The Never-Ending Debt of Love (Romans 13:8-10)
Sermon for June 7, 2020
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Dear New Cut Church and friends,
Our Scripture reading today is Romans 13:8-10. In these verses, Paul again focuses on the topic of love. Romans 13:8-10, the Word of God reads,
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
“I’ve loved people enough.” “I’ve done my service.” “I’ve done my time.” “I’ve fulfilled my commitment.” These are things that people might say when they have decided to stop loving others. “I’ve done my time.” “I’ve done enough.” “Now, I am going to coast the rest of the way through life.” But we have never loved enough. Our love to one another is never complete. We have an ongoing debt to love one another.
Verse 8 says, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” Love to one another, and the other, is a debt that never ends. It is never paid off. We always owe love.
When Paul uses this language of “owing love,” he is transitioning from and connecting with his discourse on the civil government in verses 1-8 of chapter 13. Let’s read verses 6-8 to hear the connection. Listen for the language of owing carrying over from Paul’s teaching about the civil government to Paul’s teaching about love. I will read here from the English Standard Version. Verses 6-8 reads,
For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
You see there how Paul carried over the obligation of owing taxes to the obligation of owing love. Isn’t that romantic? Taxes and love. If there are any single guys out there, maybe Paul’s lexical link of “owing” taxes and “owing” love can help you brainstorm marriage proposal ideas. If you successfully bring these two ideas together in a proposal, please let us know how it went.
So we owe taxes. It’s an obligation. Now, when tax season rolls around each year, we have to file our taxes. And we file taxes whether we want to or not. It’s an obligation. It’s something that we owe. However, tax season does have an ending to it. Hopefully, you don’t owe extra taxes after filing. But if you do, you pay the debt, and the debt is paid off. Then you are no longer indebted to pay these taxes. The slate is clean. You move on. But it’s not so with love. Love is never paid off. We always owe one another love.
Now, our debt to love is not a transaction. It’s not a transaction like paying taxes or buying something. Say that there is a stand that sells one dollar bags of chips. The owner gives you a bag of chips. You owe, you are in debt, until you give the dollar. But love is not transactional in that way. When it comes to the debt of love, each person is continually in debt. If you give, you still owe more. The direction that this passage leads you is not to see others as in debt of love to you, but you as in debt of love to others. And this passage is not meant to lead to tracking transactions of love. A loving relationship is indeed reciprocal. However, the attitude of each person in that relationship is one of giving to the other. The attitude is of being indebted in love to the other.
How might this debt of love play out in your life? I’ll use the example of a husband and wife. Sometimes, a spouse needs to remind themselves that they are in debt to love their spouse. Yet, so often, a spouse instead of considering his or herself as indebted to the other in love, he or she is calculating the debt of the other spouse, keeping a record of wrongs and indebtedness of the other. But in any marriage, if the husband and wife are keeping a record of wrongs and debts, instead of considering themselves as continually in debt of love to each other, then the love in that marriage will be strangled. But when two consider themselves to be to be indebted in love to the other, life and love abound. And so it is with any relationship, whether family relationships, friendship, or work relationships. If people have the frame of mind of owing love rather than being owed love, then love abounds.
What about the debt of love in the church? Verse 8 says, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” The commentator, Douglas Moo, points out in his commentary on this verse that whenever you see “one another” in Paul’s writings, “one another” always means fellow Christians. You are indebted to love your fellow Christians in the church. Sometimes I hear things like, “I’ve done my service in the church. Now I’m done.” “I led youth group for 10 years, and I’m finished.” However, as we see here in Romans chapter 13, the debt of love is ongoing. It’s not like you serve in a role for several years in the church, then your obligation of love is payed off. Now, the way you love your brothers and sisters may change over time. For example, you might not have the energy to do triple back flips as a youth group leader any longer. But you can still love in other ways. Or even if you are in your last weeks or months of life, you can love by sharing your testimony of God’s faithfulness in your life. The ways that you love within the church may change throughout a lifetime, but the debt of love to your brothers and sisters never ends.
Paul starts out verse 8 with reciprocal Christian love of one another, but then he transitions right away to love of “the other.” Listen for the transition in v. 8. “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” What is the significance here of “the other?” First of all, the transition to loving the other undergirds the point that, in this mutual, reciprocal, indebted love, each person is to have the attitude of indebtedness to the other. Love is directed outward towards the other, not inward towards self. Second, loving the other means loving someone different than you. Genuine love is not just towards people who are similar to you, people who have the same interests and backgrounds as you, but people who are different from you. Finally, in contrast to the “one another love” characteristic of love towards brothers and sisters within the church, love to “the other” means love directed outward from the church. We are to love one another in the church, and that is a vital part of church. But our love as a church and as Christians is also to be directed outward towards our neighbors. Consider and pray, how can you love one another, and how can you love “the other?”
