Love is a Fulfilling of the Law, Part 1

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. 8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet," and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Review of Where We Are At

Let’s remind ourselves where we are in Romans and where we are in life. After 11 chapters of mainly focusing on God’s saving work for us in Christ, we made a turn at Romans 12 to God’s saving work in us as he transforms us now to do his will. And that is where Christians are in life. The great work that Christ did for us on the cross is past, and the great work that he is doing in us is present. And the present work is based on the past work. And both are absolutely essential to get us to heaven. 

In general we can say that Romans 1–11 displays the love of God for us through the work of Christ. And Romans 12–16 displays the effect of that love in us as we love others. In Romans 5:8 Paul says, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And in Romans 8:39 he says nothing can separate us “from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Then in Romans 12:1 he appeals to us “by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” And the main theme of Romans 12 was how we should treat people with love:

  • Verse 9, “Let love be genuine.”
  • Verse 10: “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.”
  • Verse 13: “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
  • Verse 14: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”
  • Verse 17: “Repay no one evil for evil.”
  • Verse 19: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves,
  • Verse 20: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.”
  • Verse 21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

In other words: I appeal to you on the basis of all the mercy and love that God has shown you in Christ, love each other and love your enemies like that. This is exactly the way the apostle John put it in 1 John 4:11: “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”1

Romans 13: Not a Detour From the Theme of Love

Then Paul takes up our duty to the civil authority in Romans 13:1-7. We spent four weeks on that text. And now in Romans 13:8-10 Paul returns to the theme of love. Verse 8: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

Or is that the right way to say it? Should I say, Paul returns to the theme of love? Had he ever left it? Is Romans 13:1-7 a detour from the theme of love? I don’t think it is. I think Paul wants to say that all of our submission to the civil authorities in all its forms is an expression of love for other people. So the main point today is to underscore the enormous importance of love in the Christian life and to call you to be a loving person in all you do.

Should Christians Ever Borrow?

I came to this conclusion—that verses 1-7 is not a detour from the theme of love—by trying to answer one of the difficult questions raised by verse 8. Verse 8 says, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other.” One of the very practical questions this raises is whether Christians should every borrow money—or borrow anything? Does “owe no one anything” mean never borrow a rake? A dollar for a Coke? $150,000 to buy a house? As soon as you borrow you owe. So, does “Owe no one anything” mean never borrow anything?

Don’t think this is a farfetched question. Many Christians have taken the verse as a mandate not to go into debt. George Mueller, the founder of the Bristol orphanages in England 150 years ago, repeatedly cited Romans 13:8 as the decisive verse for why Christians should never go into debt.2 The elders of Bethlehem wrestled long and hard with this and other texts in the Bible before we recommended borrowing money to move forward with Treasuring Christ Together and the purchase of the North Campus. I will include some of our reasoning for you in this week’s Fresh Words on the Desiring God website.

Verse 7 Holds the Key

But in this message let’s just limit ourselves to the immediate context. Verse 7 holds the key. It uses the word “owe” in a positive way. It says, “Pay to all what is owed to them (apodote pasin tas opheilas): taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” That is the context for verse 8. You do owe taxes. You do owe revenue. So when he says in verse 8, “Owe no one anything” (Mëdeni mëden opheilete)” it doesn’t mean you should never incur debts. It means, when you do, pay them. Do you owe taxes? Pay them. Do you owe, revenue? Pay it.

So the point of saying, “Owe no one anything,” is not to pass judgment on the financial wisdom of having a mortgage, but on paying your bills on time, whether it’s rent or a mortgage payment. Whether it is wise to borrow money—especially for depreciating things like appliances and cars—should be judged on wider considerations than this text. There is wonderful freedom for the cause of God in being debt free. And oh, the misery people have because of careless spending with Visa and MasterCard, and buying things on time. I hope you will be sober-minded and disciplined to avoid debt that’s rooted in materialistic life-style desires and that takes control of your life. If you are in trouble, we have counselors at Bethlehem that would be willing to help you get your house in order.

