Forgive Us Our Debts

There may be no language to describe the Atonement; recurring passages in the Book of Mormon and other works show the incapacity of mortals to express the joy and wonder inherent in God’s glory. When we try to approach the divine through language, one of the more common scriptural tropes for Christ’s expiation and our relationship with God is that of indebtedness. References to our indebted nature occur in all of the standard works.(1)

How far can the language of indebtedness take us in coming closer to God through Christ?

First, it’s clear that notions of being in debt to God is not some passing metaphor like parables of bicycles or some such; Christ brings it up, Paul brings it up, Benjamin brings it up and Joseph Smith does as well. The concept is so central as to be more than a simple turn of phrase; I wonder whether it is in fact an accurate metaphysical description. I like King Benjamin’s description, which is probably the most developed in our standard works:

And now, in the first place, he hath created you, and granted unto you your lives, for which ye are indebted unto him. And secondly, he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast?

(Mosiah 2:23-24)

The truth of this is obvious to the believer: God created us, gives us all we have, and blesses us both in near- and long-term for obedience to His commandments. Like residents of a company town, we owe God just for being here, and we owe Him more and more each day. You can never ‘break even’ with God. This sounds potentially negative, but in the eyes of the believer this is part of the essential bond between us and our Heavenly Father: a sense of gratitude, which stems from a knowledge of God’s greatness and our comparative unworthiness. This is the paradigm through which I approach much of my personal worship. I owe God a lot. He has been immensely patient and kind to me, and it is clear that the life I live and the blessings I enjoy, both temporal and spiritual, are not earned but are true gifts. When I approach Him in prayer and think about the people and experiences I enjoy, I can only acknowledge that I will never be able to repay, but that I will give what I can.

The debt model of atonement doesn’t take long to break down. Why does a debt accrue? Who is being paid, and how much? What is the currency? Is God essentially getting us — or His son — to repay his debts? It’s an odd system, to be sure, even if the raw notion of indebtedness speaks to our hearts. Perhaps the most important element of this atonement model is the concept of gratitude that it potentially instills within us. That said, I don’t know that it is sufficient to get us saved. What other models of worship are there? Are there indicators in the scriptures (or elsewhere) that being a penitent debtor is something other than permanent?

While I am unclear on how the progression occurs, I am convinced that at some point God looks beyond this indebtedness model and considers us on a different interpersonal level. Descriptors such as “heirs,” “joint-heirs,” “children,” and “friends” lead me to believe that either at some point in our spiritual progression our relationship to Heavenly Father becomes more familial, or perhaps more assured, possibly following abrahamic-style testing. Certainly this is the progression seen in the revelations given to Joseph Smith, whose relationship to God evolves over time from unruly servant to friend.

What’s the point of all this? I am not sure. Partially this is a banal commentary on the limits of any literature, including scripture, in its capacity to describe the Atonement. I am also still trying to make sense of the Atonement in my own mind, and in doing so feel constrained by language and by the predominant metaphors of scripture. There’s a calm and assurance that is better than these analogies. What is it?

(1) I was going to add lots of footnotes throughout here, but then realized they were all pretty obvious. If anyone needs cross-references or evidence for the things I am saying, they are easily found.


  1. Good stuff, SDE.

    When Job cries for a Redeemer it is for a go’el, a kinsman who will redeem him from his misery, rather than from a debt, for Job had no such debts.

  2. Just thinking out loud here, but one way of looking at it is as a “indebtedness” and “Joint-heirs” continuum. And religious authorities of all ages are constantly trying to keep us balanced on that continuum. I’m sure there have been periods of time (King Benjamin’s? now?) when God’s people were pretty pleased with themselves for being the most awesome, incredible people who are so righteous that they are creating their own salvation. And if that’s the case they needed to be reminded that actually it’s all a gift from God. And in the opposite situations where (if) everyone is feeling like believing is a massively unequal proposition with us as creatures so far below God that we can hardly see Him and so what’s the point of all of this, they need to be reminded that God views us as children, joint heirs to the kingdom and all that he has, and that it’s His plan to have us gain eternal life and glory. So we should be happy!

