by Steve Zeisler
There was a folk song called Sixteen Tons that was popular in the
fifties. It told the story of a coal miner who worked hard and could mine
as much as sixteen tons of coal a day. The community he lived in was dominated
economically by the coal mining company, which charged exorbitant prices.
So this hard-working miner could never earn more than it cost him to live.
There is a poignant refrain to the song:
Sixteen tons and what do you get?
The phrase that captured my thinking this week in preparing for this sermon
was "I owe my soul." Freedom can be restricted from the outside
by the circumstances you are in, failure of health, imprisonment, etc. But
the loss of freedom that comes from the inside, a restricted soul, is more
Another day older and deeper in debt.
St. Peter, don't you call me 'cause I can't go---
I owe my soul to the company store.
At the heart of this passage is a cry of freedom, what it means to be able
to live as people who are free to love one another; free of any sense of
self-recrimination, guilt, uncertainty, or doubt. The passage speaks of
freedom from two things in the final analysis: debt and darkness. When we
are freed from what debt can do to us and from the lies of darkness, we
are people whose lives can be lived to the glory of God. Romans 13:8-14:
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to
love one another, for he who loves his fellow man has fulfilled the law.
The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder,"
"Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment
there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as
yourself." Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the
fulfillment of the law.
And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to
wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when
we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So
let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let
us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not
in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather,
clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how
to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
Owe No One Anything
The first call in verse 8 is that we should owe no one anything. The way
indebtedness works on us is important for us to consider. When we owe someone
money, or when we have an obligation or a responsibility that remains unfulfilled,
it completely restricts our freedom, doesn't it? The coal miner said that
even St. Peter couldn't call him to heaven because of his debt. When you
are burdened by a weight of debt or financial responsibility, you are not
free to listen to the call of God to send you someplace else. Neither are
you free to use your time for the benefit of other people or for the encouragement
of your own faith. You have to continue to service the debt you have incurred.
You have to live for someone else's agenda and meet the obligations that
have been set before you.
The point made in verse 8 grows out of what we saw in verse 7, where Paul
was talking about how government and its influence in our lives can be a
source of freedom for us. In verse 3 he had said, "Do you want to be
free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right." That
is, if we would live free and fearless lives before the government, we ought
to act in such a way that we bear no responsibility to it---we haven't done
anything wrong. You can still get busted for righteousness; if that's the
case, then so be it. But the government has nothing against us---no irresponsible
action, subversion, or deceit. Then in verse 7 Paul said, "Give everyone
what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue;
if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor." That argument is carried
on now. Don't owe anyone anything. Pay the debt and thus gain freedom to
live life with a further, royal obligation: to love everyone. That is a
gloriously freeing way to live.
Now, there are debts that we can enter into, given our banking system and
other elements of the world we live in, that are probably not in Paul's
mind here. For instance, you can take out a loan to buy a piece of real
property that retains its value, so that technically you are not in debt,
because what you own is worth more than the loan. If worse comes to worst
you can sell the property and pay off the debt. Even if you borrow money
to pay for an education, you gain something that is valuable to you as a
result. What Paul is referring to is rather the kind of debt that is frivolous,
in which you have taken someone else's money and used it for your pleasure
or short-term gain.
Money has a way of ruining relationships time and again. I'm sure you have
seen this (I hope you have had infrequent experience of it in your own life).
I know families that have come to complete knives' points with one another
when an inheritance was being distributed. Brothers and sisters who ought
to have loved each other were angry and selfish, and they vilified one another
in order to gain a little advantage financially. The worst fighting in divorce
cases is often over who should get the most money. Anger and bitterness
build up. It happens in partnerships that go stale or friendships where
one has loaned money to another. Freedom from the ruinous things that money
can do to us in relationships is what Paul is advocating here.
The Glorious Debt of Love
We are to owe nothing to anyone except a debt of love to everyone that we
will never be able to repay. The responsibility to love everybody is what
ought to control us and what grants us real and glorious freedom. This word
for love is the great New Testament word agape, used by Jesus and
the writers of the New Testament to indicate the love of God for us. It
is love that is selfless, that longs to give itself away and demands nothing
in return. That is a debt we always have to everybody.
Where does agape love come from? In chapter 5 verse 5 Paul has already
spoken to this point: "...God has poured out his love into our hearts
by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us." Again in chapter 8 verse
39 he has said, "[Nothing] will be able to separate us from the love
of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." We have been given so much
that our lives are overflowing with the experience of being loved by God,
being gathered up and shown mercy, treated tenderly, and empowered by him.