Concerning this call to love one another and to love the other, consider God’s love as an example. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” God the Father loved the world so much that he sent his only Son into the world to die for the sins of whoever would believe in him. The Son, Jesus Christ, lived a perfect life. He had no sin. He had no faults. Yet, in love, he died for the sins of God’s people. This is a picture of love that gives. If you don’t know this abundant love, accept that love from God and put your faith in Jesus Christ. If you already know that love, continue walking with Christ and follow Christ’s example of giving love freely and generously. 1 John 4:19 says, “We love because he first loved us.” Because of God’s free and generous love to you, generously love one another and the other.
After Paul points out that you have a never ending debt to love one another and the other, he goes on to relate love to the law. Listen again to verse 8: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” Here we have love and the law. Love is not the law and the law is not love. But they both need each other. Love finds its direction in the law. When we love others, we treat others the way that they ought to be treated. But we can’t treat others the way that they ought be treated in the bounds of God’s law without the affection of love. Concerning this relationship between law and love, John Stott writes, “Love needs law for its direction, while law needs love for its inspiration.” The law directs us in how to love one another. Love inspires us to follow that direction.
The correlation between the law and love here in verse 8 also shows that love and obligation are not incompatible. However, in the spirit of our times, love and obligation are often seen as incompatible. The thinking goes like this: “If I have this affection for you, then surely because of this great affection, I don’t need to make an obligation.” In this case, love is seen as affection only. But listen again to verse 8. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” Law and love, obligation and love, are not contrary to each other. A vital part of love is to see yourself as indebted to another person. The spirit of our times that considers love to be contrary to indebtedness, commitment, and obligation is backwards. How can someone say, “I love you so much, I have great affection for you,” but then not be willing verbalize a commitment? When someone won’t verbalize a commitment, that is a sign that love is actually lacking. Marriage offers a great example of love. In marriage, both the husband and the wife verbalize a commitment, and indebtedness to one another. Beyond that, they make a promise before God to be committed to each other! Obligation is certainly a part of love.
While marriage is a good example of the compatibility of love and obligation, love and obligation are parts of any loving relationship. When there is a loving relationship, there is commitment, obligation, and indebtedness. For example, in a friendship, the level of commitment and love is not to the level of a marriage, but there is still commitment where there truly is love. In the military, love is shown between service members by their commitment to each other in the worst of circumstances. In a church, there is a promise made to be committed to a body of believers. Parents demonstrate love by their commitment to their children. These are just a few examples. When there is love, there is commitment.
In a typical marriage proposal, the finals words are “Will you marry me?” The question is in effect, “Will you be attached to me?” “Will you be committed to me?” But with the indebtedness of love in mind, maybe the final standard question of a marriage proposal that would make more sense would be, “Can I marry you?” as opposed to “Will you marry me?” “Can I marry you” is in effect, asking, “Can I have a heightened level of commitment to you?” “Can I be further in debt of love to you?” “Can I be attached to you?” Genuine love is to consider oneself indebted and committed to the other. Likewise in our other relationships, whatever those relationships are, and whatever varying levels of closeness there are in those relationships, our primary questions should not be, “How can you be committed to me?” “What love can you give to me?” but “How can I be committed to you?” “How can I serve you?” “How can I give love to you?”
This is so with our church relationships. While there is reciprocity and mutuality of love in church relationships, your question shouldn’t be, “What love does the church need to give me?” The question should be, what love should I be giving in my church relationships? How can I lovingly contribute my gifts, talents and time to the church? In what way can I lovingly give myself to others? Consumerism has plagued the church in recent years. People go church-shopping. People look mainly for where their needs can be met, rather than for where they can serve God and serve others. People come to church to consume instead of to give. In your church, take the position of considering yourself indebted in love to others.
With this virus that has plagued the world, the way people consume has changed. All the sudden, packages might take longer than two days to arrive. There is more delayed gratification. Now, shopping trips to consume involve being uncomfortable and following new guidelines for the well-being of others. Some of those discomforts have flown in the face of consumerism. There might be limits on how much you can which also has flown in the face of consumerism. This has caused anger for some. There are increased cases of anger. People have become angry at employees when required to take precautions for others or when required to limit items purchased. What’s scary, is that this same consumeristic mentality has revealed itself in the church. It’s not new in the church, but it is freshly revealed. In churches, there are controversies over technology mediums, mask wearing, and similar issues. Doesn’t this seem like consumerism? Doesn’t this seem like a position of consuming rather than of commitment, giving, and loving?
Now we do, in a way, come to the church to receive. We come to receive the gift of Christ and this is a gift we must receive. We can’t give it. That’s the gospel. We can’t earn it by good works. We can only receive it by grace. But out of receiving that grace, we as imitators of Christ, take the position of giving love to others, rather than that of consuming or putting our own needs first. Remember 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.”
