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Owe no one anything except to love one another. (Romans 13:8)
Romans 13:8 is a simple, plain, straightforward command. But, because men are covetous (Proverbs 27:20) they argue against this verse to find room for their greedy hearts (2 Peter 2:14). Churches, Bible Colleges, and "Christian" Ministries often have incredible amounts of money that they owe to the banking institutions of the world. Their debts exist because they are not content with what they have (Hebrews 13:5). They want more money (Ephesians 5:5). So they covet and acquire debt.
The way of righteousness is not so. The Lord says to owe no one anything, and He means it.
I. The Verse And Its Context
The Greek word for "owe" in Romans 13:8 is opheilete and the basic idea of the word is "to be obligated." It is most often used in the New Testament with the infinitive to give the idea of "ought" (or "must," i.e. some kind of duty that ought to be done). But here in Romans 13:8 it is not used with the infinitive. Examples of this same Greek word used without the infinitive can be found in Matthew 23:16 & 18 for "he is obliged" (i.e.obligated), 1 Corinthians 7:3 for "due" (i.e. the affection due), and Luke 11:4 "indebted to us." The remaining passages all speak of financial debt, Matthew 18:28 (who owed him & you owe), 30 (the debt), 34 (that was due); Luke 7:41 (One owed); 16:5 (you owe), 7 (you owe); and Philemon 18 (owes) [Philemon 19 "owe" is prosopheileis].
The context of Romans 13:8 is the command to obey the governing authorities, and in verses 5-7 Paul writes,
Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God's ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
The Greek word for "due" in verse 7 is opheilas which is a noun form of the word used for "owe" in verse 8. In verse 7 Paul basically says, "Pay what you owe. If it's taxes, then pay the taxes. If it's customs, then pay the customs. If it's fear, then pay the fear. If it's honor, then pay the honor." Then in verse 8 he adds, "Owe no one anything except to love one another." In other words, be indebted to no one except for the on going debt of loving one another. The Contemporary English Version captures the idea well with, "Let love be your only debt" (Romans 13:8 CEV).
Some take Romans 13:8 to mean, "Pay your bills on time," but this is an absurd interpretation. If this was really what Paul was saying, then Paul would be commanding, "Don't pay love on time." In other words, pay your bills on time, but don't pay love on time. Leave love delinquent. For whatever the first part of verse 8 means ("Owe no one anything," or more literally, "to no one nothing owe"), the second part of the verse is exempt from the command in the first part, because Paul says "except."
Therefore, it is inconsistent and erroneous to say, "Paul's point is that all our financial obligations must be paid when they are due" (The MacArthur Study Bible, p. 1719, copyright 1997) for the first part of the verse, but then say "Believers are commanded to love" (ibid.) for the second part. Actually, if the first part was really "all our . . . obligations must be paid when they are due," then the second part, by necessity, would have to mean "except our love obligations." In other words, "our love obligations need not be paid when they are due." The debt of love is the exception to Paul's command at the beginning of the verse.
II. Lacking Nothing
Romans 13:8 is consistent with the type of life Paul commands in 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12.
But concerning brotherly love you have no need that I should write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do so toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, that you increase more and more; that you also aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and that you may lack nothing.
In the first section Paul exhorts them to love (as in Romans 13:8), and in the second section (verses 11-12) Paul exhorts them to be financially self-sufficient, self-supporting, to be in need of nothing. It is quite similar to "Owe no one anything." Most financial debts depict the opposite of walking properly and lacking nothing. Debt reveals a lack of something. It does not manifest a "lacking nothing." If there was no lack, there would be no debt.
Proverbs 22:7 says,
The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.
One who is indebted to another is one who has lacked in something, and it results in servitude (indebtedness); and the Scriptures command,
You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. (1 Corinthians 7:23)
This is particularly bad when "Christians" proclaim, "The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want" (Psalm 23:1; more literally, "I shall not lack"). Yet, in hypocrisy, they want (or think they "lack") and put themselves in debt. It is particularly evil when God instructs to be content with what you have (Hebrews 13:5), but, in disobedience to this command, people are malcontent, want more, borrow, and become a slave to whomever they are indebted. Such servitude is a consequence of covetousness (Hebrews 13:5). And this is serious, because the covetous will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5-6).
