by Donald Marsden, Associate Director
As a nine-year-old, I went to a summer YMCA camp for a month of sports, swimming, hiking, boating, crafts, singing and worship. On a hillside path leading up from the lake, there was a camp store stocked with flashlight batteries, dental floss, toothpaste, soap, bug spray and candy bars. My parents put some money in my account at the camp store, and I got into the habit of buying a candy bar in the afternoons on my way back from the lake.
On the last day of camp, I joined the other boys from my cabin on a visit to the store to claim the unspent balances on our accounts. When it came my turn to ask for my refund, the clerk told me I owed $50. I was devastated. I hadn’t imagined it was possible to spend more money than was in my account. Instead of getting a refund, I owed money. I was a debtor.
When my mother arrived to pick me up, I felt deeply ashamed that I’d run up a debt at the store. My mom treated it as no big deal. She paid the balance for me, and after packing my belongings into the car, we headed home.
In Romans 1, Paul turns the shame of indebtedness upside down:
“I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish—hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:14–16).
For Paul, being a debtor wasn’t a shameful, crushing burden, but a delightful obligation he felt glad to fulfill. When later in the same letter he wrote, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another” (Romans 13:8), he was saying the same thing in another way.
If I get a low mortgage rate buying a house when interest rates are high, I’m glad, because it seems like I’m making money even though in fact I owe money. The Good News of the Gospel is much better than that. The entire mortgage has been wiped out. I’m debt free.
So if I’m debt free, how can I still be a debtor? In our culture, we don’t like the language of duty, obligation and debt. We think of these as burdens to be avoided. But the Good News can’t remain hidden. The Good News wants to come out of us. And we become obliged to let it out.
As I meet believers around the world, I’m moved by the stories of people who preach Good News in places where they face threats of death and prison. Yet they continue to share the Good News. The boundless, amazing freedom of knowing Jesus, of knowing that your sins are forgiven and your debt is fully paid gives followers of Jesus joyful courage and love that banishes fear. We’re debtors of a different kind, obliged to tell others the Good News because we’re overwhelmed with gratitude for what God has done for us.