Student Loan Debt “Forgiveness” & the Gospel

First, we need to clearly define what is being proposed with “forgiveness” of student loan debt (SLD). According to NBC News, “Biden’s plan calls for up to $20,000 in debt cancellation for borrowers who are recipients of Pell Grants, which according to the Education Department is a federal grant that is awarded to undergraduate students with ‘exceptional financial need,’ and have an annual income of under $125,000 for individuals or under $250,000 for families filing jointly.

“The plan also calls for $10,000 of loan forgiveness for all other federal borrowers, with the same income limits for individuals and families.

“If you were claimed as a dependent on taxes, eligibility will be based on the income of the person claiming the dependent.”[1]

However, the student loan debt is not just cancelled. As Kelly Anne Smith, writing for Forbes, notes, “[S]tudent loan cancellation isn’t a magic wand that makes those loans disappear – they have to paid for somehow.”[2] Indeed, it is the government who will cover the hundreds of billions of dollars in student loan that will be “forgiven.” Of course, the government only gets money through taxation. Some project that eventually taxes will be raised on the very ones who will benefit from the student loan “cancellation.”

Of course, the current regime demurs such an idea. Their solution? Tax the rich! The article cites a professor at UC Merced (my old stomping grounds) who is also co-founder of the HERE Lab (Higher Education, Race, and the Economy), a Critical Theory think tank, Charlie Eaton, who says, “We should increase taxes on corporations, high earners, and the wealthy.”[3]

So here is the shell game: forcibly take money from the wealthy and use that to pay off the student loans of those make $125K (individuals) or $250K (a quarter of a million dollars annually as families). It is a forced transfer of wealth from one group to another.

This is what is being trotted out by certain circles of Christendom as a gospel issue. A friend on Facebook recently reposted a post by Dr. Justin Bronson Barringer, pastor of community engagement and theologian-in-residence at Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, AR, who wrote, “The idea that Christians are getting upset about debt forgiveness is but one more clue that folks haven’t a clue what following Jesus is about.” First, calling this forced transfer of wealth from one group to another “forgiveness” is simply mistaken. As pointed out above, someone pays for the “cancellation.” The debate is over who. Second, calling into question whether someone is actually “following Jesus” because they have a case to make against so-called “debt forgiveness” is yet another example of the pot calling the kettle black. Third, to invoke Scripture or Jesus in the debate is really another shining example of hypocrisy. Whenever Christians appeal to the Bible or Jesus, it is the progressive who is quick to cry foul. “One simply cannot appeal to the Bible for social issues,” they decry. However, once it is to their advantage, they have no problem making their appeal to how they are properly “following Jesus” in contrast with other Christians. In reality, their beef is with conservatism and conservative Christians in particular. Just drop the façade already. Be truthful.

Student loan “forgiveness” or “cancellation” as it is laid out in President Biden’s plan is at best a radical redistribution of wealth and at worst a flawed tax hike on the very demographic targeted by the plan. So with all due respect to Dr. Barringer and on the contrary, Christians who advocate for the forcible redistribution of wealth from one group to another (via taxation), and then masquerade that as a moral good “haven’t a clue what following Yahweh is about.”

Debt in the Bible

Let’s talk debt. The Bible does talk about debt.

The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.” (Proverbs 22:7, ESV)

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:8, ESV)

Debt is likened to slavery: the one who borrows is slave to the one who lends. This is why Christians are called to “owe no one anything,” I.e., do not incur debt.

At the same time, the Bible does recognize the reality of debt.

But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess— if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today. For the Lord your God will bless you, as he promised you, and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow, and you shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you.” (Deuteronomy 15:4–6, ESV)

A sign to Israel of Yahweh God’s blessing upon them would be their lending to “many nations” while they themselves do not borrow from any nations.

Also noteworthy, since this is a text proponents of the current student debt cancelation plan have pointed to, the context of this is significant: verses 1-3 deal with debts and debt collection within the nation of Israel every seven (7) years.

