I love the song "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing." It's beautiful, and the backstory is pretty amazing. My problem is that I always shudder every time I sing this line in the third verse:

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

I keep noodling over that sentence. From a mainstream Protestant perspective, 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?

  • It's not that you're reading too much into it, but that you're reading too little into it ;) – bruised reed Jul 21 '14 at 1:49
  • We don't normally think of hymns as containing irony, but there is possibly an element of irony in the hymn writer's words. In a secular, worldly sense, once a debt is paid, nothing more is due. The words "Paid in Full" send a wave of relief through our minds! Spiritually, however, while the cost of our STANDING in Christ has been paid for in full at the cross ( by virtue of our having been declared righteous by God), the STATE of our relationship in Christ requires fresh infusions of God's grace daily, since we still sin. Ironically (or paradoxically), our debt is both paid and unpaid. – rhetorician May 6 '16 at 13:40

You're reading way too 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 license, although I think we should treat those with caution 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 owe 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. – fгedsbend Mar 18 '13 at 23:13

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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That the hymn writer's doctrine here is correct can be seen particularly clearly in the parable of the unforgiving servant (cf. Matthew 18:21-35) - the eponymous servant received (extraordinary) grace through the large cancellation of his debt but upon his insistence that another servant repay a much smaller debt owed to him, he was judged not worthy of the grace he had been shown and the initial debt was re-instated (with additional punishment!):

So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart. - v35 ESV

From this we understand that even though we can never earn saving grace through our own works, we can be disqualified from grace through exercising grace-less-ness to others - in other words, receiving God's grace comes with an obligation (debt) to give grace to others. This is the sense of Paul's 'debt'/'obligation' to preach the gospel (cf. Romans 1:14, 2 Corinthians 5:14 and this Q&A on the BH site).

A further sense that you are incorrect in your initial assessment (that the line from the hymn is heretical) can also be discerned from the following:

16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. - John 3:16-18 ESV (emphasis added)

Verses 16 & 17 speak of grace, while verse 18 strongly implies that there is an obligation to believe in order to receive that grace (as does: "the just shall live by faith" & "it is by grace you've been saved through faith"). Elsewhere, warnings against unbelief reveal an obligation to continue walking in faith lest we are disqualified from the grace previously received (cf. Hebrews 3).

In summary, the debt that the hymnist is referring to is real and is primarily an obligation to have faith in God, and to extend grace to others (particularly through preaching/living out the gospel as demonstrated in the life of Paul).

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  • Good points. When I asked my late dad what the old-fashioned word "proffer" meant, he told me that to proffer is to offer with the expectation or assumption that whatever is offered will be received. In other words, to reject the offer is unthinkable. Jesus proffers us a full and free salvation by his grace. We receive it gratefully by faith. To refuse his gift is unthinkable, and the punishment for such foolishness is condemnation (John 3:18, as you pointed out). Don – rhetorician May 6 '16 at 13:17

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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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
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