So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. – Romans 8:12-14 ESV
There is a sense in which, as Christians, we relish the idea of redemption. And we should. After all, the overwhelming debt of our sin has been paid for by Christ’s death on the cross. We have been released from our indebtedness and that is good news, because the wages or payment for our sin was our own death. But Jesus Christ became our sin substitute, taking our place on the cross and bearing the righteous wrath of God as our unblemished, sinless sacrifice. As a result, Paul tells us, “we are debtors, not to the flesh” (Romans 8:12 ESV). We have had our debt cancelled. Our sin ledger has been reconciled, and it now shows a zero balance. No sin. Nothing owed. But wait. Even as good as that news is, there is something missing. Our sin debt has been paid, but we need righteousness. Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20 ESV). The absence of sin is not righteousness. Having our sin debt paid was just part of the equation.
Paul gives us the rest of the good news. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:20 ESV). Earlier in his letter to the Roman believers, Paul states that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 4:25-5:1 ESV).
You see, in verses 12-14 of Romans, Paul was careful in his sentence structure. He said “we are debtors”, but not to sin. The Greek word he used was opheiletēs and it means “one who owes another, one held by some obligation, bound by some duty”. Yes, we are free from slavery to sin. Our sin debt has been cancelled in full. But we “owe” Christ for our righteousness. He has deposited into our account the righteousness we could never have produced on our own. We are debtors to Christ. And we will never be able to pay Him back for what He has done. But we can live according to the Spirit. We can show our gratitude for all He has done for us by living our lives in obedience to the His Spirit who lives within us. Paul states that it is by the Spirit that we are able to put to death the deeds of the body. We should want to distance ourselves from our old way of life – our sin-controlled, debt-filled life before Christ. We have been given the righteousness of Christ and are therefore, justified in the eyes of God. He sees us as righteous and just. And we owe it all to Jesus.
Earlier in his letter to the Romans, Paul states, “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Romans 6:22 ESV). Peter provides us with a similar admonition. “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves” (1 Peter 2:16 NET). We tend to overlook the fact that God paid a high price for our salvation. He gave His only Son as the payment for our sin. Peter reminds us, “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19 ESV). Which is exactly why Paul unapologetically tells us, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ESV).
We are sons and daughters of God. Not only have our sins been paid for and our debt forgiven, we have been adopted by God and placed into His family because we have had the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. And we have had the Spirit of God placed within us. So we are to live according to our new standing as God’s children, with the help of God’s indwelling Spirit. We are debtors to God. Our lives belong to Him. Our righteousness is not our own, but was made possible because of His Son’s death on the cross in our place. We have eternal life secured for us by virtue of Christ’s sacrificial death. We can’t lose it. We can’t do anything to un-earn it, because we didn’t earn it to begin with. But we can live with a sense of gratitude for all that God has done to make it possible. We can choose to live like children of God and not children of this world. We can choose to live according to the Spirit rather than according to our old sin nature. While we can never repay God for all He has done for us, we can express our appreciation through the way we live our lives.