Monday, July 19, 2010

Longing to be Debt Free?

“I’m up to my eyeballs in debt!” “I just can’t make my mortgage payment anymore.” “It just seems like one unexpected expense after another!” Sound familiar? In these hard-hit economic times, most of us are feeling the pinch. If you’ve found yourself in such a situation—if you’ve got debts on cars, homes, and student loans, you probably have wished or dreamed of what it would be like to be debt free. To have all of your debts paid in full, and to be in the clear. Here at Emmanuel, we still are paying down a sizable debt on our new land for the school expansion. We too would long to be debt free. Graciously and thankfully, as of spring 2010, the school has fully paid down the debt on the classroom expansions of some years ago (the modulars) on our current property. Every debt paid is like a little victory, right?

So imagine for a moment what you would do if you were debt free. If the mortgage and the car and the credit card were all paid off. Your income would no longer be chained to someone else. This was the goal—“financial freedom”—of the Financial Peace class we held about a year ago, and hopefully will do again this year. The presenter envisions an individual or family paying off those debts one by one, and each debt paid is like a little victory, worthy of a shout and a little celebration! You may imagine yourself going on a dream vacation, or multiplying your savings, or being able to give more generously to charities and philanthropy—or all of those and more. Free of the pressure and worry of making ends meet, of always owing the bank or someone else. For many, such a dream seems elusive. And it may or may not remain so, depending on how one determines to solve their problems.

But setting aside the material and financial side of living with debt, the Bible sometimes uses the same language of “debt” in a spiritual way. Depending on how the Greek word opheilemata is translated, the familiar phrase in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” can be translated as debts. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12, ESV, KJV, NKJV, NIV, NASB, NRSV). Have you ever considered or realized what it means to be “debt free” before God? That we owed an enormous and un-payable debt of sin to our Lord and our King, and He released us from payment and forgave us that debt? (Matt. 18:21-35) That Jesus took the certificate of debt that we had accumulated because of our sins, and He cancelled it by nailing it to the tree of the cross? (Colossians 2:14) What kind of freedom and what kind of release is that?! More than worthy of a shout and a celebration! Words can’t fully express the change from being sunk past our eyes in the debt of our sin, to being lifted out of the mire (Ps. 69:1-3) and be forgiven of our sins.

How should you live then, knowing that you are debt free before God? That Jesus has paid the full price for your sins, and has blessed you with His riches? More than just restoring us to a zero balance, Jesus has sealed us (in Baptism) with His Holy Spirit as the guarantee or down payment on our inheritance, until the time we acquire possession of it, in heaven (Eph. 1:14; 2 Cor. 1:22). We have been filled with the spiritual blessings and riches of His grace (Eph. 1:3, 7). Living debt free before God means that we should not hold grudges or unforgiveness in our hearts against anyone else for their debts (Matt. 18:21-35), so that we forgive as God has forgiven us. Living debt free before God means living with the rejoicing and freedom that comes from knowing our debt has been canceled.

Cling to this Gospel message, that Christ paid our debt in full. Beware of those who reduce or change this message of salvation. Some find the message just too good to be true, and that there just has to be some way that we contribute to our salvation. Sometimes well-meaning Christians worry that if we don’t somehow chip in to pay the debt, that people will abuse and take this freedom for granted. This certainly is possible, that people will turn this newfound freedom into a license to sin. But as the Apostle Paul warns us, this should never be (Rom. 6:1-4), and that to use our freedom to return to sin is really a return to slavery (Gal. 5:13-26).

So to counter such errors, to keep Christians from turning freedom into license, some have employed different errors. (Which never solves anything!) Sometimes salvation is diminished to a “debt-reduction” program, where Jesus didn’t pay your debt in full, but only reduced it to an amount that you can afford. Then, by your good works, you work off the remaining, smaller debt, and are cleared. Salvation then becomes somewhat of a probation program, and your promised inheritance of eternal life is still given by Jesus, but only in a conditional way. Then it’s up to you to prove by your good behavior that you deserve it. So in the end it’s still your reward that you’ve earned. But anytime we add anything to salvation, anytime we add something to what Jesus has done for us, we really subtract Jesus. Because to add to Jesus is to say that His work of salvation for us, His paying and canceling our debt, is somehow incomplete. That it’s only complete when we’ve done our part. This tragically takes away from what Christ has done, and lowers its importance, while trying to increase the importance of what we do.

But our salvation is not a debt-reduction by Jesus, it’s the total and complete forgiveness of our sins, to which we cannot add anything. That certificate of debt that Jesus nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14) now is stamped in His blood: “PAID IN FULL.” We no longer have to long to be debt free, we can begin living in the freedom that Christ has won for us, the freedom to live as forgiven children of God, and to use our freedom for thankful love and service to Him and our neighbor. Have faith in Jesus and know what it means to have true spiritual freedom, in His name, Amen.

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