Eric Olson from Springfield, Missouri writes in: “Pastor John, does the popularized ‘pay it forward’ concept nullify grace? I just read a segment of your book Future Grace that I think clarified why I’ve been discontented with all this ‘paying it forward.’ It seems too easily to fall into the camp of human obedience to match past grace or the idea of giving to get. Can you show us Scriptures that might reveal our motives in the ‘pay it forward’ phenomenon that we see today?”
Let me give a little background first, because my guess is some of our listeners are not familiar with this idea at all. I certainly was not aware of the phenomenon he is talking about, so I had to do a little poking around.
“We are debtors to all people if God has given us a gift that he is willing to give to all who call upon him.”
So “pay it forward” is an expression for describing the beneficiary of a good deed repaying it to others instead of the one who did the good deed to him. So the concept is very old. But the phrase may have been coined, according to Wikipedia, by Lili Hardy Hammond in 1916 in her book The Garden of Delight. There was a movie in 2000 called “Pay It Forward,” and the lead line in the movie was, “When someone does you a good deed, don’t pay it back, pay it forward.” That is the idea.
There is a “Pay It Forward” foundation. There is a “Pay It Forward” novel. There is a “Pay It Forward” day, April 30. Maybe that is why the question came recently. Benjamin Franklin loaned a man in need some money one time, and he said, “I do not pretend to give such a deed. I only lend it to you. When you meet with another honest man in similar distress as you, you must pay me by lending this sum to him.” That is the meaning of pay it forward.
Before the Face of God
I would say in advance of my biblical reflection that, on the horizontal level as a way of thinking about spreading kindness, it seems pretty harmless to me and could do much good. But we are Christians and we don’t live merely on the horizontal level ever.
We are always dealing with two directions: the horizontal and the vertical. We live before the face of God. So what does this mean in Scripture? What does the Scripture have to say about an approach towards ethics, discharging a debt from one person toward giving back, not to that person, but giving forward to another person. What does the Bible say about that?
I think the best way to handle this is to just get a big picture of the biblical view of debt or obligation in its various forms. One of them is a pay it forward in the Bible, but others are not. So here is my definition of debt. Debt is an obligation or a sense of ought in me to do some good for someone which is created, the debt is created, by someone doing a good for me. I said that very generally because it is going to cut across all kinds of lines. I have five ways that we legitimately come into debt:
Someone loans you something or invests something with you. You are indebted to pay them back.
“God has given me this spectacular treasure of the gospel. Therefore, I am a debtor to everyone because it is meant for everyone.”
In the parable of the talents, Jesus said to the fellow who didn’t do anything with his talent that the master had loaned him, “Then you ought to have invested the money with bankers and at my coming I should have received back that which I gave you with interest” (Matthew 25:27).
That man was indebted to the investor. Somebody gives you money to handle for his sake, it is his money, but you owe him that money with interest or some kind of pay off, because he gave it to you to handle.
2. Worker’s Wage
When you put in a day’s work, your employer owes you a wage. “Do not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain. The laborer deserves his wages” (1 Timothy 5:18). So it is right, if you are an employer, to feel indebted to pay a wage to your employees.
3. Spiritual Blessings
We are debtors to others if they have given us spiritual blessings. Romans 15:26–27 says, “Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe [there is the key word] they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles [the Macedonian Gentiles] have come to share in the spiritual blessings that came from Jerusalem, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings.”
They ought. He uses the word ought. So they owe it to them. They ought. When spiritual blessings come to you from someone, there is a sense of oughtness that you should participate in meeting any needs they have, even physically.
First Corinthians 9:11 says, “If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?” No, if we have sown, we should reap from you. Or consider Galatians 6:6: “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.” So teachers should be supported by the ones they are teaching. So there is that kind of oughtness created by the sharing of spiritual things.
4. Spreading Good News
We are debtors to all people. Here is the pay-it-forward part. We are debtors to all people if God has given us a gift, which he is willing to give to all who call upon him through you.
“When you are made the beneficiary from God of something that is meant to benefit everyone, you are the debtor to everyone.”
Here is Paul in Romans 1:14: “I am a debtor both to Greeks and Barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.” In other words, I am a debtor to everybody. “So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (verse 15). So what he means by that is: God has given me, he has entrusted me with, this spectacular treasure of the gospel. Therefore, I am a debtor to everyone because the gospel is meant for everyone and I have it.
Here is a picture of this concept: Back in 1975, Dan Fuller preached at my ordination, and he did it from this text, and he made this point. The text is 2 Kings 7. The Syrians have surrounded Jerusalem. The embargo is such that they are starving in Jerusalem. Nobody can get any food. They are about to all perish from starvation. But then God steps in and chases the Syrians away by causing them to hear something.
There are four lepers standing at the gate who decide, “Look, we are going to die anyway. Let’s go ask for mercy from the Syrians.” So they go out to the Syrian camp, and it is empty, filled with food. This is like the gospel. This is like finding the gospel, the treasure hidden in a field.
What do these lepers do? Well, they start eating. They pounce upon it and eat it. But then they stop and in verse 9 they said to one another, “We are not doing right.” In other words,“We have a debt here. We have a debt. We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news. If we are silent and wait until morning, punishment will overtake us. Now, therefore, come and let us go and tell the king’s household.” And within a day everybody’s need was met in Jerusalem.
The point there is that when you are made the beneficiary from God of something that is meant to benefit everyone, you are the debtor to everyone. That is biblical paying-it-forward.
5. Forever Owing God
Here is the last one — and this is the one Eric picked up on in Future Grace, and it is really crucial, so we need to end on this. We have a debt to God for all his goodness to us. Yes, we do. We owe God. But this debt is absolutely unique. It can never be repaid. It should never be repaid. Any attempt to repay it is a contradiction of grace.
We will go deeper and deeper into debt forever. We will never come out of debt to God and grace means that. Grace would not be grace if you could pay it back. God would not be all-sufficient if his gift to us reduced his resources so that they needed replenishing by payback. They are not reduced.
That is what it means to be infinite. That is what it means to be God. When God gives, he is the no less for it. When we give, we are the less for it in some way. He is not. We dishonor God by trying to pay him back for his good towards us.
Ask for More
When Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:10, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me,” what that verse means is, any attempt we make — that is, any good deed we perform — is performed by the grace of God so that our good deeds can never be a means of paying him back for grace because they are expressions of grace and therefore take us deeper into grace.
“We dishonor God by trying to pay him back for his good toward us.”
A person is profoundly confused if they think that good deeds in obedience to God are payback to God when Paul says those good deeds are a very work of grace, not the payback for grace.
The last thing would be Psalm 116:12: “What shall I render to the Lord for all of his benefits to me?” Okay, there is the key payback question in relation to God. “What shall I render to the Lord for all of his benefits to me?” And his answer is in verse 13: “I will lift up the cup of salvation.” Now at that point, you wonder, “What does that mean? Is this a cup that is full, and he is toasting God? Like it is a toast. I lift it up and toast him. Or is it a cup that is empty and he is asking for more?” And the next phrase answers the question: “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.”
So the answer of payback to God is, ask for more. If you want to honor God for yesterday’s grace, ask him for today’s grace. In doing that, you are showing your desperate need and you are showing God’s infinite resourcefulness. If you pay forward the way Paul pays forward in Romans 1:14, know this: You are not paying God back by paying forward to others. You are drawing down more and more and more grace and laying up more and more treasure in heaven.