Therefore we are able to turn to every single person we meet with the longing
to be a blessing to them, and having loved them today we can look forward
with delight to loving them more tomorrow. It is a debt that never goes
away, and it is filled with life.
Paul argues here that the law is fulfilled by taking up the responsibility
to love everyone. There are two senses in which this is true. First, what
Paul quotes here are those of the Ten commandments that have to do with
relationships between people (what scholars call the second table of the
Ten Commandments, the first table being those of the Ten Commandments that
have to do with laws about our relationship with God). Don't steal, don't
covet, don't commit adultery, don't murder, and so on. We completely fulfill
or overwhelm these commandments if we find ourselves committed to love one
another. The commandments are all stated in negative terms. Love is committed
to the positive. If you are committed to loving your neighbor, you will
be so excited about sharing the truth with him, so enthusiastic about pouring
out your life for him, and so creative in all your efforts to find a way
to do good to him, that it would never occur to you to lie to him, steal
from him, or take his wife to bed. So in terms of human relationships, if
we are committed to the royal commandment to love one another, all responsibilities
The second sense in which the law is fulfilled by taking up the commandment
to love is that we will never feel that we have failed God by not keeping
the commandments. These commandments have to do with relationships with
each other, but they are given by God, and he will hold us accountable for
them. If we learn to love, we are completely free from failure or indebtedness
in human relationships. And so we are free from worrying about whether God
is disappointed with us in some way, whether we have let him down or whether
we deserve judgment. If we have allowed others to experience the love poured
into our own hearts by the way we treat them, there is no debt left. The
call to love is the most freeing word we can be given. There is nothing
we haven't done, no failure we have to answer for, no weakness that will
come along and trip us up later, no hidden pocket of dishonesty.
The Power of Love
The phrase "Love your neighbor as yourself" is quoted from the
Old Testament. The assumption is that we will love ourselves, because God
loves us. We are valuable to him, and we ought to have a sense of dignity,
approval, and self-respect. Love for other people is twisted tortuously
in the thinking of some to mean that they themselves have no value at all.
They will lay down their life for other people because there is nothing
worthwhile about their life. But that is not the point. Having received
the love of God, who is already caring for us and meeting our needs, we
are then free to joyfully lay down our lives for others because their lives
are as valuable as ours.
I was talking to a woman this week about the work environment where she
spends Monday through Friday. It is a very impressive place that is widely
respected. It is filled with bright people who have advanced degrees and
are highly regarded. The person with the least exalted position in the office
is a receptionist who answers the phones, greets people when they come in
the door, takes messages, and does a little light typing. The woman who
formerly held that position was recently replaced by someone else, and change
has overtaken everybody in the office.
The new person begins each day by saying, "Is there anything I can
do for you, any way I can serve you? Is there anything more I can offer
or some way I can be more helpful?" The former receptionist was defensive
and angry, and it was an effort to gain any response from her. She had been
in place for so long that people had stopped noticing; that environment
was just assumed. But my friend said the change is extraordinary. People
who are doing very high-level, important things have a bounce in their step,
look forward to doing what they are doing, and feel a sense of energy that
they did not have before because this one person at the lowest end of the
prestige chain begins each day the way she does. She has changed the entire
I'm convinced that this is what Paul is talking about here. All of us should
be free enough to say to those around us, "Is there anything that I
can do that would lift a burden or encourage hope in your life? Can I sit
with my arm around you for a minute? I've been given so much after all;
I'm so grateful for what I have. Is there something I can do for you?"
If one person in my friend's office can have the effect she described, imagine
what it would be like if this church full of people entered the world that
we live in with that sense of freedom to love---no longer in debt except
for the one debt that is never paid, the debt to love everyone.
The Hour Has Come To Wake Up!
Debt is one form of restriction or bondage, one way our soul is restricted.
The second paragraph of this section regards darkness as another form of
domination, another way our lives can be less free than they ought to be.
Verses 11-12: "And do this, understanding the present time. The hour
has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is
nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day
is almost here."
There are two things that are going to be discovered in the darkness. One
is sleepiness. Another is what Paul will call the deeds of darkness---orgies,
debauchery, and dissension. But his first assertion is, "Look at the
present times---don't you realize it's almost dawn? The day is almost here.
Salvation is nearer than when we first believed." What kind of world
do we live in---one that is going to go on exactly as it always has, where
nothing will ever change and God will not intervene; or one where the Lord
may return at any moment?