A Snag in Understanding This Verse

But verse 8 is not mainly about not borrowing. It is mainly about paying what you owe. Taxes to whom taxes are due. Revenue to whom revenue is due. And so on. But at this point I ran into a snag as I tried to understand this verse. Let me try to explain. Almost every commentator agrees more or less with what I have just said. Then they go on to say that love is the one thing you cannot pay back and be done with. Taxes yes, but love, no. They say that’s what Paul means when he says, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other.” Here is a typical commentary quoted by numerous others. The meaning of verse 8 is:

“Leave no debt outstanding to anyone, except the debt of love to one another;” and the point of the latter part of the sentence will be that the debt of love, unlike those debts which we can pay up fully and be done with, is an unlimited debt which we can never be done with discharging.3

For a long time I thought that was exactly what this text meant. And in a sense it’s not wrong. That is, it is true that the debt of love we have to others never gets paid up and done with. We owe love no matter how many love payments we make. That’s true.

But here’s the snag. It’s also true of honor in verse 7. Verse 7 says, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed . . .”—then jump to the end of the verse—“honor to whom honor is owed.” Is it true to say that honor as a debt “we can pay up fully and be done with”?

The apostle Peter says, in a context of submission to authority much like Romans 13 says, “Honor everyone” (1 Peter 2:17). So here’s my snag. It won’t work to say that “Owe no one anything” refers only to things you can pay up and be done with, like taxes, because verse 7 also refers to things you can’t pay up and be done with, namely, honor. When you owe honor to someone, and show them honor, you still owe them honor, just the way when you love somebody you still owe them love. Love doesn’t get paid down. And honor doesn’t get paid down.

Paul’s Perspective on Fulfilling All Obligations as an Expression of Love

So I think Paul was saying something else here. I think he was saying something more radical. I think these commentators see something true, namely, you can’t ever get out of the debt of love. If you love someone at 11 o’clock you still owe them love at 12 o’clock. That’s true.

But its also true of honor. If you honor someone at 11 o’clock you still owe them honor at 12 o’clock. So then what does Paul mean when he says, looking back at verse 7, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other”? If he doesn’t mean that the things in verse 7 (taxes, revenue, respect, honor) can be paid off and done with, but love can’t, what does he mean?

Consider this. In reading this letter you have just heard about two minutes earlier from Romans 12:10 the words, “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” So you have just heard that loving and showing honor are linked, and that probably Paul means that honoring people is a way of loving them.

Now you come to Romans 13:7-8 and you hear something this: “Owe no one anything, that is, owe no one any honor, except to love each other.” What would that mean? It would probably mean: any time you have a debt of honor, you should pay it in love. Every payment of honor should be a payment of love. Every act of honoring should be an act of loving. Don’t pay debts of honor except as love payments. Owe no one honor except as a form of love.

And if that’s what verse 8 means about honor in relation to love, it’s probably also what it means about taxes and revenue and respect in relation to love. So Paul would be saying, Every debt that you owe to anybody—whether taxes or revenue or respect or honor—let every payment of that debt be an expression of love.

In other words, don’t make love a special category of behavior alongside other kinds of behavior. Let all your behavior be love. This is exactly what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 16:14, “Let all that you do be done in love.” Let all debt paying be love paying.

Do you owe the IRS payment? Don’t just write the check with a gloomy, resentful, anxious, irritated spirit. Write the check in love. Do you have a mortgage payment due? Don’t just write the check because you’ll get in trouble if you don’t, or just because the Bible says to pay your debts. Write your mortgage check in love. Have you borrowed a book from someone and kept it so long you are embarrassed to take it back? Well, humble yourself and act in love, not fear and pride: take it back in love.

