One of the chief dangers for a Christian is spiritual backsliding. Many people who grow up in the church take the gospel for granted; therefore, they often neglect the relationship they are to have with God. They know and love the doctrines of the Reformed faith but do not know how to apply them to their everyday lives. The result is an aimless life that may well be shipwrecked for time and eternity.
Paul begins this passage by instructing his readers that they are to leave no debt outstanding—except the debt of love. This does not mean that we are not to go into any debt of any kind. In fact, quite the opposite is true. We have debts of many kinds: tribute, honor, respect, faithfulness, to name a few. These must all be given to those to whom they are due. We must render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.
On the other hand, it does mean that we must promptly and scrupulously pay our monetary debts. If we are able to pay our debts and fail to do so, we steal from our neighbor that which is rightly his. Years ago I had coffee with the owner of a feed mill who told me that he had paid for the Christian education of many members of our church. When I thanked him for his generosity, he replied that it had not been on purpose. Christian farmers had paid their school tuition, but not their feed bill.
The world has no respect for a church member who tries to squeeze out of meeting his financial obligations. The Christian testimony of the church member is quickly lost as the non-church member decides there really is no difference between the person who claims to be a child of God and the one who does not.
A Time to Love
There is one debt that can never be fully paid, and that is the debt of love. Paul exhorts his readers to love one another by fulfilling the second table of the law because love is the fulfillment of the law. The Christian can never say, “I have loved my neighbor by performing this task and now I am no longer under obligation to do so.” We must always love him—this day and the next—all the days of our lives. When we are filled with the love of God and seek to reflect His love, we will promote the interests and well-being of others with the same zeal and sincerity we use to tend to our own needs. As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, “I should do what I can to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name” (Lord’s Day 43).
This is something the modern world cannot understand. We toss around words like rights and entitlement, thinking too much of ourselves and what we think we deserve from life. While the United States Bill of Rights does guarantee her citizens certain freedoms, we have carried it to the point where we believe we have the right to many luxuries. We have the right to use foul language in public, guaranteed home mortgages, and free health care. Several years ago in Michigan, a senior-citizen housing project spliced into a cable TV hook-up, giving all the residents free cable TV. After all, they argued, senior citizens have the right to free cable television. Even the local newspaper painted the cable company as the villain when it disconnected the spliced wires.
So ingrained is this way of thinking that we fail to recognize the obligations God has given to us. Many of our parents and grandparents grew up understanding the word duty. They knew the responsibilities that God set before them and the structures He had set in place within society and neighborly relationships. They worked hard, not only for themselves but also for their neighbors when help was needed.
Paul puts the matter rather simply. He tells us that owe our love to one another. It is not up to us to decide how our love is to be given or in what measure it is to be granted. It is simply and uniquely a quality of the Christian life. God has lavished His love on all true believers (1 John 3:1). While we were still in our sin and misery, the Father sent His only Son into the world to take upon Himself our sin and impute His righteousness to us. We are to be a people who are so filled with the love of God that we love. As those who have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16), we must love as Christ loves. It should be an automatic response to our Savior. This love is much more than mere sentiment that lasts only for a moment. It is more than loving for the sake of a reward. It is a steadfast, deliberate response to the love we have received from the Lord.
Such love does not replace the law, because it can only behave in a manner that corresponds with what the law demands. Certainly a genuine love for our neighbor would never think to steal from him or destroy his life or property. Such love is required of the Christian. Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). That statement is not a conditional clause, but a response: If A, then B. It is not “If you clean your room, I will reward you.” It is “If you throw a rock into the water, it will get wet.” There is an intimate relationship between law and love displayed in Paul’s writing. When we are filled with God’s love, we respond by keeping God’s law.
A Time to Wake Up
Paul tells his readers that they are to live in this love, understanding the present time. The day of salvation has come! The great mystery of salvation has been revealed by the Holy Spirit through the Son of God. The new age has arrived! Wake up and live in that age!
