When Christians go to work, they do so to forgive debts. They leverage their own honor to protect others’, as in the manager who takes the hit for a subordinate who violated company policy and lost a client. They challenge policies of economic exclusion, as with the city councilor simplifying procedures for start-up businesses. Sometimes they forgive in very explicit financial ways, finding a way to finance a home loan to someone with a ruined credit record. In all their work, Christians do meaningful labor by imitating the God who places Himself on the line to restore commerce.
The acknowledgement of one baptism for the forgiveness of sins is best understood through the eschatological lens: only those in Christ, those baptized into Christ, will God forgive in the end. Divine forgiveness extends to many instances through time, of course, but it is an act coincidental with the Last Judgment, properly speaking. The Bible depicts this moment as the day of reckoning: deeds will be exposed and rewards and punishments assigned (Isa 34:8; Mal 3:1-4; Matt 24:31-46; 2 Tim 4:8; Rev 20:11-15). At the great judgment, God deals conclusively with past accounts. At that time He will render a not-guilty verdict for the elect. He will end all alienation. Positively expressed, the Father will pour out on believers the inheritance belonging to them (Col 3:24; Heb 9:15; 1 Pet 1:4). That is God’s final work: to remit the debts of His people and enrich them so that they might be in royal fellowship with Him.
For all the western abuses of the doctrine of salvation, one may and must consider the forgiveness of sins a commercial idea. Contra well-meaning Orthodox soteriologists, the Bible is comfortable with the financial metaphor, speaking of sin in terms of debt, transfer, and restoration of credit (e.g., Lev 16:20-28; Psa 22:25; Matt 18:21-35; Luke 7:40-50; 2 Cor 8:9). God’s work is to deal with sin-debt by interposing His own wealth. The Church need not wring its hands when deciding whether to recite the Lukan “forgive us our trespasses” (Luke 11:4) or Matthew’s “forgive us our debts” (Matt 6:12). Neither should it be concerned over the nuances of the Greek eis aphesin hamartiōn or the Latin in remissionem peccatorum when professing the Nicene Creed. Trespasses are debts and forgiveness is remission – so long as one keeps in mind that all such terms deal principally with relational commerce. (The wrangling between west and east has been not about the use of forensic-commercial language, one might say, but the extent to which righteousness can be quantified.) In the end, salvation involves a transfer in which guilt, or bad debt, is eradicated and righteousness, or good debt, is established.
David Graeber in his remarkable history, Debt, argues persuasively that credit-debt systems (not bartering rituals) are the oldest and most fundamental ways of going about exchange. Even modern fiat currencies are largely matters of credit, as national governments invite (or coerce) persons to trust them as economic guarantors. The question becomes, then, not whether or not to have debt, but to whom one should be indebted and the terms of the indebtedness. In the divine economy God insists that we act as debtors to Him under the terms of the holy covenant. He eradicates our bad debt that we might take on proper indebtedness to Him.
The world is all too familiar with bad debt. Through unwise decisions or oppressive conditions, many end up in a species of obligation that can only be described as servitude. Unprotected by law, a tenant is reduced to subsistence farming. An elderly couple experiences health problems and amasses an insurmountable credit card balance. A drug dealer is unable to get out from under obligations to a criminal ring. A college student avoids her parents after crashing the family car. In all these cases monetary debt amounts to social powerlessness, whether through obligation to the wrong party, unfavorable terms, or a violation of trust. Bad debt is the cancer of social relations. It requires excision.
In the end God will purge such debt. The Lord of the “release” or “pardon” (Deut 15; Isa 61:1-4) will return to clean slates and destroy the evil economy with its creditors and merchants (Psa 94; Rev 18). Debt-remission is also a matter of dealing with humans’ own sins. Therefore the Lord who entered the business of “expiation” or “cleansing” of sin in the Levitical sacrificial system (Lev 4; Num 8:5-14) will perform the final purgation (1 Cor 3:13; Rev 20:14). Put in more social terms, God rightly demands honor, but sinful humans cannot pay the honor due Him. By their own doing sinners have distorted the generous terms of the covenant and are in default. The Father must apply the blood of the Lamb, “canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands” (Col 2:14, ESV). Ultimately, God grants shalom by remitting sin and dropping penalties.
Forgiveness is also the establishing of good debt. Indeed, there is such a thing as good debt! Consider the practice of paying for a friend’s lunch: one person says to her friend, “I’ve got the bill,” to which the other says, “You didn’t need to, but thanks. I’ll get it next time.” By paying for the check one friend has indebted the other, but only in a way that affirms their friendship and calls for another meeting.
