Romans, Debt, and Obligation

A feature of Paul’s letter to the Romans that I’ve never noticed being explored in depth is the concept of obligation or indebtedness. I am interested in this topic because there is a great deal of hand wringing in modern Christian thought about the notion of debt or obligation to God.

John Piper, for instance, thinks that the language of obligation in the context of the Christian life and worship is akin to telling your wife that you bought her flowers out of obligation (Desiring God, 97-98). Piper even calls obligation the “mortal enemy” of worship. Similarly, Greg Boyd (Piper’s opposite), in his book Seeing is Believing seems to say something similar, “striving to be holy, loving, kind or patient means nothing if these attributes are sought as ethical ideals, or to fulfill a rule, or to meet an obligation (Seeing is Believing, 53).” These attitudes toward obligation are psychologically confusing to normal people who don’t have doctoral degrees to help them keep silly things straight. When Jesus says, “train them to do everything which I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19),” we rightly feel obligated to do what he says and to tell others of the obligations Jesus lays on them.

My sense is that both of these thinkers are trying to claim that there is an ideal to be met. The ideal is having a relationship with God wherein our emotions/passions and automatic habits line up with the commands in Scripture. I agree with that this is the ideal. But in the Bible, the ideal is not the litmus test for true spirituality. In Scripture, there is tremendous dignity ascribed to those who do the hard thing that they do not want to do (see all of Proverbs).

In fact, there is no contradiction between doing your duty always and sometimes finding it to be a delight and even spontaneously discharging that duty out of pleasure. Incidentally and contra Piper’s point, Paul sees sexual encounters between husband and wife as an obligation in (1 Corinthians 7:3), but I doubt that the obligation does not carry pleasure with it. I hope that what follows gives a picture of the nature of duty/debt/obligation in Paul’s thought. In so doing, I hope that it clarifies some of the confusion that might even make people feel guilty about following Jesus out of duty or obligation.

Thesis: Obligation and duty are central features of the Paul’s picture of being a disciple of Jesus in his letter to the Romans.

Probatio and Exposition
Paul utilizes the word ὀφειλέτης in several passages:

(Rom 1:14-15 BGT) Ἕλλησίν τε καὶ βαρβάροις, σοφοῖς τε καὶ ἀνοήτοις ὀφειλέτης εἰμί, οὕτως τὸ κατ᾽ ἐμὲ πρόθυμον καὶ ὑμῖν τοῖς ἐν Ῥώμῃ εὐαγγελίσασθαι.

I am a debtor to the Greeks and to the Barbarians, to the wise and to the ignorant, thus I am willing also to proclaim the gospel message to you who are in Rome.

Here Paul seems to be noting that his wish to share the gospel in Rome and (as we’ll find later) to receive assistance from the Roman Christians for a trip to Spain (15:26-30) is based on a sincere sense of obligation, not on a desire for money or public acclaim. Paul sees himself as obligated to those who do not know the gospel. Obligations carry negative connotations these days, but in reality obligation is a positive concept and in the ancient world it was certainly seen that way. The obligation Paul sees laid upon his person is such that he is able to show tremendous love and care toward people of a wide variety of cultural backgrounds and to introduce them into the Jesus movement and thus to the God of Israel.

(Rom 4:4-5 BGT) τῷ δὲ ἐργαζομένῳ ὁ μισθὸς οὐ λογίζεται κατὰ χάριν ἀλλὰ κατὰ ὀφείλημα, τῷ δὲ μὴ ἐργαζομένῳ πιστεύοντι δὲ ἐπὶ τὸν δικαιοῦντα τὸν ἀσεβῆ λογίζεται ἡ πίστις αὐτοῦ εἰς δικαιοσύνην·

To the one who works, the reward is not accounted according to principles of grace, but according to principles of obligation, on the contrary, to the one who does not work, but places his trust in He Who Justifies the Impious, his faith is accounted toward righteousness [or “his faith is accounted/credited for the purpose of righteousness” which would carry the meaning in English “his faith is counted as good as righteousness”].

Here Paul uses obligation in a strictly financial sense to bring a notion of ancient patronage that all auditors would know and understand into his discussion about justification. The idea is that an ancient patron could pay you justly for work or in order to boost his own honor, provide a grace/gift with no expectation (or possibility) of remuneration. The correct response to this gift would be to show loyalty or trust toward the giver (See David DeSilva, Honor Patronage Kinship, and Purity (IVP, 2000), 121-156). In this case, the gift is the death and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 4:24-45) and the show of loyalty is faith and entering into this patron-client relationship with He Who Justifies the Impious leads to justification/righteousness. As Robert Jewett notes: “faith was the response of converts to the message that Christ died for the impious, and it led to their joining small communities of faith in which righteousness became a social reality as the dishonored were restored to honor, that is, to “righteousness.”*

(Rom 8:12-13 BGT)  Ἄρα οὖν, ἀδελφοί, ὀφειλέται ἐσμὲν οὐ τῇ σαρκὶ τοῦ κατὰ σάρκα ζῆν, εἰ γὰρ κατὰ σάρκα ζῆτε, μέλλετε ἀποθνῄσκειν· εἰ δὲ πνεύματι τὰς πράξεις τοῦ σώματος θανατοῦτε, ζήσεσθε.

Therefore now, brothers and sisters, we are obligated, not to the flesh in order to live according to the flesh, for if you live according to the flesh you will die; if, by means of the Spirit, you put to death the practices of the body, you will live.

