Happy Debtors and Their Heart for Prayer

Evangelical Ministry Assembly 2003 | London

Let me review just a moment from yesterday so that I can show you how today follows from yesterday. Missions is joining God in his passion for his global fame. He is seeking worshipers (John 4:23). He is exalting his Son to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:11). He is calling us, “Declare my glory among the nations, my marvelous works among all the people” Psalm 96:3).

Missions is radically God-centered. But our people are not God-centered. We, by and large, are not God-centered, and I gave several evidences of that. Then I suggested that the contribution I would like to make to help us breed God-centered churches is to teach our people, model for our people, pray into our people, and preach this truth to our people, namely, that the essence of glorifying God is enjoying God. That’s not the whole thing, but it’s the inward essence without which all other efforts to make him look good will not succeed. We must breed churches who understand and then experience that to make much of God means they delight in God, treasure God, cherish God, enjoy God, or are satisfied in God. This is the inward essence of worship and becomes, then, the fuel and the goal of worship.

God is seeking worshipers. The only kind of people who will gather worshipers from the unreached peoples of the world are worshiping people, and that means people who are satisfied with all that God is for them in Jesus.

Then I gave you five implications of that viewpoint, and the last one was that believing that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him — and that that’s the essence of worship, and that that’s the fuel and the goal of missions — is the best way to keep God supreme and central in our churches and in mission.

Prayer and the Debtor’s Ethic

Now here’s a sixth implication, and that’s all I want to talk about today. A sixth implication of believing that an essential component of giving God glory is enjoying God — essential, not optional — and that this is the root, or the fuel, of missions and the goal of missions, is that it keeps us from turning the labor of missions into a debtor’s ethic (which I’ll come back to), and it shows us the crucial role of prayer in doing missions to the glory of God. I’m focusing on those two things. I’m calling them a sixth implication. They’re two, but I see them as one. Perhaps you’ll see why before we’re done.

I’ll say them again. Believing what I taught yesterday would have this implication: it would help guard your missionaries and your senders. Those are the only two kinds of Christians, except for one other class, at least this is what I tell my church. You have three choices: you can be a goer, a sender, or disobedient. You don’t have to go if God doesn’t call you to go. But if you don’t go, you better be passionate about it. I was told not to raise my voice like that because it does something to the microphone. I’ll try to contain myself. You must be passionate about sending if you’re not a goer.

Now, believing what I said yesterday will keep the labor of sending and the labor of going from becoming a debtor’s ethic, and it will show the crucial role of prayer in doing missions to the glory of God, which is the only way he wants it done. So everything else I have to say this morning is explanation of those two implications, or that one implication.

A Widespread Danger

So what is the debtor’s ethic? The debtor’s ethic, which I fear is rampant in our churches, goes under a more acceptable title that I’ll mention in a minute, but it’s too controversial to start with because I’ll lose you if I start there. The debtor’s ethics sounds bad, so I’ll start with that. It means viewing Christian service, or Christian labor in missions, as a payback to God for all he’s done for us. Or to put it another way, the debtor’s ethic is operating with the inner dynamic of soul that says, “I have become a great beneficiary of grace and will now, for all my days, make God the beneficiary of my service.” That’s the debtor’s ethic, or you could call it the gratitude ethic.

It is amazing to me how many of our leaders, writers, and preachers have a conception of living the Christian life as being driven by gratitude. And I can’t find it in the Bible. That may sound absolutely crazy to you, but I have looked long and hard for a biblical text which explicitly says, “Live your life out of gratitude to God.” And everybody in evangelicalism believes that’s what you should do. So I hope before I’m done I can rescue whatever is true in that statement and show you what I believe is false in that.

There are warnings against the debtor’s ethic in the New Testament. Here are two. Acts 17:25 says:

[God is not] served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.

Do you see the warning there? Do you ever warn your people about the dangers of serving God? God is not served by human hands as though he could ever become the beneficiary of your labor. He has no need of you whatsoever. He himself will always be the benefactor, the giver, the spring, the fountain, the food, and the riches. Here’s the other warning. Mark 10:45 says:

The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Beware lest you switch roles with the Son of Man and serve him instead of receiving his service. And of course, texts are tumbling to your mind on the other side, but I will get to those. Just let this land on you. These are shocking texts. If you don’t shock your people, they’ll never wake up to truth. If you keep telling them the same old stuff which they’re hearing with these old ears, and they’re just processing it through a non-God-centered grid, you’ll never wake your church up. You must wake them up with the shocking reality of the Bible. Just let the Bible land on you with its shocking reality, and you will shock your people, and they might wake up to become radically God-centered servants of the king. Ah, I slipped and said “servants”, didn’t I? It’s because it’s so biblical, right? But we’ll get there.