    I personally find a rather strong current of triumphalism and righteous exceptionalism in Mormon popular culture based on the idea that we have the “complete truth” (although we also believe that there are still things to be revealed, but that’s often ignored). So it’s useful to be reminded that what Mormons have (if you really pay attention to what we believe) is a massive responsibility to be true to all the things we believe to be true. So it’s good to be reminded that although we might all be actively engaged in lots of good works, in the end it’s al a gift from God who loves us in spite of our shortcomings not because we’ve earned it.

    Just a few thoughts for what they’re worth…

  3. (Not to complicate things, but the go’el redeemer also avenged kin blood. Jesus as Avenger…?!)

  4. Steve Evans says:

    Very interesting, Ronan. Of course one could argue that the O.T. is a really shoddy source for atonement theory. But one shouldn’t argue that in Gospel Doctrine class.

  5. Nooooooooooooooooo!

    All atonement theory must take the OT very seriously. Those Hebrews were mad, crazy atonementists!

  6. Steve, one of the aspects I really enjoyed in Blake Ostler’s second volume was the discussion on the various theories of atonement, which are:

    The Ransom Theory
    The Satisfaction Theory
    The Moral Influence Theory
    The Moral Example Theory
    The Governmental Theory
    The Penal Substitution Theory
    and The Compassion Theory

    Until you look at the ways Christians have been discussing the atonement over the centuries, it is difficult to see where general authorities are getting their analogies for their talks. Frankly, only Blake Ostler and Adam Miller have spent much time working out the concept of grace in Mormon Thought outside of “Christ makes up the difference” (despite the attempts of Millet and Robinson).

  7. Ronan, I agree with you but you have to admit we LDS have largely eschewed OT atonement concepts.

    Kent — yes, Blake is the man when it comes to this (though I wouldn’t write off Millet!). I’m hoping he can chime in a little. My post is little more than an introduction to one aspect of the problem.

  8. We all get a bail out. A massive one. There will be no jury, and no legal firm, but a judge who is also our father, and an exalted advocate who is also our brother. I believe we are our own prosecution, for “the accuser” will not have a part in our redemption. I believe we will have a new understanding of how our acts have impacted others and will feel simultaneously grieved and joyful. All an oxymoron. One to be savored.

  9. Of course, one of the other duties of the goel was to ransom a kinsman from debt-slavery.

  10. Though as pointed out, Job is not in need of that.

  11. I can’t quite explain it, but when we get on this topic I’m reminded of a poem I love written by former poet laureate Billy Collins called The Lanyard. I often feel like the boy in the poem, offering a lanyard to my Savior.

    Video of Collins reading his poem here.

  12. Margaret, I am going to print out your response and paste it all over my house. I love it.

  13. Margaret is right on! Did you just read the post I made on the last topic? Nice to have a second witness.

  14. I just read it, Kent, and loved it. Beautifully, beautifully phrased. Thank you.

  15. Thank you! (and check your email Margaret)

  16. #11 Chad Too – I really like that poem, and I agree it evokes the same sorts of feelings I have about the atonement, and the complete inadequacy of anything we might have to offer in return for what we have been given.

  17. Wonderful post, Steve.

  18. Since we’re sharing poetry, here’s one I love–also one of my husband’s favorites. If I were younger and computer savvy, I would just say “here” and you could click. Being old enough to remember typewriters, I can only paste:

    LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
    Guilty of dust and sin.
    But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
    From my first entrance in,
    Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
    If I lack’d anything.

    ‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
    Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
    ‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
    I cannot look on Thee.’
    Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
    ‘Who made the eyes but I?’

    ‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
    Go where it doth deserve.’
    ‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
    ‘My dear, then I will serve.’
    ‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
    So I did sit and eat.

