Sermon preached on Romans 13:8-10 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 4/14/2013 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Owe No One Anything Except to Love One Another”
Debt. Who really likes debt? Who really like to owe something to someone? All around us, we see talk about getting out of debt. There is a whole business industry around helping people get out of financial debt, for example. Of course, on the other side of that, there is a whole industry on debt collection too. And we hear about this with our government too — how big the national debt is getting and how much that concerns people. Debt can be a burden. It can be enslaving. And it runs the risk of putting us in a place from where we cannot get out.
Well, this passage, in some sense talks about debt. To clarify, it’s focus really is not that much on financial debt. There is some small part of this passage for which you could derive a financial application, for sure. But this passage is much more than just about finances. It wants to think about debts we have of all sorts. And it calls us to look to satisfy those debts. It connects this with love. And it connects this with the law. And so our outline for today’s message will be three part. First, we’ll consider the call to not leave our debts outstanding. Second, we’ll think about a debt we can never truly repay: the debt to love others. Third, we reflect on what sense this love is a fulfilling of the law, as described in this passage.
And so let’s begin then with verse 8 and consider first this call to not leave our debts outstanding. Verse 8 says at first, “Owe no one anything, except to love another.” We’ll talk about that exception about love in our next point. For now, hone in on the first part. Owe no one anything. This doesn’t seem to say that we ought never go into any kind of debt with someone. In other words, a simple translation might make you think that this is forbidding going into debt at all. It would seem that such an interpretation, however, would not be fitting with the rest of Scripture, let alone the immediate context. For example, there are so many passages in Scripture that talk about the financial transaction of lending and borrowing. None of them forbid you from taking a loan from someone. If incurring a debt to someone, say even financial, was inherently sinful, any of those other passages would have the opportunity to say so. But they don’t. However, there is a proverb that seems to get at the same sense as what is here. Proverbs 37:21 says that, “The wicked borrows and does not repay.” That seems to be the sense here in verse 8. That we ought to leave no debt outstanding. A more literal translation here might be to say: do not keep on owing someone anything. The grammar would support that nuance, and the rest of Scripture would seem to affirm it as well.
Now, before I move off that point, don’t take this to mean that Scripture says that debt is a good thing. Just because this passage doesn’t seem to be forbidding borrowing, doesn’t mean that Scripture paints borrowing as a good thing. Taking on a debt may not be a sin, but that doesn’t mean it’s ideal. In fact that proverb I just quoted goes on to make a contrast with the wicked man who does not repay with a different kind of person. You might think it would contrast such a man who does repay. But it doesn’t. The entire verse of Psalm 37:21 says, “The wicked borrows and does not repay, but the righteous shows mercy and gives.” The contrast is more than just between someone who doesn’t repay with someone who does repay a debt. Yes, that would be a contrast. It would be better to be someone who repays a debt versus someone who does not repay. But the even better ideal is someone who doesn’t have to take a debt out at all. Someone who could lend to someone else, or even better, just graciously gives to the person who is in such need.
You see, that’s the Bible’s bigger perspective on borrowing and lending. It’s never seen as a good position to be in if you are the one having to take a loan out from someone else. As another example of this, we see in Deuteronomy 28 that if the nation of Israel is faithful to God’s covenant with them, that a covenant blessing would be that they would lend to many nations. On the other hand, that same chapter says that if the nation was unfaithful and disobeyed God, they’d receive a curse so that they’d have to borrow from the foreigners instead. This is how the bible paints the person who has to borrow. They are in a poverish state. The person who lends, or even better, who gives to the person in such need, is in a prosperous state. The person in debt is in a form of bondage and enslavement in such debt. The person who has more than they need so as to lend out or give is in the far better position.
And yet that is a bit of a side track to our message today. This passage is not focused on financial debts. Certainly that’s one of the debts we should not leave outstanding — our financial ones. If we owe financially to another, we should seek to pay that off and not default. Rather, being in debt in general, is not what we should seek. We should seek to not be in debt — that is far better. But we know that this is not just related to financial matters because of the context. Particularly, remember last week’s passage. Verse 8 is connected with verse 7. Last week’s passage talked about our obligations to the civil government. It talked about what we owe the rulers of this world. Verse 7 uses that exact language — “Render therefore to all their due:” then it mentions taxes, customs, fear, and honor. That word there for their “due” is actually the same root word as verse 8’s word about owing. We are to render to all what we owe them. Don’t keep on owing them. Satisfy your debts. That’s the clear connection of verses 7 and 8.
That means that verse 7 shows us that our debts to others are more than just financial. Now, yes, there are finances mentioned in verse 7, namely, taxes and customs. But there is also fear and honor mentioned. We talked last week about the kind of honor and respect we need to have for those in authority over us. That is actually part of our debt to them. It’s what we owe them for their position. We ought to not leave that unpaid, so to speak. We out to discharge that debt by showing them the appropriate honor and respect that they deserve for their position of authority over us.
