The key to identifying and ridding oneself of this sort of legalism is found in that word debt. The only place in the Bible that speaks about the Christian’s debt is in Paul’s statement, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh” (Rom. 8:12). One might expect that Paul would continue in the discourse by saying something along the lines of “but we are debtors to grace.” This he does not do. This leads us to conclude that perhaps Paul is saying, in an emphatic way, “We are not debtors to the flesh; therefore we have no business living according to the flesh.” The other places where the New Testament speaks of debt, as it relates to the gospel, always speak in terms of the cancellation of debt. In the parable of the wicked servant, the master says: “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt” (Matt. 18:32). In the story of Simon and the woman who was a sinner, Jesus uses a story in which two debts are canceled (Luke 7:36–50). Paul says explicitly concerning our indebtedness that God has “forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us” (Col. 2:13–14). To indicate that the Christian is currently in a state of indebtedness before God is to misstate the case and to place an illegitimate burden on the believer.
Thinking of ourselves as in debt to grace or as debtors to the gospel is to turn things upside down. Once we were debtors. Now we are not. Once we owed God an incalculable debt. Now we do not. There is no indebtedness that needs to be worked off so that God is no longer our creditor.
Perhaps a better way of considering our current state as believers in Christ is to think of ourselves in terms of being friends of God, of being sons of God. Jesus said to the disciples, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). This identification is important for two reasons. First, because it lifts the believer out the status of being a mere servant and into the status of friend. And second, because once Jesus has been raised, He includes the disciples not just as friends but as brothers. It is no longer “my Father.” It is now “our Father” as well. Jesus spoke to Mary Magdalene in the garden, telling her to go to the disciples and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17).
Particularly in Romans and Galatians, where Paul was dealing both with those who would stray into antinomian territory and with those who would stumble into legalism, he emphasizes the status of Christians as sons of God: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:14, 19). “For in Christ Jesus you are sons of God, through faith. . . . And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ ” (Gal. 3:26; 4:6).
Are Christians indebted to the gospel of grace? Certainly. But we are not in debt to the gospel of grace. The debt has been paid in full by Christ, and that payment has been credited to our account. Let us not then live as debtors, fearful, as it were, of calls from creditors. And let us not live as if we were indebted to the flesh, for we have been redeemed from its tyranny. Instead, let us live in the freedom of the sons of God, being conformed to the image of the Son of God, walking in the power of the Spirit given us in the gospel of grace.