There are a number of ideas and phrases that most Biblically literate Christians would swear were in the Bible, but are not. Among those is the phrase (or concept) of the “debt of sin.” It is simply not there. Nor is there a phrase that describes sin as something that we “owe.” Again, it’s simply not there. The phrase, “the debt of sin,” or “sin debt” is extra-biblical. It is an idea that has been created by the theory of penal substitutionary atonement theory and frequently “read into” Scripture. But the phrase, and the idea, are simply imports. More than that, they run counter to Biblical thought and the traditional theology of the Orthodox faith.
Debt is a very strong and significant Biblical concept, but is no where depicted as belonging to God. God does not work on the principle of debt.
To justify this last statement, it’s worth seeing what the Scriptures do teach about debt.
Debt, in the Bible, is largely seen as evil – it is a means by which one person enslaves another. There are strict limits placed on debt within the Old Testament Law.
You shall not charge interest to your brother– interest on money or food or anything that is lent out at interest. To a foreigner you may charge interest, but to your brother you shall not charge interest, that the LORD your God may bless you in all to which you set your hand in the land which you are entering to possess. (Deu 23:19-20 NKJ)
More interesting is this:
At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts. And this is the form of the release: Every creditor who has lent anything to his neighbor shall release it; he shall not require it of his neighbor or his brother, because it is called the LORD’S release. Of a foreigner you may require it; but you shall give up your claim to what is owed by your brother, except when there may be no poor among you; for the LORD will greatly bless you in the land which the LORD your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance–only if you carefully obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe with care all these commandments which I command you today. For the LORD your God will bless you just as He promised you; you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow; you shall reign over many nations, but they shall not reign over you. If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs. (Deu 15:1-8)
Debt is compared to Israel’s bondage in Egypt. To be indebted to someone is to be owned by them to a certain degree. And though in the right circumstances such debt is allowed, no debt can extend beyond seven years.
In the Law of the Jubilee (50 years), even the property sales that have occurred over the past 49 years are undone. All property reverts back to its original owner. Debt is not everlasting. Needless to say, these laws were significant parts of Jewish life in ancient Israel. All commerce worked beneath the shadow of such regulation. A debt incurred in the sixth year, could not extend beyond that year.
Christ used the imagery of debt in a number of His parables. In most cases His point was towards the forgiveness of debt – letting else someone go.
Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying,`Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying,`Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying,`Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him,`You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. `Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses. (Mat 18:23-35)
When Christ stands in the synagogue in Nazareth, He is handed the scroll of the book of Isaiah from which to read:
And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.” Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luk 4:17-21)
Christ’s proclamation that the Scripture is fulfilled is the announcement of a Jubilee Year (for it is this to which Isaiah refers). The “coming of the Kingdom” that Christ announces wherever He goes, is nothing less than a “cosmic” Jubilee. He has come to cancel debts. And we see the mark of that cancellation: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the outcasts are reconciled, and the debts of many are cancelled (cf. Zacchaeus).
Mankind indeed has a debt, but not to God! God is not a creditor. Creditors are seen as oppressors and the enemies of God’s people. Some would look at the parable cited earlier and say, “But the king was a creditor!” Indeed he was. But the king is not cited as an example of righteous man – simply of a wealthy man.
There is a rabbinical technique known as the kal va-chomer (light to the heavy). It argues: “If this light thing is true, then how much more must this heavy thing be true.” Christ uses it on a number of occasions. That is the thrust of the parable, not God as a creditor.
The debt that mankind labors under is the debt of sin, the oppression and bondage of death itself. It is not a bondage created by God, but something alien to us that drains our very life. Debt is not the creation of wealth but its diminishment.
Christ’s victory over death and hell, His Pascha, tramples down death by death and frees us from our debts. We no longer owe anything to death or sin.
St. Paul invokes the image of debt in his letter to the Romans (ch. 4). But he places debt within the realm of the flesh and of the law, such that those who are righteous “according to the Law” live in accordance with “debt,” in that they seek what is “owed” to them. But He contrasts this with the salvation we have in Christ, which is according to grace, a “free gift” rather than a debt.
It is certainly the case that sin and death operate like debt in our lives – but it is not God who drives this frightful burden. More vaguely, the creditor is most often described as “sin” itself, or “death” itself, as though these were independently existing things.
We may easily infer that this burden is magnified by the wicked one – but we are not taught that we owe the devil a debt. We only know that what we experience as debt has been abolished in Christ. God’s great Jubilee is an announcement of freedom to all flesh from the bondage of the enemy. In the Jubilee year, the debts are cancelled, not paid. Debt has no substance or being in and of itself. It’s emptiness is revealed to us in Christ’s resurrection.