Debts of Love
The Beatles sang it to the world: "All you need is love, love is all you need". It became something of an anthem for a generation and it sounds so simple doesn't it? After all we all know what love is don't we?
Or do we?
In the early 1970s there was a film called Love Story and it contained what would become one of the best known lines in cinema history. This is what it said:
"Love means never having to say you're sorry."
Is that really what love is?
Not according to a writer in the Daily Mail. In 2010 those words were described as being:
"quite possibly, one of the worst philosophical guides by which to conduct your life ever to have been offered."
That writer went on to say that whatever love means, saying sorry was a huge part of it. In fact, if you have never asked your loved one to forgive you, then you have never loved at all!
To return for a moment to the Beatles, John Lennon appears closer to the Daily Mail for he wrote:
"Love means having to say sorry every 15 minutes."
With such widely differing opinions concerning what love is all about it seems that simply to say that all we need is love is just a tad naïve – we need to know what that love really is all about.
Paul so far in his letter has said quite a bit about the need for Christians to live lives that are characterised by love – he has already made an appeal for love to be genuine and he has described such as love as being opposed to evil. The love Paul wants to encourage is also an active force for good. He is about to say some more on this important subject.
v.8 "Owe no one anything"
Paul had just written that the Christian was to pay his taxes and then expanded upon this to urge Christians to be prompt in doing the right thing in other circumstances too. Respect is to be readily offered as is honour – if these are due then the Christian is not to be tardy in doing his duty.
Now Paul generalises a little more and lays down a wider principle He says that the Christian should not have outstanding debts with anyone. Just what did he mean?
Paul is not saying that it is completely wrong for a Christian ever to be in debt of any kind. (The Bible is more concerned about regulating debt than it is in outlawing it completely. Some of Jesus' parables for example spoke about debt as well.) Rather what Paul is talking about here is our responsibility as Christians of promptly paying our debts when they are due. This will have implications of course for our whole attitude towards taking out a loan or a mortgage. If we are serious about our discipleship as Christian believers we will avoid taking out loans or of incurring debts that we will not be able to repay on time.
And when the due date arrives we will make sure that our creditors are promptly satisfied.
But we must not imagine that what Paul is talking about is to be restricted to financial loans. Many of us might be tempted then to pat ourselves on the back and imagine that we've done all that is required of us!
We must think a little bit more: Are there any books in my house that I've borrowed from a friend but which I've never got round to returning? What about garden tools in the shed? Utensils in the kitchen? Clothes in the wardrobe? CDs Dvds etc.etc.
The LORD is interested in how we conduct ourselves in our relationships with others and how we are faithful in handling what rightly belongs to them:
Pr.3:28 "Do not say to your neighbour, "Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it"––when you have it with you."
There is just one thing that Paul wants to treat as an exception to this general rule of not owing anything to others and that is the duty of showing love to others, a duty which he describes as being the equivalent of fulfilling the law.
The Importance of Love in the Bible
Love is an amazingly important element of the Christian religion. The Bible speaks about love over and over again. In my Bible over 650 verses refer to love in one way or another – on average that would mean that every other chapter of the entire Bible contains a reference to love! This should be born in mind because many people like to make out that all religions teach fundamentally the same thing.
Love is central in Christianity. The God of the Bible reveals himself as a God of love. And in this love he gave his one and only son to die for sinners like us that we might be forgiven and given a new life with God.
The greatest of the commandments requires men and women to love God and the second requires them to love their neighbour as themselves! Love is not focused upon having warm thoughts or feelings about somebody else it is rather to be found in certain very specific types of behaviour. In the words of one Christian songwriter:
"Love is not a feeling it's an act of your will."
The importance of love in Christianity is further underlined by the fact that every single one of the letters written in the NT include teaching about love. You'll understand that the letters are not primarily records of what took place in Christian history but explanations and applications of Christian doctrine to every area of Christian life and practice. That is why it is so significant that love is so regularly referred to.