III. Obligations, Borrowing, Lending, & Debt
In the Scriptures, financial obligations, like the obligation to pay your taxes (Romans 13:7), and borrowing, are not seen as evil in and of themselves. Romans 13:7 should make this clear regarding financial obligations ("Render therefore to all their due"), and in the case of borrowing, 2 Kings 4:1-7 manifests a good time for borrowing. In 2 Kings 4, Elisha instructs the poor widow to borrow empty vessels from her neighbors in order to get her out of debt. Here is a man of God giving a command to borrow. 2 Kings 6:1-7 similarly records a borrowed ax head by one (or some) of the prophets. Moreover, lending, the privileged side of the borrowing transaction, is seen as a godly thing in Scripture (Deuteronomy 15:7-8; Psalm 37:26; 112:5; Proverbs 19:17), especially when nothing in return is expected (Luke 6:35; see also Psalm 37:26 "merciful;" and 112:5 "graciously"). But, the wicked borrow and do not repay (Psalm 37:21), and so there is also a time for obtaining collateral (Deuteronomy 24:10-13; Proverbs 20:16; 27:11-13).
Now, what is forbidden in Romans 13:8 is not a temporal obligation, like temporarily borrowing something. It is a continual obligation that is forbidden, a continual obligation that remains not paid off requiring that further payments be made on it. This is evident by its contrast with the debt of love. As it is written, "Owe no one anything, except [more literally] the love one another"(to agapan allalous). It is "the love one another" debt that is to remain. It is an obligation that requires further payments. Love cannot be paid off. Everything else should be, leaving nothing further due. As it is written, "Owe no one anything."
Therefore, Romans 13:8 is not forbidding financial obligations that are paid off like a tax bill. As Paul said in the previous verse, "Render therefore to all their due." What is forbidden in Romans 13:8 is allowing an obligation to continue without paying it off.
Furthermore, it can be seen from the law that indebtedness was not something God desired to continue among His people.
At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts. And this is the form of the release: Every creditor who has lent anything to his neighbor shall release it; he shall not require it of his neighbor or his brother, because it is called the Lord's release. Of a foreigner you may require it; but you shall give up your claim to what is owed by your brother, except when there may be no poor among you; for the Lord will greatly bless you in the land which the Lord your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance only if you carefully obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe with care all these commandments which I command you today. For the Lord your God will bless you just as He promised you; you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow; you shall reign over many nations, but they shall not reign over you. (Deuteronomy 15:1-6)
In the Lord's discourse on debt here, He makes no comment on the rightness or wrongness of the debts. He simply grants their release every seven years, except for when someone is in debt and there are no poor in the land (verse 4). In this case, the debt would not be released. Which, makes good sense, if there are no poor in the land, the person in debt did not get in debt because of some need, but rather some want; and no doubt, this should not be released.
If the Israelites obeyed the Lord, as the passage says (verse 6) they would not be cursed with having to borrow (Deuteronomy 28:44), but instead would be blessed with having an abundance and would be the lender (Deuteronomy 28:12). God's people can live out not borrowing and becoming indebted today, by being gracious (Proverbs 11:24-25) and content (Hebrews 13:5).
What are we to be content with? What is the Biblical view of a godly standard of living? Paul says,
For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. (1 Timothy 6:7-8)
We are to be content with food and clothing. This means exactly what it says. It does not say, "having food, clothing, a house, and a car to get to work." It says, "having food and clothing, with these we shall be content." Those who are not content simply with food and clothing and desire more are those who desire to be rich; because immediately after verse 8 Paul writes,
But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. (1 Timothy 6:9)
In other words, those who are not content with food and clothing, but desire more, fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. Being content with food and clothing is imperative to godly living and eternal life (Luke 14:33).
