Alfred Place Baptist Church

13:8-10 The Law needs a Loving Fulfilment

Romans 13:8-10 “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow-man has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.

           Paul has been speaking about our obligations to the government, that Christians pay their taxes like everyone else, but then he moves on to speak of our obligation IN every relationship that we are in. “Owe no man anything!” That is the familiar translation of the opening words of our text in the Authorized Version. It is blunt; it is in your face; Christians in particular are to be dissatisfied HAVING a single unpaid debt.

 

1. DON’T LET ANY DEBT REMAIN OUTSTANDING.

 

Every commentator is anxious to point out that this cannot mean that we may never incur financial obligations, that Christians should never apply for a mortgage, that they must never accept an interest-free loan from family or friends. That is quite true. This verse cannot be prohibiting that, because there are verses in the Bible that  permit borrowing money. The Lord Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount exhorts us, “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matt.5:42). You are not encouraging a man to sin if you loan him some money. Don’t turn him away, says the Lord. Of course that does not mean that you are under an obligation to lend money to everyone who asks you, but you may choose to do so. Then he isn’t sinning in asking you for a loan and you are not sinning by giving one to him.

 

So what is Paul talking about? He is dealing with one of the biggest problems faced by men and women today. The Citizens’ Advice Bureau tells us that the two most common problems people bring to their offices for counsel are difficulties they are experiencing with their neighbours, and the problem of debt. Millions of people have borrowed money from money-lenders, or by using a number of credit cards, and they are hopelessly and despairingly in debt. We can expand that observation; the biggest problem facing the British government today and far off into the distant future is our vast public debt of £775 billion last month believed to rise in the next four years to £1.4 trillion. We can expand that even further; the economic crisis which is hitting the whole world today is caused by international debt.

 

Professor John Murray says that what Paul is targeting in this exhortation is twofold; the first is the looseness with which we may contract debt. You cannot believe how foolishly some people act in borrowing large sums of money. The second target of Paul’s concern is the indifference that some people display in discharging their debts. Psalm 37 and verse 21, “The wicked borrow and do not repay.” Paul is addressing the Christians in Rome and urging them not to be like so many in that vast city; “Pay your debts,” he is telling them and I say the same to you. Get help this week from your bank-manager or some financial experts and be very careful over the next few years with every penny you spend until by scrimping and saving you finally get out of debt. Students come to me with stories of folly and resulting debt and the threat of leaving college, but from now on I will be more firm with them and give them the telephone number of university financial counselors. This is a tough lesson but you cannot learn it too soon – “Owe no man anything.”

 

Then Paul adds one more exhortation, “but do go on loving one another.” Never forget the debt of love you owe. Love your debt-owing neighbours as your indebted self; we are all in debt to love. A church is a congregation of debtors and we must go on discharging that debt to Christ until our last breath. Christians, love one another as the Lord has loved you. You know how Isaac Watts put it in that hymn of his, “Alas and did my Saviour bleed and did my sovereign die.” He is in tears considering what Jesus did for him;

 

But drops of grief can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe.

Lord, here I give myself away, ’tis all that I can do.

 

We are indebted to the love of Jesus Christ for our entire salvation. He paid such a price to deliver me from the place of woe. He gave his life that I might be discharged from my obligations to a sin-hating God. What a debt I’ll always owe him for his love – so amazing and so divine. It demands my soul, my life, my all. It results in my whole life being different. How can I thoughtlessly run into debt and pull down my family and my business? How can I bring out feeble excuses about my tardiness in discharging my debt if I love men and women in the name of Christ? How can I tell my neighbour one lie after another as to why it’s impossible ‘at the present time’ to r
epay what I owe him, fobbing him off month after month? If I love him I’ll do everything in my power to clear my debt. It is “he who loves his fellow man [who]has fulfilled the law” (v.8). Hear the law of God in our text, “let no debt remain outstanding.” Why aren’t you fulfilling that obligation to your fellow man? You bring out this excuse and that excuse . . . ‘this emergency arose . . . these people let me down . . . all those factors were above and beyond my control.’ There is truth in all of that I am sure, but the basic reason why you’re not dealing righteously with your neighbour, and living on bread and water to pay him what you owe him is this, you don’t love him. So you are in effect stealing from him that money, and you are also lying to him about why you’re not repaying him. You see how breaking one commandment means you are soon breaking other commandments. That is what James means when he says that breaking one commandment is equivalent to breaking them all (James 2:10 and11).

