Always In Debt

Lesson 51: Romans 13:8-10


Always In Debt

by Bob Burridge ©2012

I was too young to understand what was going on when the relatives on my mother’s side of the family all gathered at my grandparent’s house for a Mortgage Burning. It seemed a little strange when everyone gathered in the kitchen and gave little speeches. Then they set fire to a piece of paper and dropped it into the sink. Everyone cheered when the flames appeared. Then there were congratulations and lots of smiles.

I didn’t notice anything particularly different about how that paper burned, no sparks or colored flames. Why did it mean so much to everybody? That thing they called “mortgage” burned just about like all the other paper I ever saw set on fire.

After it was over my parents tried to explain what it was all about. They have retold the story a few times or I would not remember what they said. They explained that when someone buys a house it costs so much that you have to borrow money to pay for it. The mortgage was the paper that said the house wasn’t completely yours until you paid back the money you borrowed. After many years my grandparents owned their house in full so the mortgage paper could be burned. The debt was gone and everyone was happy.

As I got older I learned that there are many things we are not able to pay for right away. We borrow to be able to afford things like college tuitions, houses, and cars. Sometimes our debts can become quite a burden. It is a nice feeling when a debt is retired and the payments end.

There is a debt which is neither a troublesome burden, nor can it ever be retired. It is the debt of love. It is a joy to make the payments on this debt. Unlike that mortgage, the debt of love can never be paid off so that we are free of its obligations. It is a debt that we love to have. Unlike our financial debts the debt of love relieves our burdens and brings joy.

Paul had just spoken of our duty concerning material debts in verse 7, “Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.” These kinds of obligations can be a burden. Owing money or service to someone can be a nagging misery. Then Paul brings up that un-retireable debt in verse 8.


Our only unpaid debt to others,
ought to be our love toward them.

Romans 13:8a, “Owe no one anything except to love one another, …”

Some misunderstand this verse believing that it forbids all borrowing. Paul is not addressing the economic issue of borrowing here. Loans were regulated in God’s law, but they were not forbidden (see Exodus 22:25). Jesus said in the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5:42, “Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.” If God approved of borrowing in those instances, it must not be a moral problem in itself.

There will always be debts. Our goal and duty is to satisfy them by paying them off responsibly to eliminate the obligation. There is that one exception to our desire to retire our debts. We ought to be conspicuously unable to stop loving.

But what is this thing called love? If we are going to understand the principle taught here we need to know what we are dealing with. We have dealt with the “love” issue many times before because it is one of those central themes we see evidenced all through the Bible.

Moses summed up the law not only in 10 Commandments. He also summarized the first four commandments in Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength,” and in Leviticus 19:18 he summarized the last 6 Commandments saying, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus quoted those words of Moses in his summary of what the law is in Matthew 22:37-40, ” ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Paul quotes these same words of Moses in verse 9 of Romans 13.

Law and love stand in such a close and intimate relationship, that it is hard to find places in the Bible that talk about one of the two without the other. Jesus made these two indivisible when he said in John 14:15, “If you love Me, keep My commandments.”

I defined love by its biblical boundaries a few lessons ago in our study of Romans 12, “Love is a disposition implanted into needful human hearts by the prevailing grace of God whereby we are enabled joyfully to obey the revealed desires of our Creator; both toward the Lord himself, and toward others.”

Therefore there are those three distinct aspects of love as God created it.

First, there is love’s foundation. The human ability to love as God defines it was lost by the fall in Eden. To be made able to love as we should, we need to be regenerated by the application of the work of Jesus Christ as our Redeemer. Only then are we made able to honor God out of gratitude, and to be devoted in our actions and attitudes to promote godliness in others. 1 John 4:19 says, “We love Him because He first loved us.” His redeeming love is our enablement.

