more Calvinistic views of Protestantism (this is meant as an observation, not a judgement). In all things though, it is Mankind looking at Mankind and extrapolating a god from that (Humanistic) viewpoint.

    The God who has revealed Himself is the God of the Jubilee. It does really matter that there is a debt or who it may be too. It matters that to see His Creation in any debt is repugnant to Him and He removes it, rebuilding communion. He is the God of grace and mercy, not justice and law. To view debt from our own vantage point is to limit ourselves to our indebtedness and sin. It is more important to focus on God’s mercy and jubilee. Only from His viewpoint will we ever have a correct vision of what this all means. Just my thoughts.

  24. Byron Avatar

    I meant to say “it does NOT matter that there is a debt or to whom it may owed” in the last paragraph.

    Some ugly, written mess there!

  25. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    I respect your role as priest and that you have devoted your life to studying and understanding these concepts and are far more learned about them than I. I also concede that my many years as a Protestant no doubt continue to influence my personal theology, even as a convert to Orthodoxy.

    Nevertheless (and with Christian affection as well as respect), I think you are troubled too much by the word “debt” and an aversion to substitutionary atonement that is causing perhaps a too strong of personal “over correction.” (I have been reading the comments on your Facebook page, too.)

    In your original post, it was difficult for me to reconcile your first paragraph with your later words, “The debt that mankind labors under is the debt of sin, the oppression and bondage of death itself.” This seemed a direct contradiction of your thesis–that “debt of sin” is simply extra-biblical–but I refrained from asking about that until I saw whether later discussion would clarify what for me was a true conundrum.

    As the discussion has unfolded, however, the questions and points raised by commenters like Jonathan seem irrefutable to me: yes, Protestants may emphasize PSA too much and perhaps have even stretched it, but “something true is there.”

    When Jesus says we must drink of His blood and eat of His flesh, many followers left because they found such an idea repulsive. Although that is not precisely the same as PSA, it does reiterate that our personal consciences are prone to error when we think God is a certain way that must conform to our standards of acceptable goodness.

    Rather than repeat the same ground as has been covered and thus be argumentative, I’ll ask how you view the story of Abraham and Isaac and the near sacrifice of the latter. In particular, how might it help us understand the subtlety of what you are describing in your article?

    To be sure, I do not wish to say or believe anything in error about God and want to try to understand Him as He is, rather than according to my preferences. I do not write, therefore, to argue toward how I think God must or ought to be. The distinction here, however, to me seems one dependent on such a thin parsing of language that I lose the thread of it. (Yes, canceling a debt is different than the debt being paid, but that does not mean the debt was not reconciled. If I cancel your debt, I must absorb the loss, regardless of whether I receive anything from you in return.)

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you for your gentle words. There are a variety of reasons (some personal, some theological) for which I push back as strongly as I do on the PSA. The document/article, The River of Fire, points to some of its many problems (though it makes my objections seem quite mild).

    It is certainly the case that the language/imagery of debt can be used in a nuanced manner. But, as debt has become a major lynchpin word of a false account of the Atonement (Christ does not die in order to satisfy the wrath of God), I have intentionally resisted it (perhaps forcing some to reconsider and use a more nuanced treatment of it).

    Some of my personal stuff comes from 25 years of Orthodox mission work in which I have dealt with souls damaged by the debt imagery, the wrath imagery, etc., the notion that somehow God is against us. It is deeply damaging and I feel that it is encumbent upon me to loudly proclaim and persuasively write to refute those notions. It doesn’t always make for the most peaceful, irenic articles and conversations.

    I think one of the surprises for many is how little actual imagery of debt-stuff there is in the NT. Yesterday, doing a word search, I found only the mentions in the parables, the Lord’s prayer with debts, and a few English translations that had inserted the word into Colossians 2 when it is not there in the Greek at all. Considering the huge role it plays in the PSA – and it’s not there. It is not the imagery of the Scriptures.

    At stake (debt being cancelled, versus me or someone else paying the debt) is something about the revelation of who God is. As I noted in a response to Jonathan. Christ’s commandments are to give without expecting in return. It is explained that we act in this manner that we might be like our Father in heaven. I take that to be a revelation of who God is – and a lens through which we should read/interpret other references in this manner.

    God does not enslave us (debt is slavery). This is essential. It is radical and conforms to the commandments of Christ.

