“Jesus paid it all
All to Him I owe
Sin had left a crimson stain
He washed it white as snow.”
When I was in Israel, we had just ended the song during a chapel session when one of my professors made a comment. He said that he believed a more correct wording of the song should be, “All to Him I give,” because we are saved by grace, not works, so we don’t – can’t – owe God anything. Redemption is entirely God’s work, a free gift, not a debt we can – or should try to – repay.
I disagreed with him that night and still disagree almost a year later. I don’t disagree what he said about grace being a free gift and that we cannot work our way to salvation; that’s indisputable. I also don’t think that the word “give” is incorrect – indeed, it should be true of us always. But I did – and still do – think that maybe he was applying a different meaning to the word “owe” than what the song’s author intended.
verb (used with object)
I think the way my prof was thinking of the word “owe” was in the sense that one owes the amount someone has lent him, as demonstrated as the first two examples above. In that sense, no, we don’t owe God. Grace is a gift. You don’t pay a friend back for having so thoughtfully purchased you a gift, do you? No, unless you want to call giving a gift in return a “repayment”, but doing so makes it no longer a gift. Can you ever repay what your parents have done – sacrificed – for you? Probably not, but you love them and care for them when they become dependent on you.
But have you ever read or heard or seen someone – either in real life or in fiction – say, “I owe him my life”, or, “It’s the least I can do after all he’s done for me”? Sure, sometimes the person means it in the sense that he must cancel out a debt, but other times, he means it as a way of thanking his benefactor possibly for something he can’t actually ever repay. Those that say, “I owe him my life,” don’t always mean that they’ll go and die for the sake of, or in the place of, their benefactor. Sometimes they do. Usually they don’t.
For the Christian, dying to ourselves (and, in the case of many around the world, to this life entirely) is the best we can do toward thanking Jesus for having saved us from the Second and more terrible Death. By putting ourselves willingly under His command, we are surrendering ourselves to His will. If you’re familiar with The Lord of the Rings, think of Pippin putting himself in Denethor’s service as a token of his thanks and respect for Denethor’s noble son Boromir. Pippin owed Boromir his life (we’ll ignore for the moment that his captors were ordered to keep him alive) and that was a debt – or a gift – he could never repay; but he did the next best thing he could have done. Or another illustration could be drawn from The Chronicles of Narnia: the great Lion Aslan took the death-blow in place of the traitor Edmund. Edmund owed Aslan his life, again, not something he could ever repay. But he’s known ever after as a faithful servant of the Lion, even if the word “servant” is not used to describe him.
So do we owe God? I think we do. Not in the terms of paying off one’s mortgage or student loan, but in the way an abandoned orphan loves and thanks his adopted family for rescuing him.