So, we have seen so far that by Paul’s relation of love to indebtedness and love to the law that love very much so involves obligation and commitment. Now, the debt of love is also prohibitional. Now, that may sound unusual to your ears. But hang in there. Love isn’t just about what you do. It’s also what you don’t do. Let’s look at the passage and flesh that out. I’ll start at verse 8 for context, then we will go into verse 9. Starting at verse 8, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law,” and verse 9, “The commandments, “’You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” So after Paul related the indebtedness of love to the law, he listed 4 of the 10 commandments, all of which involve prohibition. Concerning these prohibitional commands in relation to love, John Murray writes,
It should be noted that the commandments mentioned are all negative in form. It is often pleaded that ethics should not be negative but positive. The fallacy here is that the plea is unrealistic; it overlooks the fact of sin. If there were no liability to sin and no fact of sin there would be no need for prohibition. It is because God’s law is realistic that eight of the ten commandments are negative and one other has a negative element… Even love itself is negative: it “worketh no ill to his neighbor” ([Romans 13:] v. 10). And here in verse 9 we have examples of the ills it does not perpetuate: adultery, murder, theft, coveting. The commandment to love is positive and Paul elsewhere gives us a catalogue of its positive qualities… But even in this passage we also have negations… Who is to say that the demands of love, both positive and negative, are not to be directed to love and its proper exercise command?
Let’s take a look at how this aspect of love plays out in the commandments that Paul lists. We’ll start with “You shall not murder.” Concerning this commandment, Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount,
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca,” is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell.
Jesus highlights here that “You shall not murder” means not murdering with your words. But somehow, in relationships, people end up murdering and hurting with words. Maybe people lose control. Maybe people think that by hurting with their words, they somehow stand their ground in the relationship and preserve the relationship. But those are just rationalizations. Love prohibits murdering with our words. In our debt of love to one another, we are prohibited from destroying with our words.
Paul also lists the command, “You shall not commit adultery.” Sometimes, people get the idea that they need to satisfy themselves sexually outside of their marriage. They think it helps them to maintain sanity somehow and be a better spouse. Or, someone sleeping with a married person might actually think they are somehow helping that person’s marriage by fulfilling that person’s sexual needs. Or someone dating might think that fornicating sex outside the safety and promises of marriage is love. Someone might think that lust or pornography is permissible, that it is just normal and natural sex drive. But Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” These perceived needs of sexual satisfaction outside of marriage are all rationalizations. Love prohibits adultery. In our debt of love, we are prohibited form adultery in all its forms.
So, love does have a prohibitive aspect. But as a reminder, love still is positive. In this passage, Paul quotes the summary of the law from Jesus and Leviticus 19:8, which says “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The law, with its negative prohibitions, does still have a positive direction of loving one’s neighbor. And the main impetus of this passage is a command to be committed in love to one another and the other. Ephesians 4:25-28 demonstrates clearly the positive and negative aspect of the law. Listen for the positives and negatives. Ephesians 4:25-28 reads,
Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.
Did you catch the negatives and the positives? Instead of speaking falsehood, speak truthfully. Instead of stealing, work. While there is a prohibitive aspect to love, you still need to fulfill the positive direction, otherwise you’re caught up with simply trying not to do something, which can make it even harder not to do. So, let’s see how these positives and negatives play out with our examples: “You shall not murder” and “You shall not commit adultery.” Concerning the commandment “You shall not murder,” instead of hating and murdering with words, be thoughtful with words. Speak, not necessarily to flatter, but with the purpose of helping others to walk more closely with Christ. Concerning the commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” instead of seeking sexual fulfillment outside of marriage, find ways to be committed to and to love your spouse. Find ways to please your spouse. If you are single, don’t pursue illegitimate and sinful sexual longings, but focus on finding ways to respect God’s image bearers. So, the debt of love involves prohibition. Recognize the prohibition. But also positively fulfill the call to love one another.
Each year we file our taxes. When we file, we might find out that we owe taxes. We might find out that we fell short for the year. Our taxes also might get audited. If you look at your debt of love and see how it adds up, you probably find that you have not fulfilled love the whole way. No one has because of sin. How do you respond to the findings of this audit? First, remember that God is merciful and gracious. Don’t use God’s mercy as a license to sin. But whenever you do sin, turn to God. He is gracious. You can turn to him. We seek to walk more closely with God throughout our lives, and by God’s help, we do walk more closely with him over time. But we never arrive. We need to frequently acknowledge to God that we haven’t lived the way that we ought to live. We need to frequently ask God for forgiveness. Lamentations 3:22-23 says, “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” God is faithful and merciful, so turn to God for forgiveness when you fall short. Second, remember that the gospel is not only about freedom from sin and union with God in heaven eternally, but freedom from sin and union with God now. Because of the gospel, because of the work of Christ, you have been broken free from the power and bondage of sin. By God’s grace, you are able to walk in newness of life. It can be a battle and involves repentance along the way. But the Holy Spirit helps you to walk with Christ. Seek to love one another and the other with wholehearted commitment, and take courage along the way because of God’s gracious love towards you in this spiritual journey and because of the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
A lot of times, people speak of the joy of paying off debt, especially when it is totally paid off. How much more joyful is it to be committed to love, to be indebted to love one another and the other? How much more joyful is truly loving someone? How much more joy comes from 30 years of loving a spouse than 30 years of paying off a mortgage? Having debt can seem like a bad thing. But the debt of love is a joyous debt. It’s a debt that can never be paid off. But that’s OK, because it is a good debt that we have towards one another. You are indebted in love to one another. Be committed in that love.