Thomas Chalmers

Lectures on Romans

ROMANS xiii, 8 - 11.
"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 steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

‘OWE no man anything.’ This precept of the apostle, limited within these few words, may signify one or other of these two things - either to leave not our debts unpaid; or, higher, and many would say more scrupulous still, never get into debt. The clause now quoted of our present verse may be looked to as a repetition of the clause in that verse which goes immediately before it - “Render unto all their dues “ - what is due, (debiturn, debt,) being the same with what is owing. And in this form too it admits of both the interpretations now given; either let every debt be at length cancelled, or let no debt ever be contracted. Never let it become a debt - Be in no man’s books. If he be an individual with whom you are dealing, pay the moment that you buy. Or if it be the government, and so the liability is not a price but a tax paid on the day that it becomes due. According to the usages of society, the injunction in this latter or more rigorous meaning of it is far from being generlly adhered to.

Perhaps it may not at all times suit the conveniences or even the possibilities of business, that each single transaction should be what in familiar phrase is termed a ready-money transaction. Perhaps even in the matters of family expenditure, it might save trouble, instead of paying daily and in detail, to pay at certain terms; and so with the consent, nay even the preference of both parties, is there often a running of accounts, and a discharge or settlement of these periodically. We shall not therefore insist very resolutely or dogmatically on this rule of the apostle, in the literal or extreme sense of it. Perhaps it were an over-sensitive casuistry, a sort of ultraism in morals, to urge the unexcepted observance of our text in the very terms of this its second interpretation. There can be no doubt, however, that in the first interpretation of it, it is a matter of absolute and universal obligation. Though we cannot just say with full and perfect assurance, that a man should never in any circumstances get into debt - we can feel no hesitation in saying, that, once in, he should labour most strenuously and with all his might, to get out of it. I will not therefore be so altogether intolerent and peremptory, as to give it forth in the style of an aphorism or dictation - that he should never become a debtor to any man, be it for a single month or even single day. Yet will we proclaim it as a very high and undoubted ethical propriety - that each man, if in business, should so square his enterprises to his means; or, if in whatever else, should so square his expenditure to his income, as to be at all times within the limits of sufficiency or safety - so that, should the computation at any time be made, and were the settlement of all reckonings and claims whatsoever to take place at the moment accordingly, it be found of him at the very least, that in eustomary phrase he was even with the world, and so as that he could leave the world and owe no man any thing.

But though unwilling to press the duty of our text in the extreme and rigorous sense of it - yet I would fain aspire towards the full and practical establishment thereof, so as that the habit might become at length universal, not only of paying all debts, but even of making conscience never to contract, and therefore never to owe any. For although this might never be reached, it is well it should be looked at, nay moved forward to, as a sort of optimism, every approximation to which were a distinct step in advance, both for the moral aud economic good of society. For, first, in the world of trade, one cannot be insensible to the dire mischief that ensues from the spirit often so rampant, of ai excessive and unwarrantable speculation - so as to make it the most desirable of all consummations that the system of credit should at length give way, and what has been termed the ready-money system, the system of immediate payments in every commercial transaction, should be substituted in its place. The adventurer who, in the walks of merchandise, trades beyond his means, is often actuated by a passion as intense, and we fear too as criminal, as is the gamester, who in the haunts of fashionable dissipation, stakes beyond his fortune.

But it is not the injury alone, which the ambition that precipitates him into such deep and desperate hazards, brings upon his own character - neither is it the ruin that the splendid bankruptcy in which it terminates brings upon his own family - These are not the only evils which we deprecate - for over and above these, there is a far heavier disaster, a consequence in the train of such proceedings, of greatly wider and more malignant operation still, on the habit and condition of the working classes, gathered in hundreds around the mushroom establishment, and then thrown adrift among the other wrecks of its overthrow in utter helplessness and destitution on society. This frenzy of men hasting to be rich, like fever in the body natural, is a truly sore distemper in the body politic. No doubt they are also sufferers themselves, piercing their own hearts through with many sorrows; but it is the contemplation of this suffering in masses, which the sons and daughters of industry in humble life so often earn at their hands, that has ever led me to rank them among the, chief pests and disturbers of a commonwealth. But again, if they who trade beyond their means thus fall to be denounced, they especially in the higher and middle classes of life, who spend beyond their means and so run themselves into debt, merit the same condemnation. Perhaps they who buy on credit, certain of their inability to pay, as compared with those who borrow on speculation, and though uncertain of its proceeds, yet count on the favourable chances of success, so as that they shall be able to pay all - perhaps the former are distinctly the more inexcusable of the two.