So then, this passage should cause us to pause and meditate on what obligations do I have to others. Financial debt being repaid? Yes, sure. But what other obligations as well? Things like fulfilling promises you have made to someone. Things like righting a wrong that you did to someone. If you are an employer, you have the obligation to pay your employees. If you are an employee, you have the obligation to work hard for your employer’s success. A wife has the obligation of a godly submission to her husband. A husband has the obligation of being a servant leader in his family. A child has the obligation to honor his parents. The parents have the obligation to not provoke the children to anger. We could go on and on. So many more examples of when we have obligations to others we must discharge them. We must not leave them outstanding. This means we need to reflect on what those debts are and look to fulfill them.
And yet here’s where it gets interesting. Because verse 8 goes on to say that there is one debt which we can’t repay. The debt to love to one another. This is now our second point: to consider our debt to love one another. And as we begin to consider what that means, we realize the all-pervasive character of this debt of love. The idea is this: We can’t ever love others so much that we ever get to a part where we say we have fulfilled the obligation. Now I don’t need to love that person any further. Related to this is the gospel. We have been saved from our sins by grace and through the greatest act of love and mercy. We owe our entire selves to God. That’s why we sing the related song of “A Debtor to Mercy Alone.” We owe our all to God. We have a debt of love to God because he purchased us with his own blood. But he turns that debt of love for him and tells us to start by loving others. Jesus told his disciples in John 14:14, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” He then tells them twice in the next chapter what that commandment is: to love one another. 1 John 4 records something similar. It says we really can’t claim to love God whom we can’t see, if we haven’t first begun to love others whom we can see. This then is that debt that is ever before us: the love that we are always obligated to give to others.
And so then, this passage explains further what this love entails. This is no small definition. This love is explained in several ways. In verse 9, Paul begins to explain it my mentioning several commandments from the second part of the Ten Commandments. Notice that he doesn’t mention any of the Ten Commandments that deal with our love toward God. Such commandments of our love for God are according to Jesus the greatest. The commands to love our fellow man are secondary in priority according to Jesus, and yet like the first nonetheless Jesus says. This is the tension in Scripture that we just mentioned — that if you can’t love your neighbor then you can’t really love God. To put it another way, we begin to love God by how we love our neighbor, since God is the one who obligates us to keep loving our neighbor. He’s our master and that’s what he says we must do. And so this is why verse 9 ends the way it does. After quoting several of the Ten Commandments that deal with our neighbor, it says that if there is any other commandment, you can sum them all up with this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Colossians 3:14 says that love binds everything together in perfect harmony. Well, in a similar way, love seems to be the quality that binds all God’s commandments together.
This means that when we think about this debt of love, that it in some sense then covers all those specific debts we already talked about. The ones we said we had to repay. Those debts we can repay are living out this other debt which we will never pay off. But that’s how we live this out. To live out this large, almost mysterious, concept of loving your neighbor, it’s lived out in the details. By how you live out each obligation you have to one another.
Related to this, that means that we treat others with good and not evil. Verse 10 says that love does no harm to a neighbor. Commentators like to point out how this is put in the negative, probably to follow the various Ten Commandments that were quoted, which we all also in the negative. We need to think about all the bad things that we should not do to people. That’s love. To not steal from them. To not lie to them or about them. To not hurt them. That’s love. Of course, what’s implied there then is to consider the opposite. Love not only doesn’t hurt. Love also gives the good. If love is to not steal, then love is to protect other’s property and also give graciously to them. If love is to not kill, then love is also to protect life and comfort the sick, etc.
So many scriptures that tell us about love. Reflect on them. Ones like that beautiful passage of love in 1 Corinthians 13, love is patient, love is kind, etc. Use that to reflect on this obligation. Lots of Christian hymns and songs are about love. Sing them and reflect on them. A good reflection on this love is that idea of loving others as yourself. That might sound funny, to talk about loving yourself, but we should have a right love for ourselves. The reality all of us do in some degree. Think about how you want to be treated and loved by others. Think of how highly you think of yourself, in many ways, and how you expect others then to regard you. What sort of love and due do you expect from others toward you. Then go and show that to others.
In other words, this is a big subject. The subject of loving your neighbor has many avenues for us to meditate on and consider. There is much explanation and truth about this topic for which to feast upon as Christians from the word. If this is our ongoing debt, to love like this, then let us be about that work of looking to grow and excel in this area. At this point, then, I’d like to turn now and consider how this is all a fulfilling of the law, according to this passage. That’s a point you’ve probably already begun to notice in my comments. But let’s further make that case now in our third point for today.
You see, verses 8 and 10 explicitly tell us this. Verse 8, “He who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Verse 10, “Love is the fulfillment of the law.” Jesus said something similar in Matthew 7:2 often described as the Golden Rule, “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Or as when we mentioned how Jesus summarized the law, he pointed first to the commandment to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and then to this commandment, to love neighbor as yourself. In other words, we can summarizes on the one hand God’s law with those two aspects: our duty of love toward God, and then our duty of love toward our fellow humans. And it seems that Scripture sometimes summarizes the law even further with just simply that reference of love toward other humans.
