Commentary on Romans 13:8-14
In Romans 12:1-21, the Apostle Paul emphasizes the centrality of a renewed and transformed consciousness and mind.
Yes, all things start in the mind, and an untransformed mind can cause harm both to self and to the entire human family. Using the language of financial and economic transactions, Paul reverts to his theme of love as the basic virtue that informs, guides, and fulfills God’s commandments. In any event, the juxtaposition of debt to government and to one another is indeed paradoxical as well as metaphorical. It is paradoxical in that debt of any kind causes conflict, and metaphorical in that humanity’s debt of love to one another can lead to unstable and unhealthy relationships. The debt of love (verse 8) to which Paul refers seems to signify a constant search and growth toward holistic love. However, growing into love is hampered when we treat each other poorly. In Africa, South America, Asia, and Latin America, growing in love is an uphill task because of colonization and the related experiences endured by the nations of these regions at the hands of more powerful nations. If this love is to be realized, the once colonizer and the once colonized must have a clear and transformed mind to be able to face the pain imposed on each other. In this case, and in the metaphorical language of the Apostle Paul, love must be desired and learned in an environment of trust, peace, justice, and reconciliation.
In other words, both the oppressed and the oppressor owe each other a different love, one that leads to a restoration of genuine relationships. It is clear in these verses that love is the grand ground on which everything grows and flourishes, but more work has to be done, especially toward humanizing the other. While hate and oppression dehumanize others, love, if well done and exercised, will give birth to a new world order, one in which healthy love can be nursed, grow, and flourish.
The global church has both an evangelical and missional task, of which the Apostle Paul is teaching in Romans 13:8-10. That task is for humanity to see ourselves in each other’s face. Indeed, to love is to preach the gospel, because the heart of the gospel is found in our love of the other. From time immemorial, humanity has been obsessed with the notion of searching for happiness as the number one goal of life, yet the Bible is clear that God’s people must first look for and grow in love (Luke 10; 1 Corinthians 13:8-13). In other words, the church may never realize its God-given potential until it learns to love others. Thus, knowing how to function in love will help Christian practitioners to discover the purposes of God in and around the world. In fact, the mission of God and the mission of the church must be baptized in compassionate love for others. This love is the ground on which Jesus operated throughout his ministry and in the resurrection. While hate destroys persons and societies alike, love attracts and allows people to respond in kind ways. This seems to be the very center of Paul’s message in verses 8-10; love has the power to build a community and to transform people’s lives in ways consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The language of debt signals a call to live a responsible life, especially on Christians who experience the love of Jesus Christ and are called to live in love. Our failure to love makes us debtors to God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and consequently, to one another. A transformed consciousness, as Paul teaches in Romans 12:1-2, leads to a transformed, loving ministry. In other words, love activates love in others, and by so doing, it becomes an undercurrent flowing to fill empty hearts, souls, and minds. While the notion of “end time” is not appreciated by many Christians, its meaning is perhaps hidden in the idea behind the language of debt; failure to pay one’s debts on time may lead one to die before settling ethical and moral life principles. Family members have died without even telling their families how much they love them. Love, then, must be a lifestyle; we must live, move, and be molded by the desire to love.
The main challenge of our time is to live with a transformed mind, a mind that is open to the other and leads to inner transformation. It is crucial for Christians to consider each human being as a loving partner on the journey of life, and to live each day beyond the self. The church is indeed a place where persons can be organized, socialized, and mobilized to effectively love others. Like art, love can be used as a way for people to express, explore, and perceive the world in new and revitalizing ways. To grow in love is surely a constant form of growing in creative labor.
If love does not dictate the way people treat each other, the human family will slide into the darkness that Paul talks about in Romans 13:12-13. This imagery of darkness is already part of the world and even part of the church itself. The tragedy of the church is when theologically-educated pastors become lost in their vocation to be instruments of love. When this occurs, they abdicate and abscond their role as advocates of the gospel, rather than being messengers of its power to bring love, peace, justice, and light to the world. Instead of being ambassadors for the gospel, many clergy have become deeply ideological and political. Hence, the Apostle Paul emphasizes that leaders must come out of the darkness of this world and strive to be children of the light (Romans 13:13).
It is tragic how many theologically trained pastors leave ministry due to a range of immoral and irresponsible behaviors. As verse 14 emphasizes, Christians of all sorts and backgrounds must make a choice to live spiritual lives, and must epitomize Jesus Christ at all times for his ministry, his death, and his resurrection. The church that grows in love should make a divine migration from works of the flesh to living in the realm of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:16-25). In Galatians 5, the Apostle Paul draws a map for those who chose to follow this migration of love; it is the choice for each Christian to make.