    George Herbert

  19. A second on The Lanyard, for several reasons. First, because it addresses the debt issue with plenty of the feeling and little of the formalism that can quickly derail that atonement analogy. Second, because the poem always reminds me of something my mother once told me: that I’d never love her as much as she loved me because she had served me so much longer than I would ever serve her. Though this seemed a bit rude to my teenage mind, I’ve realized later the great truth she was teaching me about the love-service relationship. Third, I just really like Billy Collins’ poetry.

    I also have to add that a recently baptized member actually asked “Who do we owe?” when we discussed the Atonement in Gospel Essentials a few weeks ago. The lesson is heavy on the debt analogy. A full-time missionary, trying to be helpful, attempted to explain that we owed the debt to “Justice,” as if that was some sort of eternal/infinite collection agency. I know he was taking a cue from Alma there, but I found it all very unsatisfying.

  20. Steve Evans says:

    Jason, I agree. It’s particularly in the context of recent converts that we ought to pay close attention to the analogies we use. Ultimately all of these descriptors are unsatisfying compared to the experience of coming to Jesus — but for pedagogical reasons (and for strengthening each other in the faith) we have to forge ahead somehow.

  21. Sorry to be dense, but I actually like the debt analogy/theory and feel that it explains the atonement quite well. I guess there can be inaccuracies or limitations with any analogy, but as far as analogies go, I always thought it was a pretty good one. What, exactly, is wrong with it?

  22. Like residents of a company town, we owe God just for being here… You can never ‘break even’ with God.

    I think the problem I have with a lot of atonement theory is that it leaves me eternally, permanently “useless” to God—leaves me envying those residents of a company town who, though totally dependent on the Company, can still take some satisfaction knowing that they’ve contributed in some way.

    He has been immensely patient and kind to me, and it is clear that…the blessings I enjoy are not earned but are true gifts. I can only acknowledge that I will never be able to repay, but that I will give what I can.

    But does atonement theory allow us to give back in the same way? Does it allow us to serve God out of love for him and not just out of a sense of duty or indebtedness?

  23. Jim, the problem ends up being that God actually has less power than a human has, as I can forgive you just by letting go of the anger in my heart, but God requires his son to die to satisfy either his honor or some impersonal “justice” or “law” that he is the author of. Who exactly is the one that is supposed to be satisfied by Christ suffering (paying the debt)? I looked at to see if there were any uses of the word sin and pay (payment, paid, etc.) in the scriptures; and there aren’t any that relate to the atonement.

  24. Oh, that. Thanks for spelling it out for me….

    Maybe it doesn’t quite fit the model, but isn’t enough to say that eternal law requires that only those free of sin can live in the presence of God? Even God is subject to eternal laws, right?

    Thus the need for a Savior to pay the price of our sins, etc., etc.

  25. Jim,

    I see you are sincere, but laying the groundwork for this discussion is beyond my abilities (at least at this time of day). If you want to read a lot of the discussions on the problems with the concept of a penal substitution theory, see the posts on the atonement over at NewCoolThang, and start at the bottom. The best I could recommend is that you read Blake Oslter’s second book.

  26. Kent(MC), thanks for the link. I have read some at NewCoolThank and will return there for more ideas.

    I think it is interesting though that there are so many different thoughts about the atonement. On one hand I see the value of exploring these ideas, trying to gain a greater understanding, etc., but on the other hand I wonder about the value of accepting that we cannot understand what God does with our finite minds and that we may not have all of the answers in this life.

  27. For an lively discussion of the place of debt in our lives, including a very good summary of the various religious motifs around the topic, read Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, a new book by Margaret Atwood. Chapters include “Debt and Sin” and “Debt as Plot.” I’ve got to tell you, though, the final chapter is a complete non-sequitur and should have been left out.

