I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the LORD helped me. The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.
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.
If the Lord wills, the question we will take up next time in verses 8-10 is how the loving your neighbor fulfills the law, and why Paul takes us to “law-fulfillment” through love and not directly. This is very important for how you live your life from day to day in relation to law and love. I hope you will come back.
Today I focus not on how love fulfills the law, but on love itself. 1) How is it a debt? 2) How does it relate to love for God? 3) How is it related to self-love? 4) What would Jesus’ new commandment add when he says in John 13:34, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you” (cf. John 15:12)? Not, “as you love yourselves”? But, “as I have loved you.” And my aim in all of this is that God would use his word to create this kind of love in us for his glory.
1. How is love a debt?
Verse 8: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other.” I argued last week that the meaning here is not merely that some debts (like taxes, or a mortgage, or a borrowed book) you can pay off—at least in periodic stages—but love can never be paid off; you owe it just as much after you make a payment as before. That’s true, but there’s more to it. What Paul is saying not only that, but let every debt you pay—every check written to the IRS, every mortgage payment, every returned book, every act of duty to any one or any authority—let all of them be acts of love. Don’t put love in a category different from all the other acts of your life. Let everything be done in love (1 Corinthians 16:14). Owe no one anything, except this way: that you pay it in love.
Now, how did we get into this debt of love? How did my love to you become a debt? Or even more pressing, how did my love to my enemies become a debt that I owe every day? This is important for two reasons.
One is that we usually think of being in debt to someone because they have given us something. But lots of people haven’t given us anything. We don’t even know them. The good Samaritan in Luke 10 didn’t know the Jewish man on the side of the road. That wounded man had never done anything for the Samaritan. So how did the Samaritan become a debtor to the wounded man? How did you become a debtor to the needy people in this room and the people in the world that have not only not given you anything, they have taken things from you? This is a very odd way to become a debtor.
The other reason it’s important to ask how we became debtors to others, is that this seems to contradict the very nature of love. Even thinking of love as a debt seems wrong. If I invite you out for lunch just because you invited me out for lunch, most people would not call that love. It may be a debt payment, but not love. Love is free. If I’m just treating you nice because you are treating me nice, Jesus says plainly in our fighter verses we are not any different from unbelievers. Matthew 5:46, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”
So what does Paul mean that we owe love to each other? How did we get into this debt? Why am I your debtor, if you have given me nothing?
There’s a clue back in Romans 1:14. There Paul describes his debt to the world. He uses the same related debt language. “I am under obligation (literally: “I am a debtor” (opheiletës cimi) both to Greeks and to barbarians,both to the wise and to the foolish.” This is a concrete illustration of Paul being in debt to the world. How did he get in this debt? Not because the world gave him anything. In fact the world continually hurts Paul, and he still keeps on paying his debt of love. How did he get in debt?
The next verse, Romans 1:15, says, “So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” Paul’s debt to the world he pays by preaching the gospel of Christ—the good news that Christ died for sinners and that God’s righteousness is a free gift not a damning threat for all who trust Christ. That’s Paul’s payment of love to “Greeks and barbarians.”
Romans 1:5 shows how he got into this debt. “Through whom (i.e., Jesus Christ) we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.” Paul had received something, but not from the Greeks and barbarians. He had received grace—free grace!—and apostleship from Jesus.
The debt of love that we have to unbelievers and believers is not because they have done anything for us. The debt is because Christ has done everything for us when we did not deserve it any more than the world deserves our love. When Christ loves us freely, when he gives his life for us, when he takes away all our sin and guilt and condemnation, and guarantees for us everlasting joy in him—and all of this when we were his enemies—we become debtors to all men.
You might think: No, we become debtors to him. Ah, but here is what makes love really love. Here is what makes his love really free and our love for each other really free. Christ cannot and darenot be paid back.
He cannot because our debt is infinite and we could never pay it. And he cannot be paid back because all our acts of so-called repayment are enabled by his grace and so with every one of them we go deeper into debt—a glorious eternal place to be. God gets the glory as benefactor, we get the joy as beneficiary! And woe to the person who tries to reverse those roles.
