Get the exclusive (almost) Weekly Digest.

    John Piper’s Future Grace: Chapter 1

    January 13, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    This first chapter is called The Debtor’s Ethic: Should We Try to Pay God Back? Piper seems to think that many, if not most, Christians, put a lot of pressure on themselves to obey God and do what is right out of a sense of debtor’s guilt*. This chapter proposes that there are better reasons to obey and do good, and that the debtor’s ethic actually nullifies grace.

    Let’s see if I can break it down.

    First, Piper defines gratitude as:

    the pleasant sense of the worth of what we’ve received and the goodwill behind it…a spontaneous response of joy to receiving something over and above what we paid for.

    Please note that this is a general definition of gratitude. His “what we paid for” at the end is, contextually speaking, explaining the phenomena of experiencing a sense of gratitude even upon purchasing something. We are grateful because the thing we bought turned out to be even better than we expected, or came with a free gift, etcetera.

    I had to admit at this point that I have difficulties with gratitude in a general sense. We discussed this chapter with friends shortly after Christmas, and all of my Christmas guilt was still weighing upon my shoulders. Si has a couple relatives that spoil us more than we deserve, and certainly more than we could ever repay. I spend a decent amount of time each Christmas feeling terrible that the gifts we give can never begin to compare with the gifts we receive.

    Piper convicts me on a basic level. True gratitude is simply a response of joy. Accept the gift, recognize its worth, and also accept the accompanying love of the giver.

    Well, and perhaps a thank you card is in order.


    Piper defines the debtor’s ethic as:

    an impulse to pay for the thing that came to us gratis.

    Piper tells us that this was not what gratitude was designed to produce. Further, he tells us that this impulse to return favors nullifies grace. He explains that when we use gratitude as the reason for self-sacrifice, we pervert it into this debtor’s ethic of attempting to pay God back–even though most of us acknowledge that paying Him back is impossible to do. Good deeds, then, become our “installment payments.” The interesting thing is that we say, for instance, that we obey God’s commands because of our gratitude for all He has done, but the Bible

    rarely, if ever, explicitly makes gratitude the impulse of moral behavior.

    Here is the challenge: instead of letting past grace make debtors out of us, we ought to let past grace make believers out of us.

    One example that comes to mind is the children of Israel during the time of Moses. Our family is reading these old stories during this term. The Israelites are constantly looking back. They have seen amazing deeds of God, experienced Him in breathtaking ways, and yet they wonder if perhaps it would have been better to be left behind in Egypt.

    When the Israelites are at their best, though, what is notable about them is not their gratitude, but their faith:

    And Israel saw that great work which the LORD did upon the Egyptians: and the people feared the LORD, and believed the LORD, and his servant Moses.

    Exodus 14:31

    To contrast, when Moses behaved badly and struck the rock with his staff, this was his reprimand:

    And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.

    Numbers 20:12

    The LORD doesn’t say that this is because they weren’t grateful enough. It is because they failed to believe God.

    As I have thought about this more, I consider that of course if we are aware of what God has done, we are grateful. But trusting Him into the future–believing all of His promises–this is something that reaches beyond gratitude.

    And Piper says that this–this belief in God’s promises–is what walking in faith is all about.

    *Even though I agree with Piper on what the Debtor’s Ethic is and why it is unhealthy as a motivator, I’m not sure that I agree with him that the vast majority of Christians are motivated by guilt or debt. I totally admit I might be wrong as this is based on a very unscientfic sampling of close friends.

    Get the (almost) weekly digest!

    Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.

    Powered by ConvertKit


  • Reply Heather January 15, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    Funny, I read this post right after a phone conversation with my MIL who was lamenting that their very thoughtful but not professing Christian neighbor has repeatedly showed up with his snowblower to clean out their driveway. He has done this even in blustery, blizzardy conditions and all she can do is bake pies in return as her show of thanks. And recently they needed her to look after their grandson on one occasion, so she was remarking how thankful she was to help them in some small way. But clearly she wants to do more to help repay their kindness.
    Now that I wrote all that out I forgot why I thought it was relevant to the discussion. Oh well, thanks for writing about this. Look forward to hearing more.

  • Reply Mystie January 13, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    That’s interesting. I can see what he means, but having been a part of a church that follows the Heidelberg Catechism, which teaches that our good works flow from gratitude, I must say I’ve never encountered the idea that the gratitude is some sort of payment, but more along the lines of love, as you say. It is a sense of being bought, of having been purchased and of being glad for it.

    I am going to read Desiring God first before tackling this book, so it will be a month or two before I join you, then I might be back. 🙂

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts January 13, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    Sara, I have to say that I am really struggling through this book (and we’re only in the first chapter!)…I like what you said about the motivation of forgiveness, and I’m going to bring that up in our book group next week, if I can remember to do so!

    I don’t think Piper would go so far as to say that gratitude is not a motivation at all, in any way. What he is trying to do, though, is get his reader to see that the primary motivation for following the Lord ought to be our faith or, as he phrases it, our faith in future grace.

    The difference, he says, is between looking backward and looking forward. We are grateful for what God has done, but we walk in faith of what He has yet to do, trusting Him to fulfill everything He has yet to do.

    I say all of that, and yet every time I think I’ve wrapped my mind around it, it seems to slip away!

    It also complicates the matter that everyone in our group happens to have been raised pretty much the same way–that our primary motivation is not gratitude, but love. And so I wonder where that fits in, also.

  • Reply sara January 13, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    Trying to deserve, or have a right to, or earn a gift which is well beyond our means WOULD seem like trying to steal some of God’s glory because he is sufficient. And it may be an issue of pride if we are unwilling to simply receive.

    That said, I’m not sure it’s bad to be motivated by gratitude – that’s how I understand, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” and the story of the man whose debts were forgiven but who then did not forgive the debts owed to him. (Matt. 18:23-35) You might call it “paying it forward.” The acts themselves earn us nothing, but He moves our hearts with the knowledge of how little we deserve His good gifts and we have compassion on those like us.

  • Leave a Reply