Acceptable Debt


A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on September 4, 2011.

Romans 13:8-14

Recently I came across a posting on a website written by a Methodist pastor in upstate New York.  The pastor explained that for the past 250 years every aspiring Methodist pastor has been required to answer 17 questions that Methodist founder John Wesley used to test his ministers. 

Most of the questions are predictcable ordination questions.  But question number 16 might surprise us:  “Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?”  Of course, many seminary and divinity school graduates have substantial school loans, so answering this question honestly has become tougher than it used to me.  According to this New York pastor, these days when a bishop asks, “Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work,” many enterprising candidates answer, “I don’t embarrass easily!”  

Apparently, when it comes to debt, many Americans don’t embarrass easily.  According to the Federal Reserve, Americans collectively owe their creditors more than $2.1 trillion.  And we have the maxed out credit cards, second mortgages, foreclosures, and bankruptcies to prove it.

On the flip side, “debt” has become a four-letter word in Washington, D.C.  The recent congressional debt-limit debate, which most Americans of all political persuasions consider a debacle, shows just how politically loaded the term debt has become.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen our country so divided in my lifetime, and our national debt lies at the heart of the division.

The Apostle Paul was no economist.  Nevertheless he seems to take a hard financial line when he writes, Owe no one anything. A few interpreters take this injunction to mean that Paul opposed any kind of debt, period.  But most point out that in various and sundry places as the Bible offers guidelines for lending money, and while the Bible clearly urges us to avoid debt whenever possible, there are legitimate debts—home mortgages and school loans, for example—that are appropriate for Christians. 

In fact, a careful reading of Paul shows that he allows for what I’m calling “acceptable debt.”  In Romans 13:6-7 Paul makes it clear that Christians are expected to pay taxes to the government just like other Roman citizens, echoing Jesus who observed that believers should give to Caesar what is rightly Caesar’s.  Paul also said that we owe our leaders honor and respect, a belief that is sadly missing today in these fractious United States. 

Paul also spoke with great passion about other acceptable debt.  In Romans 1:14 and 1 Corinthians 9:16 he says he is indebted to God and every child of God to share the gospel as widely and powerfully as possible.   Woe to me, Paul says, if I do not proclaim the gospel!  In Romans 8:12 Paul says he owes it to God not to live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.        

But the debt Paul feels most passionate about is the one he describes in Romans 13:8—Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  As far as Paul is concerned, love is a debt owed by every person alive, and it’s a debt that can never be repaid in ten lifetimes, much less one. 

Why would Paul say such a thing?  Because Paul believes the fact that God loves us is the very heartbeat of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  God loves us not because we are good enough or because we can earn it.  We’re not, and we can’t.  God loves us because God is love.  Love is the essence of who God is.  God loved us so much he sent his only son for us.  And while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).  

What is the appropriate response to this unmerited love of God?  Jesus puts it this way in Mark 12:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart…soul…mind…and strength, (and) love your neighbor as yourself.  Paul, an apostle of Jesus, echoes his Master when he says, “love one another…(for all the commandments are) summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  

Okay, so we are called to love one another.  That’s no surprise since literally hundreds of thousands of sermons have been preached on this theme over 2000 years of church history.   But many of these sermons, including some I’ve preached, evaporate pretty quickly because they don’t spell out what love means. 

Paul doesn’t make that mistake as he goes to great lengths in his letters to flesh out the meaning of love.  In Romans 13 he begins, interestingly enough, with what love is not, or what love will not do.  For example Paul says, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor,” which reminds us of one of the cardinal principles of medical ethics that says, “First, do no harm.”

The most rudimentary level of love is doing no harm to others.  And so, for example, Paul cites four of the last five of the Ten Commandments:  “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet.”  These are examples of doing harm to individuals and society at large. 

We live in a time when some of the Ten Commandments are considered nothing more than quaint relics of the past.  For example, one cynical wife whose husband’s infidelity ended their marriage recently wrote, “Show me a loyal husband, and I'll show you one who's never had a real opportunity to stray."   Unfortunately lots of husbands and wives are straying into adultery these days, and we have thousands of broken families and scarred children to prove it.  Can anyone honestly say they are acting in a loving way when they covet and eventually take someone else’s spouse?   

