In a recent theological discussion, someone spoke about the concept of sin as debt. I was curious as to what the patristic literature had to say and compiled these quotations from most of the major series translated in English. Unsurprisingly, I found quite a few more references to sin as debt in Western writers than in Eastern writers, which perhaps explains some of the differences that exist in terms of our understanding of salvation.
Origen of Alexandria
But we ought to refer “fear and honor” more to him who says through the prophet, “Do you not call me Lord and Father? And if I am Lord, where is my fear? And if I am Father, where is my honor?” (Mal 1:6). What he adds later, of course, that we should owe nothing to anyone, is certainly to be referred to the ministers to whom one becomes a debtor when he sins. For on many occasions we have repeatedly shown that sin is a debt. So Paul wants every debt of sin to be paid and absolutely no debt of sin to remain among us, but for our debt of love to abide and never to cease; for paying this debt even daily and owing it at all times is beneficial to us.
On Modesty 2
For the chastisement of unbelievers in the present life is a judgment, by which they begin to be separated from future blessings; but the chastisement of those who worship God, while it is inflicted upon them for sins into which they have fallen, exacts from them the due of what they have done, that, preventing the judgment, they may pay the debt of their sin in the present life, and be freed, at least in half, from the eternal punishments which are there prepared.
On Prayer 7
“Debt,” moreover, is in the Scriptures a figure for sin, because, like debt, sin is due to be judged and a demand is made on it, and it does not escape just exaction, unless exaction be remitted; even as the master “forgave” (cf. Mt 18:27) that slave “the debt.” For that is the lesson running through the whole parable. The fact, too, that the same slave, though freed by his master (cf. Mt 18:30), does not in like manner spare his own debtor, and for that reason is brought before his master, and “handed over to the torturer” (cf. Lk 12:58) “to pay the last penny” (Lk 12:59) which is meant punishment for even a slight sin—that fact is connected with our promise also to forgive our debtors.
St. Polycarp of Smyrna
And let the presbyters be compassionate and merciful to all, bringing back those that wander, visiting all the sick, and not neglecting the widow, the orphan, or the poor, but always “providing for that which is becoming in the sight of God and man” (Ro 12:17; 2 Co 8:21); abstaining from all wrath, respect of persons, and unjust judgment; keeping far off from all covetousness, not quickly crediting an evil report against any one, not severe in judgment, as knowing that we are all under a debt of sin. If then we entreat the Lord to forgive us, we ought also ourselves to forgive (Mt 6:12–14); for we are before the eyes of our Lord and God, and “we must all appear at the judgment-seat of Christ, and must every one give an account of himself” (Ro 14:10–12; 2 Co 5:10).
St. Athanasius of Alexandria
To man, however, a special grace was given beyond that of mere existence—that of being made after God’s Own Image. This grace was strengthened by placing him in Paradise, and giving him a law. Obedience to the law would ensure continuance in blessedness, and man would finally, by a deathless change, pass into the heavenly life: disobedience, on the other hand, would entail death and continuance in corruption. Man was disobedient, and in the first pair mankind as a whole became involved in guilt. The fact of universal sin witnesses to an original fall, for human nature in its entirety existed in Adam and Eve, and in them fell. Death, therefore, must be the penalty, or God’s word be broken: yet how monstrous for the creature’s sin to frustrate God’s purpose in creation! Sin, however, was not merely a debt due to God’s honour which might be forgiven on man’s repentance, or on worthy satisfaction (if such could be found) being made: it was a disease and corruption in the very nature of man. Death had become a context of human nature, and needed to be counteracted by the context of life. The Eternal Word of God, therefore, who had originally made man after God’s Image, came down, and, as Man, fulfilled the law of death, while, as God, He implanted in human nature an antidote to the corruption, and by His resurrection afforded the promise of the life eternal.
