The deadly snare of the debtor’s ethic


“God’s given you so much, He’s done so much for you—now what will you do for Him?”

This is the trap of what John Piper refers to as “the debtor’s ethic,” that although we’re completely incapable of ever paying back our debt to God, there’s an implicit demand that we work at it. And the result is our good deeds and worship serve as interest-only payments on a debt that can never decrease.

Such a notion ought never be uttered among Christians.

And yet it is.

How many of us have been guilty of thinking something like this—or worse, using a tactic like this to motivate a Christian to give or serve?

I understand the tension that exists. When our churches seem to have only a few dozen people who are serving and giving while hundreds seem content to be come, see and take, it can most assuredly be tempting for a pastor to find a way to motivate them, to stir them to action.

And the debtor’s ethic will work, for a little while. People will serve for a few weeks. They’ll give regularly for a few months… and then they won’t.

There has to be a better way—and there is. I really appreciate the corrective Piper offers in Brothers We Are Not Professionals:

God takes pains to motivate us by reminding us that He is now and always will be working for those who follow Him in the obedience of faith. He never stops and waits for us to work for Him “out of gratitude.” He guards us from the mind-set of a debtor by reminding us that all our Christian labor for Him is a gift from Him (Rom. 11:35-36; 15:18) and therefore cannot be conceived as payment of a debt. In fact, the astonishing thing is that every good deed we do in dependence on Him to “pay Him back” does just the opposite; it puts us ever deeper in debt to His grace. “I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me” (1 Cor. 15:10 NASB). Let us teach people that is exactly where God wants us to be through all eternity, going ever deeper in debt to grace.

Should we then stop preaching gratitude as a motivation? I leave that for you to answer. But if we go on urging people to obey “out of gratitude” we should at least show them the lurking dangers and describe how gratitude can motivate obedience without succumbing to a debtor’s mentality. (Brothers We Are Not Professionals, 50-51)

How can we motivate ourselves and others without becoming trapped in the snare of the debtor’s ethic? The key is found in 1 Cor 15:10 (cited above): It’s remembering that grace fuels even our gratitude—our salvation is all of grace, and thus our service is all of grace as well. When we recognize this and when it takes root, our mindset shifts away from us—even in our gratitude for the grace of Christand continually back toward Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith.

2 thoughts on “The deadly snare of the debtor’s ethic”

  1. Aaron, church leaders frequently leverage “the debtor’s ethic” to stir congregants to action. In most cases I don’t think they’re being manipulative, but simply veered slightly off course. I do believe leaders walk that tightrope between teaching “serving out of gratitude”, and of “paying back God” for what He has done. It’s a fine line sometimes. Thanks for a post that reminds us to tread carefully.

    1. Thanks for this comment, Scott. I agree, I wouldn’t want to suggest that anyone is intentionally being manipulative, and you’re right that is such a difficult line to walk–one that I even find tricky to navigate in my dayjob.

      The more I read and put what I’m learning into practice, the trickier it seems to become. In your role, have you found a successful way of encouraging others as they navigate the tension?

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