The Continuing Debt

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Romans 13:8-10

Some people can sum up their whole philosophy of life in a phrase: “Live and let live,” “Go with the flow.” Christians also have a one-sentence rule for life. It goes like this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We’re talking today about Christian behavior. How is one who believes in Christianity supposed to live? Is there one great rule or principle that governs the life of every genuine Christian? Yes, there is. Jesus put it this way:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

John 13:34, NIV

His best-loved disciple John wrote this:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God . . . since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another . . . We love because he first loved us . . . And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.

1 John 4:7, NIV

And the apostle Paul wrote this in Romans 13:

Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow man has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (vv. 7-10, NIV).

So the authorities are all agreed. The one thing every Christian must do is to love, love our fellow believers, love our fellow humans, love our neighbors the way we love ourselves.

THE DEBT OF LOVE

Let’s focus on the advice Paul gives to his readers: “Owe no one anything” (v. 8). If we all obeyed that injunction literally our financial affairs – not to mention our peace of mind – would certainly be healthier. Of course, all modern economies, based as they are on credit buying, would soon be wrecked – but that’s another matter. Paul isn’t primarily interested, though, in giving financial advice. His main purpose is to talk about a different sort of obligation altogether.

It is with this in mind that Paul brings up the subject of debt. He says that Christians must always pay whatever they owe (cf. v. 7). One of the criticisms made against the first Christians by their enemies was that they were a secret society of those who hated ordinary people and were bent upon overthrowing the social order. Nothing could be further from the truth. Christians are to be decent people; honest, law-abiding, and upright, people who discharge all rightful obligations, paying respect and honor where it is due, upholding justice and legitimate authority. Above all, Christians should be trustworthy with respect to money. They do not steal or cheat, they do not borrow without repaying. This is the Christian character. Not every Christian succeeds in being what he should be, but this is the norm. Christians, when they live up to their name, make the best citizens, the best neighbors, the best friends.

So everything Paul says here about paying all debts is true, and we will take it all to heart, but he says it by way of introducing an obligation of a different sort. “Leave no debt outstanding to anyone, except the continuing debt to love everyone.” Notice that he describes love as a debt. A debt is something you have to repay. If it’s a matter of money you have borrowed, then there is a contract that stipulates the terms of repayment, and your obligation is a legal one (one enforced by law). There are other kinds of debts as well. Sometimes we say of someone, “I owe him a debt of gratitude.” What we mean is that the person has done us a kindness and we feel thankful to him as a result. More than that, we realize we ought to feel thankful, and that, if we don’t, there’s something wrong with us. But this obligation is moral, not legal. There’s no law that will punish us if we fail to express our thanks, although failure to discharge these kinds of debts results in moral bankruptcy.

This is the sort of debt Paul is talking about when he speaks of our obligation to love. It’s something we have to do; we don’t have a choice. By “we,” I mean Christians, of course. If you’re not a Christian, you’re not obliged to love anyone, at least not for the same reason Christians are. I suppose you’re free to do as you please. You might prefer to keep to yourself and not care about anyone else. Or you might do what comes naturally and love your friends but hate your enemies. You could even try to muster a general benevolence toward your fellow creatures because you believe that makes the world a better place, which in the long run would tend to benefit you. But for those of us who are Christians it’s altogether different. Love is not optional for us. We can’t pick and choose whom we wish to love; we must love all people everywhere. This is an obligation that comes to us as a result of the gospel. We love because God first loved us. Love is one of those things – forgiveness is another – that we can’t receive for ourselves unless we’re also willing to extend it to others. There are things in space called black holes, which are actually stars with such powerful gravity that nothing, not even light, can escape them. They just go on absorbing energy without ever giving any of it back. But Christians can’t be like that. We are living, rational, responsible creatures. If we want to be loved by God, then we must love in response, and love the way he does. Surely you can see this. It’s ridiculous for me to ask God to love me even though I don’t deserve it, if I am unwilling to turn around and love others who may also be undeserving. It’s absurd for me to claim that I love God, whom I have never seen, if I hate my neighbor, a person made in God’s image, whom I see very plainly every day. So our obligation to love is more than a legal debt, it’s even more than a moral debt. It is a gospel debt created by the very fact of our becoming Christians as a result of the love of God.

