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Was Humanity Ever Indebted to God?
When Adam and Eve were disobedient to God, in regard to the one sacred tree of which they were told not to eat, the consequences were not that they were now indebted to God. The consequence was “in dying you will die” (Gen. 1:17b). We see that attending this, or perhaps the realization of this consequence, was their exclusion from the Garden, and thus, from the Tree of Life.
Where Paul describes this event and its consequences, in Rom. 5:12-19, there is no mention of humanity incurring a debt to God. We, being an extension of Adam, were condemned into the reign of death (5:14) and, as 5:19 informs us, we “were rendered (established; constituted; placed down and made to be) sinners (failures; ones who diverge and miss the target).” Rom. 6:2 expands the picture of this situation by saying, “We… died by the Sin (or: died with the Sin; die in deviation and in error; etc.).”
Paul gives us a further view in Rom. 8, where vs. 1 informs us that the condemnation of 5:14 and 19 no longer applies to those in Christ:
“Nothing, consequently, [is] now a result of condemnation in (or: a commensurate
effect of a decision for; a corresponding result of a negative evaluation which falls in line
with a decision or follows the pattern which divides [folks] down, with) those within Christ
Then vs. 2 explains that “the principle and law of, from and which is the spirit and attitude of 'The Life within Christ Jesus' frees [us] away from the Law of the Sin and the Death.” Paul, in vs. 6, defines the Sin and the Death: “For the result of the thinking (mind-set; effect of the way of thinking; disposition; result of understanding and inclination; the minding; the opinion; the thought; the outlook) of the flesh [is; brings] death.” Now this “death,” from “the minding and outlook of the flesh,” had this result: “Now the folks continuously existing in the midst of (or: So people being in union with, or centered in,) flesh have no power and are not able at any point to please God” (vs. 8).
Observe that what Paul has explained, thus far, simply describes the situation referred to in ch. 5, above, which then has its reference to the Garden story in Gen. 3. So far, nothing about a debt owed to God. But in the following passage, Paul does mention debt – once. Look for it, and see to what a debt might be owed:
10. But since Christ [is] within you folks, on the one hand the body is dead (lifeless)
BECAUSE OF sin (through failure, deviation and missing the target), yet on the other
hand, the Spirit, Attitude and Breath-effect [is] Life BECAUSE OF an eschatological
act of justice that brought a rightwising deliverance into equitable, covenantal
relationships within the Way pointed-out.
11. Now since the Breath-effect (or: Spirit; Attitude) of the One arousing and raising
Jesus forth from out of the midst of dead folks is continuously housing Itself within,
and in union with, you folks, the One raising Christ Jesus forth from out of dead ones
will also continue progressively giving Life to the mortal bodies of you folks through
the constant indwelling of His Spirit within and among you folks.
12. So then brothers, we do not continue being debtors to the flesh, [i.e.,] of the
[situation] to be continually living down on the level of and in accord with flesh,
13. for you see, if you folks are continuously living down on the level of, and in
accord with, flesh, you are progressively about to be dying away. Yet since in spirit
(or: by [the] Breath-effect; with [His] Spirit), you folks constantly put to death the
practices and activities of the body (= works of flesh traditions; Torah cultus) you will
So, to what was the debt? To the flesh (vs. 12). Paul used another form of this word in Gal. 5:3,
“Now I continue solemnly asserting (attesting; affirming; witnessing), again, to every
person (or: human) proceeding to be circumcised, that he is, and continues being, a
DEBTOR (one under obligation) to do (to perform; to produce) the whole Law [= the entire
I suggest that this verse speaks to the same thing as does Rom. 8:12, above. But Paul is, of course, speaking metaphorically – in both of these verses. We should probably understand his use of this word in the sense of “obligation,” for Israel promised to live in accord with its Sinai charter that made them a “nation.” They were obliged to live under the precepts of the Law. But these contexts do not suggest a situation where humanity owes a debt to God which we, God, or someone else, has to pay. Even in Rom. 4:4, where we read:
“Now to the person habitually working (practicing a trade; accomplishing a work), the
wage (or: pay) is not being credited (reckoned; put on an account; considered) as
corresponding to (or: in accord with) an undeserved, gratuitous gift (or: grace; a favor),
but on the contrary, as commensurate with and coming down from a debt (something
owed; an obligation),”
Now the context of Paul’s argument there is an imagined debt that God owed to Abraham, if Abraham’s belief, trust and faith were considered a “work” that was done for wages. But no, 4:5, explains that it is not a matter of work or debt, but rather of trust and faith. God was not indebted to Abraham.