    Having said that, someone could then think about what nuanced meanings of debt we might want to speak of. But, we have to be careful that such usages do not infringe on the very fundamental revelation of God as given to us in the life and teachings of Christ. The gospel is the lens through which we read all of Scripture and the Tradition.

    I suppose that the strong tenor of my article and my comments/responses have, however, said some things about the nature of debt and the free gift of Christ that would not have been considered had I written in a softer, more nuanced manner.

    I believe that what I have written is very much the gospel of Christ. But, having said that, it becomes relative as in: Fr. Stephen thinks this is an utterly essential part of the proclamation of the gospel, but I think I’ll put it on the shelf because I think he might be overstating things.

    I can live with that. I have not found myself able to live with the Creditor God. We were slaves in Egypt. God did not bring us out in order to make us slaves somewhere else. “Owe no one anything but to love them,” St. Paul said. Love cannot be compelled. It is always a free gift.

    The temptation to the Church (particularly as it accepted a certain role in the culture) has always been to “make us behave.” At its worst, it has tolerated a kind of spiritual slavery. That is resisted and corrected time and again in our history. One of the reasons our culture is as sick as it is – is from the poison of bad theology. We created this mess. No foreign power came in and ruined our culture. We did it ourselves.

    If I were to look at Abraham and Isaac, it would be through the lens of Christ and the gospel. The gospel is the “controlling story” or lens through which we read all of Scripture. So, I would largely just repeat what I’ve said.

    It’s a hard word, I suppose. The most I can ask of anyone is to bear it in mind as they read the Scriptures. I might be right.

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mark, everything I think and say about God is in error someway. That is true for each of us. The best way I can put it that He desires our wholeness. Coming to that wholeness is a work of His Mercy. That is what repentance is — gradually we enter into our wholeness. True repentance is about submitting myself to His mercy in each and every aspect of my life including the physical Guilt and self-judgement do not seem to be part of it at all. That includes both casual and besetting sins of course but the attitude toward sin in the Orthodox Church is much different than any where else. I am just starting to see it after 37 years.
    The debt I owe Jesus is satisfied as I ask for and submit to His Mercy–in each and every aspect of me including my physical body. The Jesus Prayer takes on a different meaning when I view it in the light of active submission to His Mercy. As does the Crucifixion.

    Glory to God and His Mercy.

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    As a bit of background:

    I believe that Christ’s proclamation of the Kingdom of God is rightly encapsulated in His words in the synagogue in Nazareth:

    “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.””
    (Luke 4:18–19)

    Of course, Christ is quoting from the book of Isaiah. But He says of this passage, “Today it is fulfilled in your hearing.” The thrust of that passage is the prophecy of the coming Cosmic Year of the Jubilee, when everything will be set free. The earthly Jubilee Year (every 50 years) involved the cancellation of debt and the return of property to its proper owners, etc. But here, it is worldwide. It is the basis for St. Paul’s eschatological imagery in Romans 8, where creation itself will be set free from its bondage, etc.

    The commandments and teachings of Christ are utterly consistent with a “Jubilee Year” proclamation. He sets people free. He tells us to forgive debts. We are to give without expecting in return. We forgive even our enemies. His healing of the blind, the lame, etc., is not a health initiative. They are miraculous signs that proclaim that, in Christ, the Kingdom of God has come among us. The Kingdom of God is not a more moral version of what we already have. It is the radical freedom for sin, death, disease, etc., made known in Christ. The Kingdom that is both here and now, and for which we wait in its fullness.

    At the heart of that message (particularly when seen in the light of what the Jubilee Year means) is the cancellation of debt. So, it’s not something that I see as nuanced. It’s front and center. Even the use of “debts and debtors” in the Lord’s prayer should (I think) be read in the light of this framework. This, it seems to me, is not me importing something into the gospel that’s not there – it’s uncovering and pointing to something that is loudly there and often overlooked.

    The Church’s canons forbid usury. That used to be a thing. Today, the entire world system is built on debt. We’ve lost our moral sense regarding the nature of debt (and changed the meaning of usury to mean “charging too much interest.”)

    Oh well. That’s enough for now.

  29. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I appreciate all that you have said regarding debt. I wish I could engage further with examples of the Fathers’ treatment that underscores and validates your explanation of debt. My capacity to write is hampered.