St. Ambrose of Milan
On Faith in the Resurrection
For, as we read, Christ came ‘to save what was lost,’ (Lk 19:10) and ‘that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living’ (Ro 14:9). In Adam I fell, in Adam I was cast out of paradise, in Adam I died. How shall God call me back except He find me in Adam? For just as in Adam I am guilty of sin and owe a debt to death, so in Christ I am justified (cf. Ro 5:8, 9). If, then, death is a debt, we ought to endure its payment.
On the Mysteries 5.4.27
There follows: Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors. What is the debt but sin? Therefore if you had not borrowed money at interest, you would not now be in want; therefore sin is imputed to you. You have had money, wherewith you were born rich. You were rich, being made in the image and likeness of God (Ge 1:26). You have lost what you had, that is humility; while you desire to indicate your pride, you have lost money, you have become naked as Adam (Ge 3:7), you have accepted from the devil a debt which was not necessary. And therefore you who were free in Christ have become a debtor to the devil. The enemy held your bond, but the Lord crucified it, and blotted it out (cf. Col 2:14) with his blood. He took away your debt, he restored your liberty.
Letter 37 to Simplician
Being therefore set free from sin, and redeemed, as it were, at the price of the Blood of Christ, let us not be made subject to the bondage of men or of passion. Let us not blush to confess our sins. Behold how free he was who could say, I feared not the multitude of the people; that I should not confess my sin in the sight of all (Job 31:33). For he that confesses his sin is released from servitude, and the just accuses himself in the beginning of his speech (Pr 18:17). Not only the free but the just man also; but justice is in liberty and liberty in confession, for as soon as a man shall confess he is absolved. Lastly, I said I will confess my sins unto the Lord, and so You forgave the wickedness of my sin (Ps 32:6). The delay of absolution depends on confessing, the remission of sins follows closely on confession. He therefore is wise who confesses; he is free whose sin is remitted, for he contracts now no debt of guilt. Farewell: love me as indeed you do, for I also love you.
Letter 41.7 to His Sister
And let no one be startled at the word “creditor” (Lk 7:41). We were before under a hard creditor, who was not to be satisfied and paid to the full but by the death of the debtor. The Lord Jesus came, He saw us bound by a heavy debt. No one could pay his debt with the patrimony of his innocence. I could have nothing of my own wherewith to free myself. He gave to me a new kind of acquittal, changing my creditor because I had nothing wherewith to pay my debt. But it was sin, not nature, which had made us debtors, for we had contracted heavy debts by our sins, that we who had been free should be bound, for he is a debtor who received any of his creditor’s money. Now sin is of the devil; that wicked one has, as it were, these riches in his possession. For as the riches of Christ are virtues, so crimes are the wealth of the devil. He had reduced the human race to perpetual captivity by the heavy debt of inherited liability, which our debt-laden ancestor had transmitted to his posterity by inheritance. The Lord Jesus came, He offered His death for the death of all, He poured out His Blood for the blood of all.
St. Augustine of Hippo
But what is the debt except sin? If you had not received, you would not owe money to another. And therefore sin is imputed to you. For you had money with which you wert born rich, and made after the likeness and image of God, but you have lost what you then had. As when you put on pride you lose the gold of humility, you have receipted the devil’s debt which was not necessary; the enemy held the bond, but the Lord crucified it, and cancelled it with His blood. But the Lord is able, who has taken away our sins and forgiven our debts, to guard us against the snares of the devil, who is inclined to produce sin in us. Hence it follows, “And lead us not into temptation,” such as we are not able to bear, but like the wrestler we wish only such temptation as the condition of man can sustain.
The Origin of the Human Soul 10.18.32
Hence, although the body of Christ was taken from the flesh of a woman who had been conceived from the flesh of a sinful race, nevertheless, since it was not conceived in her womb in the manner in which she had been conceived, it was not sinful flesh but the likeness of sinful flesh. For He did not thereby contract the guilt that brings death, manifesting itself by involuntary motions of the flesh which must be conquered by the will and against which the spirit has its desires (cf. Ga 5:17.) But He received a body immune to the contagion of sin, a body which would be able to pay the debt to death that He did not owe and to show forth the promised resurrection, thus taking fear from us and giving us hope.
