What does Paul mean when he says in Romans 13:8 that we must "owe no one anything except to love one another"?


Let us read the passage in context, beginning in Romans 13:8:

“Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he 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 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.’ Love does not harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment [better: fulfilling] of the law.”

The Amplified Bible gives the following rendering, with the brackets in the original:

“Keep out of debt and owe no man anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor–who practices loving others–has fulfilled the Law [relating to one’s fellowmen], meeting all its requirements…”

(1) Concentrating first on Paul’s statement that we are indebted to loving our neighbor, let’s notice the following comments:

Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible states:

“Love is a debt. The law of God and the interest of mankind make it so… [Paul] specifies the last five [actually, last six] of the ten commandments, which he observes to be all summed up in this royal law, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself…

“… it is a sin not only to devise evil against thy neighbour, but to withhold good from those to whom it is due; both are forbidden together… This proves that love is the fulfilling of the law… for what else is that but to restrain us from evil-doing, and to constrain us to well-doing? Love is a living active principle of OBEDIENCE to the whole law.”

The New Bible Commentary:Revised, agrees, stating: “This conclusion does not invalidate the Ten Commandments in the interest of a nebulous, existential ‘Love, and do as you please’… Love… is the spirit in which we are to keep the law; but we need the law’s particulars and prescriptions to give body and definition…”

John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible writes:

“… to love one another… is the only debt never to be wholly discharged; for though it should be always paying, yet ought always to be looked upon as owing… For he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law… of the decalogue; that part of it particularly which relates to the neighbour; the second table of the law… for fulfilling the law means DOING it, or acting according to it; and so far as a man loves, so far he fulfils, that is, DOES it…”

When we love our neighbor, we fulfill the law of the last six of the Ten Commandments, which deal with our relationship with our neighbor. The last six of the Ten Commandments define for us HOW to love our neighbor, and how NOT to do him any harm. Far from teaching that the Ten Commandments are no longer in effect, Paul teaches the exact opposite. As the commentaries quoted above point out, when we love our neighbor by keeping the last six of the Ten Commandments, then we fulfill or DO the law. And when we break just one of these commandments, as the apostle James says, then we have broken them all (James 2:8-11).

(2) Paul prefaced his statement that we owe it to our neighbor to love him by saying that we must not otherwise be indebted.

Please notice the following comments explaining the meaning of Paul’s statement in this regard:

John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible writes:

“From the payment of dues to magistrates [compare Romans 13:6-7], the apostle proceeds to a general exhortation to discharge all sorts of debts; as not to owe the civil magistrate any thing, but render to him his dues, so to owe nothing to any other man, but make good all obligations whatever, as of a civil, so of a natural kind. There are debts arising from the natural and civil relations subsisting among men, which should be discharged; as of the husband to the wife, the wife to the husband; parents to their children, children to their parents; masters to their servants, servants to their masters; one brother, friend, and neighbour, to another.

“Moreover, pecuniary debts may be here intended, such as are come into by borrowing, buying, commerce, and contracts; which though they cannot be avoided in carrying on worldly business, yet men ought to make conscience of paying them as soon as they are able: many an honest man may be in debt… but for men industriously to run into debt, and take no care to pay, but live upon the property and substance of others, is scandalous to them…”

Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible writes:

“In the previous verse the apostle had been discoursing of the duty which we owe to magistrates. He had particularly enjoined on Christians to pay to ‘them’ their just dues. From this command to discharge fully this obligation, the transition was natural to the subject of debts ‘in general,’ and to an injunction not to be indebted to ‘any one’… The interpretation of this command is to be taken with this limitation, that we are not to be indebted to him so as to ‘injure’ him, or to work ‘ill’ to him [compare Romans 13:10].

“This rule, together with the other rules of Christianity, would propose a remedy for all the evils of bad debts in the following manner… it would teach people to be ‘industrious,’ and this would commonly prevent the ‘necessity’ of contracting debts… it would make them ‘frugal, economical,’ and ‘humble’ in their views and manner of life… it would take off the affections from the splendor, gaiety, and extravagances which lead often to the contraction of debts… it would put a period to the ‘vices’ and unlawful desires which now prompt people to contract debts… it would make them ‘honest’ in paying them. It would make them conscientious, prompt, friends of truth, and disposed to keep their promises.”

The Nelson Study Bible states: “In the present context, owe no one anything primarily means respect and honor (see verse 7). No doubt money is also included, but this passage does not prohibit borrowing (see Psalm 37:21; Matthew 5:42).”

It is true that the Bible does not prohibit borrowing, especially for the purposes of business investments, mortgaging a house or financing certain necessities. However, Psalm 37:21 reminds us that “The wicked borrows and does not repay…” Focusing on the righteous, Psalm 37:21 continues that he can and should LEND to others who are in need (compare Matthew 5:42), but this does not mean that the righteous should just indiscriminately BORROW.

Even when speaking of investments and other business transactions, we must be careful that we don’t overextend ourselves, but that we count the costs first to make sure that we have enough to finish what we want to start (see the principle in Luke 14:28-32).

Regarding not being indebted or owing something to our neighbor, please also note the following passages:

Leviticus 19:13 reads, pertaining to the employer’s duty to pay his employees promptly and timely, in accordance with the employment agreement: “You shall not cheat your neighbor, nor rob him. The wages of him who is hired shall not remain with you all night until morning.” Compare also Deuteronomy 24:15.

Regarding our general duties toward one another, we read in Proverbs 3:27-28: “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, When it is in your power of your hand to do so. Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come back, And tomorrow I will give it,’ When you have it with you.” Compare Galatians 6:10 and James 2:15-16.

In light of this, true servants of God should have the attitude, that loving conduct towards others is their duty, obligation and debt. Christ said in Luke 17:9-10: “Does he [the master] thank the servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not. So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.'”

In conclusion, we are always indebted to others to love them and show our love to them. We do this by keeping God’s law from the heart. It is His Law which defines for us what is and what is not true godly love. At the same time, we must not neglect to pay our debts, if at all possible, or work out an arrangement with our creditors (Matthew 5:25-26). In addition, we should be extremely careful before going into debt, especially for physical things which we don’t really need. God will provide for us all our need (Philippians 4:19), when we seek His Kingdom and His righteousness first (Matthew 6:30-33), and He will do so without us becoming indebted to others. Remember, the borrower is servant or slave to the lender (Proverbs 22:7). And in this materialistic world, lenders can be ruthless and merciless (Matthew 18:28-30).

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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