“At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the Lord’s release has been proclaimed. Of a foreigner you may exact it, but whatever of yours is with your brother your hand shall release.” (Deuteronomy 15:1–3, ESV)

This is not the year of Jubilee which occurred every 50 years (see Lev 25.8ff). Rather, every seven years (v.1) the creditor either cancelled the debt entirely or else suspended payment of the debt for a year. The latter is more likely. Every seven years, the borrower had relief from payment to his creditor(s). But it must be noted that this is only within the nation, among fellow Israelites. It is to “his neighbor, his brother,” i.e., his fellow Israelite, that this law applied to. Indeed, verse 3 is clear: “Of a foreigner you may exact it,” i.e., collect on the loan during the seventh year.

“And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 28:1-2, ESV)

The Lord will open to you his good treasury, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hands. And you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow.” (Deuteronomy 28:12, ESV)

Once again a sign to Israel of Yahweh’s blessing (v.1-2) is that they would lend to “many nations” while they themselves would not experience the bondage of debt from other nations. As seen in Deut 15, the Israelite could collect on the loan from these nations during the seventh year.

“But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you.” (Deuteronomy 28:15, ESV)

The sojourner who is among you shall rise higher and higher above you, and you shall come down lower and lower. He shall lend to you, and you shall not lend to him. He shall be the head, and you shall be the tail. “All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you.” (Deuteronomy 28:43–45, ESV)

A sign to the Israelites that they are under the curse of Yahweh is the incursion of debt. When they found themselves in possession of loans from “the sojourner,” i.e., non-Israelites, it was a sign of divine disfavor. What is particularly noteworthy from these texts in Deut 28 is that the presence or absence of debt among the Jewish people from outside nations and people is a result of divine intervention. In other words, God is the cause of the debt or He is the cause they are debt free.

There are certain situations which may require debt under the Law. For example:

“If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you. Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God.” (Leviticus 25:35–38, ESV)

Notice that fellow Israelites are to take care of one another. “You shall support him…and he shall live with you.” Part of that support may be a loan. The text does not say, “You shall not lend Him, period.” It says, “You shall not lend him your money at interest.” This is clear instruction against predatory loans and exploitative loans that have high interest rates. Again, context is crucial: this is the Law within the Jewish community.

It is also assumed that the one who takes out the loan will pay back the loan in full. He entered into agreement to receive the loan, with no or very little interest (most likely the former). He was responsible to pay it back. Indeed, part of a hymn they sang in worship included the phrase:

“The wicked borrows but does not pay back,

but the righteous is generous and gives” (Psalm 37:21, ESV).

Thus, it would be wicked to take out the loan and not pay it back. This is instructive for loans taken out today and may be one reason Christians are opposed to so-called student debt “cancellation”: not because they are opposed to debt cancellation (clearly there was instruction for such a practice at certain times in the Law), but because it is right for a person to pay what they owe. This includes college loans. The student who took out those loans signed their name on the dotted line agreeing to pay back what they were given. Now, however, they want someone else to pay for the classes they took or the degree conferred upon them. It is dishonesty and a lack of integrity to renege on paying back what you agreed to when you signed your name to it. In this way student debt cancellation as proposed is a moral issue.

Israel & America

Perhaps the greatest irony is when proponents of student debt “forgiveness” cite these texts as though they support their position. First, consistent exegesis of the aforementioned texts shows they do not in the least support the Biden plan. These were laws specific to the nation of Israel, for those within the community of faith. They did not apply to foreign nations, and there is clear instruction in the context which shows that Israelites could treat foreigners different (e.g., exact payment for loans during the seventh year). Second, the ones advocating for student loan “cancellation” as proposed are also typically the ones who are quick to point that America is not new Israel nor is it the church. Often these same advocates are the ones who poo-poo the idea that America was or is a Christian nation. They are also the ones who chastise Christians for using the Bible to defend their positions on social issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage.  Yet, they are now the ones marshalling texts from Scripture, (mis)using the Bible to suppose their position, in order to promote their case and using Israel’s Law for governing policy in America. It is inconsistent. Either submit to consistent exegesis of the text or else stop quoting Scripture badly.

