Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:21). How shall we take these words of Jesus? Most readers will recognize Jesus’ injunction to self-sacrifice for the poor, but what shall we make of the thought that our gifts yield “treasure in heaven”? Jesus concludes his mandate to care for the poor by injecting a mercantile note into our relationship with God: We give to the poor, and God rewards us with a deposit in our heavenly bank account.
Disconcerted by the suggestion of a kind of financial arrangement between us and God, most modern interpreters ask us not to take this passage literally. We should give what we can to the poor, of course, but Jesus is only using figuratively the idea of alms as a source of credits good for the world to come. Yet Jesus goes on to insist that those who have given up everything to follow him will be rewarded for what they have done, and the repayment will come not only in the next life but in this one—at an astonishing rate of interest: “a hundredfold now in this time . . . and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:30).
There are, no doubt, several ways to take all this as a rhetorical figure for a spiritual state that, in reality, involves no exchange. But in Sin: A History, Gary Anderson points out Jesus’ commercial language is not a mere passing thought in the Bible. In both early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism, sin is overwhelmingly described as a debt owed to God, while the forgiveness of sin is understood as a repayment of that debt.
The earlier biblical texts were different. Before the Babylonian exile in 587 B.C., sin was sometimes described as a defiling stain but mainly as a burden to be borne. Sins produced a weight that was loaded onto the back of the sinner and eventually would crush him. Thus, for example, the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16: Once a year, the most serious of Israel’s sins, those too grave to be removed by the regular provisions for ritual purification, were ceremonially loaded by the high priest onto the head of a goat. The animal then was led out into the wilderness, never to return. From this we derive the term scapegoat, but the term is misleading: The goat is not an object of punishment but a beast of burden. He carries the sins of Israel off into the desert, where they no longer burden the people.
Part of the reason all this changed after the Babylonian exile was linguistic. Aramaic became the primary tongue of the Persian Empire in which the Jewish people lived during the Second Temple period, and in Aramaic the language for religious transgression comes directly from the world of commerce. The word for a debt owed to a lender is the same as the word for a sin. Over time, the idea of a debt demanding payment became pervasive in Jewish discourse about sin and forgiveness: in Second Isaiah and Daniel, at Qumran, in rabbinic Judaism, and throughout the New Testament. “The identification of sins with debts was not the unique heritage of a single Jewish sect or two,” Anderson concludes. “It was shared by all Jews of that time,” and it shaped the way the rabbis and early Christians interpreted their biblical heritage.
Communal and individual suffering is clearly a basic biblical currency by which the debt of sin can be paid off. Isaiah 40, for example, tells us that Israel has paid God back in suffering “double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:2). As Anderson observes, “For the author of Second Isaiah, Israel’s sins at the close of the First Temple period had put her over her head in debt. Decades of penal service in Babylon would be required to satisfy its terms.”
Suffering, however, is not the only currency. As the Second Temple period drew to a close, almsgiving came to be seen as the supremely effective way to pay down one’s debt. Thus, in Daniel 4:27, King Nebuchadnezzar is advised, “Redeem your sins by almsgiving” (not merely by “practicing righteousness,” or something of the sort), “and your iniquity by generosity to the poor.” At root, to redeem means to buy out of slavery. Generosity to the poor is so valuable to God that even proud Nebuchadnezzar can, with extravagant giving of alms, buy his way out of the impending servitude due his sin.
Unlike other good works, giving to the poor establishes a treasury of credits in heaven that future sins cannot draw down. God, in fact, treats each gift as a loan that he multiplies far beyond its initial worth. It is as if God were a peerless investment manager to whom we entrusted our savings. This is the logic of Jesus’ answer to the rich man who asks what he must do to gain eternal life (Matt. 19:16).
Not all debts end up being paid. Sometimes a creditor remits a debt, turning the sum owed by his debtor into an unmerited gift. It is for this that Jesus teaches his disciples to pray. In the Lord’s Prayer, the underlying Semitic idiom for sin and forgiveness is precisely that of Second Temple Judaism: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive those who hold debts against us.”
Seeking an explanation for God’s generosity, rabbinic Judaism looks to God’s special love for Israel. A midrash on Psalms 32:1 depicts God on the Day of Atonement. Moved by love and pity for Israel, he hides all her sins under his royal robes while Satan is off looking for further debts with which to burden God’s people. David, looking on, says “Happy the one whose sins are covered.”
In early Christianity, the Cross of Jesus motivates God to remit our debt. The most important text for the Church Fathers’ reflection on atonement is probably Colossians 2:14: “Christ erased the bond of indebtedness that stood against us, nailing it to the cross.” The author of Colossians here uses the standard Greek term for a debt instrument— cheirographon, a note of hand that was destroyed when the debt was repaid. In one patristical account, Jesus lures Satan into reaching beyond his rights. Innocent of sin, Jesus is not subject to the bond, so when Satan kills him, the bond is destroyed. In another account, Jesus by his Passion and death makes full payment on the bond, thus canceling humanity’s debt forever. Either way, patristic thinking on the atonement is shaped above all by the idea of sin as a debt to God that is voided by the Cross.