It is confusing for some to read this because Paul wrote it over nineteen
hundred years ago. Would he have been surprised to find that nineteen centuries
would pass without the Lord's return? I don't think so. Jesus told parables
about his return. He spoke about stewards who were given a responsibility
and were eager and responsible for awhile, but the master kept delaying
his return. Eventually, the hard hearts among them completely gave up believing
that he would return and began to serve themselves. Jesus also told a parable
about bridesmaids who were to wait for the groom to come. The night dragged
on and on much longer than expected; they were unprepared, hadn't brought
enough lamp oil, and they missed out when he finally did come.
I think Paul knew from Jesus' teaching that the second coming is always
near, but that there is need for long term watchfulness. And no matter which
day he comes back for his bride, every one of us lives a heartbeat away
from joining Jesus Christ at his second coming. None of us knows how far
away that is. Today the end is nearer than it was yesterday. That ought
to create a sense of anticipation and passion for us. It ought to be a reminder
that lets us throw off sleepiness and makes us eager for the truth.
My forty-fifth birthday is this week, and I realize by most actuarial tables
that I'm beyond halfway. If we think of our lives as being unchanging and
endless, then we are fools. My young children that I used to be able to
carry in one arm are grown up, and it happened overnight.
Here is a word from 2 Peter 3:8-10 about the nearness of the end: "But
do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like
a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow
in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with
you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But
the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with
a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything
in it will be laid bare." The Lord will come, and we live nearer dawn
than human society has ever been before.
I was sick on Thursday with some twenty-four-hour flu bug. I just felt awful.
I couldn't think, and I was so weak that every time I tried to stand I just
wanted to sit down again. I realized that I was dozing off, and I lay down
half-awake and half-asleep. I could kind of respond to a few things, but
then I would nod off again. Sickness can create that kind of slumber in
which you want to be asleep all the time and you can hardly keep yourself
But there are times when we really choose to let slumber descend on us,
aren't there? You know if you have ever had the habit of exercise that you
don't get out of shape overnight. You get out of shape by making little
decisions over time. Other things catch up with you, and then you find yourself
physically asleep; that is, out of shape---slothful, inattentive, unresponsive.
Good relationships also dull over time. They can be put to sleep by a little
staleness, a little lack of attention. Time goes by and nothing is said
or done to strengthen the relationship. Pretty soon it too is subject to
sleep, or loss of effectiveness and dimness. Proverbs 24:30-34 speaks about
"I went past the field of the sluggard,
past the vineyard of the man who lacks judgment;
thorns had come up everywhere,
and the ground was covered with weeds,
and the stone wall was in ruins.
I applied my heart to what I observed,
and learned a lesson from what I saw:
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest---
and poverty will come on you like a bandit
and scarcity like an armed man."
Slumber is a loss of energy, joy, effectiveness, bounce, and passion; and
it usually comes by many little decisions over time. It comes by nodding
off a little bit, not having time for an energetic encounter with God that
is life-giving again. Paul is trying to stir us awake. The end is much nearer
than it has ever been before. For any of us it might be this very day. Therefore
the hour has come for you to wake up and take seriously the things of the
Christian faith. Be excited about what God is excited about, and be engaged
in the things that matter to him!
Put On the Armor of Light
Darkness has a second pull at believing people who ought to be living differently.
Paul goes on to talk about the deeds of darkness. Verse 13: "Let
us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not
in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy."
There are three pairs here that describe choices made in the dark to let
things get out of control. We insist on restraint in the daytime when other
people can clearly see what we are doing. But when it is night and darkness
has descended, we might not be noticed, and then all of us have a tendency
to let things get out of control.
Escapism is one of the things we give in to in the darkness. That is what
Paul has in mind when he speaks of orgies and drunkenness. These are matters
of letting chemicals, fun or pleasure, and other things anesthetize us to
everything else; letting ourselves escape into what is unhealthy.
Out-of-control sexuality is the second pair: sexual immorality and debauchery.
We wouldn't do these things in the daytime, but we find ourselves willing
to let things go in the dark.
The third pair hits close to home and is perhaps frequently covered over
by Christian people (not that the other two aren't close enough to home).
Dissension and jealousy are out-of-control anger and selfishness, in which
we spend our time stewing in our hurt feelings and letting them command
us. We put others down; we are jealous and wrathful and spiteful.