    We live in a transactional world, and it may be difficult for those of us who have come from Protestant backgrounds to grasp your words and meanings. From my personal perspective, what you say is straight forward and mainstream Orthodox. Fr Thomas also did a podcast on the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t remember his explanation of ‘debt’— at the time I was focused on his explanation of bread.

    Last for some of us like myself, your treatment of PSA seems fair. If I were to express more words on it myself, some might say I was harsh and unkind. I cannot emphasize enough how destructive it has been in my life, and in the generations of my family.

  30. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father Thomas *Hopko* of blessed memory did a podcast—to clarify

  31. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    One more observation is that if one is accustomed to reading the OT within the framework of PSA, it might be challenging to see the temple sacrifice any other way.

    The Paschal Lamb is trampling down death. And to those in the tombs He is giving life. The death of sin is conquered once and for all, “It is finished”.

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think it was listening to Fr. Thomas (Hopko) on the Cross that was deeply clarifying for me. There are many historical layers that are part of the “mature” Protestant (mostly Calvinist) teaching on the Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I’ve engaged with folks, including some from the Reformed Theological camp, on this for years. A tricky part when reading the Fathers is to read them in context. That requires more general knowledge of the Fathers’ teaching than is common.

    For example, if we read in St. John Chrysostom, a reference that “sounds” a little friendly to a PSA reading, we cannot suddenly use a mere mention as an opening to drive the entire busload of PSA doctrine into the early Church. In general, there are several places where a rather “full” theological account of what we today would call “atonement” doctrine can be found. The word “atonement” is extremely late and is not really part of Orthodox vocabulary.

    But, those places are the Anaphora’s of the Divine Liturgy – those lengthy prayers prayed by the priest in the section of the Liturgy in which the Bread and Wine are consecrated. In every case, there is a recounting of the story of our salvation. St. John Chrysostom’s, St. Basil’s, St. Gregory’s (the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts), and, perhaps, St. James (which was the forerunner of both Chrysostom’s and St. Basil’s). The only language even remotely connected to the PSA is St. Basil’s use of the term “ransomed us from death.” He does not elaborate. His friend, St. Gregory the Theologian, however, does elaborate and does not have us ransomed from either God or the devil. Generally, we can say we are “ransomed from death,” which makes it no more than a metaphor, not a transaction.

    But there are other layers. There are the contributions of early Latin writing, particularly not St. Augustine so much as St. Caesarius of Arles, who popularized Augustine, and was pretty mired in forensic language and imagery. The later layer, that I’ve mentioned earlier, comes from the centuries of Western thought rooted in the German/Anglo-Saxon world of the weregeld and such. St. Anselm’s writings, which some describe as the first mature development of a version of the PSA, is explicitly based in the imagery of the feudal system of his time – which is to say – it could not have come before him in that feudalism did not exist until around his time. Our salvation is not the working out of a divine feudalism.

    There is a kind of “taming” of Christian thought, even in the Orthodox world, as the Church deals with its political situation and the perceived need to uphold the state. That the modern Church has lost its memory of the Scripture’s condemnation of usury, for example, has made it possible to live peaceably with a world economic system that is exploitative in its use of debt. We no longer hate debt or think of it as corrupting for all involved.

    The PSA gets read into our contemporary history. God not only holds our debts (which must be paid by someone), but the image inherently blesses the creditors throughout the world who can then see those who owe them as inferior, perhaps lazy, needing to be controlled, etc. Christ turned that kind of world upside-down and commanded the same of us. We gladly celebrate the rich in our churches without ever hinting that their wealth might have been gained by ignoring the commandments of Christ. Orthodox monasticism has saved us from being totally lost on this – but it is a thin thread.

    Sometimes I think I’m loud about all of this (from time to time), because too many are so quiet about it. This present article is actually a reprint of an article I wrote in 2014…so I can’t say that I harp on this much of the time, either. I thought to republish this because the word “debt” was being thrown around a lot in the present news cycle.

    But, Dee, I thank you. I have no personal questions about the Orthodoxy of what I have written. I can question my own temperament or ability to write without the passions. My writing is ever so much more pacific than my inner thoughts. They rage within me all too often.

  33. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    From Fr. Thomas Hopko on the Lord’s Prayer. I offer this as a correction for anything I’ve said amiss. If Fr. Thomas were still among us, I would discuss this with him and see if we would come to a meeting of the minds.

