An Unpayable Debt and Obligation

Forerunner, "Personal," May 2005

Radio personality Charles Osgood related a news item out of Miami in which a young man working as a valet parking attendant at a hotel was routinely handed a tip for fetching a man's car. Later, after the man drove off, the attendant looked at the tip and was startled to discover the man had given him a thousand dollars!

The tip-giver was unaware of his mistake until well on his way back to his home in West Virginia. He immediately turned around and drove back to the hotel. He found that the young man had turned the money in to his supervisor after correctly deciding a mistake had been made.

The story centered on the young man's honesty—and rightly so—but as Osgood was telling the story, I began wondering whether the West Virginia man would feel obligated to give the attendant a nice tip. He did.

He gave the young man a much larger tip than he would have normally, but it was nevertheless a small percentage of what he had almost lost. This made me wonder because we live at a time when so many have, at best, a very weak sense of obligation. The dominant concept seems to be "I have this coming to me" or "It is owed to me."

Entertainers and professional athletes are clear examples of people who often do not feel obligated to conclude their existing contracts. If they have a "good year" or a "big hit," they want to renegotiate to a better contract before the old one expires.

Have the United States and Canada ever seen a time in their histories when people's sense of obligation to nation, community, or family was at a lower ebb? Though these three institutions give us a great deal—more than we could ever give back—it seems easy for many not to feel a sense of obligation to them.

Many appear even to lack recognition of their indebtedness. It is fairly obvious that human nature is so self-centered that it does not come naturally equipped with a sense of obligation, which is a virtuous quality or character trait that one must learn and build primarily within the family and secondarily within the community.

We come under obligation when we are rendered a service, producing indebtedness to the one who performed it. We feel required to respond by repaying the indebtedness, and in many cases, a heartfelt "thank you" is in order, at the very least. True obligation, closely related to accountability and responsibility, is a deep conviction that we owe someone something. This sense is very important to the proper understanding of Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread.

Under Obligation

The word obligation does not appear in the King James Version and only three times in the New King James Version. However, its sense appears scores of times through other words and phrases, such as "because," "therefore," "wherefore," "thus," and "for." These words frequently precede a Christian requirement of conduct or attitude, an exhortation to obedience, or instruction concerning cause-and-effect.

Notice this in I Peter 1:15-16: ". . . but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, 'Be holy, for I am holy.'" Because God, our spiritual Father whom we represent, is holy, we are under obligation to be holy ourselves. Peter draws on our sense of obligation to the Father to exhort us to obedient conduct. He then intensifies our sense of obligation by reminding us that we owe our lives to Christ because He redeemed us:

And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one's work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear, knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you who through Him believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. (verses 17-21)

Though one might understand that the "you" in verse 18 might apply generally to many, it has far greater impact if we take it as aimed directly at us personally. Christ would still have died if only you had sinned and needed redeeming!

These verses help us to understand something vital to our well-being. One's sense of obligation to God is in direct proportion to his ability to contrast the peerless quality and pricelessness of the gift with the worthlessness of the purchased possession. A billionaire might consider $1,000 to be pocket change, but to a person bankrupt and destitute, it is a fortune. Thus, evaluations vary due to differing perspectives.

The apostle Paul wails in Romans 7:24-25, "O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!" Our sense of obligation rests on a thoughtful and true assessment of ourselves and our self-centered, aimless, corrupt, sinful lives compared to the purity our Redeemer possessed and displayed in His sacrifice for us.

An Incredibly High Standard

Luke 7:36-40 introduces a parable that helps us to understand, not only how the sense of obligation is produced, but how deep it should be:

Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee's house, and sat down to eat. And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, "This man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner." And Jesus answered and said to Him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." So he said, "Teacher, say it."

Within this setting, which contrasts the widely different perspectives of Jesus held by the outwardly respectable Pharisee and the obviously sinful woman, Jesus gives clear instruction that a sense of obligation will produce a quality of conduct that God will highly esteem and that will be of inestimable value to those who recognize their indebtedness:

"There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?" Simon answered and said, "I suppose the one whom he forgave more." And He said to him, "You have rightly judged." Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little." Then He said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" Then He said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace." (verses 41-50)

The woman perceived a greatness in Jesus that motivated her to so abase herself. A proper sense of obligation works to produce a valuable Christian virtue—humility.

Notice her emotion, devotion, and seeming unconcern for public opinion in going far beyond the normal task of a slave. We can safely guess that Jesus had played a huge part in turning this woman from her bondage to sin. She may have first simply been among the crowds who were convicted by His messages. However, she thought deeply and personally on the difference between her life and His words. When she heard He was nearby, she rushed to Simon's home, ignoring the scorn of others to express her gratitude to the One who had set her aright.