Three further points about this debt of love. First, it is universal. When the apostle writes that we must “love one another,” he does not mean we may limit our love to Christians only, or to those who are most like ourselves. The “one another” embraces everyone, all humankind, and specifically anyone who is our neighbor, any particular person whom God has put near us in our daily lives. Second, the debt of love is on-going and unending. We never pay it off. Maybe you have experienced the peculiar pleasure of making the last payment on a major purchase like a car or house. How good it feels to know that debt has been paid in full and you are free and clear. But the obligation to love is not like that. It’s a continuing debt, as Paul says here. We can never say, “I’ve done enough. I don’t have to love any more. Now I am free to care only about myself.” Third – and here’s the wonderful, almost magical thing about it – the more you pay of this debt, the more you have for yourself. The Bible speaks of love as an obligation so that we will take our responsibility to do it seriously. But we should never think of it as a burden. It is such a delight, it brings such joy, it fills our lives with gladness and light, it cleanses our spirits of evil things, it makes us more and more like the blessed Lord Jesus himself. And the more love we give, the more we have. There is an epitaph on the tomb of a medieval English lord and lady that goes like this:

What we spent, we had;

What we kept, we lost;

What we gave, we have.

That’s as true with love as it is with money; whatever we give we will have eternally.

THE WAY OF LOVE

That’s all very well, you say, but how does one do this? You’ve talked about why Christians should love, but can you explain what that means in practice? Let me begin by saying something about the kind of love the Bible is talking about. There is a natural love that all of us feel for things or people that are good or beautiful or valuable in some way. Put simply, this love is attraction to what is lovely. But God’s love is different. The New Testament even uses an entirely different word for it (the difference comes through in Greek, but not in English). God’s love is different from ordinary love in two very important ways. In the first place, God’s love isn’t a way of feeling about people but a way of acting toward them. It has to do with how you treat people. The way to love is to treat people well, regardless of how you feel about them. There is a practical set of rules for loving written down in God’s law, some of which Paul quotes in this passage. All the different commandments boil down to this: treat others with the same good intentions you reserve for yourself.

The other major difference in God’s kind of love is that it is not reserved for the lovely and loveable. It is love that includes those who are not appealing, attractive or deserving. Imagine two scenes, two different landscapes. The first is a glorious mountain valley. A stream winds across a valley dotted with alpine flowers, and in the distance animals are grazing knee-deep in the meadow’s luxurious grass. All around are the mountains, with endless ranks of gray-green firs climbing their slopes toward the snow-capped peaks. It is a scene of perfect beauty. The other landscape is different in every respect. It’s the backyard garden of a city row house. It’s flat and dull, surrounded only by brick walls and bordered by an alley beyond its wooden fence. But someone has invested herself in it, and this little garden is filled with beauty and color – a fruit tree in the corner there, a gorgeous row of flowers over here, and along the fence the purple and green of a heavily laden vine. Think of those two scenes. The mountain valley is loved because it is beautiful. The city garden is beautiful because it has been loved. That’s the difference between ordinary love and God’s love. That’s what has happened to us. Each of us is the city lot, not the alpine meadow. We are not loved because we are attractive and valuable; we are valuable because we’ve been loved.

A few days ago I received a letter from a man in California. He’s homeless, living in the back of a broken-down van. He heard our program one night, and was touched by the message, so he found some paper and borrowed a pen and begged coins from passersby to buy a stamp. This is what he wrote:

As I listen to the words you speak, I feel closer to the Lord. Many questions have been made clearer to me, but I still have a long way to go before I will be able to feel equal to the average person. I do so ever need the help of Jesus to reach this goal of not feeling less than others.

Let me speak to this man, and to anyone who might feel like he does. Whoever you are, you are worthwhile because God loves you. Rich or poor, high or low, whether you live in a palace or an old car, God loves you and that gives you value and that makes us all equal with the only equality that matters.

Would you like to be able to love in the same way? I’m not asking if you want to be loved; everyone longs for that. I’m wondering if you’re one of those who wants to take the next step. Do you want to have the power in your life to overcome hate, to become a person who loves the way God loves? Begin by loving him. You can do that by turning to Jesus Christ in faith, by living in him, by yielding yourself to his control. Whether you know next to nothing about Jesus, or whether you’ve been a Christian for years, this is the step to take now. It’s the only way to love.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, I yield my life to you at this moment. Let your love fill me, let your love flow through me to others. Let me love as you love. Amen.