Love is a moral debt, an obligation that we carry throughout our lives. In this context, it is a debt that we owe to our fellow men, a responsibility that we carry by virtue of our being made in the image of God. God is love – and so those who are made in his image are meant to reflect that in their own lives. This is the point of Matthew 5:43-48; we are to love even our enemies and the reason is that this is the way our Father is.
Paul has already mentioned several ways in which the believer is in debt. We are in debt to the lost (1:14) – though the apostle says this specifically about himself, it seems clear that by virtue of the Great Commission we share this debt. We are also in debt to the Spirit (8:12). Again, this is not explicitly said, but the contrast – “we are debtors, not to the flesh” – begs the question, to what then are we debtors? The answer is clear: we are debtors to the Spirit through whom we put to death the deeds of the body (8:13). And now in the text before us we are debtors to love others. But before we proceed with its exposition, there are come clarifications that need to be made. What exactly does the apostle mean by saying that law is a debt?
I know that the well-known pastor and author John Piper has spent a lot of time inveighing against what he calls a “debtor’s ethic,” but it’s pretty clear that Paul had some sort of debtor’s ethic. However, with Piper we must affirm that the apostle is not saying by this language that the Christian is to “pay God back” with good deeds, as if we have any spiritual resources on our own that don’t first come from the grace of God. We cannot pay God back.
Perhaps at this point someone may point out that this is not a debt to God but to people – “Owe no man anything” (13:8 KJV, and the reference to second table of the Law in verse 9). However, like the debt of 1:14 this is a debt to our fellow man because God is the one who obligates us. I am indebted to others because I am first indebted to God.
But again, this does not mean that we are to be trying to put God in our debt by fulfilling our responsibility. We cannot earn God’s favor by our obedience. That is clearly not what Paul means here. He simply means that we have this obligation to our fellow man and this obligation is not something that we will ever rid ourselves of since we are eternally the servants of the Most High God. As long as God is love, so must we be.
Nor is this language of debt meant to convey the idea that the requirement of love is an uneasy burden. As the apostle John puts it, “[God’s] commandments are not burdensome” (1 Jn. 5:3). To carry the yoke of Jesus can be hard at times, but God gives grace to carry it, and he gives us joy in the journey of faith and obedience that will ultimately blossom into lasting rest and joy and peace in the eternal and unbroken fellowship with God in heaven.
One more clarification before we dive into the text. “Owe no one anything” does not mean that it is always wrong to take out loans. In the OT, there were laws governing loaning and borrowing, but they did not forbid loaning and borrowing. This is significant because the apostle grounds his exhortation in the OT law. Although I think a case could be made that we should avoid borrowing money from others whenever possible (one thinks of the warnings in Proverbs), yet saying that we could avoid them whenever possible is not the same thing as saying there is never a time when it is right to do it. What it does mean is that it is wrong to fail to repay them, and it is wrong to use our bankruptcy laws as a way to steal from others.
Very well, what is the apostle getting at here? He has already given us a portrait of love in 12:9-16, and we must keep this in mind and not import our culture’s definition of love into the text. What he does now is to give us three more characteristics of Biblical love, that can be broadly categorized as the when, who, and why of love.
The When of Love – the unending obligation of love.
“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (8). The apostle does not mean, of course, that we are not to pay the debt of love. He is not saying that we are to pay our debts except the debt of love. What is does mean is that we can never completely repay it – it is an unending obligation. Love in its very nature cannot be repaid; love is an act which cannot be performed with the intention of cutting itself off from its intended recipient.
To the Corinthians the apostle wrote, “Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:8). We owe love even when we don’t feel like it. Modern society of course tells you that the exact opposite is true. It tells you that you only love those whom you want to love. It tells you that the one you need to be true to is yourself. But God’s word tells us that no matter how we feel about it, we are obligated to love others: our spouses, our children, our extended family, our friends, our neighbors, our enemies. You can disagree with God’s word; but you need to be honest with the fact that if you put your feelings above this obligation, that is what you are doing.
We are therefore to love people even when they are unlovable, and when we think they don’t deserve it. Maybe someone has hurt us; does that end our obligation to pay this debt? Not according to the apostle. Paul does not say that our debt to others ends when they do something despicable. He simply tells us to pay the debt of love. Again, it is important to remember that our indebtedness to others does not depend upon the other; it depends ultimately upon our relation to God as creature to Creator. That relation does not end, and therefore neither does the obligation to love.
Moreover, think about how God loves us. How it is described in the Bible? He loves us with an everlasting love (Jer. 31:3). Over and over again in the OT, we are reminded that God’s love is steadfast love (cf. Ps. 36:7). This despite the fact that we continually let God down. This despite the fact that God began to love us when we were his enemies (Rom. 5:10). This despite the fact that every sin that we sin is a slap in the face of God. Why is this important? It is important because this is the way we are to love others: we are to love as God loves us. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2). “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have love God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 Jn. 4:7-12).