Her deed expresses her love and gratitude springing from recognition of His greatness as compared to her unworthiness. She felt obligated to respond in a way so memorable that God recorded it for all humanity for all time to witness. Note that the Bible shows human lips touching Jesus only twice: Here and Judas' kiss of betrayal.

Now notice the contrast with Simon the Pharisee, who was evidently a man of some substance and a measure of aggression that resulted in him inviting the celebrated Jesus to his home. He was a man so self-concerned and inhospitable that he failed to offer Jesus even the customary services a host provided visitors to his home. Simon probably felt himself at least Jesus' equal, and his conclusion that He was no prophet perhaps indicates that he styled himself as Jesus' superior. He likely considered Jesus nothing but an interesting celebrity who could gain him recognition in the community for having Him as his guest.

His evaluation of himself in relation to Jesus produced in him no sense of obligation, and thus no gratitude, humility, or act of love, let alone common courtesy. Had he a heart at all? He was scandalized by this dramatic and arresting scene taking place at his respectable table.

While God considered her act of love to be so awesome that He had it memorialized as an eternal witness, Simon's perception of it only concluded, "She is a sinner." No, Simon, she was a sinner, and therein is a major clue to the reason for their differing reactions to Jesus. In Jesus' parable, Simon and the woman held something in common—something Simon did not grasp, but the woman did. Both were debtors to the same Creditor, and neither could meet their obligations, but Simon did not even see his indebtedness.

Interestingly, in the model prayer (Matthew 6:12), sin is expressed as debt. It is a true metaphor because duty neglected in relation to God is a debt owed to Him, one that must be discharged by paying a penalty. All have sinned (Romans 3:23), and the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). We are all under a peculiar form of indebtedness that we cannot pay and still have hope!

Two Classes of Sinners, One Obligation

Simon and the woman each portray a class of sinners. Though all are sinners, some have incurred more debt through the way of life each lived. Some are outwardly respectable, decent, and clean living, while others have fallen into gross, sensual, and open transgression. In this regard, Simon was a great deal "better" than the woman, who was coarse and unclean. She had been wallowing in filth while he attained civic respectability through rigid morality and punctilious observance of civility. He had far less to answer for than she, but he had also received a great deal more from his morality and righteousness than she had. God is not so unfair as to withhold blessings from people for the right they have done. Yet, regardless of the relative size of each one's debt, neither was able to pay it!

We all are sinful and stand in the same relation to God as these two debtors. One's sins may be blacker and more numerous than another's, but upon considering degrees of guilt and the complex motivations behind each one's sins, we may not be so quick to judge the woman's sins worse than Simon's. From this perspective, they were equal. His sins were clothed with respectability, but he still could not meet his debt. Jesus says, "They had nothing to pay." That also precisely describes our position in relation to each other.

What does this mean practically in regard to Jesus Christ and our sins? No depth of guilt, no amount of tears, self-flagellation, or discipline, no amount of repentance can work this into a payable debt. Some of these are certainly required of God and are good to do, but forgiveness, the payment of our debt incurred through our personal sins, is by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). It comes by God's mercy through the blood of Jesus Christ (I John 1:7). We absolutely cannot pay it ourselves and still have hope of eternal life. If it could, God would owe us something—He would be indebted to us! That will never, never be.

Agnostic George Bernard Shaw makes Cusins, a character in his play, Major Barbara, say, "Forgiveness is a beggar's refuge. . . . [W]e must pay our debts." This may normally be a correct, responsible position. However, in the case of our debt to God, Shaw does not tell us how to pay it.

If a man is honorable today, he has not changed the fact that he was dishonorable yesterday. Historians try to write accounts that will make their nations' actions and motives appear pure. But is it realistic to believe that history can be cleansed, virginity restored, murder undone, slander recalled, or deceit purified?

Can we just wipe acts from our memories? We cannot return to the past to undo things, let alone redeem them. We may mend our ways and rightfully should, but so doing leaves the past untouched. We may hate the evil, which will keep us from repeating it in the future, but it does not affect our responsibility for what has been done!

We must be realistic regarding our sins because we stand with a death sentence written all over us. As is written in Hebrews 2:2-3:

For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him . . . ?

We have nothing with which to pay this debt. We stand before Him in penniless insolvency with empty pockets and hands. No justification on our part will clear us. However, this is good because we must recognize the depth of our insolvency if we expect to be forgiven and desire to be like Him. If we are going to pay, we must pay it all. If He will forgive, we must let Him forgive it all—on His terms. It must be one or the other, and we must choose which of the two it will be. If we choose the one, the payment is death without hope. If we choose the other, it puts us under obligation to the One who pays our otherwise unpayable debt.

But to what then are we obligated? Jesus Himself provides the beginning of the answer by asking a question in Luke 7:42: "And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?" Jesus draws a direct correlation between acts of love directed toward Him and the recognition of the enormity of the forgiven sins, as contrasted to the payment made to remove our indebtedness.

