One of the many ways in which the Apostle Paul depicts the life of the believer is by using the language of accountancy. It is one of the principles of business that things must be valued correctly in order to allow appropriate investment of resources to be made so that there will be a profit at the end of the day. This is true in the spiritual realm as well - if I fail to value things correctly, I will invest my resources wrongly, and I will suffer loss rather than making a spiritual profit.1 The Lord Jesus spoke of this in Mark 8.34-37: if a man puts the wrong value on the things of this world, when compared to his soul, there is nothing that will make up for the loss he will suffer.
Turning to Paul's writings, we find that there are many passages (of which we can consider only a few) where he adopts this imagery. For example, in the Epistle to the Philippians, he brings three examples of spiritual accountancy before us. First, he draws our attention to the need for an accurate valuing of our fellow-believers: "Let each esteem other better than themselves" (2.3). The spiritual man or woman will acknowledge that even the lowliest (or most irksome!) brother or sister is one for whom Christ died, and will therefore value them accordingly. It is no sign of spirituality if a man is constantly thinking of his fellow-believers in a negative light. This of course does not mean that we must adopt an attitude of pseudo-humility and focus on our unworthiness: rather, we are to think of the interests of others as being more important than our own affairs, and to ensure that the needs of others are addressed before we seek our own things.
Next, as a spur to this mindset, Paul in the same letter brings before us two great examples of heavenly thinking. He speaks of the Lord Jesus as the One who "thought it not robbery to be equal with God" (2.6). The idea is that our Lord looked on the glory of the position that He enjoyed at the right hand of the Majesty on high, and esteemed it as something that He would be willing to forgo in order to accomplish the great plan of redemption. He had the option (if we may speak reverently) of keeping that position, but at the expense of leaving mankind in unregenerate darkness, and of leaving the righteous demands of God unsatisfied. In grace, however, He chose rather to make himself of no reputation, to come into the world as a servant, and become obedient to the point of cross-death. In other words, He placed a greater value on the glory of God and the redemption of man than upon his own rightful position on the throne of heaven. What a challenge to us! If each of us were to get a grasp of the worth that the account books of heaven place upon the individual saint, it would perhaps prevent many problems in our assemblies.
The third example of spiritual accountancy in Philippians is in 3.4-14, where the Spirit of God shows us that Paul was a man who lived up to the teaching he had given in ch.2. As far as his background was concerned, he had more reason to glory than perhaps any other man: he was a member of the chosen race, a descendant of the friend of God, adherent to the keeping of the Law to the point where he could describe himself as "blameless" (v.6). And then, one day, everything changed: he met a man who came to mean more to him than all the glories of the only God-given religion the world had ever known. His unregenerate legalism had only succeeded in making him the chief of sinners, and when he caught a glimpse of the exalted Saviour he turned his back upon it all, esteeming it to be one great loss when compared with the prize of winning Christ. As the poet has expressed it:
Marvel not that Christ in glory
All my inmost heart hath won;
Not a star to cheer my darkness,
But a light beyond the sun.
All below lies dark and shadowed,
Nothing there to claim my heart,
Save the lonely track of sorrow
Where of old He walked apart.
(E Frances Bevan, trans.)
In light of these things, let us challenge ourselves: what value do I place on my fellow-saints? And what value do I place on the man who placed such a great value on me? Let us each see to it that nothing in our lives displaces "the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord" (v.8) as the thing of supreme value.
There are several other passages where Paul uses similar metaphors, but let us now turn our attention not so much to the value that we are to place on things, but to the concept of the debts that we owe as believers. First and foremost, of course, there is the incalculable debt that we owe to the Lord Jesus, as the One who has redeemed and delivered us at the cost of His own precious blood.
What a debt of love we owe Thee
Love that we can ne'er express
Since we through the Spirit know Thee-
Christ, the Lord, our righteousness.
Second, there is the debt that we owe to each other. Note the strong "ought" (literally "owe a debt") in the phrase, "We…ought to bear the infirmities of the weak" (Rom 15.1), men owe a debt of love to their wives (Eph 5.28), and we all owe a duty of service and care to those who have been our spiritual benefactors (Rom 15.27; see also Philem v.19). But there is a third debt that we owe, and perhaps we do not so often think of it. Paul speaks of it in Romans 1.14-15: "I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise. So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also". It is a remarkable fact that the believer, having had his debt of sin paid in full at the cross, acquires (at the point of conversion) a lifelong debt to his fellow man. God has given to us, as He gave to Paul, a priceless treasure, but it is not ours to hoard: that treasure, of course, is the knowledge of the way of salvation. God has given it to us, but we have thus become indebted to our neighbours, and we must discharge this debt by telling them of the Saviour. How and where we do this may vary, but the debt is the same: we must pass on to others the message God has entrusted to us. What progress are we making in doing this? Is there a neighbour, a workmate, a school friend from whom I have kept back the knowledge of the Saviour? Perhaps there is a nation far away to whom God would have me carry the light of the gospel: what preparation am I making to discharge my debt to them? It would be an awful thing to stand in that great day when "every one of us shall give account of himself to God" (Rom 14.12), and still have an undischarged debt of service to others.
How then are these things to affect us practically? What things can be viewed as having true spiritual value? How can I try to discharge the three great debts that I owe? Let us close our study by reminding ourselves briefly of three things in Paul's pastoral epistles that are called "profitable".
1. The cultivation of godly character (1 Tim 4.8).
2. An ever-deepening knowledge of the Word of God (2 Tim 3.16).
3. A life filled with doing good to others (Titus 3.8).2
God has given us only one life, and it is up to us how that life is used. We speak of spending time, and the expression is a significant one - I am spending my life at a rate of sixty seconds every minute. What am I buying with the time I spend? Let us be sure that we buy only those things which are of spiritual profit, so that, when we stand at the Judgment Seat of Christ, we may have no reason to be ashamed.
To be continued.
1. There is, of course, no suggestion that a believer can lose their salvation; the loss suffered is in the sense of receiving a smaller reward (at the Judgment Seat of Christ) than would otherwise have been the case.
2. There are also two men described as "profitable" (although the word is a different one in Greek): see 2 Timothy 4.11 and Philemon v.11.