A Study of Debt


     Most Americans are characterized for sure by two features: They love money and they are in debt. The Bible is plain regarding the love of money. "For the love of money is the root of all evil…" (I Tim. 6: 10). There are many attendant problems associated with the love of money (I Tim. 6: 5-11). Having said this, money is vital to and in our lives. How can one obey the command to provide for one's own without an awareness, appreciation, and acquisition of money (I Tim. 6: 10, Eph. 6: 2). Regarding debt and money, there is a relevant command that seems to have been almost forgotten. Paul wrote thus to the Christians at Rome: "Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law" (13: 8). Let us now focus more on the subject of debt under two headings.

     All accountable men have a debt (something owed to another). The debt is sin and sin, I submit, is universal (I Jn. 1: 7-10). Jesus taught, "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (Matt. 6: 12). Commentator Albert Barnes makes some excellent comments on the thought and concept of the "debt" mentioned by Jesus. Please consider them:

    "Debtors are those who are bound to others for some claim in commercial transactions….Literally there can be no such transaction between God and us. It must be used figuratively. We have not met the claims of law. We have violated its obligations. We are exposed to its penalty. We are guilty, and God only can forgive, in the same way as none but a creditor can forgive a debtor. The word 'debts' here, therefore, means 'sins' or offences against God - offences which none but God can forgive" (Barnes Notes on the New Testament, Vol. 1, Matt. 6: 12).

     God will forgive man his debt of sin and God expects man to forgive those who have personally sinned against him (Matt. 6: 12, 18: 23-35). Not only does the teaching of Matthew 18: 23-35 contain the glorious thought that God will forgive man of his sin, but the text also presents sin or debt comparatively viewed. The comparison is between man's sins against God and man's sins against man. From this comparison, we learn that man's sins against his fellow man are small in debt compared to man's sins against God (see vs. 23-35). In fact, the enormity of the debt of sin owed to God is such that the record states, "And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay…" (vs. 24, 25, ten thousand talents was an amount totally out of the reach of the average man to pay, regardless of the different possible currency considerations). Man, on the other hand, is seen owing man a much smaller debt (vs. 28).

     Man's spiritual debt to God cannot be paid by man's meritorious efforts, this is another paramount lesson in Matthew 18: 23-35. The forgiveness from God must be "out of compassion" and not because we have paid off the debt (vs. 27, 32, 33). In the language of Paul, man cannot work and earn salvation or freedom from spiritual debt (Rom. 4). However, this is not to say that "Jesus did it all on the cross; therefore, man is totally passive." Man resolves his spiritual debt by appropriating God's grace (Eph. 2: 8, 9). Involved in this appropriation is belief, repentance, confession of Jesus' deity, and water baptism for the forgiveness of sin (Acts 2: 36-38, Rom. 10: 9, 10). The Christian continues to contact Jesus' blood (the means of the debt being retired) by "walking in the light" and "confessing his sins" (I Jn. 1: 7-10). In the matter of debt to man, Paul experienced a great feeling of debt, to preach the debt releasing gospel to all men (Rom. 1: 14-16).

     What a thought: we are as far as our own means are concerned, hopelessly in debt to God and facing ultimate condemnation throughout all eternality, but God has made our forgiveness possible through the blood of his Son (Matt. 26: 28).

     The matter of financial debt. According to one survey, the average American owes $6,000.00 in credit card debt. Some of the debt involves such an exorbitant interest rate that many of these people will never be able to recover. The Christian is to, "make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fall, they may receive you into everlasting habitations" (Lk. 16: 9, see vs. 1-13). I am convinced that Jesus is teaching the proper use of money in this parable. One can correctly make use of money by visiting the fatherless and the widows in their affliction (Jas. 1: 27). Assisting the needy in general and contributing into the treasury of the local church (Eph. 4: 28; cp. I Cor. 16: 1, 2).

     Financial debt can and does contribute to spiritual failure. Financial worries constitute a portion of the "cares of this life" that result in not bearing fruit to God's glory (Lk. 8: 14). Marriage failure, mental, and emotional problems are all often connected to financial indebtedness. Families are deteriorating often because both the mother and father are so deeply in debt that they are working long hours just to try to keep from going under or experiencing bankruptcy.

     Paul said: "Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law" (Rom. 13: 8). I do not think that Paul necessarily means to say that purchasing on time or taking out credit is automatically a sin. When one charges a purchase, one is promising to pay by installments. If the installment is not paid, one has not fulfilled the promise. In fact, the word "owe" on Romans 13: 8 is the Greek opheilo, which means a moral obligation. Credit is taken too lightly today and bankruptcy is too readily available to enable people to escape their debts.

     Some ways to avoid, meet, and control debt. In the first place, many of the "things" for which people incur debt are not things that man really needs. Americans have come to think that they must have it all and maintain a certain lifestyle. We have too often forgotten the basic necessities of life, food, shelter, and clothing (Matt. 6: 25-34). Covetousness and lack of contentment are rampant (Heb. 13: 5).

     In many cases, by being diligent and industrious in labor we can avoid objectionable debt. The Christian is to be the opposite of sloth and laziness (Col. 3: 22, 23). The teaching of the wise man is always applicable: "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might..." (Eccl. 9: 10, contrast with Prov. 6: 6-11).

     Many are living beyond their means. Plastic money is a temptation some cannot resist; hence, they financially over extend themselves. In doing local preaching, I have too many times encountered families that were in financial bondage. "We cannot help or participate in different acts because we are so in debt," I have heard. I have always found that such problems are the result of being too fond of material things (I Tim. 6: 6-10).

     Lack of money management is often the cause of people's financial problems. One simple way to track and channel expenditures is to keep a log or record of where your money is being spent. When some have done this, they have been shocked at the percentage going for "recreation." Keeping a log can help us assess our financial priorities and make the necessary adjustments (Matt. 6: 33).

     Husbands and wives should work together in financial management. This is especially true when both the husband and wife are involved in secular work. Separate check books, credit cards, etc. can and often do lead to financial embarrassment if they are not monitored. The family should be working together in such matters, not going their own separate ways (see Prov. 31: 10-31).

     Many are in financial want because they ignore hard, honest work and seek after the easy, fast money. Increase in gambling is reflective of such an attitude, I believe. "If I could only win the lottery," some repine. Constancy over a period of time is always the practice that pays great dividends.

     The bottom line in the matter of financial debt is self-control. Credit is much too available and many do not seem to be able to resist it. I was speaking to a young person just the other day and asked, "when was the last time you went home?" She answered and I mentioned that I was sure the cost of travel was a big factor. "Oh, no," she replied, "when I want to do something and I do not have the money, I just charge it to my credit card."

     In conclusion, God's great love is willing to release us from the debt of sin and spiritual bondage (Rom. 5: 6-10). As a result, we should appropriate God's debt releasement and ever be ready to forgive those who sin against us (Matt. 18: 23-35). We are admonished to, "Owe no man anything…," and we need to also be aware of excessive debt to man, viewing such as a moral obligation to be taken seriously.