1 Jn 4:12 is significant because the apostle is reminding us that the way we make God visible to others is by loving others. The best apologetic for God is our love. Not our love to the lovely, which anyone can do; but by loving the unlovable.
An unending obligation of this kind of love surely demands the unending practice of prayer. There may be many impediments to carrying out the Biblical requirement of love, including the seeming impossibility of finding the resources within us to love the unlovable. But we do not have to find the resources within ourselves, for God gives grace to those who draw near to him. We are to look to him, who is almighty and with whom nothing is impossible.
The Who of Love – the universal scope of love.
Who are we to love? This question is much like the lawyer’s question in Luke 10, “And who is my neighbor?” (Lk 10:29). The answer to that question is that he is my neighbor who falls within my sphere of influence, no matter who they are – and no matter how unlikeable I find them to be. To often we are like the Levite and the priest in the parable who find excuses not to love someone. But the apostle says we are to “owe no one anything, except to love one another” (Rom. 13:8). There is nothing limiting the scope of the obligation here. This means that I do not get to choose who I want to love, just as I do not get to choose when I get to love. I like the way Cranfield put it: “Fulfillment of the law involves not just loving someone other than oneself, but loving each man whom God presents to one as one’s neighbor by the circumstances of his being someone whom one is in a position to affect for good or ill. The ‘neighbor’ in the NT sense is not someone arbitrarily chosen by us; he is given to us by God” (Romans (ICC), 2:176).
So we are to love the brethren, as we are commanded in 12:10. But we are also to love our enemies, as commanded in 12:17-21. And in our text: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (9), a quote from Lev. 19:18, a verse which reads in its entirety: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” In other words, the command to love your neighbor is not given in the context of the friendly neighbor but in the context of the neighbor who is hard to get along with. We are explicitly commanded, in fact, to love our enemies elsewhere in the NT (Mt. 5:44; Lk. 6:27, 35).
This of course does not mean that we turn a blind eye to sin. It does not mean that we don’t hold people accountable for their sins. It doesn’t mean that we don’t confront folks in their sin. But it does mean that what motivates our relationships with others is not a grudge or vengeance but love. It means that even when we have to confront sin in someone it is with the intent for repentance and restoration and that we never give up working and praying for that.
The Why of Love – the Biblical foundation of love.
In verses 8b-10, the apostle goes on to give the Biblical foundation for the obligation of love. We have this debt of love because this is the way we obey God’s law. God have given us his commandments, and the way we fulfill his commandments is by loving others. “For the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For 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.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
How is love the fulfilling of the law? It is so for two reasons. First, because the moral norms of the law are specific instances of loving our neighbor as ourself (9). We don’t just need to be told to love others; we also need to be told how to love others. Because of the reality of sin, if we are left to ourselves, we will end up redefining love in selfish and self-serving ways. That’s what our culture has done. It is (more often than not) the reason why people fall “out of love” with each other. We have defined love in terms of what makes me feel good, which makes it impossible to truly love difficult people.
But this is where God’s law comes in. It tells us that love is worked out in these very concrete ways. If you love someone, you are not going to commit adultery – not against your spouse or not with someone who is not your spouse. You may think you are “in love” in an adulterous relationship, but God says that it is the very opposite of what godly, pure, and holy love is all about. You are not going to take someone’s life and you are not going to live with a hateful grudge against someone who has wronged you. You are not going to take something wrongly from someone else; you aren’t going to steal. You won’t lie; you tell the truth. And so on. As we go through the law, we are meeting with specific examples of what it means to love others. If you want to know what it means to love your neighbor as yourself, this is what it means.
There is an attitude out there that says that it is legalism to say anything more than, “Love your neighbor,” and that requiring anything more than that is to put burdens on people. Now we don’t want to do that. But it is not legalism to get specific. People who aren’t willing to get specific aren’t avoiding legalism; they are embracing antinomianism. The Bible gets specific and so should we.
By the way, when the Bible tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves, is this a command to self-love, as is sometimes affirmed? No. It is assumed that we love ourselves, and this command summons us to love others similarly (cf. Eph. 5:28-29). We need to beware of taking a command which is meant to focus our attention on others and use it as a way to justify self-absorption.
The second reason love is the fulfilling of the law is that love is the principle from which obedience to God’s commandments flow. This is what the apostle says in Col. 3: “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (14). It is out of love to God and our fellow man that we obey God’s commandments. It is why our Lord said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15).
