Dr. Richard L. Strauss
August 25, 1991


Purpose: To encourage us to love one another, and help us understand what that will require.

Most Americans know what it means to be in debt. As somebody said, people can be divided into three classes: the Haves, the Have-Nots, and the Have-Not-Paid-For-What-They-Haves (Earl Wilson, Reader's Digest, December 1977). The average American owns nine credit cards and owes over $2000 on them. He figures he doesn't need to save for that stereo or dream vacation when, by merely signing at the X, he can have it now. In addition to that, he usually owes for his house, his car, and sometimes even his furniture. In some cases, he has no idea of how much he really owes. He's in financial bondage and he doesn't know how to get free.

I hope that's not the case with you. Maybe it is, but my desire for you is that it is not. While some debt is inevitable, particularly if you want to own a home, I hope you have the wisdom, maturity and foresight to plan and save for the things you believe God wants you to have. And I hope you know how much you owe.

But there is one debt which, I'm convinced, most Christians do not know that they owe. Paul mentions it in Romans 13:8. "Owe no one anything except to love one another." Our obligation to love is actually viewed by God as a debt that we owe. That's an interesting concept: Don't let your debt to anyone be outstanding except to love one another.

Paul has been talking about paying what we owe in the public arena: taxes, customs, respect and honor (Romans 13:7). Now he wants to talk about paying what we owe in private relationships. And the bill has one word on it: LOVE! That's been a major subject from Romans 12:9 on, and we may be getting tired of hearing about it.

But Paul isn't getting tired of talking about it, because it is the key to solving most all of the problems we struggle with in life. What he says can be arranged under three questions:

  1. Why should we love?
  2. Who should we love?
  3. How should we love?

Let's follow his reasoning.

Why Should We Love?

The answer to that one ought to be obvious already: because it's a debt. Romans 13:8a. "Owe no one anything except to love one another."

Contrary to what some would teach, that doesn't mean we cannot borrow for anything. Jesus talked favorably about borrowing (Matthew 5:42). And it would be unrealistic to think of owning a house in this culture without borrowing. Some have suggested that we should only borrow on items that appreciate in value. That makes sense if we can do it.

But the point is that we should not leave any debts unpaid. It's present tense: "Don't continue owing anyone anything." The NIV captures the idea: "Let no debt remain outstanding." In other words, pay your bills, be working at paying off your debts. And that's good advice for every Christian.

When a believer purposely refuses to pay his bills and tries to avoid his creditors, he brings reproach on the name of his Savior. When he continues to spend money on the unnecessary things he wants when he can't even afford to pay for what he has, he casts a shadow over his Christian testimony.

The story is told about a man who claimed he "got religion." An old crony who knew about his shameful past heard the news and called him on the phone. "Joe, they tell me you've got religion." "I sure have," he replied. "Then I suppose you'll be going to church every Sunday." "That's right," Joe answered. "I started five weeks ago and haven't missed a service since." "And I suppose you're going to quit smoking and drinking." "Already have," Joe replied. "In fact, I haven't smoked a cigarette or touched a drop of liquor since." Then remembering how much money Joe owed him, the friend said, "And I suppose too that you're going to pay up all your old debts." At that Joe exploded, "Now wait just a minute. That's not religion you're talking about; that's business."

Joe was wrong. It may be business, but it's the all-important business of living what we say we believe. If you truly know the Lord, then show it by paying your bills.

But there is a debt that we can never fully pay off, and that's the major point that Paul is making here. Again, the NIV captures the idea in its translation: "Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another."

That one will always be outstanding. When we begin to count up how much God has done for us in forgiving us all of our sin and assuring us of a magnificent eternal inheritance in heaven, we realize why our debt of love to one another can never be fully discharged. We need to be paying on it every day, and yet we will go on owing it until the day we die. There will never come a time when we can say, "I've done all the loving I need to do. My account is all paid up now."

Some married couples I know are trying to say that to each other, but they're kidding themselves. If it was ever real love, then it will never end ("love never fails," 1 Corinthians 13:8). Our debt of love can never be fully paid, and we need to live every day in the light of that truth.

Did you ever owe somebody money? What was the first thing that came to your mind when you saw them? The money you owed. We can't help thinking about it, because we suspect that they are thinking about it.

