If the first half of chapter 13 of the book of Romans was not controversial enough, the second half of the chapter does not ease the controversy. Not only are Paul’s teachings challenging, but many of the commands have been misunderstood. To remind us of our context, Paul is still teach us how we live as sacrifices to God, alive, holy, and pleasing to him (12:1). This is what the life of a true follower of Jesus looks like.
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, 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. (Romans 13:8–10 ESV)
This text has been used by some to teach that a Christian cannot have any debt whatsoever. No credit card debt, mortgage debt, or automobile debt. They adamantly teach that Christians cannot owe a person anything. While this principle may sound good in theory, to carry this out in practice is seemingly impossible. This would mean that I could not borrow a dollar from you to buy a Coke. You could not borrow a spoon of sugar from your neighbor. There would not be any lending to our brothers and sisters in Christ whatsoever. But there are a number of reasons why I believe this is the wrong interpretation of Paul’s teaching.
When we examine the scriptures historically we will notice that God made allowances for lending in the nation of Israel. In Exodus 22:25 and Leviticus 25:37 God commanded the practice of lending, but said to not lend receiving interest. It was okay to lend from one another, but the people of God were not to charge one another interest. So it is important to recognize that lending and borrowing was not condemned, but authorized by God. To press the point further, remember that if a person fell into too much debt, he was allowed to sell himself as a slave to work off the debt. Thus, God established the year of Jubilee when all the debts were forgiven. God does not condemned debt. He authorized debt and legislated how his people were to lend and borrow. Further, Jesus commanded that we lend to people. "Do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you" (Matthew 5:42). If someone needs a hand, we help the person out and lend to them what they need.
We need to also examine the context of what Paul is teaching in chapter 13. In verse 7 Paul taught to pay taxes that are owed. Obviously, Paul cannot be teaching that a Christian should never have debt since he already admitted that Christians will be in debt to the government. Pay what is owed to them the governing authorities. This is what makes the logical connection to verse 8. Pay what you owe to the government. In fact, pay what you owe to everyone. Pay what you owe people. The TNIV captures the idea properly.
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:8 TNIV)
Paul’s point is that any debt incurred must be repaid. Pay what you owe. What a terrible thing to borrow from a Christian and not pay it back. What a sinful thing to do! But Paul does not say not to owe a Christian. Paul teaches to owe no one anything. Therefore, when we engage in borrowing, it must be with the full intention of paying it back. Pay what you owe. It does not seem from the scriptures that bankruptcy is sinful, since God had a form of that where a person would be enslaved to work off the debt. Even God understood that things can go wrong. But this should not be used because a person does not want to pay. It should only be used for those who simply cannot pay back what is owed. What is happening today is people are in homes that are not worth what they paid. So they are just walking away from their debt obligations, not because they cannot pay, but because they made a bad investment and do not want to pay. This is wrong. We are to pay our bills and pay back our debts.
Paul says that there is only one thing that we should pay and never be done paying: the debt of love. We can pay our financial debts and be done. But we can never say, "I have done all the loving I need to do." Love is always our debt. Origen said concerning the debt of love, "We must pay it daily and yet always owe it." Loving each other is the fulfilling of the law. Please observe that Paul states three times that love is the fulfilling of the law (13:8,9,10). Three times in these three verses. Jesus taught that the commandments are summed up with laws: love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself. Paul focuses on the second command because this command covers all of our obligations toward others. Love does not to wrong things to others. Love does not commit adultery because it is sinful against others, violating the marriage covenant. Love does not murder because is not doing to others as you want them to do for you. All the commands that Paul mentions are commands that show a lack of love for the other person. Paul lumps all of these ideas together. Loving means that I will not leave my debts outstanding. You want people to pay you back. We love by paying what is due to others. Love does not do wrong to a Christian, a neighbor, or anyone that we know. It is shocking that people who claim to be Christians can do some much wrong and so much harm to other people, including Christians.
Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:11–14 ESV)
Paul continues by saying that it is time to wake from sleep. Sleep is used in the scriptures as a metaphor for a life of moral carelessness and laxity. It is time to be alert because the promise of the consummation of our salvation is closer than when we started. Do not be sleep walkers. Do not go through life in moral apathy and spiritual laziness. You know the time that we live in. We live in the time when the Lord could return at any moment without warning. Time, unfortunately, has become the enemy of Christian fervor. We grow cold and become lazy toward God because so much time has passed by. But salvation is nearer to us than when we first believed. Therefore we live as sacrifices that are pleasing to God because we know the time and we are aware of what is coming. Do not be a sleeping Christian. Too many Christians are sleeping, rather than being awake and prepared. Too many Christians are not living their lives as if today is their last day. Too many are not living for Christ to return at this very moment.
Belong to the day, not the night. Do not buy into the foolish things of the world or follow the ways of the world. It is time to wake up and cast off the darkness. Put on the armor of light. Jesus has come and he is our alarm clock. The dawn is breaking and the sun is rising. Paul paints a picture that the time for that sinful life is long past. "The night is far gone." But notice that it is not quite day yet. "The day is at hand." So we are at a moment in history that is in transition. Jesus has come and the darkness is gone. Day is dawning, but it is not day yet. Just as sure as the day will dawn, so also will our salvation come at the arrival of Jesus. Since the day is dawning, we must put off the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.
Paul continues to explain what this looks like. We are to walk properly (13:13). This is a very broad statement that condemns anything that is not according to the rule of God. Don’t live like the world. There appear to be three pairs that are used to encompass immorality. The first has to do with the sin of drunkenness. The word translated "orgies" by the ESV carries the idea of "letting loose." The word is a picture festivals and parades like Mardi Gras where people are letting loose in debauchery and sexuality. Further, living in the light is not going on drinking bouts. The second pair is dealing with sexual immorality. These words picture letting loose sexually and not keeping our bodies pure for marriage. The third pair deals with strife. Quarreling and jealousy will tear Christians apart. Those who live in darkness are enslaved to drinking, to sex, or to fighting. These are not activities of those who walk properly or who have put on the armor of light.
Instead, we are to put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul means that we need to wear Jesus like clothing. Jesus is the armor that we wear. According to the apostle Paul, we begin the process of wearing Jesus by being immersed in water. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:27 ESV) But it is also clear that Paul is picturing a complete life change that identifies with the life of Jesus, not simply being immersed in water.
We are to make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. This is another good refrigerator verse. Do not allow for these sinful opportunities. Do not do things that you know will cause you to be in a weakened position. If you cannot control yourself and what you look at on the computer, only get on the computer when people are home and can see what you are doing. Do not go places where you know you will have temptations. Do not watch things that are going to spark your desires to sin. Do not give your desires any room to win the battle. Do not gratify your desires. Give your desires no opportunity to succeed over your mind. The night is gone and the day is at hand. Live knowing that our salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.