In Romans 1:14 Paul uses a strange word to encapsulate his life and calling, one with enormous implications for both church leaders and members alike. “I am under obligation,” Paul says, to everyone who has not yet heard the gospel (see ESV). Many translations render “under obligation” as “debtor,” because Paul is invoking language that describes a debtor’s relationship to his creditor.
When you are severely in debt, your life no longer really belongs to you. It belongs to the creditor. You can’t spend money however you would like anymore. If your boss gives you a $10,000 Christmas bonus, you won’t be able to use it to take a vacation to Hawaii or to buy new furniture. The creditor has first and final say in how the money is spent. I once knew a church that was so severely in debt that representatives from the bank literally stood in the back of the lobby during the weekly offering, taking the money straight to the bank, where bank officials would decide how much the church could keep that week. The church was no longer free; it was “under obligation.”
Paul thought of himself as a debtor to those who had not heard about Jesus. His future was not free. But why did he owe them? Because he knew he was no more deserving of the gospel than they were. He was not more righteous, nor had God seen more potential in him (see 1 Timothy 1:15). Paul saw God’s grace toward him exactly for what it was — completely unmerited favor. Paul knew that placed him under severe obligation to the grace of God. Paul’s future, bright as it may have been, having a great education and all the right connections, no longer belonged to him. Every spare resource — every ounce of energy, every moment of his time — belonged to his “creditor”: the grace of God.
Every person who knows and understands the gospel is under this same debt of obligation. As David Platt says, “Every saved person this side of heaven owes the gospel to every unsaved person this side of hell.” If you are saved, you are under obligation to leverage your life to bring salvation to the nations. Those of us called to be leaders in the church are under obligation to train you up and send you out.
We pastors are not free to build ministries that mainly make life more comfortable for us. Each of us is under obligation to do whatever we can to get the gospel to those all around the world who have never heard. And that means releasing — planting — the seeds we have been given. It means letting go and sending out our very best to bring a harvest in God’s kingdom, even — especially — when it doesn’t benefit our church directly.
The gospel is that Jesus Christ died as a substitute for sinners, offered now as a gift to all who will receive him in faith. Jesus has instituted a new kingdom, a kingdom that someday will bring final and ultimate healing to the earth through his resurrection, but one that begins now when sinners are reconciled to him through his death. God has given to us, the church, the mission of preaching his offer of reconciliation to all people everywhere — that Jesus lived the life we were supposed to live and then died the death that we were condemned to die so that we could be reconciled to God. We signify the message of that new kingdom through acts of healing and extravagant generosity, which depict for others the nature of the kingdom Jesus is establishing (2 Cor. 5:14 – 21). Everyone who has received the reconciliation is sent on that mission. Every believer is sent. You go from mission field to missionary.
J. D. Greear and Larry Osborne, Gaining by Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches That Send (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015).