That's the way we need to respond to one another. Not, "Here comes Fred, that old grouch. How am I going to get away from him?" But rather, "Here comes Fred. He's not a very pleasant person to be around, and I don't particularly enjoy being with him. But in view of what Christ has done for me, I owe Fred Christ-like love." And you treat him with kindness and consideration.

But who is Fred, anyway, and how many Freds do I have to love? That's the next question.

Who Should We Love?

Loving "one another" sounds like it might just be brothers and sisters in Christ. But the next clause says, "...for he who loves another...." And that word (heteros) refers to another of a different kind--any kind. We're talking about loving people with different backgrounds from ours, people of different races, different social and economic standing, different opinions, different values, different religious views, different doctrinal systems. It would include people with different personalities, different political philosophies and different lifestyles. It sounds like that would include just about anybody whom God brings into our lives, believer or unbeliever.

There's a very popular church growth concept which insists that in order for churches to grow they must be organized around homogeneous units, that is, people from essentially the same social and economic strata. In other words, we're supposed to identify our target audience, then limit our outreach primarily to them--professional people, baby boomers, ethnic minorities, senior citizens, or whomever we decide on. That doesn't sound like loving others of a different kind to me. We need to reach out to all.

In Romans 13:9c Paul quotes Leviticus 19:18 and says, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." He uses the same word again in the next verse when he says, "Love does no harm to a neighbor" (plesion, meaning basically one near you).

And who is my neighbor? You may remember that a lawyer asked Jesus that very question in an attempt to justify himself (Luke 10:29). Jesus answered it with a story, the parable of the Good Samaritan. The story leaves no doubt about who our neighbor is. It is anyone near us who has a need, no matter how different from us that person may be, anyone God brings into our lives.

And since in the previous context Paul has been talking about loving our enemies, it would seem that he particularly has in mind loving people who are difficult to love--like in-laws who refuse to accept us and treat us kindly, thoughtless neighbors whose backyard parties go on into the wee hours of the morning, the unsaved relative who ridicules our faith, the loud-mouthed egotist who constantly puts us down, the kids who vandalized our home. Those are the people God wants us to love, especially when they are in need.

Last Christmas I received an annual Christmas letter from my good friend and former classmate at Wheaton and Dallas, Ed Plowman, who travels with Billy Graham and covers his crusades for the Christian news media. He told of being in East Germany last March and visiting in the parsonage of Pastor Ewe Holmer and his wife Sigrid. Living in the Holmer home with them were Erich Honecker and his wife. You know who Erich Honecker is, I presume: the former Communist party boss in East Germany before the Wall came down. Honecker was suffering from kidney cancer and no East German hospital or institution would take him in after the Wall came down. Pastor Holmer and his wife were caring for Erich Honecker and his wife.

Let me tell you about Pastor Holmer. He has 11 children, all of whom had refused to join the Communist youth organization, and as a result had been barred from attending university and from getting a good job. They were deprived and disadvantaged because of their stand. The person who was responsible for that policy was Honecker's wife, who headed East Germany's educational system. And now it was this pastor and his family, who had been victimized by the Honeckers, who were caring for them in their own home!

I wonder whether I'd open my home to someone who had caused that much pain to my family. I wonder whether yours would be. Isn't that incredible? The very people who had victimized them were being blessed by them. And there was not one trace of bitterness detectable in their spirit. They were truly loving even their enemies.

Well, that's whom we should love. Our neighbor, whoever he or she is. But what does it mean to love them? What are we supposed to do for them? That's the next question.

How Should We Love?

Paul ties the answer to that question to the Old Testament law when he says, "...for he who loves another has fulfilled the law" (Romans 13:8b). The rest of the passage amplifies that statement.

Romans 13:9-10. "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 no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law."

There are actually two things here.

Love Does Nothing to Harm Others

Did you notice how Paul emphasizes the negative side of love--what love will not do? That may be because the Old Testament commandments he mentions are all stated negatively. "Thou shalt not..." He picks five of them and they're negative. Then he sums them up in Romans 13:10 by saying, "Love does no harm to a neighbor." No harm. Negative. We can understand that. When you love somebody, you don't want to do anything that will hurt them. Look at the commandments Paul uses to illustrate that.

