How the Debtor’s Ethic Robs Gratitude of Joy

by Mathew Gilbert September 2, 2017

As a pastor in Mississippi, I’ve learned that gratitude is shown through reciprocation. If a neighbor leaves a bag of fresh tomatoes from his garden, it’s not enough to simply walk next door and thank him for his kind gift. Saying thank you is only half of the equation. Gratitude isn’t complete until the deed is reciprocated. So, if your neighbor drops off a bag of tomatoes, you’re not grateful until you’ve returned the favor.

Southern culture complicates our understanding of gratitude and creates confusion as to how we should actually show gratitude to God. Thankfulness in the South often means paying someone back for doing something kind for you. David Pao argues this principle extends to all of Western society,

“Modern Western conceptions of thanksgiving are dominated by the model that privileges the emotional sense of gratefulness in response to a certain act of kindness and the need to fulfill the ‘debt’ to achieve the balance of personal relationship. Within this model, thanksgiving is detached from social ethics and theological discourse and is reduced to the level of etiquette that is functionally limited to the realm of individual interchange.”

Pao is slicing up most of our experiences with thanksgiving, especially with regard to small gifts, like a bag of tomatoes on your front porch. But, how would you feel if someone gave you a massive gift? I remember when my grandfather paid off one of my student loans. I was floored. I was speechless. I didn’t know what to do. Honestly, I felt a little embarrassed. I felt small because I knew there was no way I could reciprocate the gift. I couldn’t give my grandfather anything that would equivocate his gift to me. While my first inclination was to pay him back, I quickly realized how foolish that thought was.

First, it would be impossible for me to pay him back. Couldn’t do it. Couldn’t come close! Second, my debt didn’t shift from the government to my grandfather. My debt was paid in full by another. It was canceled. I literally logged into my account and I no longer had options to make payments, because there were no payments to make. And this was a gift of sheer grace. He didn’t have to do it. He wanted to do it. And he didn’t ask anything of me in return. We receive a similar kind of gift in the gospel. Christ has paid our debt in full with his sacrificial and substitutionary death.

Gratitude toward another person or toward God is the result of a conscious awareness of the giver and his gift. In the Bible, gratitude always, always, always flows from a humble and glad recognition of God’s grace:

  • Psalm 7:17 – “I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness”
  • Psalm 9:1 – “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.”
  • 1 Corinthians 1:4 – “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus.”
  • 2 Thessalonians 2:13 – “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.”

In the Old Testament and the New Testament, there is a direct connection between gratitude and God’s saving work in the past, present, and future. When you are aware of God’s glory and grace in your life, your heart will well up with gratitude, which will then overflow in glad obedience to him. Gratitude requires you to rightly see God’s grace and rightly respond to it.

We must beware of the debtor’s ethic. The debtor’s ethic is the notion that since God has done so much for us, we now owe him a life of obedience. It is a way to pay back the debt we have accrued through receiving God’s grace in the gospel. You’ve probably heard it said, and you may have said it a number of times, “Jesus died for me, the least I can do is live for him.” But the debtor’s ethic robs gratitude of its God-centered joy. Trying to pay God back for what he has done for us is both an impossible and joyless task. It causes sanctification to be fueled by duty and guilt when it should be fueled by delight and grace.

I believe the reason many of us fail to pursue holiness with joy is because our motivation for godly living is guilt, not gratitude. The reason many of us cease our spiritual growth after baptism is because we adopt the attitude that we must obey God in order to pay him back for saving us. “Jesus died for you, so what are you going to do for him?” Is this the right kind of motivation to fuel gospel living?


A better way forward to living the good life, the new life we now have in Christ, is to live every second of every day in gratitude to God. When we are grateful to God, we are aware of his grace that he has freely given us in Christ. Gratitude creates the kind of gospel awareness necessary to cut off the lifelines of sin in our lives. Gratitude looks back in thanks to God for His grace in the past and looks forward in faith in God for his grace in the future.

Gratitude is central to gospel living because through our self-renouncing thankfulness we see both our need for God and his ability and willingness to meet our need. This empowers us to kill sin in its tracks and chase hard after righteousness.

Only a grateful heart can thrive in kindness, patience, love, and forgiveness. Only a heart that recognizes God as the rightful ruler of heaven and earth will submit to his will and his ways, and so be conformed to his image.