Next we experience the work of love. This is the obedience of a grateful heart changed by grace. Once restored by the work of our Redeemer we become a tool in the hand of a loving God. We are moved by the compassion he implants in our hearts to do those things which put our concerns for others into action. When people do helpful things for their own benefit or advancement, it is not love. The biblical concept of love shows itself when others are treated as God says they should be treated, and when it is done with the driving desire to glorify God and to give him all the credit for the good that we do.

Finally, when we engage in doing that which is love, we receive its blessing. There is a feeling that overtakes our hearts when we love. Therefore the legitimate feeling of love is a result of God’s blessing upon our being loving. Love is not just a feeling as the world often sees it.

God gave us his written word so that we could look there to know what things we should do to be really acting with love. Jesus said in John 14:21, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. …”

Unregenerated people, cannot know love as humans were created to know it. Their inner disposition remains unsubmissive to the glory of the True God. However, since love is such an important part of what it is to be human, a substitute for love had to be switched for the real thing. The feeling was turned into the reality of love, completely reversing the way God made our hearts to work. They believe the feeling of love is what stirs us to act lovingly toward someone. Love then becomes something mysterious into which we fall. It is reasonable then to suppose that if we just fall into love, we can fall out of it just as easily. Some marriage vows promise to remain married “as long as we both shall love,” rather than the biblical form God gives us to remain loving “as long as we both shall live.”

This does not mean that unbelievers never do kind things which they may call “love”. God restrains sin in all people every day. If he did not do that, total chaos would break out. However, their obedience does not come from a redeemed disposition. God’s glory is not their main object. When people are motivated to be kind by what makes them feel good, the whole idea of love is turned inside out and upside down. Self interest becomes the driving force, rather than thankfulness for the grace of God and a true concern for others God has created.

This is why the things the world calls love are often fleeting and unsatisfying. When the Beatles sang, “All You Need is Love,” there was some truth to the words, but they had a completely wrong view of love. It was divorced from the Savior who alone makes love possible, and from God’s word which alone shows us what love does.

The debt to love, is never satisfied or set aside. It is the one debt we cannot pay off. Dr. Robert Haldane says of those who treasure the debt to love, “The more they pay of this debt, the richer will they be in the thing that is paid.”

The debt of love here in Romans 13:8 is actually a blessing because of the fact that it can never be retired. We can no more be released from the command to love, than from the moral principles God summarized as expressions of love in the Ten Commandments (Matthew 22:37-40).

The debt of love is owed to all our neighbors, not just to believers. No one is excluded, and the obligation is never concluded.


Love and law are closely connected in God’s word

Romans 13:8, “… for he who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

Dr. Charles Hodge wrote on this verse, “Acquit yourselves of all obligations, tribute, custom, fear, honor or whatever else you may owe, but remember that the debt of love is still unpaid, and always must remain so; for love includes all duty since he that loves another fulfills the law.”

Since the Gospel enables us to love by grace, and since the moral law defines what loving behavior is, therefore if God puts the desire of love into our hearts, and we learn from the law what is right to do, then by loving our neighbor, we will be fulfilling the law of God most perfectly. Perfect love would be perfect obedience to the law of God. Love is the thing the law demands and reveals. Love is the very thing the law shows the unredeemed he cannot do. The whole law is grounded in our love to God and to man. So Jesus said in Mt 22:40 “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”


To illustrate what law he meant, Paul quotes a few Commandments.

Romans 13:9, “For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ “

It wasn’t necessary for Paul to list all ten of the Commandments. It was sufficient to quote Commandments: 7, 6, 8 and 10. Then he quoted from Leviticus 19:18 showing that it is all summed up by loving your neighbor as yourself.

Love was never given as a replacement for the law. That is never said in the Bible. The Antinomians who say that, cut the meaning out of both love and law. God never gave love to be instead of law. He gave the law to show what it means to love. The inability to do so condemns the lost and proves the depravity of us all aside from God’s grace. Jesus satisfied the law for his people judicially by dying in their place. He satisfied its demands practically by granting them his righteousness. Yet he also works in the redeemed person’s life so that they will be being conformed more and more to the moral perfections God reveals to us in his law.