The current section in Romans is something of a development of Rom.12:7 which says: "Let love be genuine."
1Corinthians contains the famous ch.13 all about Christian love and which is followed by 1Cor.14:1 where Paul called upon the Corinthian believers to "Pursue love…" as the highest possible virtue.
2Corinthians urges the Corinthians to demonstrate the genuineness of their Christian love by their free and unfettered generosity to those in need (2Cor.6:7-
Galatians has the famous section about the fruit of the Spirit – love being the first to receive a mention (Gal.5:22).
Ephesians has "Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us" Eph.5:2. Later on Paul will instruct husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (Eph.5:25)!
Philippians Paul prays for their love to abound (Phil.1:9).
Colossians After telling these Christians of their need to clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience Paul then writes: "And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony." Col.3:14.
1Thessalonians Paul's prayer for them is "may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all," 1Thess.3:12
2Thessalonians notes their progress in just this area of their lives: "We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing." 2Thess.1:3.
1Timothy Paul instructs Timothy – as a man of God not only is he to avoid certain evils but he is also to "Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness." 1Tim.6:11.
2Timothy lest Timothy forget or be tempted to push this to one side Paul repeats himself in his second letter: "So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart." 2Tim.2:22.
Titus this time Paul gives some specific instruction to older men: "Older men are to be sober–minded, dignified, self–controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness." Tit.2:20.
Philemon – word of Philemon's character including his exercise of Christian love has come to Paul and encouraged him. (Phm.5, 7)
Hebrews as the writer nears the end of his letter love again comes to the fore as he pens the words: "Let brotherly love continue." (Heb.13:1)
James in his very practical letter refers to what he calls the royal law: "If you really fulfil the royal law according to the Scripture, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself," you are doing well." Jas.2:8.
1Peter – refers again and again to loving with a sincere brotherly love (1Pet.1:22; 2:17; 3:8).
2Peter – this time Peter refers to brotherly affection and to love (2Pet.1:7).
1John – it is difficult to select a text from this letter for there are so many of them – ch.4 alone contains over 20 references to love including the exhortation to mutual love that had already been made in the preceding chapter: "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God." 1Jn.4:7.
2John in this short letter John links love to the keeping of commandments just as Paul had done in the words we're considering this morning. John wrote: "And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments." 2Jn.6.
3John – those to whom John addressed this letter are commended because of the way they have shown Christian love to others: "Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, who testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God." 3Jn.5-
Jude these folk to whom Jude wrote were urged to act with mercy towards others as they kept themselves in the love of God. (Ju.21-
The Debt of Love
So what is this love that we are to owe and to keep on owing to others?
The Bible's take on love is wonderful!
Some suggest that all you need is love – that love can be trusted to secure the right response in each and every situation. Some would even go as far as to suggest that law by removing spontaneity destroys love because nothing that is calculated can be called love.
Paul however does not see the law as being somehow at odds with love but rather as the guide to its fulfilment. The law when rightly understood is nothing other than a description of what it means to exercise love.
To illustrate he refers to a selection of the 10 Commandments:
Do you want to live your live as a godly Christian? Do you want to live your life in such a way as to gain the approval of God, to hear that "Well done, good and faithful servant"? Then here is how:
You don't take up with another man's wife. You don't take up with another woman's husband! Nor will you seek to sow seeds of disharmony and suspicion or jealousy in another couple. You will be true to your own spouse too – honouring, cherishing and respecting. That will involve no unworthy flirting or teasing that can cause fear or anxiety to your spouse. That is love for your neighbours.
You don't murder them – you don't act in any way that will destroy your neighbour's life. Of course you won't kill him but neither will you destroy his reputation by talking about him behind his back.
