Forever In Debt
Paul has just been talking about the need for the saints at Rome to pay their taxes to the government, along with the respect they are to show their rulers. Now he commands them in regard to their financial obligations to others: “owe no one anything except to love one another..” (13:8a). This phrase is sometimes interpreted to mean that a Christian is never justified in going into debt of any sort. However, this passage of scripture is not a proof-text against Christians borrowing money. Some Christian financial planners have used this passage in that way.
Staying out of debt is a good idea, for “the borrower becomes the lender’s slave” (Prov. 22:7). Gone are the days when only a house or a car was purchased with credit. Now everything and anything goes on the credit card. This is a serious problem across the board in society. But Paul is not against home mortgages, college loans or even churches paying on a building. Besides, to so interpret this passage would place Paul in direct contradiction to the previous verse: “render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor” (13:7).
The rest of the Bible supports the idea of God’s people borrowing and lending money to those in need and those in business. In fact, lending was permitted in the Old Testament. However, there were rules set in place to protect the lender and the borrower. “If you lend money to any of My people who are poor among you, you shall not be like a moneylender to him; you shall not charge him interest” (Ex. 22:25).
The lender was warned against refusing to give a loan to a fellow countryman because a sabbatical year was near, when all debts were canceled (Deut. 15:7-9). The Law of Moses cautiously governed the lending by banning the charging interest to those who were penniless, but it did not prohibit lending with reasonable interest. Borrowing and lending was considered acceptable in the New Testament (Matt. 5:42; 25:27). Let’s face the facts, many businesses, farms, and homes could not exist without a system of credit.
The Bible clearly and consistently forbids certain behavior with regard to borrowing and lending of funds. First, the borrower was warned against taking out a loan beyond their ability to repay. This attitude of buying everything you want right now on credit and worrying about how you are going to repay it later is a form of theft. When one makes a promise or vow to repay, God expects the man to follow through with his commitment. “When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; For He has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you have vowed— Better not to vow than to vow and not pay” (Eccl. 5:4-5).
Also note in this passage the verb “owe” is in the present tense. Thus, one should not have an ongoing debt or constant line of credit representing habitual debt. “One may have incurred a debt which if due in the present must be paid because that is the appointed time for it to be paid. Until that point, it is not due” (Hamilton 725). Finally, all borrowed funds are to be repaid as agreed and in full.
Paul moves from repaying one’s debts to a debt which can never be paid in full and where payment is always due. The debt is one’s love for another. To repay such a debt requires a proper understanding of what is actually owed.
Love is Repaying Debts
The borrower is to love the lender. Love will always have the interests of the creditor in view. Because you love, you pay your debts. True love allows no debt to remain outstanding. Love will motivate a borrower to pay his debts off, but love is a debt all owe and can never pay off.
Love is a Continuous Debt
You pay and you pay, and you are constantly in debt. If that is talking about money, it’s a problem. If it is talking about love, it is a privilege. The duty to love one another creates a state of mutual and perpetual indebtedness. “We can never say, ‘I have done all the loving I need to…debt impossible to discharge” (Leon Morris, 467,68). You could be the richest person in the world, but you’ll still owe people the debt of love until the day you die. We are all philanthropists. The term comes from the Greek compound meaning to love man. So, the richest to the poorest are to be philanthropists.
Love is for Everyone
Paul’s use of “fellowman” shows the duty of our debt involves everyone mutually and equally. Christians are not just to love fellow Christians but even their atheistic, hateful neighbor who lives next door. Love is for the unlovable. Love is to be given to those who may never reciprocate your love. The undeserving deserve to be loved by Christians. Who is your neighbor you owe love to? Jesus made the answer clear in His Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35). A neighbor is anyone with whom we have contact, especially if he is in need.
Love is Obeying God’s Commands
In indiscriminate sequence Paul mentions four of the six commandments dealing with relations of one’s fellow man (Ex. 20:13-17). The first four of the Ten Commandments deal with one’s relationship with God. All ten are repeated in the New Testament except the Sabbath Day commandment. These commandments encourage love for one another. The sin of adultery comes from impure, sinful lust, never from pure love. The phrase “making love” is a euphemism for sexual immorality. Today, two strangers “making love” in a “love nest” have a “love child” and yet never experience true love. True love does not violate the sanctity of marriage. Joseph would not commit adultery against God with Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39:8,9). Next, love does not rob others or their lives or their possessions. Coveting is at the heart of our materialistic, consumer-oriented culture. It is a form of idolatry. It destroyed Achan and his family with stoning, Gehazi with leprosy, and Ananias and Sapphira with death. Remember, the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Tim. 6:10).
Love is Summed Up in God’s Commandments
In verse nine Paul quotes from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (see Luke 10:27). If one rule or command is a logical starting point for how Christians are to treat other people, this would be the one. After telling others that the first commandment is to love God with one’s all, He states, “and the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:39-40).
Love is as Natural as Loving Self
Everyone loves themselves. This is a natural instinct. Everyone therefore knows how to begin to love others, because they have learned to love themselves. This of course is a generalization. But consider, would you starve yourself, no. So, you can have empathy and show love by feeding the hungry.
Love is Harmless to Others
Often a crimes’ harm to others and society is downplayed by calling it a victimless crime. However, there is no such thing as a victimless sin. Love does no harm to the other person, but a person does not naturally desire to harm himself. This by no means requires Christians to tolerate sin and love everything about them. I can love my neighbors without loving their fifty cats that are always on my front porch or sleeping under and on top my new car. I do not have to love my neighbor’s house. However, love has kept me from calling “We Buy Ugly Houses” and giving them my neighbor’s address.
Love Is a Completion of the Law
A proverb from India says, “Love defies law.” In fact, love is the basis of the Law. The Law of Moses and the commandments in Christ are fulfilled by loving God and loving our neighbor. The term “fulfilled” in the Greek means the conclusion of a book or summation of at the end of a speech. Law and love are inseparable. In order to fulfill one’s debt or obligation to the law of God, God requires us to be perpetually in debt to Him. “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well” (James 2:8). The Golden Rule is thus tied into the Royal Law. Jesus said, “therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12).
– Daniel R. Vess