The Bible commissions various forms of good debt: the Israelites were to remember their “perpetual due” to the Levites through their offerings (Lev 7:36) and burn bulls and rams routinely in order to produce “a soothing aroma before the LORD” (Exo 29:25). Within the believing community married couples owe each other sexual gratification (1 Cor 7:3-5) and all Christians are to observe “the continuing debt to love one another” (Rom 13:8, NIV). Good debt involves the practice of genuine reciprocity. Therefore, forgiveness may and should be understood as the advancing of good credit so that proper exchange may resume. (Here is where Anselm’s honor-based model of the atonement is, well, more satisfying than later penal theories.) The taking away of bad debt, with its poverty and alienation and fear, is coincidental with the creation of good credit, with its wealth and community and trust.
The God of the future insists on relational commerce. He who put forward the hilasmos (Rom 3:25; 1 John 2:2) will consummate the fellowship with a joyful wedding (Isa 62:4; Rev 21:1-2). While all human deeds must be weighed, at the last judgment believers are ultimately reliant upon Christ who interjects His own credit to overcome their sinful debts (Rom 5; 2 Cor 5:21). By His costly and gratuitous work God makes friends and inspires them to reciprocate in thanksgiving: “O to grace, how great a debtor / Daily I’m constrained to be.” God summons more and more humans into His economy. God seeks to be all in all, Creditor to all.
How then shall Christians work? By joining God in His work of the remission of debts. Of course, the work of the Church is largely centered around the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which comes with the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins. With the task of evangelism, the Church exercises radical generosity. The Bible contains numerous examples of the believing community practicing hospitality and debt forgiveness in its own ranks (Lev 25; Acts 2:44-46; Rom 15:25-27). The mutual remission of sins is the necessary catalyst for Christian unity.
More broadly, however, Christians go to their jobs with the intent of remitting debt. In the world too they are agents of forgiveness. By the Spirit they make their work a foretaste of the coming kingdom where trespasses are erased and good standing is established.
Christians work toward the goal of eradicating bad debt. Accountants root out the manifold places for corruption and account distortion, keeping internal and external business relationships above board. Administrators specializing in medical coding look to reform billing language so that it does not obfuscate. Directly or indirectly, many Christians are financial counselors. Various non-profit agencies champion the cause of immigrants, refugees, the disabled, orphans, rehabilitating convicts, and other exposed people groups. In the overtly political realm, Christians do the hard work of creating legislation dealing with health insurance, investment policies, and short-term lending reforms. They fight against various forms of slavery, whether it be the ensnarement of girls led into prostitution, coercive labor through confiscated passports, or the enforcement of impossible national debt repayment plans. Christians are bad-debt killers.
Positively stated, Christians forgive by restoring good social indebtedness. In the banking world one finds immediate applications, as bankers serve as intermediaries who keep businesses in good standing. They empower the poor through microloans and restructure corporations to make them just, sustainable, and profitable. They keep the economy lubricated. Other professions facilitate positive debt too. Military and police exert great impact on community relations when acting righteously (cf. Luke 3:14). Christian social workers take on the difficult task of situating children in the best possible family networks, and Christian business persons wager their good standing to secure initial jobs for ex-convicts to assimilate into the workforce. Christian managers place themselves on the line to restructure institutions in ways that “humanize” work for others, shaping companies to prevent “alienation” between the worker and the work itself (cf. Volf, Work in the Spirit, 165). Eschatological business leads to healthy debt, to deep commerce.
Sometimes the work of forgiveness takes place under suspect conditions. Here in America there is a Christian car dealership owner who sells inexpensive cars, all under $5,000, to persons with destroyed credit. Customers typically make purchases with no cash down. As the default rate on the loans they take out is one-third, the Christian owner has set the interest at a whopping 30% APR. Even so, his seemingly usurious rate is in fact a fraction of payday loan rates – and this rate falls to 15% after customers make two successful monthly payments. His automotive business exists to reap personal profit and get people back on their feet again. Many of the customers are single mothers desperate to find reliable transportation to their jobs. This dealer is one of the few in town who will work with them to include them in the economy.
Occasionally the heathen act surprisingly Christian, as in the remarkable case of Arunachalam Muruganantham in the documentary Menstrual Man, who has repeatedly sacrificed his own social standing in order to help businesswomen in rural India manufacture sanitary pads. By selling women his basic machine on credit, he frees them to develop a business network, hire other women, and maintain a livelihood independent of abusive husbands and oppressive employers. They are not independent so much as newly situated within society. Good debt replaces bad debt.
Because of the broken condition of the present age, Christians are always having to ask themselves if their well-intended labors are helping or hurting others. Is a certain philanthropic work lifting the needy out of poverty or disempowering them through handouts? Is a certain gesture an act of grace or movement toward a codependent relationship? What are the unintended consequences of inserting the kingdom economy into the world’s?
Even so, work exists for Christians to act out grace to their neighbors. They know their future with the God who remits sin. In the Spirit and under the shadow of the cross, Christians labor to do the same. They give. They forgive.