 

You understand what I am saying, that your problem is not ignorance of the law of God about debt. It is not that you don’t know what’s the right way to treat the man to whom you owe money. No. You know you should pay your debts. You do know that. The problem with you is not one of ignorance, it is motivation. You know the ten commandments. They are prescriptive and propositional; but your need is for love, because love is dispositional. The ten commandments are like a road-map which indicates the way to get to a place, but love is like a compass; it sets us off in the right direction. Both map and compass are needed; both law and love are needed, each helping in different ways. There is God’s law; you hear it in the voice of your conscience. You might even have memorized the Sermon on the Mount. You know you should clear the debt you’re in, and with effort and self-denial over months or years you could, but the reason you’re not doing it is because you are failing to love your neighbour as yourself. You don’t love him as Christ loves him.

 

The bigger problem in evangelical Christian circles is not ignorance of God’s principles of conduct. The ten commandments are the simplest parts of the Scripture to understand. They consist of 173 words. You compare that to the European Union’s regulations on the importation of cauliflowers which consist of over 30,000 words. We have departed from God’s law and we have entered the age of the lawyers. It was the Roman writer Tacitus who said, ‘The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.’ Christian failure is not that we don’t possess or don’t understand the law of God. What could be simpler than, “Pay your debts!”? So what is our failure? It is in loving one another. Law without love results in Pharisaism.  

 

I am saying that the bigger problem we Christians face is our cold hearts, because it is only through love that we can fulfil the law. When we love our neighbours then that motivates us to treat them fairly and promptly and kindly. “I could never hurt him by not paying him what I owe him because I love him too much.” It’s love that expels from our lives every feeble excuse for not paying our debts as soon as we can. It is by love that we can fulfil these words of Paul, “Owe no man anything.” Love is the fulfilment of every law. In fact, none of the laws of God can be fulfilled without love. That is the great lesson of our text.

 

You remember the story Jesus told of the king who freely forgave a servant an enormous debt. Only being sold into slavery, with his wife and his children, could have begun to raise enough money to clear that debt. Yet the king show amazing mercy wipes the slate clean of that huge debt. He discharges his servant from any obligation to pay him a penny. The dazed and overwhelmed sermon walks out onto the street a fully discharged debtor, and then something unbelievable happened (we read of it in Matthew chapter 18); “when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow-servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow-servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow-servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:28-35). What are those last two words? Your heart. This man had no heart for others only for himself. He had no heart to wipe out a paltry debt, even though his own enormous debt had been cleared by God. Long term debt is often a problem of the heart; sin is always a problem of the heart.

 

You understand what our Lord is saying don’t you? He is talking to his own disciples; these are men whose great debt to God had been cleared through the dying of the Lamb of God. Every penny had been paid. They’d been delivered from the debtors’ prison of sin. The slate had been wiped absolutely clean through Jesus Christ. The wages of sin is death, but Jesus tasted our death that we shouldn’t have to pay it. The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses the slate of every debt we have incurred. There is not a mark on the slate. Not one at all, and because of this wonderful mercy our attitude to those who are in debt to us is utterly changed. We are given grace to forgive debts we are owed, both large and small, because of this reason – our own enormous sins against God have been forgiven. How you love the Lord Jesus for clearing all your eternal debt. Now you are possessed by a new spirit; you actually love those who owe you money. “Never mind!” you may say to them. “It’s all covered,” you might tell them. “It’s all gone. Let’s forget it. I will never raise it again.” You are free to say that. It is not necessary. It may rather be necessary to encourage him to work out your payments over the next ten years.

 

My point is that love enables us to fulfil the law. You see what Paul does here. He begins by speaking of our obligation to keep this one commandment, “Pay your debts,” but immediately he goes on to add that this must be done in love, not by constraint, not reluctantly and grudgingly  . . . “Well, I’m a Christian and I guess that I’d better pay my debt” . . . but joyfully! I show my genuine love to my neighbour by paying him everything that I owe him. Then do you notice what Paul does next? He lists some other commandments that describe our behaviour towards our neighbours. What does Paul do? He actually quotes some of the ten commandments. This is typical of how the
New Testament presents to us exhortations to Christ-like living. You find these two things, the law of God and the way of love; these two are intimately related. Each needs the other, both in the Old and New Testaments. Paul insists that it’s absolutely impossible to keep the commands of God unless you’re full of the love of God. Love fulfils the law, but that does not mean that law is unnecessary for the Christian, or that love has now transcended the law of God. Love, under the new covenant, fulfills the ten commandments – just as it did under the old covenant. You have to have love, but you have to have law too.