The first 4 commandments show that God is not loved in just what ever way we imagine. He is loved when we worship only him and no other god, when we refuse to make physical images to represent him, when his name is used only with due honor and respect, and when his whole Sabbath Day is kept as he tells us to keep it.

The last 6 commandments show what it is to have true love toward our neighbor. Loving our neighbors is not just whatever makes people happy and comfortable in some nebulous sort of way. It is to honor parents and those God puts in authority, to respect life and oppose murder. It is to work for what we have and not try to get things by wrong or immoral ways. It is to tell the truth because it is right to do so, not only because it might feel good or further our own interests. And love is to enjoy and manage responsibly what God gives us, not coveting what God has given to others.

As Moses, Jesus and Paul all put it, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It does not say because you love yourself. The modern idea that self love must come first is a tragic lie that ruins lives in a very cruel way. Self-centeredness is condemned throughout Scripture. Rather, it says we should love our neighbor “as” we love ourselves. God made us to instinctively protect and look after our safety and well being. We duck when things come at our heads fast. We blink when our eyes are threatened. We jump out of the way if something is about to hit us.

We are glad to protect ourselves from murder, theft, lies and oppression. We try to make sure that God’s law is not violated by others trying to hurt us. This is how we ought to deal with our neighbors. We ought to do all we can to promote God’s blessing in their lives.

Only when a person learns to make God to be his first love can he begin to appreciate the worth of all humans as creatures of God, created in his image and valuable, even the tiniest unborn baby. Only then can he appreciate the awesome debt Jesus paid to redeem a sinner, transforming a rebel against God, into child of God who is loved forever.


Love is the fulfillment of the law.

Romans 13:10, “Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

The Apostle draws the simple and obvious conclusion. If we do what God says is right and good toward our neighbor, we do him no wrong. Love looks for ways to help others to be blessed. It does this because it is right and because it honors God to do so.

Real love is not just a gushy feeling we fall into and someday may fall out of. It is not a deep need to be with someone who makes us feel good to be around. It is not the occasional charitable things we do for the poor and needy.

Love is a behavior that flows from a heart redeemed by Christ. Love is a source that creates a river that keeps flowing, a debt that is constantly being paid, a debt that makes us glad to owe it.

Those who do not love in this way are not redeemed by grace. They do not want to love in this way. It goes against the core of their nature which is centered in self.

1 John 3:17, “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?

1 John 4:8, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

The love we show in this life on earth is imperfect in all of us. Such love is perfect only in Jesus Christ. However, though imperfect it grows in us if we belong to the Savior through the new birth.

Our humble and sincerely repentant effort to love God and our neighbor shows Christ to others. Our Christian witness is not just the occasional opportunity to explain the Gospel. That is a wonderful act of love and should be done whenever possible. Our witness is also that life we lead hour by hour every day. It is how we shop, drive, work, invest, play, party, relax, lead, or follow. It is the continual showing of the evidence of our Savior’s work in our hearts. John 13:35, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The original Greek text of this verse (Romans 13:10) begins and ends with the word love. That is the emphasis God gives to it.

So Paul again states his theme: “love … is the fulfillment of the law.” If we do not have love for God’s glory, or for our neighbor’s benefit, what does it profit? What good is it to love with a false compassion that is only a disguise for satisfying self? There is no blessing in that. Evil dressed in the mask of godliness insults the divine law, which love is indebted to promote.

So, First, make sure of your salvation in Christ. Then, become so exercised in the ethics and morals of the Bible that those good principles seem natural to you. And pray for God’s sanctifying Spirit to mold you to be Christ-like toward God and others.

Love as if it is a wonderful debt to owe. Joyfully make the payments, all day, every day.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Back to the Index of Studies In Paul’s Letter to the Romans

About Bob Burridge

I've taught Science, Bible, Math, Computer Programming and served 25 years as Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Pinellas Park, Florida. I'm now Executive Director of the ministry of the Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
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