We are obligated to love Him, and if the recognition is strong, we are virtually driven to do so due to grasping the enormity of what we have been saved from in contrast to the tremendous value of what we are now free to pursue. Could we, like the Ephesian church in Revelation 2:1-7, have left our first love because we no longer make an effort to remember these things?

Jesus adds, "Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little" (Luke 7:47). The person who knows he has been forgiven much feels more strongly obliged to the one who paid his debt than one who thinks his indebtedness and forgiveness are of little consequence. The one forgiven much feels obligated to live the way his Redeemer tells him he should.

A Consciousness of Forgiveness

Jesus is telling us that those most conscious of forgiveness will be the most fruitful of love. The depth, fervor, and growth of our Christianity depends perhaps more largely on the clarity of our consciousness of this contrast than upon anything else.

One can be very gifted yet not grow as much as one less gifted but more aware of his obligation to Christ. The latter will simply be more motivated. On the other hand, some come along like the apostle Paul, who was both greatly gifted and constantly conscious of his obligation to Christ.

In I Corinthians 15:9-10, the apostle gives us insight into his awareness of his indebtedness and sense of obligation:

For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.

Perhaps there is no finer example than Paul. He never forgot what he had done, or its contrast between the immensity of what he had been freely forgiven and offered. He responded to God with great energy and enthusiasm, apparently with little concern for what others thought of him for doing so.

Another part of this picture requires examination because I Corinthians is among the earliest of Paul's writings. Was there a change in him later in life? Did his sense of indebtedness wane? I Timothy 1:12-15, among the last of Paul's epistles, provides us with the answer:

And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.

This proves that late in his life as an apostle, he was still keenly aware of the enormity of what he had been forgiven. He probably purposely kept this memory alive so as not to take any chance of losing his sense of responsibility. He understood human nature well, not wanting to risk losing the proper perspective that Christ had given him at the beginning. Rather than carry it about as a burdensome load of guilt, he used it as a realistic recognition of his indebtedness to Christ for what he had been forgiven and what had been accomplished since that time.

A stark contrast to this appears elsewhere in Paul's writings, which some think reveals a contradiction. In Philippians 3:6, he writes concerning himself before his conversion, ". . . concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless." Is this truly a contradiction? No, before conversion Paul was a great deal like Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7. He was clothed in respectability, but he knew he was guilty of many deeds and attitudes for which Jesus denounced the Pharisees. In Philippians 3, he is instead looking back on what he thought of himself then. However, as God called him, he came to see himself through God's eyes as a man struggling with sin but rescued from it through Jesus Christ, which he describes in Romans 7. He then became a man whose faith was in God's grace, and he responded with zealous work largely out of a deep sense of grateful obligation.

Paul was full of wonder and gratitude when he remembered what Christ had done and continued to do through and for him. G.K. Chesterton, an atheist who converted to Catholicism, commented regarding this circumstance, "It is the highest and holiest of paradoxes that the man who really knows he cannot pay his debt will be forever paying it."

Throughout his epistles, Paul supplies us with definitive answers as to what we are obligated. However, in Romans 12:1-2, He gives us a broad overview:

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

To grasp this properly, one must understand these two verses against the background of the book of Romans. The preceding eleven chapters contain the doctrinal foundation and prelude to the last four chapters of practical Christian living. These two verses bridge the gap between the doctrinal foundation and the practical, daily applications. In these two verses, he is essentially saying, "In light of what I have told you, this is what you are obligated to do in order to serve—that is, to love—Christ."

First, we must operate by these two principles and give up our whole being constantly to these pursuits. Second, we must yield ourselves so that we are not merely avoiding conformity to this world but being transformed into a new being, proving to ourselves the benefits of this way of life. Thus, we are to apply these two principles to the subject of the rest of chapter 12, which primarily concerns relationships with the brethren within the church, and secondarily, with those in the world.

A More Comprehensive View of Love

Chapter 13 begins by stating our obligation to submit to civil governments, pay taxes, and respect those in authority. However, verses 8-10 are a summary statement that captures the breadth of our obligation:

Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, "You shall not commit adultery," "You shall not murder," "You shall not steal," "You shall not bear false witness," "You shall not covet," and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

However, in verse 8, Paul has presented us with an interesting paradox. On the one hand, he states that we should owe no man anything that he can rightfully claim from us, yet on the other hand, we must owe everyone more than we can hope to pay—perfect love. By this, he extends and intensifies the concept of obligation. We must be more scrupulous within the limits of the customary concept of indebtedness, and we must infinitely widen the range within which they operate.

