If you ever find yourself going down the internet rabbit trail looking at debt payoff success stories, you’ll likely run across some pretty amazing stories like the one where a dentist paid off $380,000 in student loans in just 21 months, or the family that paid off $125,000 of debt while eating mostly dehydrated hashbrowns they got delivered to their home for free due to a generous donor and a manufacturing glitch that kept them from being sold as intended. The stories don’t seem to end, but my internet search didn’t mention the single greatest story of all.
If we’re going to rank these stories, there has to be some criteria used for measuring greatness. The things I consider are the amount of the debt, the risks of not paying off the debt, the ability of the person to pay back the debt, and the effort and sacrifices made to pay off the debt. For example, the $380,000 student loan paid off by the dentist sounds amazing at first, but what if that dentist earned $1 million a year and made no personal sacrifices while he paid it back? That story wouldn’t seem quite as amazing anymore. It might actually be less impressive than a single mother earning minimum wage who paid off $10,000 in the same amount of time.
There’s also a great debt payoff story in the Bible, found in Matthew 18:23-27. In this story, a king is settling his accounts and a servant is brought in that owed him ten thousand talents. This was an enormous amount of money, frankly almost beyond comprehension. There was no possible way for the servant to pay off his debt, so the king ordered that he, along with his wife, children and all their possessions be sold to pay off as much as possible. The story goes on to say “So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” The servant in this story didn’t pay off his debt personally, but it was wiped away by the creditor. This is an amazing story of a debt payoff, even though it was ultimately debt forgiveness. As great as this debt story is, it still pales in comparison to our winner.
The winning story is a lot more personal and a lot more desperate. Did you know that just like the servant in Matthew 18, we all owe a debt that we can’t possibly repay? The difference though is that the penalty for nonpayment of our debt is much worse than slavery or physical death. The penalty for our debt is eternal spiritual death. Consider that Matthew 10:28 says “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” This verse helps to illustrate the vast difference between the penalty of our debt and that of the servant. Even if a debt would cause you to lose your life, Jesus says that’s not even worthy of fear compared to losing your eternal life and that’s exactly what is at stake in our situation.
To understand our debt and why eternity rests in the balance, we first need to understand sin and its connection to debt. In the beginning, God created the world and when He was finished, He said “it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). However, when Adam and Eve bit into the fruit, they rejected God’s authority and declared their independence. They sinned. John MacArthur teaches about 5 Greek words the Bible uses to describe sin in his sermon “Forgive Us Our Sins” Part 1 and Part 2. Here’s a summary of what he had to say about each word:
1. Hamartia – Sin is a failure to hit the mark of God’s standard, which is His perfection. In Matthew 5:48 Jesus explains the standard when He says, “Be ye perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
2. Parabasis – Sin means “to step across.” When we sin, we step over the line between right and wrong.
3. Anamia – Sin is an act of “lawlessness.” When we sin, we rebel by breaking God’s law.
4. Paraptōma – Sin is an act of slipping and falling. We don’t have the ability or control to stand.
5. Opheilēma – Sin is “a debt.” Every sin we commit puts us in debt to God. We have defrauded God by not giving him the righteousness and obedience that He is due.
Sin is a much bigger deal than we often make of it. To fully understand the relationship of God and sin, we have to understand the character of God. God is holy and righteous. Because He is perfect, sin cannot even stand in His presence. Habakuk 1:13 says, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.”
Next, consider that God is also just. That means that every sin ever committed by every person will be punished. Just as a just judge wouldn’t overlook a crime, God will not overlook a single sin that was committed. In Exodus 23:7, God says, “I will not acquit the guilty.”
Who are the guilty? Romans 3:23 tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Every one of us has sinned. We’ve all missed the mark and continue to grow our debt.
So, what is the cost of this debt owed on our sin? Romans 6:23 tells us that “the wages of sin is death” and this is not just physical death, but the spiritual death of an eternity separated from God in Hell. As with the man in Matthew 18, our sin is too big for us to pay. Even an eternity in Hell can’t pay it off. That’s why the punishment has no end.
Like the servant in Matthew 18, the only option we have is to fall at the feet of our creditor, God, and beg for forgiveness because only the creditor can forgive debt. Mark 2:7 says “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” But God can’t just forget about sin. Sin still has to be punished or God wouldn’t be just. We see the answer in Romans 3:21-26, where God puts forth Christ as a propitiation (an offering satisfying God’s wrath) for our sins “so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus”. All we have to do is have faith in Jesus. Our simple act is to believe that Jesus will save us, ask for forgiveness and repent of our sins by turning from them.
Jesus has already paid the price of our sins, past, present, and future. He took the punishment that was due us and paid it to satisfy God once for all time. Only because He paid our debt, can we be forgiven. Colossians 2:13-14 says it all:
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
In wrapping up this greatest story of all time, I want to point out one more Greek word used in John 19:30, where we read of Jesus’ death. It says, “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit”. The Greek word tetelestai is the word Jesus used to say “It is finished”. This word is an accounting term that has been found on tax receipts of the time meaning “paid in full”. Jesus’ final words declared the full payment of our debt to sin. And, as we later read in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Christ not only paid our debt in full, but we now have a personal account with the perfect righteousness of Christ on deposit so that when God looks at us, he sees the righteousness of Christ.
Now that we know the story, let’s review our criteria for the Debt Payoff Hall of Fame and see how this story stacks up.
· Amount of Debt – Beyond measure
· Risk of Not Paying – Eternal spiritual death in Hell
· Ability to Pay It Back – Impossible, even an eternity won’t pay it off
· Effort and Sacrifices Made – The price of death was paid by the creditor, out of love, and after paying the debt, He also gave us everything He had
It’s not even possible for this story to be topped, but it should be obvious who gets the praise in this one. It’s not the one that was in debt, but instead it’s the One who had no debt to pay, but paid it anyway.
Brad Graber, CFP® has been working with clients on personal financial planning and investment issues since 1996. He invests his time mentoring and educating individuals on ways to be better stewards of the resources God has entrusted to them.