The Gospel & Student Loan Debt

The most egregious error that SLD “forgiveness” proponents have made in the debate is likening the so-called forgiveness of the student loans to what Jesus did for sinners. This is what is implied in the above quoted Facebook post by Dr. Barringer. Since this plan concerning SLD is masquerading under the guise of “forgiveness,” Christians ought to be all for it. If you’re not, you “haven’t a clue what following Jesus is about.” Jesus forgave you sins; the gospel calls us to forgive these student loans. You owed a debt you could not pay and Jesus forgave it; these debtors owe student loans they do not want to pay and we ought to forgive it.

See? Don’t you see? How dumb are you, Christians, that you can’t see it?!?

Not so fast! The so-called “forgiveness” of SLD is not the forgiveness Christ secured through the cross. They are fundamentally different. Surely it is not being argued that the government mandated forced transfer of wealth from one group to another is not being equated with the willing, voluntary payment by Christ of the sin debt we were unable to pay. The government is not Christ. Christ willingly paid our debt whereas the government is forcing “generosity” through taxation. We were/are unable to pay the sin debt whereas those who took out the loans are making quite a healthy chunk (up to $250K for families, though it is granted that how healthy a chunk this is does depend on where one lives) simply do not want to pay or flat out refuse to pay, though they can.

These are not even remotely the same thing. Apples and oranges.

To marshal the gospel as somehow requiring SLD “cancellation” is spiritual extortion. Just a little thought would stop this meme religion in its tracks. In the year of Jubilee, which occurred every 50 years, the lender accepted the loss. S/he did not demand that another wealthier member of the community pay the debt. As a person in covenant relationship with Yahweh it was expected that the lender would accept the loss and release the debtor of the debt.

This is vastly different than what is proposed in the Biden plan, as outlined above. It is not debt cancellation wherein the lender eats the loss. In this case, the lender is not punished and can continue making new predatory loans to college students. And they are predatory loans because they have high interest rates which continue to increase the debt; meanwhile, the student is told that she does not need to pay on the loan while taking classes. All the while the interest is adding to the debt. Further, these outfits making these predatory loans are incentivized to continue their oppressive student loan practices. After all, the bill will just get picked up anyway by somebody. Moreover, it should not be missed who is responsible for the lion’s share of the loans: the government in cahoots with the big universities and international banks. What does the second F in FAFSA stand for anyway? That’s right, “Federal.” Plus, as Sean Ross points out, “Since almost all loans are fully guaranteed by the government, banks can sell them for a higher price, because default risk is not transferred with the asset.”[4] It is, in a word, a racket.

For Consistency’s Sake

It has been demonstrated that while debts and loans are moral issues and are addressed in Scripture, it has also been shown that the simple equating of the gospel to SLD “forgiveness” is simply erroneous. But even if one were to grant that debt forgiveness is debt forgiveness is debt forgiveness and so SLD “cancellation” is the right thing to do, why stop with just SLD? It seems that if one were to be consistent, we would have to include the following:

  • Auto loans
  • Home mortgages
  • Business loans
  • Credit card debt
  • Debt incurred from income tax
  • Overdue library book fines

If debt is debt, then why not cancel all debt and forgive all loans. If it is the case the gospel calls us to cancel SLD, then it seems consistent to demand that the gospel also calls us to cancel/forgive all other outstanding debts and loans. If not, why not?

In Conclusion Or Get to the Point Already!