One effect of Anderson’s argument, of which he is well aware, is to make a number of traditional Catholic practices and beliefs—almsgiving as a source of great merit; a heavenly treasury of merit available by way of indulgences; Anselm’s theology of the atonement (the subject of Anderson’s final chapter)—look much more biblical than even Catholics, at least in modern times, have generally supposed. Daniel 4:27 in particular was the focus of vehement controversy during the Reformation and after, with Protestant interpreters arguing that this text does not, appearances to the contrary, serve as biblical warrant for the idea that we can pay down our debt of sin by giving alms.
Anderson has no wish to ignite confessional controversy. Instead he suggests—rightly, I think—that traditional Protestant misgivings about matters such as the merit of almsgiving are largely misplaced when the nature of the debt we owe to God and the manner in which we have a hand in its repayment are rightly understood. Almsgiving, like any good work, presupposes faith. The person who seeks to follow the advice of Daniel or the command of Jesus to lay up treasure in heaven must credit God with his or her own life and destiny. It is not by accident that words for religious faith in many languages are the same as those for financial relationships; indeed, the word credit, loaned to English by Latin, simply means that one believes or trusts another. True faith, which trusts God and not ourselves for salvation, is necessarily “active in love,” as Galatians 5:6 puts it. As long as faith and love are not pried apart, there is no need to fear that the person who hearkens to Jesus’ words and stores up treasure in heaven is seeking salvation by works.
Where Protestants and Catholics historically differ is on the question of whether believers can share in Christ’s all-sufficient payment of our debt or only admire it in gratitude. The traditional argument is not over whether the concepts of debt and payment apply to humanity’s relationship with God but over the extent of that application—whether it belongs only to Christ or also, in Christ, to us.
For some contemporary theologians, however, the idea that we could incur a debt to God, or that our relationship with God could involve repayment of that debt, is misguided—if not perverse and demonic. Theologians who incline this way worry that the ideas of debt and payment belong to an economy of exchange or barter. In this sort of arrangement, one party bestows goods on another precisely to make the recipient incur a debt. This debt constitutes an obligation on the part of the recipient, an obligation from which the giver intends to benefit.
The giver may be quite open about his intention, as when a bank gives us a mortgage. But as the anthropologist Marcel Mauss first argued in the 1920s, giver and receiver often will deny that any obligation has been created, thus concealing from themselves the self-interest at work on both sides. More recently, such scholars as Pierre Bourdieu and Mary Douglas have made the slogan “no free gifts” something of a commonplace among anthropologists and sociologists. For the philosopher Jacques Derrida, the idea of a gift, given wholly for the benefit of the receiver with no strings attached, is unhappily self-contradictory: When I convey some good—food, money, love—I do so with the expectation, and often the demand, for return.
When debt and payment are understood in this way, it is not hard to see why a theologian might reject the thought that such ideas can have any place in humanity’s relationship with God. If Christ’s saving work involves the repayment of a debt to God, then God seems to be a selfish tyrant who demands that his abject, suffering creatures pay back with interest the loan of life and love he has made to them. Without this monstrous balloon payment, God will not forgive the sins of his creatures and so will not give them any of the other goods for which forgiveness is the prerequisite.
The solution to this problem, so the argument goes, is to drop the idea that the saving work of Christ, especially his Passion and Cross, are in any way a payment or even a gift made to God. Christ’s suffering is simply what human malice does to the innocent and in no sense an action on which any gift of God—especially forgiveness—might depend. Protestant theology had argued that sinners can merit nothing for themselves before God, but some theologians now maintain that the sinless Christ cannot merit anything for us, either.
The theological motives for taking this line vary. Some theologians see traditional notions of atonement as glorifications of violence and the passive acceptance of suffering, and view a commitment to nonviolence as basic to theology: Surely a good and loving God needs no payment or other inducement, least of all the bloody suffering and death of an innocent person, to forgive us. The standard target here is St. Anselm, although this is a bit bizarre, since no thinker in the tradition is clearer than Anselm that the satisfaction that Christ offers to God on the cross is an alternative to punishment: a perfect act of self offering to which the violence that accompanies it is quite accidental.
The objection to debt and payment is sometimes put in more comprehensive terms by opposing the economy of giving to an economy of gift. The Catholic philosopher Jean-Luc Marion develops this alternative in one way, and the Protestant theologians Kathryn Tanner and John Milbank develop it in others. The pivotal step in the alternative economy that these authors propose is the claim that nothing is genuinely a gift unless it is given without any expectation or desire for repayment. In a genuine economy of gift, the giver may hope the receiver accepts the gift, to benefit from it. But the giving is in no way conditional on the subsequent acceptance of the gift or the expectation of its acceptance.