If you love somebody, you won't commit adultery. You won't go to bed with his spouse--or her spouse, whichever the case may be. That would hurt them deeply and might possibly destroy their marriage, to say nothing of what it would do to your own spouse whom you profess to love, and to your marriage. You see, committing adultery hurts people you say you love, so you don't do that. Love is the fulfillment of the law.

I've had men tell me, "But I love her. I love two women: my wife and this other woman." No, you don't. You love yourself! And you love the pleasure that that relationship gives you. Because if you really loved that other person, you wouldn't subject them to the pain that this adulterous relationship is going to cause them, and you wouldn't subject your wife to that pain either. Love does not commit adultery. That's God's Word.

If you love somebody, you're obviously not going to kill him. Thou shalt not murder. You're not even going to kill his reputation by running him down and talking about his faults. You're not going to do anything harmful to him at all, no matter what he has or hasn't done to you.

If you love somebody, you're not going to steal from him. That's the third one. That would hurt him too. Love is going to be more interested in giving to him than in taking from him. You're not even going to forget to return the tools you borrowed from him.

The best manuscripts omit the next one that is found in the King James version, "You shall not bear false witness." But whether or not Paul actually wrote this one down, he certainly intended to include the idea when he said, "...and if there is any other commandment." If we love somebody, we're not going to tell lies about him. That could hurt him irreparably. And if we love somebody, we're not going to be dreaming about how we can get what is his--we won't covet, in other words--because that would be to his loss. That would hurt him so we don't do that. Love does no harm to a neighbor.

You see, all of those commandments would automatically be fulfilled if we were truly practicing love toward the people around us. That's why love is the fulfillment of the law. When we truly love, we won't have to be scratching our heads saying, "Let's see, how am I supposed to love this person." We will just naturally avoid anything that would hurt them in any way.

Some commentators (e.g., Wm. Hendriksen) suggests that the statement "Love does no harm" is a figure of speech called litotes (lit'-eh-teez). That's not a familiar figure of speech to most people, but you English buffs know the word. What it is is a negative expression implies a strong affirmative. For example, we might say, "He is no fool," and what we mean by that is, "He is exceptionally wise." So "love does no harm to others" would also mean it does what's best for others.

Love Does What Is Best for Others

And that's essentially the idea in the quote from Leviticus 19:18--"You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (verse 9). Love does what is best for others. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

There are some people who try to tell us this means you have to love yourself before you can love others, so you really need to work on self-love. That is a perversion of the Scripture, dear friends, made popular by pop-psychologists. That is not a command to work on loving yourself. That statement assumes that we do love ourselves--and we all do.

Now I know you don't like some things about yourself. We all struggle with those little things that we don't like in ourselves, but we all take pretty good care of ourselves. We feed ourselves and clothe ourselves, and see that we get enough to make us happy in life. We take care of ourselves. Paul told us that very clearly in Ephesians 5:29. He said, "For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it...." That's what we do. We nourish and cherish our flesh.

Now, what Paul is saying, what the Old Testament law says, what Jesus taught: it's all the same. Since you take good care of yourself and look out for your own interests, now do that for others, too. God wants us to look out for the best interests of others just as much as we look out for our own. If you're really looking out for their interests, that may even mean putting their interests before your own.

It grieves me when people take the Word of God and twist it to say what they want it to say, even if it's true. I mean, the concept is true. A healthy self-image and a healthy self-acceptance does make it easier to reach out to other people in love. That is true. But that's not what this teaches. Let's stick with what it says and look out for the good of the other person, because that's what God tells us to do.

Can you imagine what a powerful impact this would make on our relationships if we were to take it seriously, as it was intended to be taken? Can you imagine how much conflict this would resolve if we just obeyed that one simple little command in God's Word?

Just think about marriage, for example. You can apply this to any relationship, but since marriage is probably the most common relationship among all of us here, and the one in such serious trouble in our day--even in Christian circles--let's talk about it.