    But then he says—because I’ve got to finish here—the next sentence is: “And forgive us”—this is Matthew—“forgive us what we owe, or what we ought.” That verb in Greek and Latin and Slavic languages doesn’t only mean “owe,” like “I owe you ten dollars.” It means what you ought to do, what you ought to be. So forgive us what we ought, forgive us what we owe, and then notice the Matthew words: “as we have already forgiven those who owe us.” It doesn’t say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive.” It says, “Forgive us what we owe as we have already forgiven.” It’s aorist, past, done over, over! So if a person has not forgiven what anyone else owes them… And St. Paul says, “Owe no one anything but to love one another” and “the greatest love is shown by forgiveness,” and that’s why Jesus pays the debt on the cross. By the way, the debt of Jesus on the cross: he pays everything that’s owed, but what is owed is not being beaten up and punished no matter what Mel Gibson says. What is owed is to keep the commandments of God and to love God and to prove the love of God by loving the neighbor through concrete acts. That’s what we owe and that’s what we ought to do.

    So you cannot say the prayer unless you have already forgiven everybody everything. I had a guy in my church in New York City when I was a pastor there, years ago, who couldn’t say the Lord’s Prayer because he couldn’t forgive his mother-in-law. I said, “That’s right. You cannot say the Lord’s Prayer. You may not say it, and you may not come to holy Communion, either. Until you forgive her, or at least try, or forgive her from your side, even if she doesn’t forgive you. What she owes, you owe. She should do this, she should do this. Forgive us what she owes. Yes, she owes to love you, she owes to be nice to you, she owes to whatever—but she doesn’t: you’ve got to forgive her that.”

    It’s interesting that that verb, even probably isn’t so much “forgive” as “loose, remit.” Let it go! Not just forgive it but it’s still there. It means obliterate it! Obliterate it. And that’s the same word that we use at the Eucharist when we say, “This is my body broken, this is my blood spilt.” Not for the forgiveness of sin, but for the remission of sin, which means the sin is no longer active. It’s no longer dynamic; it’s gone. The mess is cleaned up, not only forgiven. I mean, we could mess up this room and say, “Father, forgive us,” and he’ll say, “Okay, I forgive you, but you’ve still got a mess here.” [Laughter] But if we could remit it, the mess would be cleaned up, too, and everything would be restored; the communion would remain.

    Fr. Tom notes that the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s gospel is placed at the “high” point of the Sermon on the Mount. I would discuss with him drawing on the other places in that Sermon for understanding the meaning of “debts” and their forgiveness. …things to do when I get to heaven…if I get there…

  34. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Not to muddy the waters but how does Matthew Chp 9 fit into all of this? To my uneducated soul, it seems to fit, I just have no clue for sure.

  35. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father, I don’t hear it differently from what you have said. There is not “owe” as in money debt. He’s trying to make a distinction, but the words in English constrain causing the need for explanatory examples.

    For example, Christ *commanded* that we love one another, yet as God, He doesn’t make us His puppets or slaves.

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It would probably take me a bit off topic. But there we have the forgiveness of sins and the healing of disease equated. The sickness is not a punishment. I very much go back to Luke 4:18-19 as Christ’s statement that describes His ministry as bringing in a “cosmic” Jubilee. In the OT, the Jubilee is limited to the cancellation of money debts, the freeing of slaves, and the return of property. It establishes a crude “justice” every 50 years. But in Isaiah’s vision, which Christ quotes and makes His own, the Jubilee extends to everything:

    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.””

    This extends, if you will, to how we proclaim the gospel on Pascha. There’s no mention of payment. Instead, He tramples down death by death. He binds the “strongman,” He despoils Hades, etc. The Pascha icon is what the Jubilee looks like when it visits Hades. In St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal sermon, his rhetoric rises to the heights of glory with a radical proclamation of freedom and forgiveness. It is a full-throated version of the gospel. Debts dare not come near.

    And He shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one He gives, and upon the other He bestows gifts. And He both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

    Such is the love of God.

  37. George Avatar

    Pleasure may very well be transactional, to some degree on all accounts, while joy is not.
    Mystically, our cross is not a price to be paid either “with pleasure” but a joy; sustained by and delivered to the Father’s love by His only begotten Son who abodes in our hearts with the Holy Spirit

  38. Janine Avatar

    I guess I’m a bit confused midst the debt talk. I have always understood “forgive us our debts” as indicating the ways we somehow caused harm, to others, to community, etc — the ways we’ve missed the mark. As we forgive others — we’re intended to let go such debts of those who’ve hurt us, not seeking “payment” as retribution. In other words, vengeance is the Lord’s, and not ours.