We find Paul using the verb that correlates to this noun, “debt,” in a number of his letters, but they are all in reference of what we “owe” to others, or about situations in this life. He does not present the idea of humans owing something to God, or to being indebted to Him. John’s first two letters use this verb, but in the same sense that Paul used it. In Rom. 1:14, Paul affirmed,
“I am (or: I continue being) a debtor to (or: for; or: with) both Greeks (Hellenists) and to
(for; with) barbarians (non-Hellenists: those who do not possess Greek culture); to (or: for;
with) both wise ones and to (for; with) those without understanding (unintelligent ones;
foolish ones; folks who lack sense).”
The Gospel of Matthew uses both the nouns “debt” and “debtor,” and the verb “to owe; to be in debt.” So let us examine these. In 6:12 we have both nouns:
“And then, send away the results of our debts for us (let the effects of our obligations
flow away in us; cancel the condition of our indebtedness), as we also dismiss and send
away for, and give release to, those who owe us (as we let flow-away for those in
obligation to us; cancel the situations and conditions of our debtors).”
This entire prayer centers on the contexts of the disciples’ lives here on earth. The request is not necessarily asking about supposed debts to God, and in fact are not even asking for “debt cancellation,” for the form of the word “debt” (opheilemata) signifies primarily “the results” of debt, or “the effects” of having obligations. The reference is to the “conditions of indebtedness,” but it is not necessarily asking for a loan pay-off. The whole economic system needed to be changed. A patron-client and merchant economy of the Empire was resulting in families losing their ancestral properties.
The word “debtor,” used in Mat. 18:24, was part of a kingdom parable that was a response to Peter’s question in vs. 21, “Master (or: Lord), how many times shall my brother be habitually wronging me and I shall continue to let it pass away for him?” Jesus’ analogy involved debt situations in this life and how we treat one another. The story ends, “Was it not of necessity binding [on; for] you, also, to dispense mercy to your fellow slave, just as I myself also dispensed mercy to you?” Jesus’ conclusion (vs. 35) was stern, “My heavenly Father (or: My Father, Who inhabits, and can be compared to, the atmosphere) will be progressively dealing with you folks in this same way (or: will continue doing to you men in like manner), too, if each person does not release and forgive his brother (and let things flow away for him), from your hearts.” But there was no necessity in the story for the “king” to be representing God, except by way of being a “power” figure. The king could have been Herod, or some other ruler to whom the unmerciful steward owed the enormously huge debt (the hyperbole is obvious: no “slave,” vs. 23, could have owed a master millions of dollars in that first century economy). The story was about showing mercy, and if we do not show mercy, our Father will bring us into difficult, painful situations (vs. 34) so that we can “learn” what “mercy” means (Mat. 9:13). It is the same situation, and for the same reason, that Paul made reference to all of mankind, in Rom. 11:32,
“For you see, God encloses, shuts up and locks all mankind (everyone; the entire lot of
folks) into incompliance (disobedience; stubbornness; lack of being convinced), to the
end that He could (or: would; should) mercy all mankind (may make everyone, the all,
recipients of mercy)!”
We find the verb used in Mat. 23:15-22, but the context is Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees using the concept of debt in their rules about the behavior of the people. The idea of people owing a debt to God seems to be a human invention. We can find situations in the Law where the Israelites had the option of buying back a first-born through substituting an offering or a sacrifice at the tabernacle/temple, instead of the first-born being killed. But this was simply a type of Yahweh being the rightful owner of the first-born. It was like the tithe, which was given to God, but it was for the sustenance of the priesthood, as well as a social system to provide for the poor and destitute. Even the Passover lambs were for the nourishment of Israel on the beginning of the Exodus journey.
In 1 Cor. 6:20 and 7:23 Paul metaphorically refers to God having “bought US,” as at a marketplace (where slavers were bought and sold). And so, in Rom. 1:1, we find Paul metaphorically referring to himself as being a slave of Jesus Christ. The Greek word for “Lord” also means “Owner.”