But without entering on. this computation, we can imagine nothing more glaringly unprincipled and selfish than the conduct of those, who, to uphold their place and take part with their fellows in the giddy rounds of the festive and fashionable world, force out a splendour and luxury which their means are unequal to; and thus either build or adorn or entertain in a style so costly, that it must be done not at their own expence, beggared as they are by extravagance, but at the expence of tradesmen and artificers and shopkeepers, whom they hurry onward to beggary with themselves. I do not need to expatiate on a delinquency so grievous and undeniable as this. But you will at once perceive, how both the rage of speculation, prompted by what the apostle calls the lust of the eye, in the work of making a fortune; and the rage of exhibition and excess, stimulated by the pride of life, in the work of overspending it - the one sowing the wind, and the other reaping the whirlwind - how both of these would be effectually mitigated and kept in check, were all men to act on the sacred prohibition of "Owe no, man any thing.”

But lastly, there is another application of this precept, to me the most interesting of all - because of all others the application, which if fully carried out, would tell more beneficially than any other on that high object of enlightened philanthropy, the greatest happiness of the greatest number; and so make a larger contribution than any we have yet specified to the well-being of a then happy and healthful society. What I advert to as a thing of pre-eminent worth and importance is, that men in humble life, our artizans, our mechanics, and labourers, should be effectually taught in the art of owing no man any thing; and learn to find their way from the pawn office to the savings’ bank - so that, instead of debtors to the one, they should become depositors in the other. That it is not so, is far more due to the want of management than to the want of means; and it needs but the kindness and trouble of a few benevolent attentions to put many on the way of it. It is this which, among other objects, makes it so urgently desirable - that every town should be broken up into small enough parishes, and every parish into small enough districts; and an official superintendant be attached to each, who, in perfect keeping with his character as a deacon, might charge himself with the economics of the poor, and tell them how so to husband their resources, as to save themselves from a sore and heavy burden, which often presses on them like an incubus that they never can shake off - we mean the debt usually contracted at the outset of a family establishment, and which keeps them in a state of difficulty and dependence to the end of their days.

It is not to be told how soon and how easily by a few cheap and simple and withal friendly advices, the whole platform of humble life might come to be raised, and the working classes be guided to an enlargement and sufficiency, which, save by dint of their own sobriety and providential habits, can never be realised. Though we cannot offer here the scientific demonstration of this great and glorious result, we may at least be suffered, as an act of homage, to make this acknowledgment in passing - that, in the practical department of Christianity, only second to our admiration of its perfect ethical system, is the admiration we have ever felt, and the unbounded confidence that we repose in the sound political economy of the New Testament.

‘But to love one another.’ The apostle here speaks of love as a debt, as a thing owing. He would have it to be our only debt; and that this alone is what we should still continue to owe, after having so acquitted ourselves of all other obligations, as to owe nothing else. The point to be remarked upon is, that the apostle should speak of love as a debt at all, as a thing that we owe - thus placing in the same category the duty under which we lie to love one another, as the duty to pay up the price of that which we had bought, or the sum that we had borrowed from him. It is certainly not so regarded in the light of natural conscience. We should never think that we did the same injustice to a neighbour by withholding our love from him, as we did to a creditor by withholding from him the payment of a debt. In that play or reciprocation of moral feeling and moral judgment which takes place between men and men in society, these two things are not so confounded. It is true that should God interpose with the commandment that we should so love, we owe every thing to Him; and would therefore, on this being intimated to us as His will, owe love to those who are around us, and love to all men.