  28. “I wonder about the value of accepting that we cannot understand what God does with our finite minds and that we may not have all of the answers in this life”

    I’ll tell you the value of that notion: zero. It is the worst-case scenario, in my opinion, to be pacified with an incomplete knowledge of anything.

  29. I agree that we must be open and tentative in our claims of understanding God. Since the atonement is at the heart of everything about this life; we should do our best to understand it as best we can since the way we view the world is directly related to how we view God and ourselves. I think how one understands the atonement affects everything in one’s life, at least it does in my own. Best wishes!

  30. I guess what I’m saying is that the gospel is simple and can be understood by a child (see this, for example). Is it wrong to accept that we may not understand all things? I don’t mean to condemn those that quest for more answers, but neither should the simpleton be condemned for accepting a basic understanding of gospel principles.

  31. I heartily agree that one not need understand to benefit from the atonement. However, to benefit from it fully we will need to understand it fully – eventually.

  32. Why does a debt accrue? Who is being paid, and how much? What is the currency? Is God essentially getting us — or His son — to repay his debts?

    Count me among those who say that even God is subject to the law. I think it explains a lot of difficult concepts, including the fall and the atonement.

    The debt accrues because we all sin and once we have sinned the law does not allow us to access to immortality or life in God’s presence. Debt is just a way of conceptualizing the fact that we fall short of perfection and cannot overcome death and sin ourselves.

    Only a sinless person (one with no debt) and a person who is himself also a god (over whom death has no power) can voluntarily pay the debt for others, allowing them to overcome death and sin.

    I don’t understand the question of God’s debt. It’s not God’s debt, it’s ours. Every person who has lived, including Adam and Eve who chose to sin and fall so that we all might live.

    I know this doesn’t answer all questions, but I think it’s as close as we can get for now.

  33. I see it as sort of a huge galactic tribunal and they see all of time from the big bang to the fadeout, all at once, because they aren’t limited by our temporal framework, and they look at all these species who commit slow suicide and say, “what do you think? Are these worth saving?”
    “No way! Have you seen the things they do to one another? Gah, it’s horrific.”
    “Yeah, and look at how they treat the poor creatures in their power.”
    “True, that, they’re total poison! Stay away from that slum.”
    And then Christ speaks up and says, “They’re mine and I love them.”
    And the others say, “What? Dude! You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
    “Have you listened to their minds? Ugh! What a cesspool.”
    “Are you serious? There’s nothing salvageable there.”
    “Let it be. You don’t know how bad it’ll be.”
    “I’ll go there, and I’ll do whatever it takes.”
    “Why waste your life? Lemme tell you, it’ll take every last drop of your blood to get through to them.”
    “So be it.”

    So then the infinite agony he endured, the fact that he was willing to sacrifice his life for ours (and I do believe his eternal life was at risk, and he might have gone down into darkness with us did we fail to respond to his love), the fact that he considered us so precious that we were worth that, and him so pure and tender and true, was the only thing that had the power to convince us we had any worth at all. But because he suffered that for us, we can’t deny it. We’re worth something. So then we have to start treating ourselves and each other accordingly, we have no choice. And so we begin the ascent.

    And then he speaks for us to them, he claims us, so they have to acknowledge us his children, and respect us too, and recognize our worth.

    So because of that, we live forever and we’re able to grow up to become like him, like them. We’re able to become creatures who are willing to lay down our lives for the faint hope that some mewling pitiful filthy thing can transcend its misery and understand enough of truth to become glorious and pure, a being of light, a divine spirit like ourselves. The end.

  34. Here’s where I find the analogy of debt falling short: it implies some cosmic third party (other than the Godhead) to enter the equation. This might be represented as “Justice” or the sort of “huge galactic tribunal” described by Tatiana. But we have no scriptural foundation for the existence of such a third party with enforcement abilities. Yes, God obeys eternal law, but I don’t think that’s the same as God being subject to law in the way that you and are are subject to law (eternal or earthly).