When Mary and I started to get our marriage straightened out, this was one of the major contributing factors. We each began to think about the other person instead of ourselves more than we had been. Now, we still didn't do it perfectly, believe me, and we still don't. We're still growing. But we do it now more than we ever did and we started to do it more at that point. And that's really the thing that was the salvation of our relationship. Sometimes when I was feeling sorry for myself because she had jumped all over me for some trivial thing--trivial thing by my estimation, you understand--I would carefully calculating what I planned to say to her to make her see how wrong she was and make her admit her fault. You see, I wanted to make her admit she was wrong and to say she was sorry. And while I was doing this, the question would come to my mind periodically, "Who are you thinking about now?" And the answer was rather obvious: me! I was thinking about me, not her. I was thinking about how much I had been hurt and how she needed to make it right.

You know, I grew to hate that question, as you can well imagine. I didn't want to think about her. I wanted to think about me. I wanted to ignore the question and get back to the important issue: what she had done wrong. But the Spirit of God wouldn't let me get it out of my head. He kept bringing it back. "Who are you thinking about now?" "Really, who are you thinking about now?" And it's pretty hard to go out with your proverbial dukes up determined to win an argument and prove the other person wrong if you're thinking about their well-being rather than your own. It's not just difficult; it's impossible.

Will you ask the Lord to burn that question so deeply into your soul that it will come back to your mind every time you begin to get involved in a conflict? When you start to complain about how inattentive and inconsiderate your husband has been to you, ask yourself, "Who am I thinking about now?"

Or when you start to criticize your wife for not doing things the way you think they ought to be done, ask yourself, "Who am I thinking about now?"

When you keep bringing the conflict up and you keep driving home a point, thinking that if you just stay on it long enough they'll see the error of their ways, ask yourself, "Who am I thinking about now?"

If you want to be an obedient Christian, think about the other person. It will totally revolutionize your attitude, and the way you approach your mate, and ultimately, your relationship with them. You will still talk about your needs and your feelings, there's nothing wrong with that. But you will be careful, so very careful, to do it in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way that does not hurt the one you love. And when a person does need to talk about their feelings and their needs, you won't respond defensively, either, if you're thinking about the other person.

The same principle will help you resolve the conflicts in any relationship of life--your relationship with your children. There are Christians alienated from their own children because those parents are maintaining their rights, or their rightness. It will help your relationship with your parents, or with your boss, or with your fellow-workers, or with the other believers you work with at church--in classes, or on boards or committees. Is their strife there? Ask yourself, "Who am I thinking about now?" When we are filled with the Spirit of God, His love begins to flow through us to others around us, and we think of their best interests as much as our own--even before our own.

It's a debt that we owe. One that we shall never be able to pay in full. But one that we shall benefit from immensely as we pay each installment, day by day. Every installment we pay will come back to us because that's the way love is. Will you covenant with God right now, that by His grace and with His help, you are going to love the people He brings into your life. You are not going to do anything to hurt them, but you are going to do everything you can for their best interests and blessing. It'll do amazing things in our lives. Absolutely amazing things.

Trusting Jesus as Your Savior

Would you bow your head with me right now? Let's commit ourselves to obeying God's Word. Bowed reverently before Him, let me ask you if you're willing to do this. Has God brought some conflict to your mind? Who are you thinking about in that relationship? Are you willing to think about their best interests, even before your own? Tell Him so right now, will you? Make that decision right now. Oh, what healing and reconciliation that would bring.

You know, I can't close this morning without reminding you that God paid a debt He did not owe. We owed it. We deserved eternal condemnation because of our sin. Even one little sin would be enough to separate us from Him. But He bore the punishment that we deserved. That's what the cross is all about.

Would you respond to His amazing, magnificent love? Acknowledge your sin and your willingness to turn from it, and put your faith in Christ who died there at Calvary for you. If you understand that concept and want to settle it today, I would suggest that you do it in prayer right now, in the quiet of your own heart. Not out loud. It's just between you and God.

"Lord, I'm a sinner. I believe that Jesus paid for my sin at Calvary. Lord Jesus, I put my faith in You right now as my Savior. Come into my heart and deliver me from the guilt and the condemnation, and yes, even the power of sin."

He longs for you to turn to Him in faith. Will you do that right now?

Closing Prayer

Father, I pray that the work of Your Spirit will be irresistible today, and that those who have never made this decision will settle it, and that all of us that have, will determine by Your grace, we're going to let You bear in us that beautiful fruit of Christlike love. For we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.


Continue to ROM 30: Wake Up, You Sleepyhead!