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You Owe a Debt of Love (Romans 13:8)

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Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor. Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, Do not commit adultery; do not murder; do not steal; do not covet; and any other commandment, are summed up by this commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law (Rom 13:7-10).

Love is one of the most popular of the fifty-eight or so one another commands in the New Testament. It’s often repeated, with new shades of meaning, such as in Rom 13:8, where Paul compares love to a debt.

Paul already used the imagery of debt to illustrate our Christian obligations. We owe it to the world to share the gospel (Rom 1:14) but owe nothing to the flesh as far as living is concerned (Rom 8:12).

More mundanely, Paul said we also owe taxes to the government (Rom 13:6), which leads him to this thought: “Pay your obligation to everyone.” If you owe taxes and tolls, pay them. If you owe honor and respect, then don’t withhold it. There’s only one kind of debt a Christian should have—love. “Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another.”

We all know how important love is—or is supposed to be. “Love is the supreme matter which the godly man or woman must concentrate on,” Michael Eaton comments (Branch Commentary, p. 504). Since this is a one another command, you owe that debt to the Christian community, and it owes it to you. Love one another.

Do you feel disconnected from the church? Have you avoided worshipping with others, getting to know them, or becoming involved in other people's lives? Avoiding other Christians is like trying to avoid your landlord or the IRS because you owe them money. Christians shouldn’t shirk their debts to anyone, especially the debt of love they owe to fellow believers.

Paul continues to explain that love fulfills the law. That’s an odd point to make since he spent Romans 1:18–3:20, showing that everyone is a sinner; Rom 3:21–5:21, showing that the law can justify no one; and Rom 6-8, establishing that no one can be sanctified by it. Why bother with the law if it cannot save, justify, or give you life?

The truth of salvation by grace through faith, apart from works, doesn’t mean we have no standards to live up to. On the contrary, it assumes it! Our failure to keep those moral obligations is why we must be saved by grace! Without obligations, there would be no sin and no reason for God to show grace and mercy.

So what is our standard? If you wanted a summary of how to treat others, the law forbids harming them in any way: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.” No murder, stealing, or cheating allowed. But that’s a negative ideal, not a positive one. What’s the positive standard for Christian life? Love.

Love fulfills the law. In what way? Anders Nygren says, “where love is, the things which the law forbids do not occur” (Nygren, Romans, p. 435, emphasis original). When you love your neighbor, you put the law out of work because there’s nothing for it to condemn.

So love your fellow believers. You owe it to them. Of course, that debt will never be fully repaid. You can pay off your car loan or mortgage, but you can never come to the point of saying, “I have loved enough” (Stott, Romans, p. 348). The debt of love is as eternal as the loving community of the Trinity itself.

In sum, when the Christian community loves one another, you fulfill the law but never entirely pay off the debt of love.

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.

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