 

Paul is writing to Gentiles in Ephesus or in Rome, 1400 years after the time of Moses, thousands of miles away from Israel, and yet he naturally appeals to the ten commandments in telling them how they’re to live and what sins they’re to shun. I do the same. It’s not a healthy church where members don’t know the ten commandments. It’s not a strong pulpit where the preacher rarely refers to any of the ten commandments. When John Eliot went to the American Indians, and when John Paton went to the New Hebrides the first thing they both preached was the ten commandments. But how did they preach them? Tenderly. How important is that? It is all important, because the greatest obstacle to the gospel lies in wrong views of God in the human heart. Satan strives to make men believe that the Lord is an austere man. How the devil labours to give us false views and impressions of the character of our Lord. So Christians must flee from any note of harshness when we preach the law. We are not Moses coming down from Sinai carrying the ten commandments. Preacher and congregation are all standing with the people at the foot of the mount trembling under the law and mighty glad there is a Saviour who has kept that law and fulfilled all righteousness in our place. Now let us consider those other commandments in our text.

 

2. DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY.

 

Paul leaves the law prohibiting paying your debts to the prohibition of sexual sin (v.9). The Bible again is very simple in what it teaches; purity before marriage and faithfulness within marriage. The world takes the very opposite view to the Bible. The world says because you love someone you can commit adultery with them; the Bible says, “Because you love them you don’t commit adultery with them.” Marriage is the key that opens the door to union; in marriage you say to your spouse, “I love you so much I want to spend the rest of my life with you alone. We will conceive children and look after them together until the time comes for them to become independent” If you can’t say that then you don’t begin a courtship, because courtship is for marriage and for nothing else. There is no courtship for recreation and for fun; it is for marriage. You can have many friends who are members of the opposite sex, but there can be no sexual contact with one of them. That is what the Christian faith teaches, and our land would be a far happier and contented place if such convictions were widespread.

 

These four words, “Do not commit adultery,” are found in the context of the ten commandments; we are not intended to take one out and blow it up and up and scrutinize it by itself. You do not isolate Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile. It is an indispensable part of the whole painting. It can only be appreciated as part of the entirety. You do not take the seventh commandment and say, “It seems a bit narrow minded.” It is part of a whole united body of moral teaching and it is all inter-related. You keep one and you keep them all by the same power, motivated by the same love, and the reverse is true. God does not say, “Try for six or seven.” When David broke the seventh commandment he was soon breaking other commandment, deceiving, lying and murdering. The law is one.

 

This commandment, “Do not commit adultery” does not come until number seven. There are six commandments to think about before you reach number seven, and if we are keeping them zealously then we are 90% towards keeping number seven. You consider them with me; there is number one: we are to have no other gods before the Lord. Now that commandment is to be reflected in marriage; no other wives, official or unofficial. The second commandment forbids making any images. That commandment means no lustful looks, no fantasizing, no thoughts towards other women. No quick trips to the internet; no ‘harmless’ interludes with other women. The third commandment rebukes misusing the name of the Lord, and for marriage that means honesty, faithfulness, devotion and honour towards your spouse, towards her person and her reputation. The fourth commandment sets aside a day to the Lord and so there are times when you set aside a regular time to express your exclusive devotion to your wife. Go for a few days together. Let your mother look after the children. The fifth is about honouring your parents, and you esteem their example of faithfulness and devotion by living in your family as you once lived in theirs. The sixth commandment forbids violence, and we know that most cases of violence are in the home. Do not hurt your wife; do not hurt your husband; do not hurt your children. Then comes the seventh commandment and it is followed by even more explicit commands about not stealing someone else’s husband or wife, not bearing false witness to your wife or husband about where you are going, who you are calling on your cell-phone, who you are visiting on an Internet chat-room. The last commandment specifies not coveting your neighbour’s husband or wife.