The Debtor’s Ethic Is Impossible

Let me give you three reasons why you cannot, and therefore should not, try to live according to the debtor’s ethic. And the first one is that it’s impossible. Here are some texts to show you the impossibility of living according to the debtor’s ethic. And I’m always having in the back of my mind the labor and the service of missions, either sending or going. I want that service to be a service that glorifies God, not something that turns God into a poor, needy recipient of my benefaction.

All right, here’s the first text to show that it’s impossible. Romans 11:33–36 says:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
     or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
     that he might be repaid?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever.

The giver gets the glory — from him, through him, and to him. You’ve never given a thing to God that He didn’t already possess. You’ve never had a thought that could be offered in counsel to the living God. He is rich, he is wise, and he is infinitely deep in resources, and therefore, you can’t become a benefactor of God. Anything you have ever done for him, he has done in you.

First Corinthians 15:10 is the second text in this regard as to why it’s impossible:

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.

Do we work? You bet we work. Protestants work. That’s no accident. Paul says, “His grace towards me was not in vain. I worked harder than any of them. Nevertheless, I will say the deepest truth. It was not I, but the grace of God.” Every step I take, I take in you, Jesus. Do you have that song over here? Maybe not. It’s a good song.

Here’s the third text to show it’s impossible. Second Corinthians 9:8 says:

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work (labor, service).

God is able to make all grace abound to you so that you may abound in every good work. How do good works in missions, sending or going, happen? What’s the power? Answer: sovereign grace. Now the reason this makes the debtor’s ethic impossible is . . . I’m enclosed in a little box here, so I can’t do my usual demonstration. I usually walk when I do this, so I will take one step.

Deeper Into Debt

I’m facing the future now, and because of all the grace in the past, I want to magnify my king. I want to do something that pleases him. I want to make much of him by the way I behave, whether going as a missionary or sending. So I’m going to act, I must act. I’m a human being. I have a will. I have arms and legs. I’m going to act. How shall this action not be the debtor’s ethic? How shall this action not serve God as though he needed anything? How shall this action not serve the Son of Man but let him serve me?

Answer: “I will make all grace abound to you so that you will abound in every good deed.” I just took a step. That was grace. That was all grace, which means if my mindset were a debtor here, and I’m looking back over all the goodness he’s shown to me, and I don’t want to dishonor him, but I have a debtor’s mindset, my debtor’s mindset would be that my step will be a payback. “He did that for me, so this step is a repayment.” But if this step is a gift of grace, guess what? I just went deeper into debt.

Now, who said it yesterday, Bruce or Peter, unless you’re willing to be eternally in debt, you cannot be a Christian. The debtor’s mindset is that life becomes an amortization payment program by which all the incredible investment God made in me at the cross, I now devote myself to repaying with grateful obedience. And I call it the “debtor’s ethic” and say it’s impossible because you just go deeper into debt with every good deed you do if it’s done to the glory of God relying upon grace. That’s where I want to live the rest of my eternity — deeper, and deeper, and deeper in debt. Do you, or are you on your way to pay him back?

The Debtor’s Ethic Contradicts Grace

The second reason I say the debtor’s ethic is to be avoided is that even if it were possible, then grace would no longer be grace, would it? Romans 4:4–5 says:

Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,

Which do you want to be? Do you want to have your life reckoned as a debt back to you, or do you want to just go on trusting, and trusting, and trusting, in more and more grace? The Christian life of obedience is not an amortization schedule of debt retirement. It is gladly going deeper and deeper into debt to grace, which is the power to finish the Great Commission.

The Debtor’s Ethic Minimizes Future Grace

The third reason we should not pursue the debtor’s ethic is that the attempt to live, serve, work, and do missions by the debtor’s ethic minimizes the central place of future grace. This is a fundamental mistake that is being made across the board, and I fear it is somewhat rooted in the phrase “gratitude ethic”. And that’s the one I was afraid you would like so much that if I started criticizing it at the outset, nobody would be with me. And now I’m going to lose you anyway, probably, because I do want to criticize at least a misunderstanding of a gratitude ethic that says, “He’s done so much for me, now I will live the rest of my life in the power of gratitude.” I think if you analyze that down to the core, you’re going to run into problems, not to mention the fact that you can’t find that in the Bible.

So here’s my understanding — and I’ll try to show you that it’s biblical — of the relationship between past grace and a proper response to it, namely gratitude, and future grace, and a proper response to it, namely faith. The key text for me, it’s like a life verse, is Romans 8:32, which says:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all . . .

