Jesus talks a lot about money. While the idea of debt comes up at times throughout the Bible, there is no comprehensive teaching on the subject in Scripture. Although Deuteronomy 23:19 and 24:10-11 give the Israelite covenant community laws for loans and charging interest, the New Testament highlights the issues of the heart as it relates to money (which is also implied in the giving of the Old Testament laws).
In the Bible as today, the concept of debt speaks of some kind of obligation that is often conceived of in monetary terms. Although debt can look very different in various societies (e.g., the first century vs. the 21st century), the fundamental heart issues pertaining to money remain the same:
Perhaps one might also say, to rephrase the verse, “For where your debt is, there your treasure and heart will be also.”
The Bible speaks to the reality of debt and at times gives principles to steward money and debt wisely. Jesus himself speaks about money often when teaching, sometimes using the concept of debt as a means of highlighting the graciousness of God to forgive insurmountable debts.
Is Debt a Sin in the Bible?
The Bible never specifically calls debt a sin. In fact, in many places it is assumed that debt of some kind is a common practice, perhaps even unavoidable for some people. On the other hand, the Bible gives principles of wisdom for the people of God to live by that apply to debt and other uses of money. The goal of wisdom is to promote flourishing as God’s people live on God’s mission in the world.
Various peoples and societies will have differing views on the use of money and possessions, and therefore principles of money and debt must be applied through wisdom rather than universally. For example, systemic class divisions, wealth gaps, and the marginalization of the poor in some societies may make borrowing more of a necessity for some people than it does for others.
That said, we may still be able to apply some basic principles concerning debt: when it can be handled wisely and when it can become a sinful practice.
The book of Proverbs in the Bible teaches God’s people how to live wisely (a) among themselves and (b) among those outside of the covenant community.
While debt itself is not a sin in the Bible, God commands us to use wisdom when dealing with money. When taking out a college loan or similar, people understand that it is their legal obligation to repay the debt. In some situations, though certainly not always, this can lead to hardship down the road, and options should be weighed to determine the wisest course of action.
Many faithful interpreters of the Bible agree that some debts can be obtained through wisdom (such as buying a house, a car, etc.) so long as Christians are seeking to live within their means as God has blessed them.
Other debts, such as lines of credit that seek to tempt us to live beyond our means, can at times expose sinful motivations and lead to difficulty in many areas of life. The Bible is clear that, as God’s people, we are to keep our hearts from a love of money and the pleasures it promises but cannot deliver.
Large amounts of debt is equated with a spending power that is beyond the means of the borrower. In other terms, people borrow more and more money essentially because their needs or wants are greater than their ability to pay. Racking up large amounts of consumer debt that is difficult or impossible to pay back is failing to live by the wisdom of God’s Word.
Matthew 17:24-27 – When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.” (ESV)
In this text, Jesus teaches two important ideas:
- First, Jesus teaches that it is reasonable to render taxes and payments to those whom they are owed.
- Second, we can obey the rules of government because God’s people ultimately belong to His kingdom and rule. Paying taxes or debts do not align us with the ideologies of those who collect.
Debt collectors themselves bear the God-given responsibility of doing their work ethically and without stretching legal boundaries, with kindness and compassion (Luke 3:13; 19:8).
What Does the Bible Say About Debt Forgiveness?
Perhaps some confusion regarding debt being sinful is that, while not speaking of debt as being a sin, it does speak of sin as being a debt:
In this text, Paul speaks of sin in terms of a debt we owe to God which we could not pay, a debt that held legal demands of payment in terms of punishment (“death,” Romans 6:23). But God, being rich in mercy (Ephesians 2:4) forgave our sin-debt.
Likewise, believers are called to forgive debts, sins committed against us:
“Debts” (opheilēma) are here conceived of in moral or spiritual terms, and the word for “forgive” (aphiēmi) is the normal word used to speak of forgiveness, release, pardon, or something being let go.
In Matthew 18:23-35, Jesus teaches his followers about the necessity of forgiveness by telling a parable about debt. The parable assumes that debts are to be repaid under normal circumstances.
The psalmist in Psalms 37:21 speaks of the wicked in terms of one who borrows and will not pay back. In contrast, the righteous are those who are generous and giving. One may legitimately apply the heart of this verse to consumer or other forms of debt: buying on loan without the intention or ability of repayment is wickedness.
Although Jesus does not specifically teach on the subject of tithing, his teaching implies the regularity with which tithing was practiced in first century Judaism as the Law commanded (Leviticus 27:30; Numbers 18:24; 2 Chronicles 31:6).
In this text, Jesus affirms that the Pharisees tithed and does not condemn it outright. He does, however, condemn works-based tithing disconnected from the heart of the law, which would have led to justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
Because the tithe was intended to provide for the priests and Levites, the biblical model of tithing would assume that it is sinful to rack up large debts if it prevents a person from being able to tithe.