    When I forgive, I see myself giving up a “debt” owed by way of harm to me, and releasing it to God for God’s way, God’s guidance through what is difficult for me. Not my way, but Yours, in other words

  39. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    George, thank you

  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sorry for the confusion. I understand God’s forgiveness of our sins (our debts, etc.) as a request for healing. I do not think God is holding things against us. Rather, our broken communion with Him (from our side), and our broken communion with others from the things we do to harm each other, etc., work “death” in us in various forms. They diminish our existence. I cannot begin to fathom the workings of all that in my life – only that God is with us, working life, health, peace, all things good.

    I think that I must have written poorly in this post – or written in a way that fosters a fair amount of push back. Nevertheless, God is for us and not against us.

  41. Janine Avatar

    No, no, Father, I think I understood that in your post, but I got confused from various comments. But I think what you say makes sense regarding healing. The “debts” at least intuitively for me seem to indicate a way of thinking about community within the history of Judaism, and ancient law systems. Once upon a time one depended upon family, clan, etc to get “justice” for a wrong which so often takes the form of a debt owed. Jesus seems to me to be asking for us to give all that up in exchange for God’s justice — or more accurately, your word, peace — perhaps especially among brothers and sisters in the Church, as it is a prayer to “our” Father and about “our” debts and debtors.

    I hope I am not confusing more!! I am really going to have to think more about your comment regarding death, which is profound it seems to me. It makes sense in terms of the formula here — we make a commitment not to spread that opening to death by forgiving, and mutual forgiveness

  42. Janine Avatar

    PS it seems to me that this topic, regardless of who posts about it or where it is posted, is always going to generate push back. I have seen extremely inflammatory responses to it elsewhere. We have a very ingrained way of thinking about these things. You get praise from me for posting about it and for discussion, especially the civil discussion you foster here

  43. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Grateful for this conversation. Father, I wrote my ThM thesis on St Maximus’ view of the cross, and I drew on your blog posts in one section to demonstrate the Orthodox view. Thank you.

    To my mind, the literal interpretation of “debt” is largely connected with understanding God as an object. As if God were a being somewhere “out there” with whom we must transact.

    Because we live in a world of objects, we must use transaction metaphors to learn anything. The problem arises when we literalize the metaphors. God is not an object.

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m kind of puzzled by the “there’s something in it” observations of a couple of the comments regarding the Penal Substitution Atonement theory. That Christ suffered for our sakes and died for our sins is not a matter of argument. The “mechanics” of that are something of a rabbit hole and always have been. The “transactional” character of the PSA is its most problematic aspect and has always been a non-starter for me. My thoughts generally are not how to reconcile everything in the Tradition, or everything in the Scriptures such that all puzzles and contradictions disappear – it’s rather to find and know God as He is and as He has made Himself known. I like in St. John’s prologue that he says Christ has “exegeted” God. In Latin it is “ennarravit” …He “narrates” God. Modern English says, “He has made Him known.”

    My mind often drifts to the Baptism service of Orthodoxy where we “drown” in abundance of images. Holy Baptism is not just one thing – but everything.

    But do Thou, O Master of all, show this water to be the water of redemption, the water of sanctification, the purification of flesh and spirit, the loosing of bonds, the remission of sins, the illumination of the soul, the laver of regeneration, the renewal of the Spirit, the gift of
    adoption to sonship, the garment of incorruption, the fountain of life.

    You could take any single one of those images and make it the basis for expounding a theory of the Atonement – but, having done so, you would have left out all the others. Nevertheless, what I do not find in those images is the PSA.

    I think I first began thinking about all of this way back in my seminary years. I did a course in Soteriology. We read Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor
    , which, despite its limitation, set me to thinking about issues of the Atonement. I worked seriously on the question for a number of years – and the questions eventually took me to do doctoral studies at Duke…which concluded with my realization that I needed to be Orthodox. So, I suppose all of this has been a very large thing in my life – an arc that bends towards the relentless and uncompromising love of God.

  45. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    PSA is the poison that kept me from all Christianity for about 50 years.

  46. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Thank you, Father, and Amen!

