R.C. Sproul on Debt

R.C. Sproul is a widely-respected Bible teacher. In his book, Now That’s a Good Question, Sproul answers over 300 popular questions. One of them is on debt in a chapter called “Money Matters.” His answer is in the left-hand column, and our observations are in the right-hand column. 

What about debt? Should Christians use credit cards, borrow money for cars, homes, vacations, etc.?

Sproul's answer is, "It's OK." What we want to do is more than just disagree with his answer, but examine the form of reasoning evident in his answer.

There’s a great controversy within the Christian church about that question. Some people take the position that under no circumstances should a Christian encumber himself in financial indebtedness, quoting such passages as “Owe no one anything except to love one another” (Rom. 13:8).

The implication is that these "some people" are wrong.

Does Romans 13:8 mean "pay your debts," or does it mean "don't borrow at all," or does it have no absolute meaning at all?

One of the great precepts of the Reformation is that "Scripture interprets Scripture." To interpret one verse of Scripture requires that we look at other verses on the same subject.

Here are a couple of other verses:

The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender. (Proverbs 22:7 KJV)

Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men. (1 Corinthians 7:23 KJV)

The borrower is a slave (Prov. 22:7);
we are not to be slaves (1 Corinthians 7:23);
therefore we are not to borrow.
The logic is inescapable.

Many astute commentators have reached the same conclusion. R.J. Rushdoony has concluded:

The believer must seek to avoid debt as far as possible: Debt is for the Christian a violation of the commandment, "Owe no man anything, save to love one another" (Rom. 13:8). The normal life of the covenant man is to be debt-free, to owe no man anything save the obligation of rendering tribute, honor, fear, and custom wherever due, and of rendering that love which is the fulfilling of the law (Rom. 13:7-8).

In the Old Testament, when a man was unable to pay his debts, or feed his family, he would sell himself into slavery. When discussing debt and borrowing, I have actually had Christian men say to me, "OK, I admit it, I'm a slave. I'm an American." This cavalier attitude towards God's Word will not bring God's blessing. Debt should be a last resort, not a trendy economic strategy. Gary North, President of the Institute for Christian Economics, has written,

It must be stressed, however, that the kind of emergency described by the relevant passages is a true emergency. It arises when a poor man has nothing left but his cloak. . . . The emergency is a situation of desperation; godly men and women are not to indebt themselves for anything less than this. "Owe no man anything, but to love one another" is the binding rule for all non-emergency circumstances (Rom. 13:8a).

Charles Spurgeon, the great 19th-century Baptist preacher, stood in the company of generations of Christians who scrimped and saved rather than borrowed for the things they wanted. He was quite forceful:

Living beyond their incomes is the ruin of many of my neighbors; they can hardly afford to keep a rabbit and must needs drive a pony and chaise. I am afraid extravagance is the common disease of the times, and many professing Christians have caught it, to their shame and sorrow. Good cotton or stuff gowns are not good enough nowadays; girls must have silks and satins, and then there's a bill at the dressmaker's as long as a winter's night and quite as dismal. Men burn the candle at both ends, and then say they are very unfortunate -- why don't they put the saddle on the right horse, and say the are extravagant? Scripture says, "Owe no man anything," which does not mean pay your debts, but never have any to pay; and my opinion is, that those who willfully break this law ought to be turned out of the Christian church neck and crop, as we say.

Voluntarily going into debt simply to acquire something that one has not worked for (yet) is a violation of God's Commandments (a.k.a. "sin").

There are numerous passages, particularly in the Old Testament Wisdom Literature, that warn against the folly that can befall us if we allow ourselves to be in debt in a certain way. I take those passages in the context in which they are given, as wisdom sayings that warn us against practices that are imprudent and can be destructive to our home.

Is "wisdom literature" somehow less than the Word of God? Does "wisdom literature" not command us authoritatively? In Proverbs 5 Solomon warns his son concerning prostitutes. Should we interpret these verses as saying that we should visit prostitutes only "moderately," or only "safely," using "wisdom principles" in our selection of girls, condoms, frequency or practices?
Wisdom literature speaks of "false weights and measures." Can we do business with false weights and measures as long as we are "responsible" and recognize the possible dangers of false weights and measures?
I don’t see those as absolute prohibitions against ever being in debt. Why is a prohibition of debt in "wisdom literature" not an absolute prohibition?
There is a responsible way to be in debt, and there are provisions for indebtedness in Old Testament society. Is there a "responsible" way to visit prostitutes?

