John Piper has complained that the historic Reformed understanding of the Christian faith and life produces what he calls a “debtor’s ethic”. The assumption is that a “debtor’s ethic” is something that we are supposed to reject out of hand.
I have previously criticized his rejection of Reformation theology, piety and practice. His rejection of the guilt, grace, gratitude structure of the faith is a rejection of the Reformation reading of Romans and the confession of the Reformed churches in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). This would seem to put the burden of proof on Piper to show how the entire magisterial Reformation (e.g., Luther, Melanchthon, Bucer, Calvin, Bullinger) and their Reformed successors are wrong.
What, however, if the premise of Piper’s critique is at odds with Paul’s theology? In Romans 8:12–14, Paul wrote about Christians,
Therefore brothers, we are debtors (οφειλεται) not to live according to the flesh, for if you live according to the flesh, you are about to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the acts of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit are sons of God (my translation).
In Romans 3:21–5:21, Paul has been preaching the doctrine of free salvation (especially justification) by divine favour alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone. In chapter 6, he turns to the implications of the gospel of free grace: our new life in Christ. We have been identified with Christ’s death in baptism, which is a ritual death. Christ has died to sin and by virtue of our Spirit-wrought union with Christ. We too must also die to sin.
In chapter 7, however, Paul explains that the great problem of the Christian life is not God’s holy law. Before he was converted, Paul thought that he could keep the covenant of works and earn favour with God. Now, however, in Christ, he knows better. Now he knows what he is by nature after the fall. He is a new creature, yet the old self still exists. It is a daily, existential struggle. He concludes chapter 7 with a deeply realistic assessment of the Christian life wrapped in a doxology:
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin (Rom. 7:21–25; ESV).