    My own seminary experience has been all protestant (SBC, in fact), so it’s been an uphill battle regarding the meaning of Christ’s death. You have been an inspiration. Fr. John Behr has also blessed us with tremendous insight. Christ’s “ascent” of the cross is his victory; his Passion “according to the scriptures” itself manifests his glory. In Fr. John’s book on St. John the Theologian, he sees the cross in terms of the paschal lamb, laying down his life that his followers may eat the heavenly bread of his flesh, as the ultimate demonstration of God’s love.

    I too appreciate Gustav Aulen. Those Lutherans certainly know mystery is key to everything. I believe they’re closest to the Orthodox in many ways. Likewise, when it comes to “mechanics,” I think all we have is metaphor. Hardening those metaphors into literal, objective, mechanical processes is…not good. But letting the metaphors flow over us — into us — with their *implicit* meanings, gives us a clearer sense of the gospel’s inner reality. In my humble opinion, at-one-ment is beyond words. Somehow, I think, the Cross means the same thing as “the kingdom of God is within you.”

    I suppose this is form of Lectio Divina. One must be immersed in the gospel to “understand” it.

  47. Janine Avatar

    Owen, beautiful idea re Lectio Divina. Makes sense to me. Anyway, this is what the Scriptures are *for*, is it not? They have their own poetry and we have to learn to develop eyes and ears to hear

  48. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Janine, I would agree. The scriptures are “useful” (2 Tim 3). In this sense, I see them like a boat that carries us across a body of water. Like an ark. What you say about poetry is spot on, I think, since poetry is based on metaphorical language. The word “metaphor” means one that “carries across.” Scripture carries us from shore to shore. The most powerful theo-logy, for me, comes in the form of parable or poem.

  49. Justin Edge Avatar
    Justin Edge

    We cannot possibly “owe” God anything for one very simple, obvious reason:
    There is literally nothing that exists which is not God’s gift – who I am, what I have, the entire cosmos.
    Every created thing is a gift, both to that thing itself and to the rest of creation.
    No gift can possibly be “owed” back to the giver.
    A gift is not a loan.
    A gift can never be a debt.
    A giver cannot be a creditor.

  50. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    and we and our interrelationship with Jesus and by Grace our repentance is at the center of it. The reconfiguration of our heart and mind to be more obedient to Truth will reduce the chaos that our disobedience unleashed.

  51. CJM Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you for reposting this. I have felt the PSA of my reformed protestant community seems “off” based on the sermon on the mount, but have struggled to see an alternate way to coherently read the PSA proof texts across scripture. This post and its comment thread (along with a few other voices) have given me a start.

    If this take on debt is true, it saddens me because so many I love are so wrong in ways that hurt them and others, but moreover heartens me because God is more gracious to me, those I love, and all the other confused people out there than we can even start to comprehend.

  52. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It amazes me how thoroughly the PSA is “read into” the Scriptures – in such a manner that it seems “obvious” to people who have heard it all their lives. At its heart – the PSA holds that it is God (or His justice) that constitutes our real problem. Thus the atonement is about changing how God sees us, etc. It also has at its heart a sort of “legal” notion of our relationship with God. That is the thinnest version of a relationship possible.

    I recall being told as a child that God loves us, but that He has to condemn us to hell because His justice demands it. It’s both bizarre and hideous. It also, for what it’s worth, has a very poor notion of heaven and hell.

    Something to put in your hopper:

    The article is far from perfect – but it’s worth the time to read.

  53. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s worth noting that Orthodoxy has no “single” theory of the Atonement. It makes use of a wide variety of metaphors. Given that this is the case, it’s of note that the PSA is not among those images that is commonly found in the early Fathers of the East. Troubling, however, is that the PSA is, in many Evangelical Protestant circles, treated as a non-negotiable item of dogma. There are any number of historical theologians who contend that the PSA in its earliest version did not appear until around the year 1000 (with St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo). There are those who will grab at a stray comment here and there in the early Fathers that “rhyme” with a PSA approach – but nowhere do they find a truly mature presentation of today’s PSA.

    When reading the Scriptures – such as those cited in PSA proof texts – go back – read them in context – and think about what sort of imagery the writer might have in mind when they are sketching out their statement.

  54. CJM Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you for your comments. I read River of Fire and am moved by its portrayal of God. It feels right–that’s the God I want to exist and spontaneously experience affection for when I get glimpses of him. It’ll take some work to reexamine the scriptures in light of that understanding of God. I increasingly suspect I can only understand the scriptures to the extent that I know God.

