A Commentary by John Stott
Paul turns back now from the ministry of the state (through its official representatives) to the duties of individual Christian people, particularly our responsibility to love. In fact the paragraph about the state is wedged between the two commands to love our enemy (12:20) and to love our neighbour (13:9). The fact that the state is charged with the administration of justice is in no way incompatible with our obligation to love. Three times in these three verses the apostle writes of the need to love our neighbour, and so alludes to Leviticus 19:18, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Indeed, he makes three affirmations about neighbour-love.
1). Love is an unpaid debt.
Earlier in his letter Paul has already referred several times to the importance of paying our debts. We are in debt to the unbelieving world to share the gospel with it (1:14); we are in debt to the Holy Spirit to live a holy life (8:12f.); we are in debt to the state to pay our taxes (13:6f.). It is in fact this reference to debt which forms the transition between verse 7 and verse 8. *Let no debt remain outstanding*, Paul writes *except the continuing debt to love one another* (8a). That is to say, we are to be punctilious in paying our bills and meeting our tax demands. Also, before entering into a mortgage or hire-purchase arrangement, we will want to make certain that we can manage the agreed repayments punctually. But there is one debt which will always remain outstanding, because we can never pay it, and that is our duty to love. We can never stop loving somebody and say ‘I have loved enough.’ Some commentators resist this interpretation on the ground that it seems to encourage us to acquiesce in our lovelessness. For we could then say: ‘I accept that I must pay my debts, but Scripture says I don’t have to pay my love-debt.’ So, as an alternative, it is pointed out that the words *ei me* could be translated not ‘except’ but ‘only’. The sentence would then read literally not ‘Owe nobody anything except to love one another’ (the NIV’s additional words ‘the continuing debt’ are not in the Greek text) but ‘Owe nobody anything; only love one another.’ The context is not favourable to such a weak anticlimax, however. It is better to understand Paul to mean that of course we must love our neighbour, as Scripture commands, even though we will always fall short of the love required of us; ‘that perpetual debt of love’ (JBP) will remain.