    Fundamentally, sin may be like debt, but it’s not the same as debt because we don’t have a debtor. What we have is un-god-like-ness, a character trait more than an outstanding obligation. We can never pay back God for what He’s given us, but He’s never asked us too. (Even if King Benjamin was right about our appropriate response to mercy.) What he has asked us to do is change what we are, to become like Him in order to live with Him again. At least in my experience, the impact of the Atonement feels a lot less formulaic than debt and a lot more like organic growth.

  35. In my opinion, the debt incurred by sin is most easily understood as a debt to the injured that Christ takes over as a mediator. Christ makes the injured party whole own his own terms, and likewise sets the terms by which we are required to make partial compensation.

    Or more to the point, any theory of atonement that does not require the sinner to make partial (if indirect) restitution for the injuries he has inflicted, is almost incomprehensible to the point of not being a theory of atonement at all, but rather a license to do evil.

  36. Glad to see the subtle jab on the parable of the bicycle – that is quoted WAY too much in sacrament meetings all over the church.

  37. I’ll take the bicycle over the half-sleeping kid wandering the train tracks any day. The bicycle story isn’t a bad starting point for a child, but we do need to put away childish things eventually and move to higher understanding and an intimate sense of what the Savior did. Eventually, we need to move past analogy period and come face to face with glory.

  38. I think if we accept what he did, and what it means for us, then we can feel loved enough to think it even matters what we do, and we can hear that call or feel that pull to try to become like him. And that’s what makes us salvageable at all, that we want to be like him and we’re willing to give up the parts of ourselves that get in the way of that. Cause him doing it to us by force would obviously be wrong. The transformation has to be done by us, to ourselves, by following his example and his teachings. We have all those good feeling inside us already, the light of Christ, along with the bad. But when we understand who he is and what he did for us, then we start to feel like we want to choose to emphasize the good feelings, the joy and innocence and peace and love and purity, and stuff, and just let go of the stupid mistaken feelings like envy, spite, grousing, jealousy, suspicion, cynicism, false witness, and the rest.

    So I guess that means he paid the price it took to get through to us. That he endured what he did for us, and that he claims us, is what breaks our hearts and gives us a path out of the mire we got ourselves into. However, we still have to walk that path. He’s not going to just miraculously rapture us up out of it, we have to walk it. So Grace is the path, without which we could never get there, but works are the walk, including working on our hearts and being willing to throw out the garbage that we have put there.

  39. #38 – Tatiana just articulated why I’m not all that concerned about the exact nature of the Atonement – since I believe it is the concept of being actual children of an actual God who actually will forgive us and allow us actually to become like Him that constitutes the power of the “at-one-ment”. However that occurs (even if Jesus’ role in mortality was totally symbolic as the great scapegoat, and even if all the other doctrines concerning the Godhead are retroactive and figurative), I am fine with it.

    The “embodied” view might or might not be accurate, but I love it – so I choose to accept it. It just won’t destroy me if I find out in the next life that it was all a divine, educational construct. If it gets me back to Him in a condition like He is, I’m not going to complain in the slightest – “technically correct” or not.

  40. Can I just register an objection to the “at-one-ment” word play? That seems so hokey to me.

    Ray, I agree that we need not get upset if our personal view of the operation of the atonement turns out to be just a parable or wildly inaccurate, but what is it exactly that you love about the “embodied” view, and why does that do it for you?

  41. MCQ,

    What exactly are you objecting to? Do you object to people pointing out that this is the origin and meaning of the word or are you just saying that Tyndale was a being overly cheesy when he glued the words “at” and “onement” together to create a new English word for his translation of the Bible?

  42. MCQ, I like the idea of a living, breathing, tangible Savior who really did, somehow, suffer for us. My brain embraces the symbolic, but my heart likes the literal – at least with this concept. It’s reversed for many others, but this one . . .

    It’s not more complicated than that.

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