    Agreed about how thoroughly PSA is read into scripture. Passages that could be consistent with PSA (but also with many other views) are understood as positive evidence for PSA, and only PSA. Other passages (the unconditional love of the sermon on the mount) are then interpreted in light of the apparent plain truth of PSA from other passages, because God does not change and scripture interprets scripture.

    The impact of that, perhaps, is that core Biblical language is defined in light of PSA. Justice requires retribution, mercy implies the object of mercy is unworthy of mercy, repentance is a prerequisite of forgiveness. Such definitions make it hard to communicate with folks like me who are steeped in PSA–to get me to a view of God where wrath and conditional love isn’t a core part of the gospel story requires I redefine bedrock concepts.

  55. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Leaving behind the Penal Substitutionary Atonement is much like leaving behind an entire religion – with the exception that you are allowed to keep the best part – Christ Himself.

    The River of Fire was a great encouragement to me (though I had embraced its teaching long before I read it). For one, it well explained how we can say, “All things work together for good for those who love God, etc.” even when we read the word “wrath” and its cognates in the Scriptures.

    I will add a couple of thoughts. First, “Scripture interprets Scripture” is perhaps true, but only if you start with the right Scripture. The gospel trump everything. Everything in the Scriptures is read through Christ and His Pascha, without if’s, and’s, or but’s.

    I remind myself when I read the works of Protestants, that, by and large, they have never attended an Orthodox liturgy, much less the entire cycle of Holy Week and Pascha. In that manner, they are simply strangers to the life of the Church. I have now been Orthodox for over 25 years. The constant “bathing” that takes place through attendance in the services cannot be fully understood from outside. I have often had to hold my peace when the choir was singing some theological commentary on the Scriptures or the event of a feast – while inside I was bursting with questions and wonder. Every form of Christianity outside of Orthodoxy is, by comparison, exceedingly thin gruel (unimaginably thin by comparison).

    That “liturgical bath” is a tremendous help in the healing the soul from the ravages of alien thought and teaching. It is aided by the examples of the saints who actually lived it (and often died for it). They were not men who stood in pulpits and expounded opinion. They were champions who wrestled with demons and triumphed through Christ. The love of Christ is made so manifest in them that it underlines the love of God in the Scriptures.

    God give you grace as you make your journey to Him. May He preserve us all!

  56. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    After discussions about salvation, PSA, etc; I find myself asking why is the Person of Mary, the Mother of our Lord not mentioned more?
    Her presence and Grace are not at all compatible with PSA I do not believe–at least as we venerate her. The first time I entered an Orthodox Worship, my breathe was taken away by her beauty and presence in the icon behind the Altar with Jesus on her lap.

  57. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    When we think of the general idea of the story of salvation – or the “scope” as the Fathers called it – if we get it wrong, not all of the pieces fit. It’s like assembly something and then noticing you left some parts out. The Virgin Birth, and its theological implications, are an essential part of the story of salvation – not just as fulfilling a Bible prophecy – nor just being a miracle. That Mary is largely absent in a number of Protestant treatments is an indication that they’ve got the story somewhat wrong – or quite truncated. I think that when the Orthodox speak about the “fullness of the faith” they mean that nothing is left out or overlooked.

  58. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I always seem to forget her and allow the direction of the conversation to be directed by the truncated version..
    With The Theotokos in the picture the whole salvation process becomes more warm and less “mechanistic,”.

  59. David Mansfield Avatar
    David Mansfield

    Fr Stephen
    Thanks for this ,for what it’s worth I agree with your post .I find PSA to be a twisting of scripture to make it say what is not there . I’m not a wordsmith like some posting but I too think some ot the reformed churches turn God into a monster.

  60. David Mansfield Avatar
    David Mansfield

    Father Stephen
    I’ve just read The river of fire . As a Catholic who practices his faith to the ridicule of family and friends,it has given me plenty to think about . Thank you for your work and blog Father .
    Yours Dave

  61. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The author is very harsh on the West – and, as such, he paints with a larger brush than is accurate. There are salient points to ponder, though.

  62. thomas Avatar

    I know this is an older article, but I just wanted to second what Dee wrote above:

    PSA is the poison that kept me from all Christianity for about 50 years.

    It was the same for me and I think it is great that you continue to speak against this heresy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast