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Gratitude, the Debtor’s Ethic, and John Piper’s Future Grace (part 1)

John Piper in 1995 wrote Future Grace. I’m finally getting around to reading it. His main premise is that faith in future grace is what drives our righteous behavior before God now.   He says, “I pray that you will hear and follow the call to find your joy in all that God promises to be for you in Jesus. And I pray the the expulsive power of this new affection will go on freeing you for the fleeting pleasures of sin and empower you for a life o sacrifical love.  If in this way, we prove that God is prized above all things, then living by faith in future grace will be to the praise of his glory.”   To be clear, I agree with his premise.  However, as he talks about gratitude in his first chapters, I think he is lacking in perspective on all that gratitude can give.

First, let’s notice what Piper says about gratitude and faith.

A definition: “We easily forget that gratitude exists because sometimes things come to us “gratis”—without price or payment. When that happens, we should feel a pleasant sense of the worth of what we’ve received and the goodwill behind it. This pleasant sense is what we call gratitude.”  (Future Grace [FG], 31) “God meant gratitude to be a spontaneous expression of pleasure in the gift and the good will of another.” (FG, 32)

Piper’s main concern at first is to show that gratitude should not result in what he calls the debtor’s ethic.

The debtor’s ethic says, “Because you have done something good for me, I feel indebted to do something good for you.” (FG, 32)

This is good because we can all easily slip into trying to pay God back for all the good He does us.  This, however, violates a true picture of who God is.  Paul explicitly asks in somewhat of an echo of Is. 40, ‘who can give to God that he should be repaid?’   We cannot repay God for any good we do is ultimately from His grace (Eph. 2:8-10).

Piper explains, “In the debtor’s ethic the Christian life is pictured as an effort to pay back the debt we owe to God. Usually the concession is made that we can never fully pay it off. But “gratitude” demands that we work at it. Good deeds and religious acts are the installment payments we make on the unending debt we owe God. This debtor’s ethic often lies, perhaps unintentionally, beneath the words, ‘We should obey Christ out of gratitude.'”  (FG, 33)

Is then gratitude a vital part of a sanctifying faith and growth in Christ?

Here’s how Piper explains it: “As I said before, this is not nit-picking or incidental; it is amazing. Gratitude is not set forth in the Bible as a primary motive for Christian living. Gratitude is a beautiful thing. There is no Christianity without it. It is at the heart of worship. It should fill the heart of every believer. But when it comes to spelling out the spiritual dynamics of how practical Christian obedience happens, the Bible does not say that it comes from the backward gaze of gratitude, but that it comes from the forward gaze of faith.”

Here than we see a final part to Piper’s perspective on gratitude.  It is oriented toward the past and not the future.  Piper does not see gratitude as a primary motive for Christian living.  Is he correct?  I want to lookat that in part 2.    But, before we analyze that, some practical questions:  is gratitude a part of your worship? Are you daily grateful for the gift of eternal life?  Do you regularly look at God’s blessings to you?  These questions are vital because they reflect a heart of biblical worship.

However, we also should not slip into a debtor’s ethic.  Trying to repay God for what He has done.  It is very easy to conceive of our relationship to God based on things he gives us and things we owe to him in return. This ultimately is a perversion of grace because it conceives of grace as coming with strings attached.  It also subtly conceives of God as not able to do what we think needs to be done without us doing something.  How easy is it to slip into the debtor’s ethic?  What do you think?


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