In Chapter 2, Piper continues building his case that radical Christian living is fueled by a forward-looking, expectant faith in God’s grace rather than a backwards-looking gratitude for God’s past grace.
He begins this chapter with an explanation of utang na loob, a Filipino mind-set “which dictates that the recipient of a good act or deed behave generously towards his benefactor as long as he lives.” He goes on to say that this way of thinking is not endemic to the Philippines, but it exists in every human heart. Most people demonstrate their need to repay others for the good done to them. I know very few people who enjoy feeling indebted to another. When it comes to our relationships among men and women, I think that’s fine; however, in relation to God we are always recipients. Piper cautions us that, “If the impulses of gratitude slip over into the debtor’s ethic, grace soon ceases to be grace. The effort to repay God [with acts of obedience], in the ordinary way we pay our creditors, would nullify grace and turn it into a business transaction.”
This reminded me of a Bible study I participated in several years ago. We had to read Romans 4 as part of this study. As the teacher attempted to exposit the passage, she indicated that when Paul wrote that our “faith is counted as righteousness,” he meant that God actually counts acts done in faith as our righteousness. And wouldn’t it be great to make it to Heaven one day and see more acts of faith than acts of sin on the balance sheet? Well, sure. But does that mean that I earn righteousness via my actions done in faith? I’m afraid Piper gets dangerously close to saying that on page 46.
The difference between Piper and the other teacher lies in the source of that faith. I think Piper makes it clear that our faith and the ability to obey God come from God and His grace toward us in Christ alone, while the former teacher seemed to say that we just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and obey in faith. Though he hasn’t expressed it in this book (yet), Piper has also made it very clear in his other writings that he firmly believes in penal substitutionary atonement and double imputation. Christ took on all of the sins of His people while he was on the cross; He suffered and died in the place of sinners. Those who believe this are forgiven all their sin and are granted Christ’s righteous standing before God. And this standing is not earned — it is a gift of God’s grace.
Furthermore, Piper makes it clear in Ch. 2 that when the Bible speaks of our being debtors, it does so regarding our debt of sin. If we owe God, then it is because we are sinners. As far as I can tell, the only thing the Bible says is acceptable payment for our sin is death and eternal punishment. His grace did not create the debt we owe, rather, His grace paid the debt we owe.
Believing that Jesus paid my debt causes me to feel immense gratitude! And, yes, that gratitude has been tapped by a well-meaning Nominating Committee or a pastor who wouldn’t end a service until someone volunteered to fill a position. Guilt trips and manipulations are not the right ways to go about finding church members to serve. I didn’t mean to get off on that tangent; I just know people (myself included) who have agreed to serve out of “gratitude” to Jesus. Those kinds of agreements do not last long because they are fueled by human strength with a backwards-looking gaze. Over time, the service can degenerate into a debtor’s ethic that says, “Jesus died for me. This is the least I can do for Him.”
What does faith in future grace say? “There is more grace to come, and all our obedience is to be done in reliance on that future grace. Relax and exult in your appointed feast. I will take responsibility for tomorrow’s obedience.”
Please visit Discerning Reader to read Mark’s thoughtful response to this chapter.