Was it not our failure to meet our obligations to God and man that accrued the unpayable debt in the first place? Now that the debt has been paid, we are under obligation, not only to strive to avoid falling into the same trap, but to expand and perfect the giving of love. The paradox is more apparent than real because love is not merely one's duty added to others, but is the inclusive framework within which all duties should be performed. Love is the motivating power that frees and enables us to serve and sacrifice with largeness of heart and generosity of spirit.

However, as long as we view love merely as the keeping of God's laws, we are stuck on a low-level, letter-of-the-law approach to righteousness. That is most assuredly a vital and necessary aspect of love, but there is far more to love. That level of love can be merely one of compulsion, and be done in a "just because" attitude: "I must love this person, but I don't have to like them." This may suffice for a while, but Paul, by drawing upon Christ's teaching, unveils an entirely new significance to the concept of obligation.

Of what level was the love of the fallen woman who washed Christ's feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them with her lips, and anointed them with costly oil? Was her conduct merely to keep a commandment, or was it an exquisite expression of a heart freed to give its all?

I Corinthians 11:17-34 encapsulates the solution to a tragic story of gluttony, drunkenness, class distinction, and party spirit—all within the framework of the "love feasts" of a Christian congregation! Why were some guilty of these sins? Because, despite being converted, some of them neither loved God nor their brethren, which a reading of the entire epistle reveals.

To what does Paul refer them to correct their abominable behavior? To the Passover service and Christ's death! Christ's death is the supreme example of unselfish and sacrificial service in behalf of the undeserving guilty. It is the highest, most brilliant example of love.

Out of a beneficent good will, the Father and the Son freely gave of themselves for the sake of our well-being. For those of us still in the flesh, this beneficent goodwill results in our forgiveness, forging a foundation from which the same approach to life can begin to be exercised. When we can properly judge ourselves in terms of what we are in relation to Their freely given sacrifices, it frees us, not only to conduct life as They do, but eventually to receive everlasting life too.

Job confesses in Job 42:5-6, "I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." Though Job was among the most upright of men, all his life he had held a wrong evaluation of himself in relation to God and other men. Yet when God allowed him to "see" himself, as He did the apostle Paul in Romans 7, Job was devastated, his vanity crushed, and he repented. Now, he was truly prepared to begin to love.

Paul instructs in I Corinthians 11:24-25:

. . . and when He had given thanks, He broke [bread] and said, "Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me." In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me."

"Do this in remembrance of Me" has a couple of alternative renderings that may help us understand more clearly. It can be rendered more literally, "Do this for the remembering of Me," or "Do this in case you forget." God does not want us to let this sacrifice get very far from our minds. It is not that He wants maudlin sentimentality from us. Instead, He wants to remind us that it represents the measure of His love for us as well as of our worth to Him, that we always bear a right sense of obligation, not as an overbearing burden, but a wondering awe that He would pay so much for something so utterly defiled.

We are admonished to remember not merely the personality Jesus, but the whole package: His connection to the Old Testament Passover; His life of sacrificial service; His violent, bloody death for the remission of the sins of mankind; the sacrificial connection to the New Covenant; and who He was, our sinless Creator! This act becomes the foundation of all loving relationships possible to us with God and His Family because it provides us reason to hope that our lives are not spent in vain. In addition, it motivates us to do what we failed to do that put us into debt in the first place—to love.

Paul admonishes in verse 29, "For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord's body." To eat the bread or drink the wine in an unworthy manner is to treat His sacrifice with casual, disrespectful ingratitude—a better translation might be "without due appreciation, especially as shown by one's life." It means that the person who does this is not showing much love in his life because he is barely aware of his sins and the enormous cost of forgiveness.

Such a person is not really free to love because he is still wrapped up in himself. When we take Passover, let us strive to remember that our fellowship at that special time is with Him. The others there to participate in the service are at that time only incidental to our relationship with Christ. The focus is on Christ and the subject of this article.


The Passover service is not an hour of instruction, though some things are undoubtedly learned. It is a communion within the framework of a ritual. If we are in the right spirit of devotion, we are in the closest possible relationship with our Savior.

In John 6:53-57, Jesus speaks of the value of His death using His own flesh and blood as the means to everlasting life:

Then Jesus said to them. "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me."

During the Passover service, Jesus is not only the host and giver of the feast; symbolically, He is the feast itself. Any other food or fellowship for that service is at the least a distraction from the intended communion with Christ.

What a Savior, what a sacrifice, what an example, what a purchase price we are obligated to! Nothing better could ever happen to us in our lives because of what it opens up to us. The world does not revolve around us, what we think, how we act, or what our goals might be.

Passover is intended by God to teach us these things so that we begin each year by being turned from where we have deviated in our understanding and application, and "jump started" once again in the right direction with the right attitude.

Life revolves around our Father in heaven, His Messiah and our Creator and Savior, and Their purpose. Let us cry out to God for a better understanding of what we are and what Christ did so we can be filled with an awesome sense of our indebtedness and obligation.

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