So we see that love and law work together in complete harmony. Law provides the channels in which love is to flow, and love provides the current that moves us to obedience. As John Stott put it in his commentary on this text, love needs law for direction, and law needs love for its inspiration. Love without law degenerates into mere sentimentality, emotionalism, hypocrisy and selfishness, and law without love produces harshness and joyless religion. We need our love to abound more and more, but the only way this is to be done is with knowledge and discernment (Phil. 1:9), both of which come from the moral norms of God’s law.
And here we need to shout out loud a principle that is often disputed in today’s churches. It is the principle of the enduring nature of the law of God. Some folks want to argue that law only applied to the OT dispensation. But that is not the case. Here we have the apostle Paul explicitly grounding Christian obedience in the law of God given to Israel on Mount Sinai in the Ten Commandments.
But some will ask, “Isn’t it true that we are no longer under the Old Covenant?” The answer is, of course, yes. But that doesn’t mean that there are not aspects of that law that still apply. The God who gave the law on Mount Sinai is the same God that we serve today. And he never changes in terms of his character and nature. His holy nature which stands behind the moral law still stands behind the moral law.
I know that it is often alleged that the distinction between moral, judicial, and ceremonial aspects of the law is not appropriate because the law itself does not make that distinction, but this is a stupid argument. We read the OT in light of the NT. And when we look at the NT, we see that the moral norms of the law of God continue, whereas the ceremonial and judicial aspects do not. This text is a clear example of this. Paul appeals to the second table of the law not only as an illustration of what it means to love others, but also as its ground and foundation. How do we know which is which? We distinguish between the various aspects of the law in light of the coming of Christ, in light of his fulfilling the law (cf. Mt. 5:17-18). We no longer sacrifice animals or perform the rituals of the Mosaic law because Christ fulfilled them. This is the argument, for example, of the book of Hebrews, especially chapters 5-10. It is the argument of the apostle Paul in Col. 2:16-23, where he says, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are shadows of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (16-17).
The same is true of the judicial law. The judicial law functioned as the law of the theocracy of the nation of Israel. But with the coming of Christ, God’s visible rule is manifested in this world primarily through the church. The theocracy has been replaced with the church. And though the moral norms of the law are still in place, the penalties and sanctions are different. This is clear in the way Paul advises the church of Corinth to act with reference to the man who had taken his father’s wife. Under the OT law, the man would have been put to death; in the church, he is to be put out of the fellowship and given over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that he might be saved in the end (1 Cor. 5).
The upshot of all this is that the Law of God, even as it is expressed in the OT, should motivate the believer. After all, God sent “his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin . . . in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3-4). Beware of those whose teaching would lead you to neglect your OT Bible. We must never forget that the Bible of the first century church was the OT! The places from which the apostles and elders would preach the gospel would come from all the books between Genesis and Malachi. It was from Isaiah 53 that Philip preached the gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch. We must never be ashamed or embarrassed or ignorant of our OT Bibles!
But how do we determine what are the moral norms of the law, what are its enduring aspects? We determine them by looking at the ethical teaching of the NT apostles. The epistles, like Romans, are filled with exhortations to holiness. Even in Galatians, where the apostle is waging war with false apostles who want to bring believers back under the law as a way to be justified before God, even there he appeals to the law, not as the basis for justification, but as the motivation and means for sanctification (cf. Gal. 5:13,ff). There simply cannot be an absolute break between OT and NT, because the God who gave us the former gave us the latter. It is Marcionism to deny that.
Let me end with one final question. How do I become a more loving person? It is possible, and even to be expected for believers (cf. 1 Thess. 4:9-10).
First of all, we must be converted to Christ. Love in the sense of which the apostle is writing is a mark of the Christian (1 Jn. 5:1). That doesn’t mean that unbelievers can’t be loving in any sense. Of course they can. The nonbeliever can often make a great friend. I have several good friends who are not Christian. That is not the point. The point is that the love commanded here is a love that is unique to the Christian, for it is a love that embraces other believers because they belong to Christ, and loves unbelievers and our very enemies because of the love of Christ within. It is the grace of God that empowers obedience, grace that comes to us through Jesus Christ. So first and foremost we look to him for grace. We embrace God’s love in Christ and that gives us all the resources we need to show love to others. But we must first be connected to Jesus and that means that we are trusting in him and looking to him for strength and life.
Second, I must be paying attention to God’s law in his word, both old and new (1 Jn. 5:1-3), and be praying it into my life. It is through fellowship with God, fellowship maintained through careful obedience to his word, meditation on his holy character, and prayer, that we grow in love. May the Lord give us continued grace to fight the selfishness within, and then to use the opportunities that God gives us to do good to others.