And so we can summarize the law, at least in one major sense, as our duty to love our neighbor. That’s what the Scriptures say. And the irony here is that we’re told here that if we love in this way, we fulfill the law. But on the other hand, we’re told we can never fully fill up our obligation to love in this way! So, I guess, call me simplistic, but my math therefore tells me that we won’t ever in this life be able to fulfill the law by our works. We can endeavor after it. We can grow after it. But if our debt of love is never satisfied, then our obligation to the law and our ability to fulfill it will never be satisfied by our works either.
And yet here we are reminded again of Christ and the gospel. For what did Jesus say he came to do with regard to the law? Matthew 5:17, Jesus said he did not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it. Well, we can think about the exhaustive way he fulfilled the law of God. But certainly one sense is what we see here. How does one fulfill the law? By loving your neighbor as yourself. And so as the Son of Man, Jesus Christ loved his neighbor to the full. Surely, Jesus loved us to the full. For there is no greater love than to lay down your life for a friend. Let alone for an enemy. But that was Christ’s love for his own. If you are in Christ by faith, know that this is the love he has shown you. The greatest of love. Love that fulfilled the law on your behalf. Love that satisfied that debt of love that you could not and have not fulfilled. That we could be reconciled to God. That we could be out of the debt of sin. Out of that former slavery. This we have because Christ loved us. And so my friends, here the gospel again today. It’s about Christ fulfilling the law by loving us to the full. By faith in Jesus Christ, the law is fulfilled on our behalf. Believe in Jesus. Love God. Love Jesus. And in turn then, love others.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, having been saved from our debt of sin, we do in fact take on this new debt. A debtor to mercy. A debtor to Christ’s love. We have been redeemed by him out of slavery to be his slaves. He in turn then tells us in this passage part of what this means. That we have a perpetual obligation now to love. But do not fear, dear friends. For our Father knows our struggles and frailties. He knows our struggle to love as we ought. And so he has given us of his Spirit. This Spirit is transforming us into people who love, more and more!
And so realize, this unpayable debt we have to love is not to be a burden to us. We said at the start today that people tend to think of debts as a burden. As something that we are trapped under. Yes, in this life that is so often the case. But it’s different with this debt. Because Christ fulfilled the law for us, this is not your normal kind of debt. What this is really saying, is that we are new people now. And we’ve been shown what love really is. As a new creation, he’s made us people to love now. It’s not like we were saved from hell and death only to be told that now we are God’s slaves and have to work in salt mines 10 hours a day to pay off our debt we owe God. No, that’s not what this is at all. The reality is we really have no debt of that sort any longer. Instead, we’ve actually been made free to love, finally! In the best way. Love is the best thing, isn’t it? We ought not to think of this debt of love as an typical debt or as a burden. No, we are just simply saying that as new creations in Christ we are now called to love more and more and more, and that this is so part of who we are now, that we will never love enough! God’s love working in us will make us always see the need to keep on loving all the more! And we’ll love it! Yes, maybe not fully in this life. But as we grow in sanctification we’ll begin to love this love more. And when it’s completed, we’ll truly love loving in the full. We’ll never grow tired of it or see an end to it.
So then, in this life, may this challenge our perspective on loving our neighbor. And since we said this love is a summary of all God’s commands for us, may it challenge how we think about obedience. What I mean is that we often think like this: God saved me. I’m therefore indebted to God for eternity, I owe him my everything, so I must strive to live for him. So far, so good. But then we start analyzing this in the wrong way. We say we can’t ever pay God back for what he’s done for us, but deep in our heart we kinda act like we think we can. We have a good day at loving others and being a good Christian, so to speak, and we think we’ve done a little to pay God back. We have a bad day and think we slid backward and missed the mark in paying God back for saving us. No! This is all the wrong way to think about it.
Let us instead really recognize that we can’t pay God back. That we are indebted to him forever. That we can never love others enough so as to stop owing God for our salvation. Realize we can’t pay him back. But that’s okay. That is okay. Don’t let that hang over your head as some guilt trip motivation. That is not the point of the gospel. No, Christ loved you and fulfilled the law for you. Be set free by the gospel, even though that means we owe everything to God. That is okay. But then that means we are really set free to love. To love without feeling like we are paying God back somehow. If we realize we can’t pay back God, then that sets us free to love for the sake of love. For the sake that you love God and therefore want to grow in loving others. And because you see how wonderful such love is, you just want to love that way more and more.
Be set free from guilt-laden love. Love that tries to repay back God when you can’t. Be free to love knowing that you can never love enough. There’s a freedom in that. It means you can just love. Love day to day and rejoice in such love. It is a wonderful thing to be a debtor to such love; love in Christ. Amen.
Copyright © 2013 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.