And he dare not be paid back—we dare not make any attempt to pay him back—because then grace would no longer be grace. If you could pay back grace, it would be business transaction and no longer grace. Graceis free or it is not grace.
And this is also what makes our love free to others. Since our love to others is flowing out from what Christ gave us and not from what others gave us, it is free. They can’t deserve it. Freely we have received from Christ, and freely we give (Matthew 10:8).
In other words, our debt to others is utterly unique. It is a kind of debt they do not deserve, but we must pay. It is a kind of debt created by something we received, but which must be paid not to the one who gave it, but to others who, like us, don’t deserve it. It is a debt, therefore, that is paid freely. The pressure to pay it does not come from the merit of the one we pay but from the mercy we have received from Christ.
Here is the way the apostle John put it: “He laid down his life for us, and we ought (i.e., we are debtors opheilomen) to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16). And 1 John 4:11, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought (i.e., we are debtors opheilomen) to love one another.”
So my answer to the first question is that this debt of love that we owe to everyone did not come about because they gave us anything. It came about because Christ has given us everything when we were no more deserving of his love than anyone is deserving of our love.
Do you know yourself loved like this? Is there in you a rising sense of indebtedness to unbelieving, sin-soaked, hell-bent people to whom you owe everything Christ has given you so freely?
The answer to my second question is short because it is contained in what I already said.
2. How does our debt of love to others relate to love for God?
I ask this because it seems strange at first that Paul says at the end of verse 9, All the commandments “are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” This seems strange because in Matthew 22 Jesus said that the first commandment is to love the Lord with all your heart, and the second is like it, to love your neighbor as yourself, and “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40). In other words, not just on the commandment to love your neighbor, but on both commandments to love God and to love neighbor hangs the law and the prophets. The law is fulfilled by both loving God and loving your neighbor.
When Paul says in verse 9 that the law is fulfilled by loving your neighbor as you love yourself, he does not contradict Jesus because he has spent eleven chapters showing us the love of God for us and building a foundation of our love for him. He said in Romans 8:28, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good.” When Paul gets to Romans 13:9 and says that loving your neighbor fulfills the law he is assuming all that he has said for 11 chapters, especially chapter 8.
Our whole life is built on the love God has for us in Jesus Christ. The eyes of our hearts have been opened to see and love the truth and beauty and power and sufficiency of all that God is for us in Christ. And we have turned from the pride of self-reliance to receive Christ as our life. And now in that condition (of loving God in Christ) Paul says in Romans 13:9, “Let your love for all that God is for you in Christ spill over onto others who do not deserve it any more than you did, and the law will be fulfilled.”
So the answer to the second question is: The debt of love that we owe to others is paid as the spill over of our love for God. The satisfaction that we have in God—through life and death—is the freedom with which all our human debts are paid—freely!
3. How is the debt of love we owe to others related to self-love?
In Romans 13:9 at the end Paul quotes Leviticus 19:18. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” What does “as yourself” mean? I don’t hear the modern psychological interpretation of this text as much now as I did thirty years ago. But just in case it got a hook in you, let me try to get it out.
For many years people would say that what this command is teaching is that the reason people are not able to love others is that they don’t love themselves. And therefore the task of counseling and education and parenting and preaching is to help people love themselves so that they will then have the resources to love others. And almost always self-love in this scheme meant self-esteem. To love yourself meant to have high self-esteem and not to love yourself meant you had low self-esteem.
That scheme missed the point of this text two ways. First, the biblical commandment assumes that all of us love ourselves already, “You shall love your neighbor as you [already] love yourself.” There is no call here to help people love themselves. And secondly, in this text the love for ourselves that we all have without exception is not self-esteem but the commitment to do what will make us happy. When Paul says, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” he is not talking about first learning to esteem yourself so you can love others; he is talking about your built in desire for happiness becoming the measure of your desire for the happiness of others.
Here is a picture of Paul’s understanding of self-love. He is applying this commandment to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 and he says in verse 28, “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” Then he adds this crucial statement in verse 29: “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church.” “No one every hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it.” That is what Paul means by self love.