It should be clear based on the foregoing argument that just because one is Christian does mean they must default into being for the currently proposed SLD “forgiveness” plan. Debt is a spiritual issue; it is a moral issue. But what has been foisted upon the American public is not forgiveness or cancellation of the SLD. It is government mandated forced transfer of wealth from one group of people to pay for the debt of those who agreed to pay back the loan and who may be in a position to pay it back but simply refuse to pay it back. To parallel it to the gospel where in the eternal Lord of glory willingly and voluntarily empties Himself in order to pay a debt sinners owe but were, are, and always will be unable to pay back is simply disingenuous.

Plus, assuming these students finish a degree, some of these degrees are useless in the current job market. But I digress…

So what can be done? Much.

First, kids need to be taught the danger of debt. It is unwise to go into debt and very hard to get out of debt once you are in it. I’m not saying, “Never take out a loan.” Some might say that, and it is the best option. But Scripture assumes there are times when even the righteous take out a loan. Uniformly it also teaches to pay back what you owe so that you get to a place where to owe no one anything. But stay clear of predatory loans, high interest loans, and, if you’re going to college, aim to be as free from debt as possible. A college degree without debt?!? Crazy, right? Not necessarily. Anthony Oneal has written the book Debt Free Degree which offers a step-by-step guide to getting through college without student loans.[5]

Avoid student loans. Avoid debt. But if one incurs debt, kids need to be taught the virtue of paying back what you owe. You signed your name on the dotted line. You took the loan. You agreed to pay it back. Before anyone points the finger at me as though I’m being too harsh, let me divest you of any notion that I’m disconnected from reality. For my second bachelor’s degree I took out a student loan. Three semesters of undergrad cost me over $10K in student loans. Sallie Mae moved into our home and stayed for several years. We never missed a payment, eventually were able to snowball the payments we made, and we kicked Sallie Mae out of our home. For good. I now have, in addition to my two bachelor’s degrees, three master’s degrees, all without any student debt. I know whereof I speak when I say “pay what you owe” and “you can do college without student debt.”

For those who are not going to college or did you time and now you are past that part of your life but you’re wondering, “What can I do?” There’s much you can be busy doing. Just a few things I would call us to. First, start a college fund at your church if you do not have on already. Our congregation has one, and we are able to offer a little assistance to students. Usually, it is enough to cover textbooks (which are astronomically priced), but, as more than one parent has said to me, “Every little bit helps.”

Second, perhaps the Lord has been especially good to you. If you have sufficient resources you may want to consider offering to put a kid through college. Maybe you come alongside their parents and help pay. Maybe you are the patron who pays their way. What a wonderful way to build relationship with a young person. Again, I know whereof I speak. My first and third master’s degrees were paid for by the generosity of members at church.

Third, given how expensive college is, petition for lower tuition rates at college. The reason tuition rates are high is because of the above-mentioned scam which sees big government conspiring with big universities and big banks. In short, they charge so much not because they have to, but because they can.

Finally, recognize that college is not a one-size-fits-all enterprise. A military career in service to the country is noble. So too is vocational or trade school. Indeed, the advantages of trade schools and vocational schools are several. The time required to complete trade school in contrast with university is relatively short. One could be working in their vocation by the time another is in the middle of their sophomore year at college. Further, a vocation is quite lucrative with starting pay being very competitive. These are very real alternatives to college.

[1] Daniella Silva, “Who qualifies for student loan forgiveness under Biden’s plan?” NBC News (Aug 24, 2022) (Accessed Aug 31, 2022).

[2] Kelly Anne Smith, “Canceling Student Debt Isn’t Free. Here’s Who Pays For It,” Forbes (Aug 26, 2022) (Accessed Aug 31, 2022).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sean Ross, “Who Actually Owns Student Loan Debt?” Investopedia, (Sept 1, 2022) (Accessed Sept 1, 2022).

[5] Anthony Oneal, Debt Free Degree: The Step-By-Step Guide to Getting Your Kid through College Without Student Loans (Franklin, TN: Ramsey Press, 2019).

One thought on “Student Loan Debt “Forgiveness” & the Gospel

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s