Notice how this statement is past tense. This is infinitely glorious past grace. Paul continues:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

Now, do you see the logic of the relationship between past grace and future grace? He who didn’t spare his own Son but gave him in an incredible display of unmerited mercy, favor, and grace — now you draw out this a fortiori argument of Paul — will he not then, even more in the future, from this moment on to eternity, give us all things because of that? Now how does that help us avoid the debtor’s ethic or the gratitude ethic?

Life Before a Waterfall

I have a picture in my mind. I don’t know if it will help you, but life is lived, as it were, at a waterfall. So a river is flowing to me out of the future, and I live on the edge of a waterfall. The water of grace is flowing to me from the promises of God in Scripture. I’ll help you think about this. I walked into this pulpit. Twenty minutes ago, I was on my face saying, “Grace alone, in 20 minutes, will be my life. Either grace will make this fruitful, or it won’t be fruitful.” So I’m thinking about future grace, 20 minutes out, because of a promise that says, “I’ll help you, I’ll strengthen you, and I’ll hold you up with my victorious right hand.” I’m thinking that right now, for the last 20 minutes, or whatever, of this sermon.

That’s what’s flowing to me in the river. And as I look at it, the way I live by faith in future grace is that I pray, “Oh God, if you don’t show up in the next five seconds, five minutes, five months, five years, and 5 million years, I’m a goner.” Now that river spills over the bank of the present and gathers in a reservoir, and it gets bigger every day, and it’s called “past grace”. The biggest parts of this reservoir are all told us in the Bible, right? It’s the cross, it’s the resurrection, it’s the ascension, and it’s the reign of Jesus over the nations. And when I, now and then — and you should because the Bible says to do this — turn from the future to the past, the main emotion I should feel is absolutely overwhelming gratitude.

Gratitude is designed by God to be a past-oriented emotion. Correct me on this if you will. I’d be happy never to say this again if you walk up and show me a verse. I don’t think there’s a verse in the Bible that relates gratitude to the future, that says, “I’m thankful for what’s coming.” Now, it’s not a sin to say that. It’s just not typical. Typically, gratitude is designed for this incredible reservoir. For example, I stood in this pulpit yesterday and I survived. That’s grace. Now I look back on that and I say, “Thank you. Thank you for yesterday’s grace, but I’ve got another 15 minutes to go here, and it isn’t being done in the power of gratitude. It’s being done in faith that there’ll be 15 minutes more of grace,” and if they don’t come, I’m off to glory.

The Cup of Salvation

If you need a Bible verse that comes close to asking for an approval of the debtor’s ethic, I’ll give you the one that was given to me early on as I tried to develop these thoughts. Somebody came and said, “What about this text?” So I’ll read it to you. It’s Psalm 116:12. It says:

What shall I render to the Lord
     for all his benefits to me?

Now that sounds like an invitation to the debtor’s ethic, doesn’t it? That’s Psalm 116:12, and it poses the question. I tell you, brothers and sisters, I want to be biblical more than I want to be systematic, or consistent, or Piper-faithful, or Calvin-faithful, or whatever else. I want to be biblical. So I’m happy to be corrected if you can help me. But here is what I see in this verse. Psalm 116:12 says:

What shall I render to the Lord
     for all his benefits to me?

Now, here’s his answer. It’s an amazing answer:

I will lift up the cup of salvation . . .

Let’s stop right there. What does that mean? What’s that image? I’ve read the commentaries. They have two possibilities in the commentaries. Either it’s a cup of salvation that you long to be filled, so you’re holding up a cup, saying, “Fill my cup, Lord,” or it’s more like a toast. It’s like salvation has happened, and I lift my cup in gratitude to you. Which of those would be more correct, I wonder? Well, the next phrase puts all the weight on the first one, to me. So I’ll read the whole thing:

What shall I render to the Lord
     for all his benefits to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
    and call on the name of the Lord . . . (Psalm 116:12–13).

Here’s my translation: “What shall I render to the Lord for sustaining grace from yesterday? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call upon him for more grace, more grace, and more grace, and I will keep God in the awesome position of benefactor, and I will always be the beneficiary because the giver gets the glory.” Woe to us if we reverse roles with the Almighty, who would ever be our benefactor and keep us in the lowly, humble, desperate, hungry, thirsty, dependent position of beneficiary. Do you want to glorify God in your missionary going and your missionary sending? Keep close to a beneficiary. Don’t ever turn it around. Don’t serve by the debtor’s ethic. Do missions to make God the benefactor and yourself the beneficiary.

