Human beings differ from one another in many ways. We do not all share the same socioeconomic status. Our cultural assumptions and taboos are not all identical. We do not agree on important issues such as the ultimate meaning of life. Despite all these differences, however, we hold some things in common. Across cultures and across history, we share the sense that something is wrong with us, that we just do not measure up in terms of our ethics. We have a sense of imperfection that is so pervasive that it comes across in popular sayings that reflect our condition. “To err is human,” we tell one another. “Nobody’s perfect,” we are quick to confess.
When various ways of falling short of our ethical standards cause harm to others, we develop laws to forbid particular behaviors and punishments to deal with those who commit infractions. Sometimes we levy fines on lawbreakers that must be paid in order for us to retain certain rights. For more significant crimes, jail time might be imposed, and when someone is released we often refer to that person as having “paid his debt to society.” Either way, there is the notion that our infractions are debts that we can and must pay.
As Christians, we know that this universal sense of imperfection and that our moral failures incur debts are rooted ultimately in our estrangement from our Creator. Paul tells us in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Every shortfall with respect to our earthly law codes springs from our falling short of the law of God.
This failure to live up to the standards of the divine law, in turn, makes us seek ways to repay the debt we owe to the Almighty. The history of world religions is the history of human beings’ trying to come up with the methods that will pay the debt we incur to God. Various forms of penance, pilgrimages, fasting, and so forth are commonly found in the religions of world as means to pay the debt of sin and atone for falling short of the Creator’s law.
The problem with all these attempts is that they do not take the difference between Creator and creature into serious consideration. We can pay the debts we owe to other people for breaking human laws, but how can finite individuals pay the debt owed to the infinite God? We have transgressed the standards of our infinitely holy Creator, which means that the debt we owe is infinite. We cannot hope to pay this debt ourselves.