Hebrews also speaks of the contentment level when it says,
Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." (Hebrews 13:5)
We are to be content with "such things as [we] have." In other words, whatever we presently possess (tois parousin), we should be content with this. This "such things as you have" can be ever so much or ever so little, as Paul wrote,
Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. (Philippians 4:11-12)
Paul was content with an abundance, and with being in need. He was content in "whatever state" he was. This not only included being hungry at times, but even thirsty, poorly clothed, and homeless. As Paul wrote,
To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. (1 Corinthians 4:11)
in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness (2 Corinthians 11:27)
and yet he was content! Paul clearly was without covetousness (Hebrews 13:5). He worked with his own hands and provided for his own needs (2 Thessalonians 3:7-9), or other saints gave and helped meet his needs (Philippians 4:10-18). He was content with such things as he had (Hebrews 13:5), be that ever so little. It should be evident that Paul lived out his own words. He owed no one anything (Romans 13:8). This is one reason he was, at times, hungry, thirsty, poorly clothed, and homeless.
Paul was akin to those whom the world was not worthy (Hebrews 11:27-28). And Paul is our example.
Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern. (Philippians 3:17; see also 1 Corinthians 11:1; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9)
The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:9)
The God of peace will be with those who follow Paul's example, and his example is to be content in whatever state we are in (Philippians 4:11-12). Owe no one anything (Romans 13:8) is truly to be lived out. Are you unwilling to be destitute? Are you unwilling to be afflicted and tormented? Are you unwilling to wander about in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth? Then you are unworthy to be ranked among the people of faith (Hebrews 11:37-38; Luke 9:23-24; 14:33).
It is faith, faith in God, that it takes to live this out (Hebrews 11:6). This faith is something Jesus wondered if there would be any of when He returned (Luke 18:8). To be truly content with what you have and not go beyond your present resources ("such things as you have") and become indebted to a lender (Proverbs 22:7), this takes faith and a heart that is not covetous (Hebrews 13:5). For if a person was content with what he had, believed that God would never forsake him (Hebrews 13:5), and trusted God for His provision (Matthew 6:25-34; Luke 12:22-34), then he would not be enslaving himself to someone (Proverbs 22:7) for more money (Hebrews 13:5). Besides, any willful debt is presuming upon tomorrow. How do you know you will be able to pay in the future on a sum of money you are incapable of paying for today? Proverbs 27:1 says,
Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth. (see also James 2:13-14)
Now, if we have no choice in the matter, if under some circumstance we become indebted against our will, such indebtedness would not be a lack of contentment and covetousness. In fact, indebtedness is not in and of itself evil (1 Corinthians 6:12). The question is; why do you owe (Romans 13:8)? Because you are unwilling to suffer as Paul and be content (Hebrews 13:5) with the lot God has given you (Job 2:10)? If so, this is not a good reason.
In order to live this out in wisdom, and not bring upon yourself the result of your own folly and undue harm, what does all of this mandate? Faithfulness. Faithfulness before God in what He has given you.
He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in what is another man's, who will give you what is your own? No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. (Luke 16:10-13)
We are held accountable before God for what we do with our money and possessions (i.e. unrighteous mammon, see also Proverbs 5:21; 1 Timothy 6:17-19). As Jesus indicates in the verses above, if we have not been faithful before God with the unrighteous mammon, what makes us think God will give us the true riches (i.e. salvation, Revelation 21:7; 1 John 5:4)? As Jesus said, "You cannot serve God and mammon." Being unfaithful with the unrighteous mammon equates serving it. Being faithful with it equals serving God. There is no middle ground. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and despise the other.
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But you, O man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life. (1 Timothy 6:10-12a)
We are to flee a desire to be rich (1 Timothy 6:9) and any love for money (1 Timothy 6:10; Luke 16:13), and we are to pursue righteousness (right living). Therefore, fear God and be prudent with all that you possess. And, if riches increase, do not set your heart upon them (Psalm 62:10).