 

So I am saying that the law of God is one body of morality, and this living body is interrelated; it has skin, and nerves, and muscles, and blood cells, and bones. You cannot absolutise one commandment and isolate it from all the rest. It is part of the whole. All God’s law is to be kept. And you are to keep all these commandments in love. Without love the law of God is a mere rule book, formal and lifeless. It is a parody of what the marriage relationship should be. The seventh commandment is the charter of my family’s rights, my wife and my children’s rights, and it is love that leads me to respect them. I love them and so I don’t bring pain into their lives by adultery. I love the law of God too much. Paul says to these Romans in chapter seven and verse 22, “In my inner being I delight in God’s law.” That is love.

 

3. DO NOT MURDER.

 

The preciousness of human life as taught by the Son of God has worked as a leaven to transform every society pervaded by the gospel. The Christian approach is very interesting; it doesn’t say that the most supreme value in the world, above truth and even above God, is human life. We don’t believe that; many have chosen death rather than deny the truth or cease following God. You don’t have to live, but you have to obey God. So we don’t say that the most important thing in the world is human life. But also we do not devalue human life
saying that there’s no distinction made between human life and any other kind of life. Men and women, as no other creatures, are made in the image and likeness of God, and so we put a unique value on human life. You cannot elevate a fish to the level of a human – we may kill and eat fish. You may not put down an elderly person as though you were putting to sleep a sick dog; you may not kill an unborn child in the womb of its mother. Both old and young people are made in the image and likeness of God, so do not murder. You have no authority for doing that. You may be a nurse; you may be a doctor; you may be a judge; you may be a member of parliament, but you have no divine authority to take away a life.

 

This will be an endless battle because we are fighting the underlying tendency of human nature to choose the easy option. There is a growing contempt within the medical profession for human life, the reduction of doctors and nurses to instruments of social engineering, and an increase in moral relativism and nihilism in their ranks. The spirit spreads through society so that increasing numbers of people have a strong desire for the old to hurry up and die. Sometimes there is straightforward greed for their money and possessions; sometimes the Darwinian impatience of the young to get more power and destroy what is unproductive; sometimes it is our selfish dislike of caring for the decrepit. To guard against these tendencies, civilisations influenced by Christianity have built up strong taboos which accord old people respect, and make children and grandchildren feel that they should look after those who once looked after them: their life is valued precisely because it is fragile. If old people are given the ‘choice’ of assisted death, those taboos will go. Many families will start applying pressure on them to make that choice, just as today they sometimes drive the old into care homes before it is necessary. Oldies who hold out will begin to find themselves considered selfish. The National Health Service will start, if it has not started already, to regard the old as mere bed-blockers.

Choosing to die will become like caesarian childbirth – at first, a procedure used only in extremis, then, the usual course if anything at all threatens to go wrong, finally, the neat and tidy method that bourgeois society feels happiest with. So assisted death will be viewed as the social duty of the old. The cant term for voluntary euthanasia and assisted death now is ‘dying with dignity.’ Behind the concept is an implied threat – you’d better choose to die, because if you don’t, society will make sure that the life you have chosen to prolong has no dignity at all.

 

I read this letter of a woman from Dorset and found it very convincing. “I have several severe disabilities and use a wheelchair full time. I also experience severe spinal pain which is not always well controlled, even with morphine. I object to euthanasia because, had it been available when I wanted to die, 19 years ago, when doctors wrongly believed I was terminally ill, I would have been robbed of the best years of my life. Of course, no one would ever have known that the future held something good for me, and thus the fallacy would have been preserved that sick and disabled people are ‘right’ to want to die and should be helped to die, while others who express suicidal thoughts are ‘wrong’ to want to die and should be helped to live.

“I think that if euthanasia were legal, doctors would take at their word people like me who would qualify for euthanasia under the rules proposed, and who say they want to die. Lord Joffe’s ‘Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill’ proposes a 14-day cooling-off period in which a person may change his or her mind about being killed. I wanted to die for ten years. Would any doctor really wait that long if euthanasia were legal and the patient qualified for it? I think not.  

“Yours faithfully,  Alison Davis, Blandford Forum, Dorset”

 

What is needed for the commandment, “Do not murder” to be properly observed? The love of God in our lives. Love is needed if the unborn are not to be killed. Love is needed if the elderly are going to be cared for. Love fulfils the law, “Do not murder.”

