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The Debtor Metaphor of Romans 6

In Romans, Paul has an extended development of the idea of slavery and liberation—fundamentally, an exodus theme. In the midst of that development, he writes in Romans 8:12 that we are debtors—not to the flesh, to live after the flesh.

That cryptic statement in context raises questions. Is this is a simple negation (“we are not debtors to the flesh”), a denial with an unspoken corresponding affirmation of where our debt genuinely rests (“we are not debtors to the flesh, but to the Spirit”), or perhaps an emphatic statement about a new situation that was previously not the case (“we are no longer debtors to the flesh”)?

Perhaps Paul doesn’t want us to answer the implicit question in just one of these ways; perhaps he wants us to acknowledge the truth of some or all of these ways of reading his statement.

It is interesting, though, to trace the idea of debtorship in connection with Paul’s theme of slavery. Under the social and de facto legal conditions of Paul’s world and Israel’s history, one could be sold into slavery for one’s debts, and was therefore bound to serve the creditor. That seems to shed some light on Paul’s argument in much of Romans 5–8, not least 6–7. (more…)