There are provisions for slavery in the Old Testament. Are there "responsible" ways to own slaves or be a slave in post-OldTestament society?

There are provisions for divorce in the OT. Can a Christian get a divorce every 3 or 4 years as long as he considers the matter "wisely" and "responsibly" "writes a certificate of divorce" (Deut. 24:1-4)?

In today’s society, throughout much of the world, monetary exchange—the whole process of trade—involves not only hard currency but paper money. We use checks and credit cards. Credit cards are used in different ways. Sometimes they are used exactly as the name suggests—as an instant line of credit that includes carrying charges if we don’t pay our bill fully when it comes in. This is dangerous because it’s an enticement for people to live beyond their means and to be less responsible in their purchasing habits.

Yes, today's society sees a proliferation of prostitutes and paper money. Is inflation, debased currency, false weights and measures, and paper money theft or not? Are they absolutely prohibited, or not? "Doesn't inflation make it prudent to borrow?" some ask.

In our modern "inflationary economy," not only is borrowing unwise, it actually is the cause of "inflation," and therefore violates clear scriptural injunctions.

"'Monstrously evil'? Come on" some will say. "Borrowing causes inflation?!" These charges are as strong as they are unfamiliar to most Americans. Let me start by showing you that our nation's clock just isn't telling the right time.

Take a quarter or a dime out of your pocket. Examine it. Notice that the edge is orange. Inside, the coin is copper. It has been plated with nickel to give it the appearance of silver.

Why would the government paint a copper coin to make it look like silver? It is an act of deception and theft. Dimes, quarters, and half-dollars were in fact made of silver up until 1965, but in order to fund activities which the Scriptures nowhere command the State to undertake,1 the State began to substitute inexpensive copper for the more expensive silver. Show a quarter or dime to your pastor or financial advisor. Point out the orange center. Ask him what kind of money this is. If you don't eventually hear the phrase "debased currency," your advisor is not equipped to give you sound, Biblical economic advice. The post-1965 coin is a classic example of "debased currency," which every economist can describe. History records this kind of debasement as occurring in every empire in human history - right before its collapse. The practice has always been recognized as immoral. It is a form of theft. It is plainly prohibited by Biblical Law.

Few people are aware of the significance of this subtle change in coinage. These coins are but the tip of the iceberg. Most of our economy is not run on coins, but follows the same techniques of "debasement" on a massive, unimaginable scale. The implications are staggering.

I use credit cards because they provide a great convenience for me; I don’t have to carry large amounts of cash when I travel. We also keep good records of our finances. It has been my personal policy and practice never to pay a carrying charge; that is, I pay those bills in full when they come in. In essence, the credit cards for me become another form of a check.

This is not really "credit" in any controversial sense. If you have $100 in cash but you choose to make a $100 purchase on a credit card, then place the $100 cash under your mattress, retrieving it only when the credit card bill comes due and paying off the $100 credit card, no inflation has been perpetrated, no currency has been debased. No additional economic "demand" has been created. True "credit" in our day creates additional economic demand where none existed before, is therefore "inflationary," and robs the poor, widows and orphans of needed purchasing power, redistributing it to the borrower/debtor.

In America’s economic system it has become standard practice to borrow in order to provide for major necessities, such as homes and automobiles. Very few people can pay cash for a house. The fact that we can pay for a home over thirty years has its benefits and its liabilities. We end up paying far more than the price of the property because of interest. But at the same time we are able to become home owners. Again, that to me comes down to a matter of stewardship and responsibility.

I don’t see any basic, scriptural prohibition against credit, but we are to be wise in using it.

Prostitutes are "standard practice" for many businessmen in "today's society." All such businessmen will admit that prostitutes have both "benefits and . . . liabilities." Should that change the absoluteness of anything in the Bible on that subject?

1  Like a "war on poverty," a "war on drugs," and a "war on terrorism."