What seems to be going on here is that the Christian has an obligation to fulfill as a debtor, but not as a debtor to the flesh (because though Jesus came in the likeness of sinful flesh and was raised bodily (Romans 1:1-5, 4:24-25, 5:1-11, 6:1-4 8:1-11), it was the Spirit of God who raised him (Romans 8:11). Thus, though the body is important, not everything we do in it is good. There is sin in our members (Romans 7:5), but we are not obligated to that way of life. In fact, if we paid off our debt to the flesh, it would be like nothing other than working as a servant of Sin, who pays his workers with death (Romans 6:23)**

(Rom 13:7-8 BGT) ἀπόδοτε πᾶσιν τὰς ὀφειλάς, τῷ τὸν φόρον τὸν φόρον, τῷ τὸ τέλος τὸ τέλος, τῷ τὸν φόβον τὸν φόβον, τῷ τὴν τιμὴν τὴν τιμήν. Μηδενὶ μηδὲν ὀφείλετε εἰ μὴ τὸ ἀλλήλους ἀγαπᾶν· ὁ γὰρ ἀγαπῶν τὸν ἕτερον νόμον πεπλήρωκεν.

Give to all what is obligatory: to whom you owe tribute tax, give tribute tax; to whom you owe customs tax, give customs tax; to whom you owe reverence, give reverence; to whom you owe honor, give honor. In no way be obligated to anybody except to love one another. For the one who loves the other fulfills the Law.

Here Paul’s point is that being mindful of the things of the Spirit (Romans 8:5-8) is not pie-in-the-sky-ism. It is rather a very practical way of life that involves making way for the gospel to influence all peoples in all nations. In this respect, the Christian is to live in appropriate relationships with the legal customs of the surrounding world precisely so that there is freedom to love the other, namely the Christian who is not yourself (note that the main idea is to love one another, elsewhere Paul clearly expresses A) his debt to all men and B) that Christian love extends beyond the in-group.

(Rom 15:1 BGT) Ὀφείλομεν δὲ ἡμεῖς οἱ δυνατοὶ τὰ ἀσθενήματα τῶν ἀδυνάτων βαστάζειν καὶ μὴ ἑαυτοῖς ἀρέσκειν.

But, we who are capable, are ourselves obligated to bear the weaknesses of the incapable and to not please ourselves.

Here the main point seems to be to the effect that Christian of serious scruples about dietary laws and Old Testament customs should be showed dignity by Christians who are capable of not participating in those customs. In this case, Christians who have an advantageous perspective should show due deference to their brethren of weaker conscience. This principle is based partly on the honor accorded to all for whom Christ died (Romans 14:6) and partly upon the example of Jesus in bringing Gentiles into God’s people in the first place (Romans 15:7-9).

This might also be explanatory for Paul’s reminder to non-Jewish Christians that they should not, in arrogance think ill of Jewish folk because in their arrogance they may abandon the gospel (Romans 11:15-23). Thus, within the church, Christians are to regard each other (when disagreements about Christian ceremony come up) with humility and respect, treating one another as people with burdens to bear. Paul expects this, I think, of everybody. The rhetorical move may very well be to get any Christian to think of themselves as a capable person and thus to bear his own load and that of his brethren so that everybody might be built up and that there might be peace (Romans 14:19 and Galatians 6:2-5).

(Rom 15:27 BGT) εὐδόκησαν γὰρ καὶ ὀφειλέται εἰσὶν αὐτῶν· εἰ γὰρ τοῖς πνευματικοῖς αὐτῶν ἐκοινώνησαν τὰ ἔθνη, ὀφείλουσιν καὶ ἐν τοῖς σαρκικοῖς λειτουργῆσαι αὐτοῖς.

For they were pleased to do this and they were debtors to them. For if they shared their spiritual blessings with the nations, they are debtors with respect to material things to those who thus served them.

Here Paul’s point, that I said I would get to earlier, is that the other gentile churches were pleased to offer financial aid to the poor Christians in Jerusalem. The idea here is that the gentile Christians not only served the poor out of obedience to Jesus (which would make sense to do), but in this case, served the poor Jewish Christians out of a sense of reciprocity. The Israelite nation had given them the gospel of Christ, therefore, it was fitting for the gentiles to offer material assistance during the famine.

The overall picture is that Christians should see themselves as being to other Christians, debtors (in imitation of Paul) to outsiders who need the gospel, and as non-debtors to the flesh. Paul also uses the term “placed in service” in Romans 6:22 to refer to the relationship a believer has to God. Certainly there is an element of joy in that in Paul’s mind, but there is also an element of obligation to God. This is naturally due to God’s nature as well as due to God’s revelation to us in Christ. It appears that being obligated toward God and others is not only a part of Paul’s conceptual world, but it is an important part that is exactly part of the process of learning to be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). It is also important to note that Jesus thought that the notion of having a servant-self-image was part of the process of becoming great in God’s kingdom (Mark 10:45). Thus, it’s okay to do Christian things out of a sense of obligation. Not only that, but it might even be freeing at times because you don’t have to be in control of your feelings to know whether or not your doing the Christian life the right way.

*Robert Jewett and Roy David Kotansky, Romans: A Commentary, ed. Eldon Jay Epp, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 315.

**I still don’t know why people interpret Romans 6:23 to mean that the penalty for sin is death when the passage seems to be indicating that Sin, when you treat it like a master and live for its purposes destroys you rather than gives you the life it promises. Romans 1:18-32 does note that death is a punishment for sinning or at least it is potentially the just-dessert of sinning. But Romans 6:23 just doesn’t say what it is often portrayed as saying. I think the common interpretation is based solely on the simplification it offers for gospel tracts.

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