Everybody without exception loves himself whatever his self-esteem is. Everybody wants food to eat and will do almost anything to get it rather than starve. Everybody wants drink when they are thirsty and will do almost anything to get it. Everybody wants to avoid serious injury and death and will do almost anything to avoid them. And if you point to masochists and suicide victims as exceptions (since they don’t seem to want to avoid injury and death), they aren’t really exceptions. The masochist hurts himself because he finds strange pleasure in it, or in the care he gets afterward. The person who commits suicide is at least trying to minimize pain that he can no longer stand.
Everybody likes to be praised, and apart from God’s grace does things, however subtly, to be praised. Everybody seeks happiness, however they define it. And that is what it means to have self-love. Paul (with Moses and Jesus and James) assumes that everyone has it and he does not command it, nor does he condemn it. He does something even more radical.
Lots of people think is radical to say to a self-loving person: stop loving yourself and start loving others. Stop having all those longings and cravings and desires. And start doing your duty to love. That is not what Paul or Jesus or James or Moses say. They say, “Love your neighbor as yourlove yourself.” This is far more radical. Paul does not say stop your desires for your happiness and start acting on some other principle of will-power or duty. He says, “Take that deep, unstoppable, primal, powerful desire to be happy (called self love) and make it the measure and the means of making others happy.
In other words, make the degree of your self-seeking the measure of your self-giving. The word "as" is very radical: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “As!” It means: If you are energetic in pursing your own happiness, be energetic in pursuing the happiness of your neighbor. If you are creative in pursuing your own happiness, be creative in pursuing the happiness of your neighbor. If you are persevering in pursuing your own happiness, be persevering in pursuing the happiness of your neighbor.
In other words, Paul is not just saying: seek for your neighbor the same things you seek for yourself, but seek them in the same way -- the same zeal and energy and creativity and perseverance. Make the degree of your own self-seeking the measure of your self-giving. Measure your pursuit of the happiness of others by the pursuit of your own. How do you pursue your own well-being? Pursue your neighbor's well-being that way, too. Are you hungry? Feed your hungry neighbor. Are you thirsty? Give your thirsty neighbor a drink. Are you lonely? Befriend someone who is lonely. Are you frightened? Find someone to comfort. Do you want to make a good grade on your exam? So do others; help them.
That is far more radical. Love is not just a duty. It is to be pursued with the same kind of desires that you have for your own happiness. The beautiful thing – the amazing thing – is that when the happiness of others becomes the goal of our desires, our desires don’t die they gain the very thing that we though we had given up: joy.
That’s my answer to the third question: How is the debt of love we owe to others related to self-love? Self-love is our innate desire for our own happiness, and that deep and unshakable desire must become the measure and the means of our desire for the good of others. This is very radical. It leads to the last question, because not all of our desires for our own happiness are a good guide for what is good for others. We must have some standard of what we seek for others, besides what we seek naturally for ourselves..
4. What would Jesus’ new commandment add when he said in John 13:34, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you”?
On the one hand, Jesus and Paul say, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” But on the other hand, Jesus says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” The first one makes our self-love the measure of love for others. And the second one makes Christ’s love the measure of our love for others. This is not a contradiction. It’s a clarification.
Here is just one way Jesus’ new commandment clarifies. It shows us the ultimate good that we long for others to have. What would make them fully and eternally happy? Answer: God. 1 Peter 3:18 says, “Christ also sufferedonce for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” The essence of Jesus’ love for us that he did—and is doing—everything that needs to be done to enthrall us with what will make us fully and everlastingly happy, namely, God.
What makes Jesus’ love real love is that it gives us God himself—reconciled and on our side—for our everlasting enjoyment. Therefore, “Love one another as I have loved you” means do whatever you can do—at whatever cost to your life—to bring others to the full and everlasting enjoyment of God.
In other words, Christ has transposed the music of self-love into the music of joy in God, so that the command, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” means: gladly lay down your life to make others glad in God. May God work in us this most amazing kind of love!