Now, here’s a provocative way to say it. In all of your serving, in all your missionary labor, going or sending, labor to be a receiver. I’m not talking about serving people now. We’ll talk about that tomorrow. To lay down your life in suffering for other people is what will result from a future grace, faith ethic, rather than a debtor’s ethic or a gratitude ethic. You will be called, by trusting in this future grace, to lay down your lives. I’m talking in relation to God. Never, never, never cease to be a receiver. Never cease to be a beneficiary. At every moment, never say, “I will now give to you since you gave so much to me.” Always say, “Since you gave so much to me, I will now let you glorify yourself in being the giver again.”

The Reality of Service

Now, we ask the question, what about all those service texts that I said I would come back to? What about Paul? In every single letter calls himself “a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ”, and I’ve just said, “Beware of serving God.” And Paul uses that as one of his favorite phrases about how he relates to the risen Christ. What shall we say about that? Well, what shall we say? If there is a way to serve God that blasphemes God, and there is a way to serve God that honors God, we must help our people know the difference. And the difference is not the debtor’s ethic.

Here’s the difference. Let me give you a few key texts that I try to live by. First Peter 4:11 would be a verse that I would commend to you as a verse that would capture a philosophy of ministry for a church. First Peter 4:11 says:

Whoever serves . . .

Now, there we have our word, all right? Yes, I am now affirming service, but watch what happens:

Whoever serves, [let him serve] as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever.

Now there’s a packed verse. There’s a verse to spend a year on. There’s a verse to build a church around. If you say, “Come on, people. Let’s serve him.” How? It’s, “In the strength that he supplies,” which means all Christian serving is receiving. If you need a Bible verse, there it is. All Christian serving, at least the kind that glorifies the Giver, is receiving. It says, “Let him serve in the strength that God supplies so that in everything God may get the glory.”

Do you see the connection between the glory of God and being always a receiver? Oh, how we get this crazy notion in our head, especially sometimes in our musical performances, or our oratory performances, or whatever, that if we can bring the excellence to a sufficient pitch, it will be worthy of the Master as we offer it to him. And subtly, horribly, the focus shifts not from our utter, desperate dependence on him to sing one note, or play one tune, or preach one moment, to the excellency and the sufficiency of our performances which are now offered to God.

I tell you, this is what we need to hear. We need to see that God gets glory, not from the presentation to him for his enrichment of our excellence, but from our being children — needy, hungry, desperate, dependent, radically risk-taking in our lives as we hang on the hope of future grace. That’s what we need to teach our people so that they’ll be ready for missions. It’ll be like tinder when some missionary comes to your church and puts a fire to that tinder, and boom, you may lose everybody. And wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Working in Us

Or if you need to see it again in another text besides 1 Peter 4:11, listen to Hebrews 13:20–21:

Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever.

Oh, the dynamic of those verses. For the Christian life and for the service in missions, he is equipping. He is working what is pleasing in his sight in us. It is all through Jesus. Why? So that Jesus gets the glory, not our moral prowess performed for him and offered up to him out of gratitude for all that he’s done for us. No, we will stay dependent. We will stay small. We will stay hungry, and thirsty, and needy, and the only way we will glorify you, Father, is more grace today to satisfy this aching heart and this fearful soul that doesn’t want to do management in the pastorate because I am called to do the word in prayer.

That was one of the most powerful things Peter Jenkins said to me yesterday when he was asked, “What about these guys who don’t feel gifted in management and entrepreneurial, make-it-happen, get-it-done, parish life, and they want to read the Bible and pray?” He said, “A lot of them are lazy.” I don’t know if you missed that, but that’s what he said to me. Because I don’t like management. I don’t like to do the practical things that put in place nurture structures for getting missionaries ready. I just want to teach the Bible, and I’m lazy. I’m resistant to being a recipient. God is saying to you this morning, “Go home and venture upon some things in the power of the Spirit, based on the Word, that you’ve never ventured before, because I’ll be there with future grace when you arrive to enable you to do things that you never dreamed.”

The Place of Prayer

I haven’t said much about prayer yet, so I’m going to skip some stuff here. The alternative to the debtor’s ethic, as I move to prayer for the last five or six minutes or so, is living by faith in future grace. And no, don’t go away saying Piper dumped on gratitude. I didn’t. I dumped on a gratitude ethic that doesn’t understand future grace. I believe you can’t be a Christian without gratitude. And gratitude should overwhelm you for all that God has done for you. And as you turn from that past glory, and take your stand on the cross and the resurrection, and face the future, and know that all the promises of God were yes in that great event, and now you have a secured future and promise after promise that every step you take will be held, and you will be graced with future grace, and the way that you appropriate that is not gratitude, but faith. You say, “I trust your promise. I trust your promise.” That’s the point so far.

