A gift given means a gift must be repaid. That’s what my Chinese culture taught me. For my family, this meant mental tallies of who gave what on which occasion, so that when the time came the Yong family would be able to return a gift of equal or greater value. Welcome to the principle of reciprocation.
But what does one do when a gift cannot be repaid? More specifically, what do Christians do when they’re in a position of eternal indebtedness, incapable of reciprocating God’s gift of grace in Christ?
Many Asian-American Christians operate under the assumption that God’s gift toward them must be reciprocated, so as to not be trapped in God’s debt. Unfortunately, in the circles of Asian-American Christianity I grew up in, laboring under the law of reciprocity toward God ended up nullifying his grace instead of helping people embrace it.
Those of us of Asian descent must wield biblical truths to battle the cultural instinct of repaying God for his salvation, and to more deeply appreciate his infinite grace.
Principle of Reciprocity
My family’s social dynamics, both American and Chinese, generally reflected principles found in Confucian-influenced worldviews. The influence of the philosopher Confucius (551–479 BC) on the Chinese people and other Asian cultures (such as Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese) is hard to overstate. As one scholar summarized, “If we were to characterize in one word the Chinese way of life for the last 2,000 years, the word could be Confucian.”
In Confucian teaching, reciprocity and loyalty are the two key ingredients to possessing and exhibiting the supreme virtue of humaneness. To be humane is to see yourself in relation toward others—always. Reciprocity and filial/societal loyalty is directed toward others. The posture of the Confucian virtuous man, then, isn’t primarily individualistic but collectivistic.
On the street level, the average evangelical Asian-American Christian has no desire to syncretize Confucianism and Christianity, nor is he seeking to embody the Confucian virtuous man. Instead, reciprocation and loyalty to his group is normative and has been for thousands of years.
Can You Repay Grace?
But what happens when someone tries to repay God for his gift of Jesus Christ? It’s easy to agree logically that the gift of Jesus can never be repaid. Nevertheless, many still try through acts of service.
Pastors instill the debtor’s ethic even further saying, “God has given us Jesus; now give your life to God.” Acts of service can range from giving more money to heading up the kitchen committee to surrendering to full-time ministry. However one serves, he serves to repay God for the gift of salvation. Honor has been given, now honor must be repaid. Lest we take grace for granted and fail to live up to our obligation, reciprocity must be granted.
Regardless of how right it may feel to one’s Christian faith, trying to repay God for his grace kills faith. If you seek to repay God for his free grace in Christ, here are a few thoughts to help you appreciate the freeness of God’s gift, and to know your true obligation to the Lord Jesus.
1. God’s grace can never be repaid.
A gift by God’s definition is free, and his gift of salvation comes by grace. Acts of service don’t earn us God’s gift of salvation, nor do they keep us in God’s good favor. If they did, his grace would be our wage (Rom. 4:4)—which would evacuate the very meaning of grace. God grants righteousness to the one “who does not work” but trusts Christ alone (Rom. 4:5).
Even if we tried to repay God for his grace, we couldn’t. We owe an infinite debt for rebelling against him. In Jesus’s parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:21–35), the one who fails to grasp God’s mercy is the one who thinks he can repay the infinite debt to his master. One of the lessons of the parable is that God himself must save, since he alone has the infinite resources to undertake our debt.
Understanding the freeness of God’s grace moves us away from thinking of it as a burden and toward seeing it as something to delight in.
Many Christians, however, still desire to give back to God. So what is God’s due?
2. God deserves eternal praise.
God is worthy of infinite honor and glory (1 Tim. 1:17; Jude 24–25). His due is that of a king who freely pardons and forgives those who plotted to overthrow him. His due is that of a good Father who adopts weak and needy children with the purpose of showering on them every spiritual blessing found in his Son.
Given this flood of grace, the appropriate response is to offer our whole lives as living sacrifices to our kind Father (Rom. 12:1). The focus isn’t repaying God, but giving him what he’s due from a posture of joy rather than indebtedness (Matt. 13:44). We do so by wielding the gifts he’s given to build his church to the praise of his glory.
3. The obligation to glorify him is good.
While the desire to repay God for grace is faith-killing, our obligation to give God his due is faith-driving and faith-enlivening. And it’s faith-evidencing too. Those born of the Spirit of Christ seek to live for the glory of Christ.
Because his glory is our aim, lifeless and perfunctory obligation is unacceptable. Obligation for the sake of itself is unacceptable; it leaves man seeking his own honor instead of God’s.
Put Reciprocation to Rest
Trying to repay God by singing a few songs or giving a few hours of service only cheapens and nullifies the very thing that ought to be cherished.
If you want to honor his grace in Christ, see how he has undertaken your infinite debt. No payment needs to be made. Only a life waiting to be lived full tilt the praise of his glorious grace.