You don't steal – if your neighbour has fine possessions it is not for you to break in and steal them, nor to cheat him by sharp business practice, nor to deliberately undermine his well-
You won't covet either – that is you won't look at your neighbours success and so eat yourself up with envy that you can't rejoice with him as he rejoices in the good things he has to enjoy in this life. Coveting will lead to strained relationships and will prove to be the seedbed for all kinds of wrong attitudes. Instead of being ready to sympathise with your neighbour you may well secretly be inwardly rejoicing when things start to go wrong for him or her.
You see we need to know what love looks like in reality and God tells us in his word in many places and in differing ways what the love is like that he is looking for in us.
Confronted with any number of different situations we can be confused as to what it is best for us to do. If we become emotionally involved it can become even more difficult to see clearly what exactly the loving thing is to do. So God draws our attention to his commandments. The commands are not arbitrary as though he simply set up a few rules by which he could test us his rules are good and wholesome
To love, then, does not mean setting aside the law and allowing some feeling to determine for us just what is the correct course of action we are to follow. Love is not something weak and inconstant – on the contrary it is robust and strong and unwavering.
May God give me people who will love me with this sort of love and may he make me into the kind of person who can be relied upon to love this way too!
Warnings and Exhortations
Paul knows that doing the right thing, the best thing, the loving thing, does not necessarily come easily to us. He knows that we all too readily settle down into our comfortable little ways and drift off to sleep. If we allow that to happen then we are in danger of slipping further still. How foolish that is as we all still have progress to make.
It is not the moment for us to go to sleep, to lose consciousness of what has taken place in our lives, to lose sight of the needs of others about us. We are soldiers on a battlefield and war, spiritual war rages round about us, to sleep now is unthinkable! So wake up cries Paul.
The gospel is an amazingly good piece of news. Paul has written systematically about it here in this letter to the Romans. He wrote to people who had received this message and had their lives changed by it. And yet Paul knew that these Christians could yet behave in ways which were totally out of keeping with that gospel!
Why does Paul warn them about falling into those gross sins which he lists in v.13? Listen to them: orgies, drunkenness, sexual immorality, sensuality, quarrelling and jealousy. He does so because he knows how wicked the human heart is and how easily men and women turn from the narrow path that leads to life and wander back onto the broad way that leads to destruction.
So he calls upon these Christians in Rome to realise that all those things are not appropriate life-
But Paul doesn't just say to the Christian – no, no, no! That is what so many see when they look at the church a life full of negatives and it is wrong. Paul certainly does tell them that there are certain things to which they must say no but that is far from being the end of the story!
Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, he says, and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its anti-
And this is active – do nothing and you will not succeed!
I wonder if you recognise the scene: It's a pleasant afternoon and you've just had a good lunch. The chair you're sitting in is so comfortable and the warm sun is shining through the window on your back… you don't need to do anything and you know what happens don't you? You drop off to sleep.
Now most of the time that doesn't matter at all. But there are occasions when you've got something – an appointment, a visit, a task that simply must be completed -
Do you know that the world with its charms is doing all it can to lull you back off to a spiritual sleep. It wants you to miss those important appointments; it wants you to fail to make those special visits; it wants that urgent business left unattended.
What steps are you taking to stay awake?
You say you want to make a success of your spiritual life but you do next to nothing about it. You plan to make changes in the way you structure your life – but not now, not this week, and so you put it off and off and off and tomorrow never comes!
This is how the writer of the Book of Proverbs pithily wrote about it centuries ago – but although his words were written so long ago they haven't lost any of their pertinence!
Pr.13:4 "The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing."
Pr.13:4 "The sluggard does not plough in the autumn; he will seek at harvest and have nothing."
Don't go on your way and do nothing, don't fail in the living of your Christian life because you're set in your ways and refuse to change. Don't be wise in your own eyes:
Pr.26:15 "The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can answer sensibly."
But put on the armour of light, put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make sure you make no provision to pander to the weaknesses that you know only too well. And act in love to others because God has acted so wonderfully in love towards you.