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I love the song "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing." Its beautiful, and the backstory is pretty amazing. My problem is that I always shudder every time I sing the third verse.

It says, "O to grace, how great a debtor, daily I'm constrained to be."

I keep noodling over that sentence. Is it really possible to be in debt to grace? Isn't the point that grace means I don't have a debt as far as God is concerned?

Or, am I just reading too much into this?

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up vote 19 down vote accepted

You're reading way to much into this :)

In order to appreciate this song, I think you need to allow for variation of meaning in the English language. Understanding some songs even require that we grant them some poetic licence, although I think we should treat those with cation because consciously or otherwise those do tend to cloud our theology. However in this case, I don't think poetic license is even necessary to appreciate the meaning.

Debtor could have several meanings. One of them is quite simply the sense of 'thankful', but I think the meaning here could actually be understood in a much stronger sense than thankfulness. The word can carry a sense of being 'dependent' or 'bound to'. And yes, theologically speaking, I think it is fair to say we are dependent on God's grace every day. While we don't own him anything in return for it, the very fact that his grace is freely given does "daily constrain us" to walk in His ways.

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Can't we say, without risk of heresy, that we do owe God "everything"? The fact that we will never be able to pay that debt, but that are still accepted as though we had--that is what grace is. Or am I now reading too much into it all? –  Flimzy Feb 14 '12 at 23:31
    
@Flimzy: Of course one could also make that point, although I think that interpretation runs closer to the original objection of "the debt has already been paid, therefore it is not continually re-accruing." –  Caleb Feb 15 '12 at 0:22
    
Cf. Paul's language of being a "Slave" to Christ. –  jackweinbender Sep 11 '12 at 16:06
    
Or a debtor is also a sinner, in older English. Even with the gift of grace we remain sinners, until His coming. –  fredsbend Mar 18 '13 at 23:13
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I think here the meaning of "indebted" is simply in the sense that you are thankful, not in the sense that you'll have a bill come later.

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"O to grace, how great a debtor, daily I'm constrained to be."

Is essentially the poetic way of saying:

Every day I'm made to realize how much I owe everything to grace.

It doesn't need to mean a literal being in debt - it just happens that the language of debt is used to express such ideas. We might also put it:

Every day I'm made to realize how much I have that's due to grace.

But even here - even though we may not often think of it that way - "due" in "due to" is a debtor's word, and itself is etymologically related to 'debt'. I think really all we are to understand is:

Every day I'm made to realize how much I have because of grace.

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I think another interpretation of this is that we are indeed in debt to saving grace! Our debt is to tell others of this grace that they might be saved as well (or do the Lord's will in general, obey his teachings and follow Jesus, etc.). In Matthew 25, the man that did nothing with the "talents" that were given to him was cast out into outer darkness! We are to invest what the Lord has given unto us so that our Master can reap more abundantly in His great harvest.

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Itis saying the same as Paul "2Co_5:14 For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead:" Doesn't His love set us free? YES! But being so great and good it constrains us!

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I think you're right on. I think the hymn writer failed to grasp--or least convey--the meaning of grace. Biblically, grace and debt are antithetical words. It's like saying we are indebted to someone after they've given us a gift. If something is a gift, there is no debt to be paid in any way, otherwise grace fails to be grace. Maybe he should have said, "Oh to God I'm very thankful, for His grace conveyed to me".

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But even in modern English we might say "I'm indebted to you" to convey thanks for a gift. –  Andrew Leach Nov 28 '13 at 10:08
    
Welcome to the site! This next has nothing to do with the quality of your answer, it's just standard to help new visitors avoid misunderstanding the site (as I did at first.) As a new visitor, I'd recommend checking out the following two posts, which are meant to help newcomers "learn the ropes": help page and How we are different than other sites? –  David Stratton Nov 28 '13 at 15:48
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