If you ask, “How can I act in love when I write a check to the IRS? I don’t even know anybody at the IRS,” be careful lest your understanding of love be far short of what Paul means by love. Listen to Paul’s description of love from 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, and see if you can apply it to writing the check to the IRS:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

I think every time we pay any bill, or any debt, or return anything we have borrowed, we show whether we are a loving person by whether we do it without envy (of people who don’t have to pay what we do), and without arrogance (because we think these tax laws are stupid), and with joy in the truth (that we have been meticulously honest), and with a glad willingness to bear and endure any hardship required by doing what is right.

Love Is an Inner Disposition Before It Expresses Itself in Outward Actions

So don’t think of love only as something that is active when you have a person in mind. Love is not just an action toward a person; it’s a mindset, an attitude, a disposition that produces behaviors that are good for people. Isn’t it amazing that Paul’s description of love contains almost entirely inner dispositions not outward actions. To be sure all these dispositions produce certain outward behaviors, but that is not the essence of love: patience, not envying, not arrogant, not irritable, not resentful, not rejoicing at wrong, rejoicing in the truth, bearing, believing, hoping, enduring. These are all acts of the soul first, not acts of the body.

And the point of Romans 13:8 is these acts of the soul—this mindset—ought to be there when you submit to the governing authorities. When you pay taxes, love should be your mindset. When you keep the speed limit, love should be your mindset; when you vote, love should be your mindset. Let every obligation that you fulfill be an act of love.

But Doesn’t “Each Other” Only Refer to Fellow Christians?

Of course, someone might object to what I have said by pointing to the phrase “each other” in verse 8 and saying that it refers only to fellow Christians: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other.” If “each other” here refers only to fellow Christians then what I have said would have to be changed. But there is good reason to think that “each other” is not limited to fellow Christians.

Doesn’t “each other” in the second part of verse 8 overlap with the phrase “no one” in the first part of verse 8? “Owe no one anything, except to love each other.” “No one” refers at least to the people in verse 7: the people we owe taxes and the people we owe revenue, etc. So it includes unbelievers. But it doesn’t make sense to say: “Owe no unbelievers anything, except to love fellow Christians.” So I think “love each other” in this verse is a very general statement about loving fellow human beings. You don’t fulfill the law by loving Christians and hating your enemies.

That’s been the emphasis in Romans 12:17-21 (“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.” v. 17). And at the end of verse 8 Paul says, “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” The word, “another,” is a broad general word for anyone, not just a fellow Christian.

Two Conclusions

So I come to my double conclusion. First, that in verse 8 Paul is teaching us not simply that there is a perpetual debt of love that can never be paid off. He is also teaching us that every debt that can be paid off should be paid in love. Turn every payment into love. Turn every behavior into love. Owe no one anything, except love. That is, let every debt be paid as an act of love. Be pervasively loving. Have the mindset of love in all that you do. That’s the first conclusion.

The other conclusion is that therefore Romans 13:1-7 is not a detour from the theme of love that began in chapter 12. Paul is not coming back to the theme of love in verse 8. He never left it. He is clarifying the life of love that includes paying taxes and keeping up on your mortgage, paying your rent and your utility bills, and honoring human beings created in God’s image.

Therefore, Bethlehem, let us pursue love. It is an enormous, all-encompassing reality. It is not to be part of life, but all of life. Let everything be done in love. Let the mindset of patience, kindness, contentment, humility, meekness, politeness, deference, forgiveness, joy, truthfulness, hope, endurance—let your heart and mind overflow with these traits of love. In everything you do, let there be love.

How could be otherwise for people whose whole life is built on Romans 5:8, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

  1. In fact this verse gives the closest parallel in the Bible to Paul’s wording in Romans 13:8. In Romans 13:8 he says, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other” (Më deni mëden opheilete ei më to allëlous agapan). These words “owe . . . to love each other” are almost identical with “ought to love each other” in the Greek of 1 John 4:11, opeilomen allëlous agapan. 

  2. See my biographical sketch of Mueller

  3. C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark Limited, 1979), p. 674.