Now, prayer is, I believe, an essential part of appropriating that. Prayer is crying out from the heart with a bent to have God satisfy us with himself in all of our neediness. So let me try to relate that to yesterday especially, because the question that was asked to me yesterday — it’s asked me over and over again and I ask it to myself — was, “Okay, if you say that a passion for the supremacy of God, and a joy in all that God is for us in Jesus is the essence of worship and the fuel and the goal of missions, but I don’t feel that passion. I don’t feel satisfied in God. I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” I’ve had people in the church for years come and say, “Piper, that’s a foreign language to me.” That’s a very scary statement, but it’s real. And that’s where many of us are.

So here’s the way prayer relates to that. None of us is as satisfied with God as we should be. We are all prone to be satisfied with sex, money, power, television, jobs, success, and you name it. What are your idols? We are all embattled people. What does prayer do? Well, this may be the most practical thing I say today. So, here it is. I’m going to give you an acronym: I-O-U-S. Each of those letters stands for a word in the Psalms, which I pray over the Bible every day, because here’s where I hear God, and here’s where I get grace every day. I wake up in the morning, either I put it in my lap or I put it on my little prayer bench with an elbow on either side. And here’s the way I pray.

Holding Up and Empty Cup

  • I: “Incline my heart to your testimonies and not to selfish gain” (Psalm 119:36).

Let yourself be encouraged when the psalmists pray that way. Do you know what that implies about the psalmist? There are times when he’s not inclined to the Bible because he’s asking God to incline his heart to the Bible. I get great encouragement from that because I’m a pastor. I’m supposed to be a Bible man, and there are days when I’d rather read the instructions for my new computer.

  • O: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18).

So here I am. He’s inclined me enough, at least, to get to the Bible. I’ve got an elbow on either side, and I’m looking at these black marks on a page, and nothing is happening. What do you do? I’ve heard people come in for counseling, and I say, “Have you read your Bible?” They say, “Yeah.” And I will say, “Did you pray that God would open your eyes?” And they’ll say, “Well, no, I didn’t think of that.” So I will tell them, “Well, go do that first and then come back.” People give up so quickly. We give up on our emotions so quickly and say, “I don’t have any passion for God. I don’t see anything in the Bible when I go there.” Have you wrestled for it? Have you wept for it? Have you taken this book and rung, and rung, and rung, and pleaded, “Open my eyes. I’m not seeing anything”? If you haven’t, do it. That’s what the psalmist did.

  • U: “Unite my heart to fear your name” (Psalm 86:11).

My heart is so divided, it’s run into that next engagement over in Annapolis, Maryland. It’s running into my church where they’re trying to figure out how to do another service. It’s running out to Char Wall, who’s 43 year old husband dropped dead five days ago in America, jogging. My heart’s going everywhere, and I’m supposed to be here over the Bible, finding grace to live today. And the Bible says, “I have a solution for that; it’s prayer.” So you pray, “Unite my heart to fear your name. Get my heart together, Lord, just for these few minutes. I’ll go serve all those things eventually, but get my heart together with you right now so that I fear you and I’m not torn to shreds by my distractions.”

  • S: “Satisfy me in the morning with your steadfast love” (Psalm 90:14).

So if any of you have said up until now in this conference, “This guy keeps talking about satisfaction in God till he’s blue in the face, and frankly, I don’t think it’s a biblical concept — at least, it’s not part of my experience. I’m an obedience person.” Well, Psalm 90:14 helps me because it shows that the psalmist struggles with being satisfied in God, and therefore he prays. And there’s no fancy footwork with the Hebrew here either. It’s just the word satisfied. What does that word mean? It means satisfied.

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
     that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

I’m closing in one minute. When we pray for missions, we want to pray that God’s name be hallowed, right? We pray, “Hallowed be thy name. Hallowed be thy name in London. Hallowed be thy name in Australia. Hallowed be thy name in America, in Zambia, and in Italy. Hallowed be thy name, oh God. That is, let your name be treasured, honored, reverenced, enjoyed, and cherished. And if John Piper has pointed us to enough Scriptures to see that at the center and heart of that worshipful hallowing is delighting in you, then grant that as we pray for workers to go.” And as we pray for the word to run and triumph, and as we pray for the fullness of the Holy Spirit, may we pray, “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad in you.” And that will be the power for missions because that satisfaction comes moment after moment through future grace.