But Paul doesn’t just define love negatively, in terms of what we should not do.  He defines the positive side of love with great eloquence. 

He begins by citing the Old Testament Law (Leviticus 19:18) as quoted by Jesus—Love your neighbor as yourself. So often when Paul speaks of loving others, he is urging Christians to love other Christians.  But in Romans 13, most interpreters are convinced that Paul is commanding Christians to love those inside and outside the household of faith. 

So Paul is in effect saying, “Love everybody on the face of the earth as you love yourself.”  Talk about tall orders!

Maybe you’ve heard the poem that reads,

            “To dwell above the with saints we love,

                        O that will be glory,

            But to live below with those we know,

                        Now that’s another story.”

Paul knows he’s issuing a tall order, but he doesn’t back off one inch.  In fact, building off Jesus’ teachings, Paul spells out what love looks like as no other writer in the New Testament. 

I don’t often read long passages of scripture inside a sermon.  But I’m going to break my rule today because there’s no point in my trying to improve upon Paul when Paul speaks so eloquently about love himself.

In Romans 12:9-21 Paul writes, Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Do no lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”  Do not be covercome with evil, but overcome evil with good.

Still not sure what Paul means when he says we are to love our neighbors as ourselves?  Then listen to this love classic located in 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 

Love never ends….And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Now please notice that love biblically understood puts far more emphasis on action than emotion.  Biblical love is less about warm and fuzzy feelings and far more about actions taken on behalf of another.  That’s why C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Do not waste your time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did.  As soon as we do this, we find one of the great secrets.  When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.  If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more.  When you do him a good deed, you will find yourself disliking him less.”

And, at the risk of going from preaching to meddling, notice how much our debt to love one another—a debt we can never pay off—flies in the face of the rugged individualism of our day.  There is a philosophy afoot today, made popular by authors like Ayn Rand—that says in America, you should love yourself instead of your neighbor.  Or at the very best, you love yourself, and let your neighbors love themselves.  According to this approach, we’re not indebted to help each other in any way unless we are in extreme circumstances, and then only temporarily.  We are ultimately only indebted to ourselves.

Of course, Christianity teaches a healthy brand of personal responsibility.  In 2 Thessalonians 3, Paul says to idle, irresponsible Christians that if they don’t work they won’t eat.  But that same Paul makes it clear that if you are a Christ-follower, you have a never-ending debt to help your neighbor so far as you are able.

Now if loving people at this level seems humanly impossible, that’s because it is.  Three factors must be in place for this bold brand of love to work.

First, we must be living through the power of the Holy Spirit rather than the dictates of the flesh.  Only by the power of the Spirit can truly love people in our biological family and church family, much less the general population. 

Second, Paul says, we need to be aware of the times.  Paul believed the end of history could come at any moment, and we should live accordingly.  Even those of us who are normally cynical about the end times have probably wondered a bit about the Apocalypse as we suffered an earthquake and a hurricane in the same week!  God only knows when the end will come—but one thing we know is that we are living in perilous times, and this is no time to waste time on trivial pursuits. 

Third, Paul says, we need to put on the Lord Jesus Christ.  What does that mean?  It means doing our part to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.  It means engaging in the process of spiritual formation so we might be conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.  Only a transformed mind makes it possible to love others with a transformed heart. 

One final word.  Remember, what Paul writes to the Romans is directed first and foremost to a congregation, not individuals.  If loving our neighbors as ourselves is fundamental to fulfilling the Law of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ, then how are we doing with that fundamental task at First Baptist Church?  

Who are our neighbors?  Are the hundred plus families who leave their children in our Children’s Center Monday through Friday our neighbors?  Are the scores of people who live across the street from us in Crystal Towers our neighbors?  Are the thousands of people who work downtown our neighbors?  Are the people who live in the Rescue Mission and the homeless shelters are neighbors?  Are the residents of the West End are neighbors?

What would it look like to love these neighbors as we love ourselves, or better yet, as Jesus loves us? 

I wonder.   

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Tags: David Hughes, Debt, Love, Paul, Sermons


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