Forgiveness Might Not Mean What You Think It Means

I was not planning to write anything about the recent student loan forgiveness act from the Biden administration, but then I kept seeing social media posts making, in various wordings, the following point: Christians should not be opposed to student loan forgiveness because our entire belief system is built upon being forgiven of our debts by God. Thus, with all the different rabbit holes to explore and debate on this topic, let us focus upon what forgiveness is.

A common assumption seems to be that forgiveness of a debt means simply wiping it out of existence altogether as if it never happened at all. Unfortunately, that is not how debt works. A loan is a sum of money given with the promise to repay, typically with interest. Once that money has been given and spent, there is no going back on the debt. Even if the debt is not paid, the lender already issued the money and must face that financial loss. Of course, the lender can certainly forgive a debt that is owed by canceling it from the debtor’s record. But that forgiveness does not retroactively wipe the loaned money from having ever been used. Instead, forgiveness means that the lender is willing to take the financial loss in order to clear the debt.

This is precisely why the debt metaphor is so commonly used to describe the gospel. Many view our forgiveness of sins in the same way they view debt. They imagine God as simply overlooking or passing by our sins in order to forgive us. But the cosmic debt of sin cannot be erased from existence any more than financial debt. Indeed, since sin is all that is contrary to God and His goodness, God could not be just if His answer to such evil was simply to pretend that it never happened.

This is why we look to Christ for our forgiveness because He paid our debt for us. He took the full judgment of God upon Himself, even though He never sinned Himself, so that we could be forgiven, while still meeting the demands of God’s justice. Forgiveness is certainly “free,” but only because the cost is paid by another. That is true of our sins, and it is also true of our financial debts.

I hate student loans. I really do. I have had them myself, and I certainly believe that they can be quite predatory upon young adults. I am, thus, entirely in favor of restructuring student loan practices and guidelines. Yet as much as I regret taking out my student loans, I already did it. I took the money, and I spent it. Therefore, it was my moral obligation to pay back the money that I borrowed.

But since the government issued the loan, does it not have the right to forgive the debt, taking the financial loss upon itself? It certainly could, and there can be plenty of debate about what is the proper governmental channel for doing so. Yet we must remember that the government is funded by citizens’ taxes, so for the government to forgive $10,000 of current student loan holders is essentially the same as saying that the government paid for $10,000 of those students’ higher education.

Now while I do not believe that to be a wise use of governmental funds, that is not the argument that I am attempting to make here. I am only addressing the idea that debt cannot simply vanish into the ether. Again, the debt here is forgiven only because it is paid by the government. That is how forgiveness of debt works; it is free for the debtor only because another party pays the debt.

Even with this proper understanding of forgiveness, the picture is still not identical with the gospel. One of the largest complaints regarding the student loan forgiveness is that it completely ignores people like me who paid our student loans the old-fashioned way. Thankfully, the forgiveness that Christ offers not nearly so exclusive. All who call upon His name and look to Him by faith as the One who has perfectly paid the debt of our sins will be saved. To borrow what Bonhoeffer said about grace, this forgiveness is certainly free to us, but it is not cheap. It is costly, for it came at the cost of our Savior’s blood.

Indeed, because He paid such a great price for my forgiveness I now gladly sing, “Jesus paid it all; all to Him I owe!”

But the intersection between the gospel’s bondservant imagery and governmental dependency is conversation for another time.

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