On Christian Doctrine 1.19.18
Furthermore, as there is a kind of death of the soul, which consists in the putting away of former habits and former ways of life, and which comes through repentance, so also the death of the body consists in the dissolution of the former principle of life. And just as the soul, after it has put away and destroyed by repentance its former habits, is created anew after a better pattern, so we must hope and believe that the body, after that death which we all owe as a debt contracted through sin, shall at the resurrection be changed into a better form;—not that flesh and blood shall inherit the kingdom of God (for that is impossible), but that this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal shall put on immortality (1 Co 15:50–53). And thus the body, being the source of no uneasiness because it can feel no want, shall be animated by a spirit perfectly pure and happy, and shall enjoy unbroken peace.
Meanwhile, however, in the course of this journey, let tears be your bread day and night, while people say to you: ‘Where is your God?’ (cf. Ps 41:4) You cannot show these carnal persons what ‘eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man’ (1 Co 2:9); but until you come and appear before the eyes of your God, do not be disheartened. For He will come; He who freely declared that He was our debtor will come and will fulfill His promises. He who borrowed nothing from anybody deigned to be a debtor on His own promise. We were in debt; we were in debt to just such an extent as we had sinned. He came without debt because He was without sin; He found us oppressed by a deadly and accursed debt, and, paying what He had not stolen, He mercifully freed us from everlasting debt. We had acknowledged our guilt and we were expecting punishment, but He, having become, not an accomplice in our fault, but a sharer in our punishment, wished to cancel both fault and punishment. For He it is who will snatch ‘from usuries and from iniquity’ the souls of those who believe and of those who say from their heart in every event: ‘I believe that I shall see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living’ (Ps 71:14; 26:13). This land ought to be desired, not in an earthly or lifeless but in a heavenly fashion, and with a quickened heart, for it is the land in regard to which the Psalmist, burning with love of it and singing with joy, says in another psalm: ‘Thou art my hope, my portion in the land of the living’ (Ps 141:6).
St. Caesarius of Arles
In earlier times, too, we have the fact that after Adam had disregarded God’s command by his transgression and contracted the debt of serious sin, he was naked; for this reason he himself said: ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid’ (Ge 3:10). He asserts he is naked because he has lost the adornment of divine protection; and he hid himself because he did not have the garment of faith which he had laid aside by his transgression. You see an important fact: Adam was naked although he did not lose his tunic; Joseph, who was stripped of his clothing which he left in the hands of the adulteress, was not naked. The same Scripture asserts that the former was naked and the latter was not. Therefore, Joseph despoiled himself rather than become naked when he preserved the garments of virtue incorrupt; he stripped himself of the old man with its actions, in order to put on the new man who is renewed unto knowledge according to the image of the Creator. Adam, however, remained naked because he could not clothe himself again after he was stripped of his singularly privileged virtue: for this reason he took a tunic made of skins, since as a sinner he could not have a spiritual one.
St. John Cassian
The Savior’s instruction also teaches us that no one in this life, however holy, is clear of the debt of sin. When he was handing on to his disciples the formula for perfect prayer, he ordered the following to be included among those lofty and most sacred commands which were given only to the holy and the perfect, since they can have nothing to do with the wicked and the unbelieving: ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ (Mt 6:12).