So what about the payment of a ransom to redeem someone out of slavery? Once again, this is a metaphor, and the central idea of it is that of deliverance and release of humanity from its slavery to sin (Rom. 6:16-18). Thus we have Paul proclaiming in Gal. 5:
1. For the [aforementioned] freedom, Christ immediately set us free (or: [The] Anointed
One at once frees us in, to, for and with freedom)! Keep on standing firm, therefore, and
do not again be habitually held within a yoke of slavery (or: a cross-lever [of a pair of
scales] whose sphere is bondage)
(or: Continuously stand firm, then, in the freedom [to which the] Anointing sets us
free, and let not yourselves be progressively confined again by a yoke pertaining to
2. See and individually consider! I, Paul, continue saying to you folks, that if you
should proceed to being circumcised, Christ will continue benefiting you nothing (or:
an Anointing will continue of use to you [for] not one thing)!
That freedom was (consider the context of Gal. 4 & 5:1-3) freedom from the Law, and therefore from sin, for, “the power and ability of the Sin [is] the Law” (1 Cor. 15:56b).
It is the lost who need a Savior. Two examples of this are given in the parables of the lost sheep, and the prodigal son. In neither case do we find any sense of obligation or indebtedness brought upon the sheep by the Shepherd, nor upon the returning son, by the welcoming father (Cf Lu. 15:3-32). Both cases represent God’s grace – His free gift of Life to humanity through His Son.
God judged us, and then He saved us. If there was ever any debt, it was God’s, for we are His program, and as a faithful Creator, He took responsibility for us. The serpent, in the Garden, was a “pit-fall” for Eve; it was a hazard for humanity. But it was God that had the serpent there. We read in Ex. 21 about the responsibility incurred when a person creates a hazard and does not take precautions for an accident that it might create. In vss. 33-34 the Law about such a situation was laid out:
“And if a man shall open a pit, or if a man shall dig a pit, and not cover it, and an ox or an
ass falls therein, the owner of the pit shall make restoration. He shall give money to its
owner and the dead [animal] shall be his.”
Through Adam and Eve, humanity fell into God’s pit, so God is responsible to make restoration, which He has done through Christ.
The question of “propitiation” has been brought up, in the context of this study. I have done a separate study on that topic, so please see the article, “Atonement.” But briefly, this was simply another picture, based upon an old covenant cultus on the Day of Atonement, which Christ fulfilled and which was a cleaning of us from the effects and results of our errors and mistakes. 1 Jn. 1:7b makes reference to this:
“the blood of, from, and which is Jesus, His Son, keeps continually and repeatedly
cleansing us (or: is progressively rendering us pure) from every sin (or: from all error,
failure, deviation, mistake, and from every shot that is off target [when it occurs]).”
He metaphorically paid the price (His life) to redeem us (1 Tim. 2:6; 1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23 – to buy us from our metaphorical “slavery to sin,” Rom. 6:20) in order to set us free (Gal. 5:1) and to give His life to us, that we might have life from the dead (Gen. 1:17; Rom. 5:12; Eph. 2:1). He became poor, that we might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9) by entering our state of death, taking the form of a slave (Phil. 2:7). He paid for all the dead oxen/asses that fell into the open pit (Ex. 21:33-34). But none of this metaphorical language suggests that humanity was ever indebted to God.
May God's goodness overwhelm you,
ALL 5 OF JONATHAN'S
(Updated 2015 Edition)
JONATHAN'S 4TH COMMENTARY
Peter's Encore & Later Paul
Comments on 2 Peter & Ephesians
JONATHAN'S 3RD COMMENTARY
Comments on Romans
JONATHAN'S 2ND COMMENTARY
John, Judah, Paul & ?
Comments on 6 Epistles
JONATHAN'S 1ST COMMENTARY
Peter, Paul & Jacob
Comments on 9 Epistles
Jonathan's first four volumes in a series of New Testament commentaries
Great companions to:
The New Testament
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GOD'S MESSAGE OF
WHICH BRINGS GOD'S
GIFTS OF HIS SPIRIT,
HIS LIFE, HIS GRACE,
HIS POWER, HIS
FAIRNESS, HIS PEACE
AND HIS LOVE