Foundations: Paid in Full

By Mark Buetow

At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts. And this is the form of the release: Every creditor who has lent anything to his neighbor shall release it; he shall not require it of his neighbor or his brother, because it is called the Lord’s release. Deuteronomy 15:1-2

It's a great feeling when you can make the last payment on a debt you owe. Whether it's a credit card, student loan, or a house or car, or even the money you borrowed from your parents to help you out, getting to the point where you don't owe money anymore is a big deal. Among God's Old Testament people, forgiving debts was actually the Law of the Lord. Every seventh year, anything that was owed was cancelled, Not because of people's ability to  pay it or not. Not due to whether or not the creditors earned it. It was simply cancelled by God's command. Imagine that! Imagine if every seven years, all student loans and credit cards and car payments just vanished and all the accounts were marked, "PAID IN FULL!" It sounds crazy and it doesn't seem likely to happen in the world we live in.

Why did God command such a thing among His people? It's not that monetary debts were His biggest concern, but by being gracious to those who owed them, by giving a break to those who were in debt, the Lord was teaching His people about the meaning of forgiveness. Even more than the forgiveness of monetary debts is the forgiveness of sins! When we sin against someone, it's like we’re charging up a debt. We owe them. We owe them an apology or money to fix what we broke (restitution), or time back that was taken by our offense. Whatever it is, sin is really a debt.

At its heart, forgiveness is the cancelling of a debt. It's telling someone, "You don't owe that anymore." Now even though a debt is forgiven and the person doesn't owe, someone paid it. If a credit card company told you that you didn't have to pay anymore, they are the ones covering that cost. So, whenever a debt is forgiven, it's not just something that happens to the one who owes. The one who is owed is also taking on an expense or making the payment instead.

This is what happens when Jesus saves us from our sins. When we sin against God and against others, it's like we rack up debt. Lots of debt. We owe our lives. Forever. Jesus pays the debt so it’s PAID IN FULL. God forgives all that you've done but He does so by absorbing the cost Himself. And it's paid "not with gold or silver but with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death."

The Year of Jubilee (as that seventh year of cancelling debts was called) in the Old Testament was established by the Lord to point people to the greater reality of not just monetary debts being forgiven but sins being forgiven. Just as the creditors gave up what was owed to them to forgive those who owed it, so the Lord gives up what we owe Him by absorbing the cost at Calvary. Our sins are paid for by Jesus. Our debts are paid in full.

Now, when your pastor forgives your sins in the words of Holy Absolution, it's like getting the last statement of a loan that says "Paid in Full." You don’t owe anything. There's nothing left for God to collect.

The neat thing about forgiveness is that it's one of those "pay it forward" kind of gifts. God doesn't just want His disciples to be forgiven, He forgives us our debts so that we forgive others. Even the Lord's Prayer says that in one version: "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those indebted to us."

Consider this example: Some kid outside playing baseball hits the ball through your window. The kid feels terrible. We know how this should end, right? The kid apologizes, you forgive them, and then they "do the right thing" and pay for the new window. But that's not yet forgiveness. Forgiveness the way Jesus gives it to us and the way we should pass it to others is to cancel the debt and absorb the cost. When the kid comes to apologize and offer to pay for the window, real forgiveness says, "You are forgiven! And don't worry about the window; I'll take care of it." See, that way they owe nothing!

The true and real forgiveness that Jesus accomplishes for us doesn't have any conditions or attachments or fine print. It's full and complete and covers everything! That forgiveness that we receive is then for us to use toward others in the same way: Whatever they owe, we'll eat the cost and put their mind at ease, telling them they owe nothing. It doesn't matter whether it's actual money or because of something they've said or done to us--sinning against us. "I forgive you," means "You don't owe me and if there's a cost, I'll cover it!"

Every seventh year, the Lord commanded debts to be forgiven. Since it was a "seventh" year, it was sort of a "Sabbath" year, a year of rest and not having to make payments and worry about what you owed. Since Jesus is the fulfillment and completion and the true Sabbath rest, then in Him, our debts are forgiven once and for all. No more interest. No more finance charges. No more, "Are you ever going to pay me back?" questions. None of that. Just the Good News: You don't owe God anything. Ever. Your Baptism and the Absolution and the Supper of Jesus are the over-and-over constant reminders that your balance due is zero. In Jesus, your account is "PAID IN FULL."

Rev. Mark Buetow is pastor and school director of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in McHenry, Illinois.
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