 

4. DO NOT STEAL.

 

Aberystwyth is full of thieves. There is always an extraordinary list of the things that have been stolen over the past seven days in the local paper. I sometimes think that Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves have moved to live in our town. Many many people are stealing; there are not two or three thieves responsible for all the stuff ‘nicked’ day after day. Hundreds of people take things that are not theirs and they do so without compunction. “Finders keepers,” they say. “If you leave it around then I’ll take it.” Do they love their neighbours as themselves? Do they do unto others as they would have them do to them? Theft is the fruit of selfish, loveless lives. This commandment – “Do not steal” – is linked to the others – just like every commandment.

 

We see this in the case of Judas Iscariot. Just like all the disciples he worshipped and prophesied and prayed and healed, while all along he was a thief; he embezzled the funds of which he was in charge. He heard the Sermon on the Mount but he was a thief. He saw Jesus walking on water, but he stole. He saw Lazarus rise from the dead but he was a robber. His greed finally led him to betray the Lord for thirty pieces of silver. He couldn’t fool Jesus, and he died forsaken by God. If you forsake the Lord don’t be surprised if you end your life in despair. You may have your pieces of silver, but you’ll know a death without God.

 

Theft never goes alone. It is always accompanied by greed and anger. You remember how Judas watched in disgust as Mary poured a pint of fragrant oil over the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages” (Jn. 12:5). Jesus defended the extravagant worship of Mary. She loved Jesus much because she’d been forgiven much. Her whole debt of sin had been wiped clean away. She knew what is essential to know about Jesus’ coming death and burial, that it was connected to her. His wondrous love to bleed and die for a piece of trash like herself demanded her love in return, and this is how she showed it, just like the good Samaritan caring for the wounded stranger. Grace had made her uncovetous and generous. The opposite of theft is generosity. The antidote to theft is the love of God shed abroad in our hearts and that comes to us by believing the gospel. Until people know God for themselves and love him then the list of thieving in the local paper will continue to grow and grow with the anger and bitterness that accompanies it.

 

5. DO NOT COVET.

 

A hundred years ago there was a great awakening in Wales, and if you asked many people what they wanted in life they would have said to you, “To be saved.” Today they say, “To be rich and famous.” The tenth commandment addresses the cult of money, the accumulation of toys, more powerful motor-bikes, faster computers, more luxurious homes. I was speaking to a woman of my age last week. She is always in church but she has never come to the communion table. I thought it was because she lacked assurance coming from an extreme theological background. So I addressed her with some words of comfort. Then I spoke to another members of her family wondering whether he thought what I’d said to her had helped her. He was hesitant; “I don’t know if she’s a true Christian,” he said. “Her greatest delight in life is shopping. She is always going to the stores and malls and buying things. We don’t know if she is saved.” What do you learn from that? That she is a dissatisfied woman; discontentment is the primary symptom of covetousness. Much of today’s advertising bombards us by appealing to our feelings of greed.

 

This commandment, more than any of the other commandments, speaks directly to the heart. It shows that all these commandments of God address our inner feelings. We live in a day that is obsessed with ‘public image’. Image consultants and spin doctors are employed to cover what is really happening. This commandment cuts right through spin to the inner man. This was the commandment that humbled Saul of Tarsus. These words, “Do not covet” made him feel the power of sin in his own life. Only the power of the Holy Spirit can change your heart and bring about lasting change. But the Spirit is the one who is able do this. See how he transformed Saul of Tarsus, and he can enrich and deliver you from being a slave to sin. You need not feel mocked and taunted by your failure. You need not leave here thinking, “All I’ve been shown today is God’s law and my failure.” No. Here is Jesus Christ the true man, who kept these laws and did so for us. He was never in debt. He did not commit adultery, he did not steal or murder or covet. He was utterly contented with the will of God. He would take another cup if it were possible, but if it were not he was content with the cup God had given him to drink. That righteousness of our Lord is in the gospel freely offered to us, that we might be saved not by the works of the law which we do but by the obedience of the man Christ Jesus, even to the death of the cross. The law of God leads us to Christ, and then Christ gives us the power to live this righteous life, it is through the strength of the Holy Spirit. He enables us not only to live this life but to love living it and to love one another

 

26th July 2009  GEOFF THOMAS