I spent one year in a fraternity when I was an undergraduate. I remember
waking up after a party that had gone completely out of control; looking
at the fraternity house, our home; and finding it completely trashed---broken
lamps and windows, and various sorts of remains scattered all about the
place. It looked different in the daylight. Uncontrolled "deeds of
darkness" chosen at night were ugly to contemplate in the morning.
Deeds of darkness need to be exposed to the light. He says we are to put
on the armor of light so that wherever we go the light is there. We don't
give ourselves permission to live with the deeds of darkness. We are freer
than that; we do not need to be controlled by the kinds of things that end
up ruining us. Rather, we are armored in the light---anticipating daybreak,
knowing that it is coming, reaching out and inviting the daylight into our
experience right now. That is real freedom. Slumber as well as escapism,
sexual sin, and anger or dissension are all forms of bondage. Our lives
are reduced by them. Freedom from debt allows us to love with passion, awakening
from slumber allows us to live with energy, and putting on the armor of
light allows us to set aside the deeds of the darkness. We owe our soul
to nobody. Our soul is the companion of Christ, and we can live as we were
meant to live.
Clothe Yourself With Christ
The imagery of clothing is also important. In verse 14 Paul says, "...Clothe
yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify
the desires of the sinful nature." (The last clause is better translated,
"...make no provision [or opportunity] for the flesh," or, "...grant
no place to the sinful nature.") Our clothing is our identity. That
is the idea behind this verse. What you wear reflects what you think about
yourself. If you go into Tower Records, you will see people with spiked
green hair and all kinds of odd things hanging off their ears and stuck
in their cheeks. They are making a statement about who they are. People
who "dress for success" are saying that the clothes make the person;
they announce something about you, so you ought to learn to dress in such
a way that you will control the impression given and ultimately think differently
about yourself. If we clothe ourselves with Christ, it means that we believe
we belong to him. That is a statement we are making to the world about ourselves.
We have received power, grace, and identity from him.
The sticking point to this is that we make no provision for the flesh; we
make no plans to gratify the sinful nature. We don't say, "Yes, but..."
or "I'll put on Christ, but retain plan B if things become difficult."
We will make no opening to let the sinful nature have its way with us again.
I was typing this very phrase when the mail came on Friday, and there was
the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. I thought, "Well, interesting
timing, Lord." I was glad for a precise word of scripture that helped
me reject putting images in my mind that would do me no good.
One of the most terrible chapters in the Bible is 2 Samuel 13. It tells
the story of the rape of Tamar. But it begins this way: "In the course
of time, Amnon son of David fell in love with Tamar, the beautiful sister
of Absalom son of David. Amnon became frustrated to the point of illness
on account of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin, and it seemed impossible
for him to do anything to her. Now Amnon had a friend named Jonadab son
of Shimeah, David's brother. Jonadab was a very shrewd man...." The
rest of the account goes on to tell how Jonadab advised this young man to
act on all his worst impulses; which led to rape, death, and shame of horrible
proportions. If you have a friend who will help you sin if you go to them,
cut off the friendship. Leave no avenues in your life by which all the old
things can come back and reassert themselves in you. Don't leave chinks
in the armor; don't leave the weak places undefended. Don't listen to the
voices that you know are going to drag you down.
I have found myself at times rehearsing angry speeches in my head---speeches
that I assume I will never utter. And thensuddenly because they have been
well-rehearsed, if the opportunity comes for me to hurt the person---Bam!
The whole thing comes out. I knew all the lines too well. I thought I could
control my feelings when the opportunity came up, but I couldn't. When we
are feeling sorry and miserable, instead of going someplace where people
will stand us on our feet again, we can associate with people who will make
the self-pity worse. When we do that we are making opportunity for what
is wrong instead of clothing ourselves with the Lord Jesus. We are his,
and he lives his life through us. We must claim our identity, and set aside
This passage in Romans is famous because of its association with St. Augustine.
Augustine led a life of debauchery. He was out of control and miserable.
Sitting in a garden one day, he heard the voice of a child saying, "Take
up and read." He turned in the New Testament to the book of Romans
and read these verses: "The night is nearly over; the day is almost
here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of
light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness,
not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.
Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about
how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature." For the first time
in his life, he realized that there was a way to be free of all that had
bound him. He went on to become one of the greatest figures, by anybody's
estimation, in the history of the race.
There is an alternative to sleeping, to the deeds of darkness, and to a
life that is controlled by indebtedness; clothe yourself with the Lord Jesus
Catalog No. 4356
February 13, 1993
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