In the economy of the gift, the impossibility of repayment applies most of all to the good God gives us in Jesus Christ. His Passion and death are God’s sheer unowed gift of forgiveness and new life; they are in no sense a human return of gift to God, let alone a recompense demanded by and offered to God. As Tanner succinctly puts it, “In Christ debts are forgiven rather than paid.”
Gary Anderson argues in Sin: A History that debt and payment belong to the deep grammar of sin and salvation in the Bible: an utterly basic scriptural element in Jewish and Christian liturgy, devotion, and tradition. If he’s right, then several strands of recent theology are out of touch with Scripture.
One might simply write this off as pretty much the norm for theologians, who often exhibit a remarkable carelessness about what the Bible actually says. But the deeper issue is the character of the divine economy of salvation and, in particular, the difference between a debt owed to God and any debt we could owe in a worldly economy of self-interested exchange. Anderson pursues this point by drawing on rabbinic Jewish and Syrian Christian literature, especially Narsai and St. Ephrem. He rightly aims to make sense of the deep Christian and Jewish intuition that we owe God everything, and not—as theologians of “the gift” suppose—that while we receive everything from God, we owe God nothing.
To think about this, recall the medieval commonplace, in discussions of Christ’s Passion and its saving power, that God could have remitted humanity’s sins, forgiven and redeemed us, without the Incarnation and death of his Son. Like many commonplaces of medieval theology, this one stems from Augustine, in this case from his De Trinitate. God certainly had the ability to deliver us from evil in some other way than he has, although he chose, Augustine suggests, the most beautifully suitable way of all: “God, to whose power all things are equally subject, did not lack another possible way of healing our misery, but there was no more appropriate way, nor did there need to be.”
Picking up this line of thought, Thomas Aquinas argues that God would not have acted against justice if he had simply remitted our sins by fiat, without any satisfaction—any offering or payment—on our part. In fact, though, God has decided to save us through the satisfaction offered in Christ’s Passion. This way of salvation, Thomas strikingly observes, is more merciful than salvation by mere divine fiat would be and so is a more beautiful and suitable way for God, who is mercy itself, to act. “God gave us his own Son to make satisfaction for the sin of all human nature, as Scripture teaches: ‘We are justified by his grace, as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as our propitiator through faith in his blood’ (Rom. 3:24–25).” And this, Thomas continues, “was a greater mercy than it would have been had God forgiven sins without any recompense.”
We are apt to find this puzzling, since it may seem obvious to us that requiring satisfaction is less merciful and more demanding than sheer forgiveness would be. Why does God save by payment of a debt, when he doesn’t need to act this way and doesn’t get anything out of the exchange?
Thomas Aquinas and others answer that God redeems us this way precisely for our benefit, for the good of those whom he generously treats as debtors owing him satisfaction. By treating us as debtors even though he has no need of our payment, the good God gives us a share in the salvation he brings about for us: a human, creaturely part in God’s own victory over human sin.
If God had remitted our sins by sheer forgiveness—sent them away or simply declared them nonexistent—then our sins indeed would be gone, and we no longer would be sinners. We would, however, be mere spectators to our own salvation: observers who simply noted this fact about ourselves, without any involvement of our hearts and wills. By treating our sins as a debt for which he will accept payment, God gives humanity a genuine share in its own salvation. As any child knows whose father has given him or her money to buy him a Christmas gift, there is joy in this that can come in no other way, even though—or, better, precisely because—we know well that we are simply giving back what we have freely received.
This happens first of all in Jesus Christ, who, in the upper room and on the cross, makes to God that offering than which a greater cannot be conceived. Jesus’ offering to the Father in love is a more-than-sufficient, superabundant satisfaction or payment for the entire debt owed by all human beings on account of their sin. More than that: Jesus’ total gift of himself to the Father on the cross is also the creature’s perfect glorification of the creator. “I glorified you on earth,” Jesus says, “having accomplished the work which you gave me to do” (John 17:4). Jesus makes the definitive thank-offering of the creature to God for all his gifts, an offering whose value reaches even beyond satisfaction for sin.
But this return of gift is our doing, too. In Christ’s Church and through his sacraments—not least through the giving of alms as a penitential satisfaction—we come to share in our own small way in the one great redemptive act accomplished by Jesus Christ. When he joins our modest efforts to his own supreme gift, he graciously allows the salvation he has accomplished for us to come, in some small way, from us as well. United to him, our salvation is not simply an event that happens to us but includes our own grateful gift of self—our merit.
In Christ, then, none of us is a spectator to our salvation; we are all, painfully and joyfully, full participants in it. Far from lowering God to an unworthy economy of self-interested exchange, Thomas Aquinas and others argue that God’s willingness to accept payment for our sins is a sheer gift from God to us, an act of greater mercy and generosity than any forgiveness by fiat would be, because God allows each of us to claim nothing less than a place in his salvation of the world in Christ. And for this the appropriate creaturely response, as to all God’s gifts, is not a sense of burdened obligation but an ever-greater gratitude.
Bruce D. Marshall is professor of historical theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.