VI. Debt For Someone Else?
Here's where the deceitfulness of riches (Matthew 13:22; Mark 4:19) and the wicked heart of man (Jeremiah 17:9) come together in great unison. Some may argue for financial indebtedness calling it a "debt of love" when it is to help someone else. This would be true. It would be a debt of love, love for money (1 Timothy 6:10).
One of the realities of being rich is that a rich person can give money away. Proverbs 14:20 says,
The poor man is hated even by his own neighbor, but the rich has many friends. (see also Proverbs 19:4)
Proverbs 13:7 says,
There is one who makes himself rich, yet has nothing; and one who makes himself poor, yet has great riches.
One who does not have, but borrows and becomes indebted in order to give to someone else is one example of "one who makes himself rich, yet has nothing." At least, he had nothing to give (of his own), yet he is making himself out as a rich man who does have money to give away. As Hebrews 13:5 says,
Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have.
If you don't have, be content with that and know you are not able to help whomever it is you want to help. Instead of desiring to be rich (1 Timothy 6:9), be content that you are not able to give. Desiring you would have excess money to give away, is desiring to be rich (1 Timothy 6:9). This mindset, if continued in, leads to hell (1 Timothy 6:9).
VII. Opposing Arguments
1) "Paul took on a debt in Philemon 18."
Paul was ready and willing to take on Onesimus' debt, if he had one, as Paul wrote,
But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account.
If Onesimus did owe Philemon, there is nothing in the text that mandates that this was a continuing obligation, a debt, for Paul. In fact, Paul writes in the next verse,
I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay - not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides. (Philemon 19)
Paul says that he will repay. He does not say that he will make payments, or will revert to an installment plan. And, of course, he notes that Philemon himself is indebted to him in love.
2) "The man who feared the Lord in 2 Kings 4 was in debt."
Actually, the text does not elaborate as to whether the debt was acquired before he died or after. It also does not state why the debt exists. Moreover, this text is a good example for us to be warned by. This debt almost destroyed this family. Had God not intervened via a miracle, the sons would have been taken away and the widow would have had no hope of livelihood.
3) "It is not financially prudent to not use debt."
It is financially prudent to take heed to the wisdom of God (Proverbs 3:16; 22:4) whether you benefit financially in this life or not. The enduring riches come through the application of God's Word (Proverbs 8:18).
4) "You typically can't buy a new car without making car payments."
Then don't buy a new car, if you can't buy it without incurring debt (Romans 13:8).
5) "Most families could never afford to buy a home without taking out a mortgage." (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Romans 9-16, p. 246, copyright 1994)
Then don't buy a house, if you have to be indebted for one (Hebrews 13:5).
6) "Many businesses could not operate without borrowing money to invest in such things as buildings, equipment, and raw materials." (ibid.)
Then don't operate a business where you would have to enslave yourself so (Proverbs 22:7; 1 Corinthians 7:20-23).
VIII. What If I Already Have Debt?
Pay it off if you can. Owe no one anything (Romans 13:8). Sell what you can and make haste to keep the commandments of God (Psalm 119:59-60).
1. The Greek word "opheilete" is used with the infinitive in Luke 17:10 (duty to do); John 13:14 (ought to wash); 19:7 (ought to die); Acts 17:29 (ought not to think); Romans 15:1 (ought to bear), 27 (duty . . . to minister); 1 Corinthians 5:10 (would need to go); 7:36 (it must be); 9:10 (should plow in hope); 11:7 (ought to cover), 10 (ought to have); 2 Corinthians 12:11 (ought to have), 14 (ought not to lay up); Ephesians 5:28 (ought to love); 2 Thessalonians 1:3 (bound to thank God); 2:13 (bound to give thanks); Hebrews 2:17 (had to be); 5:3 (he is required), 12 (ought to be); 1 John 2:6 (ought . . . to walk); 3:16 (ought to lay down); 1 John 4:11 (ought to love); and 3 John 8 (ought to receive).
2. e.g. Believers Bible Commentary, New Testament, An Exposition of the Sacred Scriptures, by William MacDonald, p. 549, copyright 1989
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