St. Gregory of Nyssa
For the teaching of the Gospel (cf. Mt 18:23 ff) tells us of a debtor who owed ten thousand talents and one who owed five hundred denarii and one who owed fifty and one who owed a pence, which is the smallest coin. And it tells us that the just judgment of God pertains to all and the necessary repayment corresponds to the amount of the debt so that not even the smallest is overlooked. However, the Gospel says that the payment is not made in money, but that the debtor is “delivered to the torturers until he pays all the debt,” which is nothing else than saying that the payment must be made through torture. The debt owed is participation in the troubles of life since he foolishly chose pleasure unmixed with pain. Once he has put aside everything that is alien to him, namely sin, and is relieved of the shame of being in debt, he becomes free and is at liberty. Freedom means being independent and without a master. It was given to us in the beginning by God, but it was obscured by the shame of our debts. All freedom is essentially the same and identical with itself. Consequently, everything that is free is in harmony with whatever is similar to itself. But virtue knows no master. Therefore, all freedom, being without a master, consists in virtue, and since the divine nature is the source of all virtue, those who are free from vice will exist in it, in order, as the apostle says: “that God may be all in all” (1 Co 15:28).
 Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Books 6–10, ed. Thomas P. Halton, trans. Thomas P. Scheck, vol. 104, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002), 228.
 Pseudo-Clement of Rome, “Recognitions of Clement,” in Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, the Clementina, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Ages, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. M. B. Riddle, vol. 8, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 152.
 Alexander Souter, trans., Tertullian’s Treatises: Concerning Prayer, Concerning Baptism, Translations of Christian Literature: Series II: Latin Texts (London; New York: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; The Macmillan Company, 1919), 26.
 Polycarp of Smryna, “The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 34.
 Athanasius of Alexandria, Athanasius: On the Incarnation of the Word of God, trans. T. Herbert Bindley, Second Edition Revised (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1903), 9–10.
 Martin R. P. McGuire, “The Christian Funeral Oration,” in Funeral Orations, trans. Leo P. McCauley et al., vol. 22, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1953), 199–200.
 Ambrose of Milan, “On the Mysteries” and the Treatise “On the Sacraments,” ed. J. H. Srawley and C. L. Feltoe, trans. T. Thompson, Translations of Christian Literature. Series III, Liturgical Texts (London; New York: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; The Macmillan Company, 1919), 127.
 Ambrose of Milan, Letter 37.45 in The Letters of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, trans. H. Walford, A Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (London; Oxford; Cambridge: Oxford; James Parker and Co.; Rivingtons, 1881), 249–250.
 Ambrose of Milan, “The Letters of St. Ambrose,” in St. Ambrose: Select Works and Letters, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin, and H. T. F. Duckworth, vol. 10, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1896), 446.
 Pseudo-Augustine in Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected out of the Works of the Fathers: St. Luke, ed. John Henry Newman, vol. 3 (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1843), 390–391.
 Original sin as transmitted to the descendants of Adam can be described as inherited disease (as it was generally described in the Christian East) or inherited guilt (as it was often described by the Latin writers.
 St. Augustine, St. Augustine: The Literal Meaning of Genesis, ed. Johannes Quasten, Walter J. Burghardt, and Thomas Comerford Lawler, trans. John Hammond Taylor, 42nd ed., vol. II, Ancient Christian Writers (New York; Mahwah, NJ: The Newman Press, 1982), 120–121.
 Augustine of Hippo, “On Christian Doctrine,” in St. Augustin’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J. F. Shaw, vol. 2, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 527.
 Augustine of Hippo, Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons, ed. Hermigild Dressler, trans. Mary Sarah Muldowney, vol. 38, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1959), 154.
 Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 92.3, Saint Caesarius of Arles: Sermons (1–238), ed. Hermigild Dressler and Bernard M. Peebles, trans. Mary Magdeleine Mueller, vol. 2, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press; Consortium Books, 1956–1973), 55.
 John Cassian, The Conferences 3.23.18, ed. Walter J. Burghardt, John Dillon, and Dennis D. McManus, trans. Boniface Ramsey, vol. 57, Ancient Christian Writers (New York; Mahwah, NJ: Newman Press, 1997), 810.
 Gregory of Nyssa, Ascetical Works, trans. Virginia Woods Callahan, vol. 58, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1967), 243.