This lecture was recorded in 1839 and please consider it in the context of what’s going on in our world right now. (djm)
By Charles Finney
Rom. 13:8: "Owe no man any thing."
The meaning of this text, like most others, is to be learned from a careful examination of the verses in its connection. The Apostle begins the chapter by enforcing the duty of obedience to civil magistrates.
"Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God, and they that resist shall receive unto themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same. For he is the minister of God unto thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must be subject not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For, for this cause pay ye tribute also, for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing."
They are the servants of God, employed for your benefit. You are therefore to pay them tribute; i.e. give them the support which their circumstances require.
In the light of this and various other passages of scripture, I have often wondered how it was possible that any person could call in question the duty of obeying civil magistrates. Or how they could call in question the right and duty of magistrates to inflict civil penalties, and even capital punishment, where the nature of the case demands it. Certainly this passage recognizes their right and their duty "to execute wrath" upon transgressors, as the servants and executioners of God’s vengeance.
"Render therefore to all their dues; tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. Owe no man any thing, but to love one another; for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet, and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, viz: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law."
From this connection, it is evident that the Apostle designed to teach, that whenever we come to owe a man, we should immediately pay him. And not suffer any debt or obligation to rest upon us undischarged.
"Owe no man any thing, but to love one another." Here the Apostle recognizes the truth that love is of perpetual obligation. And that this obligation can never be so canceled or discharged as to be no longer binding. He recognizes no other obligation except love with its natural fruits as being, in its own nature, of perpetual obligation.
In respect to this obligation, all that we can do is to fulfill it every moment, without the possibility of so fulfilling it, as to set aside the continued obligation to love.
But we are to owe no man any thing else but love. We are to "render to all their dues, tribute to whom tribute is due, honor to whom honor."
I understand the text, then, simply to mean, let no obligation but that of love with its natural fruits, which is, from its very nature, a perpetual obligation, rest upon you undischarged.
I am aware that some modern critics maintain that this passage should have been rendered indicatively. But such men as Doddridge, and Henry, Barnes, and Prof. Stuart, are of opinion that its imperative rendering is correct. And all are agreed that the doctrine of this text, as it stands, is plainly a doctrine of the Bible.
Here the question arises, what is it to owe a man in the sense of this text? I answer,
If you employ a laborer, and do not stipulate the time and terms of payment, it is taken for granted that he is to be paid when his work is done, and to have the money. If you hire him for a day, and nothing is said to the contrary, he cannot demand his pay till his day’s work is done.–Till then you owe him nothing. The same is true if you hire him for a week, or a month, or a year. When the time which he is to labor is stipulated, and nothing is said about the time and terms of payment, you owe him nothing, i.e. nothing is due till his time has expired. Then you owe him, and then you are bound to pay him, and pay him the money. But if the time was not specified which he was to labor, he may break off at any time, and demand pay for what he has done. Or if the time of payment was expressed or understood, whenever it arrives, you then owe him, and are bound to pay him agreeably to the understanding.
The same is true if you hire a horse, or any other piece of property. If you hire it for a specified time, and nothing is said of the conditions of payment, the understanding is that you are to pay when the time for which the property was hired, has expired. It then becomes a debt. Then you are to pay, and pay the money. If there were any other understanding, fixing the time and terms of payment, you do not owe the man until the specified conditions are complied with.
The same is true if you purchase any piece of property. If nothing is stipulated to the contrary, the understanding is that you are to pay the cash, at the time you receive the property. At that time, and neither before nor after, you are expected to pay the purchase money.
We do not properly owe an individual until we are under an obligation to pay him. Whenever he has a right to demand the pay, we have no right to withhold it.
There may be such a thing as contracting a prospective debt, giving your obligation to become due at a certain time. But then you do not properly owe, because you are under no obligation to pay till it becomes due. But whenever it becomes due you are bound immediately to pay it.