Since Paul is addressing the wake-up alarm to believers, he does not want to wake us up from the sleep of sin. The Christian knows that he is a sinner who has been delivered through the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made on the cross. Rather, Paul yearns for the believer to wake up from the sleep of indifference, carelessness, and thoughtlessness. It is time to be up and working for the kingdom because the return of the Lord Jesus Christ is nearer now than it ever has been.
Even for us, two thousand years later, salvation is nearer to us than when we first believed. We are traveling rapidly toward the time when Jesus Christ will come again. The believer knows that this world is not heading toward some blind dead-end brought about by global warming, nuclear holocaust, or terrorist uprising. No, this creation is headed toward the appointed time when Christ returns. Paul had written earlier that the whole of creation is looking forward to the day when the sons of God will be made visible (Rom. 8:19). In God’s timetable, everything is right on schedule.
It is an absolutely inescapable fact in God’s program for the world and the human race that Jesus will come again. This time, when Christ comes it will not be as a baby wrapped in strips of cloth to be ignored by the world. He is coming as the One who has been given all authority in heaven and on earth—as the judge of all the world.
Time to Dress Properly
When we prepare for a special occasion, we dress appropriately. As believers we anticipate the full revelation of our salvation when Christ returns. Paul exhorts us to dress properly for this fast-approaching moment when our earthly life will be finished and we enter the glory and rest of heaven. At that time our faith shall be sight. Until that time arrives, we should be preparing ourselves by putting away the deeds of darkness that encumber us. Instead, we are to clothe ourselves in the armor of light.
There is a misconception among many Christians that when Jesus comes again, suddenly, we are all going to be changed and become like Him. That may be true when it comes to our bodies. Certainly our old, decaying, sinful bodies will suddenly be transformed. All of our groaning, weakness, pains, and ills will disappear. I can’t wait until the time when that happens!!
While that is true, we have to remember that our bodies are only the outward shell of the inner life. We are not suddenly going to change in character or personality. No passage in all of Scripture teaches that. In fact, John teaches that when Jesus comes again, we shall be like Him (1 John 3:2). The goal of our lives, then, is that until Jesus comes again we must conform our lives to be like His life. What percentage of your life are you, as a Christian, like Jesus? What percentage of your life are you projecting your own image rather than that of Christ?
Paul insists that we prepare ourselves for the day of His appearing by reflecting the love that God has lavished on us toward one another. If our hope is truly fixed on Jesus Christ as our Savior and we long for the day that He returns, then we need to prepare ourselves for that day.
For as long as we are in this period between Jesus’ ascension and His return, we must behave decently, clothed in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is not just being clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ—it is rejoicing in His righteousness. It is living in gratitude to God for the good news of salvation. Living in that thanksgiving to God, we strive to become like Jesus.
As those dearly loved by the Father and bought by the blood of Jesus Christ, this is to be the goal of our lives. We want to be Christlike. The love that the Father has lavished on us must become so exciting, so overwhelming, and so real in our lives that we want to be like Him. We want to serve Him. We want to love Him.
No longer do we want to be engaged in the deeds of darkness. Do you love God? Then of course you do not want to take His name in vain. Do you love God? Then of course you do not want to love some other god. Do you love God? Then of course you will worship Him. That must become the desire of your heart. It is the goal of the Christian’s life. It is what we pray to be.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
- Does Paul teach in verse 8 that Christians are not to have financial debt?
- Which would you pay first—and why?
a. payment of debts, or providing food and clothing for the family?
b. paying the dentist, or buying a new television?
c. making a car payment, or your contribution to the church?
- The way Paul uses the word, is love a concept or an emotion? Explain.
- Why is the debt of love never fully paid?
- Since love is the fulfillment of the law, do Christians still need the Ten Commandments? Explain your answer.
- What kind of sleep is Paul referring to in verse 11? Why must we wake up?
- Do you think Paul expected Jesus Christ to return in his lifetime? Do you expect Jesus to return in your lifetime?
- What bearing does the coming of Christ have on your moral behavior?