For the sake of each of us he laid down his life – worth no less than the universe. He demands of us in return our lives for the sake of each other.
Clement of Alexandria
What follows is our text from men’s Bible study today, from the pen of Paul (keep in mind that the debt and obligation in these verses come from the same word group – in all cases, something is owed by one to another):
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)
But, what does love look like among a community of Christians? Paul knows people, so he’s aware that in any conflict or uncomfortable situation, the narcissist in each of us will imagine that “I am the strong one, the more reasonable person, the mature and spiritual follower of Jesus.” So, what looks like a general appeal is actually targeting every one of us at our point of weakness:
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” (Romans 15:1–3 ESV)
Yes, we always think we’re strong and the other person is somehow weak or deficient. And, Paul appeals to Jesus and what He did in the Gospel as the example of how we should respond to “the failings of the weak” – the other person. In other words, Paul is saying, “because you’re so spiritual, you should be more than able to please them for their good.”
To do otherwise is to forget that God, in Christ, paid the debt of our reproaches, our lack of love – our wealth of sin at the cross. To go on in an unloving way, after all Jesus has done for us, is at cross purposes with the new life we have by the Spirit dwelling in us. We are acting like we still owe it to ourselves to be self-absorbed, self-centered, and, ultimately, self-destructive in our relationships:
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. (Romans 8:11–12 ESV)
But, it doesn’t end with Paul’s expectation for Christians to love their own. It’s reasonable to expect folks who share the same worldview or religious convictions to love one another. But, if you back up to Chapter 1 of Romans, you’ll find Paul expanding that debt of love to those outside the faith:
I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. (Romans 1:14–15 ESV)
Take note that in each of these instructions, the appeal isn’t to a code of ethics (though, Paul will appeal to codes as reasonable standards). He isn’t aiming at moral rehabilitation for the sake of society or the Pax Romana. Like Clement of Alexandria, Paul weighs the cost, the value of the life poured out on the Cross and puts our response into the vocabulary of debt or obligation. But, amazingly, we are obliged to pay our debt by simply loving and serving our fellow debtors – our fellow deadbeats, through the Gospel.