But we at present speak of our natural sense of justice, as it decides and operates irrespectively of God’s will in a community of human beings; and are considering how it would pronounce on the matter of obligation - between the duty of paying an ordinary debt, and the duty of loving. Now we must be conscious of a wide diversity in our moral sensation,. if I may so term it, of these two things. I feel that I have a right to the payment of that which is owing to me; and that for the exaction of it I might bring the fear and the force of law to bear upon my debtor. I have no such feeling of a right to his love; and did I assert or prosecute such a right, did I try to seize upon the man’s affections in the same way tlat I might seize upon his goods, did I prefer a claim to his heart, and for the making of it good put either fear or force into operation - there would soon be found an element awanting, and which made this attempt at the compulsion of another’s love to be altogether a thing most outrageously and ridiculously wrong. The question still remains then as to any possible analogy between things which at the first blush of them appear so different; and how it is, that while in the most strict and literal sense of the word we owe a man the full value of all that we may have bought or borrowed from him - how it is, that with any propriety or by means of any figurative resemblance, I can be said to owe him my love also. What gives the strongest impression of a reciprocity in this matter, and brings it nearest to a thing of mutual and equitable obligation is, that celebrated moral sentence of our great Teacher - “Whatsoever things ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.”
Now we all would that men should love us, rather than that they should hate us; and it is a precept which at once announces its own equity, that what we should like from men, we should do to men, if we wish them to love us, it seems a selfish and unequitable thing, that we should not love them back again; or that we should not be willing to give them that, which we at the same time are abundantly willing to get from them. We do not just say, that, even on this principle, the obligation to love others is placed on the very same footing with the obligation to pay our debts - yet if on this principle we do not strictly and literally owe them our love, the moral sense of all men will go along with me when I say, that on this principle we at least ought to love them. Surely if we should like all men to love us, it is nothing but a fair and legitimate moral conclusion from this, that we in return should or ought to love all men. Now I would have you attend to the two terms, the owe and the ought. They have a common origin; and though not absolutely identical, this of itself demonstrates, if human language be at all the interpreter of human feeling, a certain affinity betwixt them. And accordingly they do substantially resemble each other thus far, that both of them - the payment of what we owe to others, and the love we are required to bear them - that both of these are duties.

But though generally, and to this extent, they are alike - still there is a difference between them; and on looking narrowly into it, we shall find what the difference is. In the one duty the payment of debt, there is not merely an obhigation upon the one side, there is a precise and counterpart right upon the other - it being not only my duty to pay what I owe to a creditor, but his right to challenge and enforce the payment. In the other duty, the love of a neighbour, it might be my obligation thus to love, but not necessarily his right to demand it of me. That there are other such duties, will appear still more clearly from this example - the duty of forgiveness. Here there may be an obligation, and most certainly no corresponding right - an obligation on my part to forgive the offender, while it were a contradiction in terms to say of him that he hath a right to be forgiven. The distinction is quite familiar to ethical writers; and they have had recourse to a peculiar nomenclature for the expression of it. In the one case, as with the virtues of truth and justice, where there is both a duty on the one side and a counterpart right upon the other, they are termed virtues of perfect obligation. In the other case, as with benevolence, whether in the form of mercy or hospitality or almsgiving or a kindness and courtesy beyond the general habits or expectations of any given neighbourhood - these, though all of them virtues in themselves which serve to grace and exalt the giver, yet for which no right or claim can be alleged by the receiver - these are but the virtues of imperfect obligations. This leads us to observe, that there are two distinct regimens, and both on the side of morality. There is the regimen of fear, and the regimen of conscience. Each might be brought to bear upon man at the same time, when the duty to be performed is one of perfect obligation - which it is not only right for every moral agent to observe; but in which also there is, counterpart to this, the holder of a right, who might by legal enforcement compel the observance of it, whether it be for the payment of a debt or the fulfilment of a promise.

On the side then of one and, the same virtue, there might both be the coarser regimen of fear, and the finer regimen of conscience - the one put into operation by a government within the breast, which tells of the right and the wrong, and, by the force of principle alone, persuades to the former, and restrains from the latter - the other put into operation by the government of a country which institutes a law, and ordains its penalties against all the aggressions of injustice. One could imagine a virtuous society where conscience was omnipotent and universal. - in virtue of which the government of principle might have perfect and unlimited sway, and so the government of law might be dispensed with. And there are many individuals, whose honour and integrity are full . guarantees for their punctual discharge of all the equities of social life; and of whom therefore it may be said that the law is not needed for such righteous persons - of which indeed they often, give proof, by the admirable way in which they acquit themselves also of the generosities of social life, those virtues of imperfect obligation, wherewith the law of the heart alone hath to do, and the law of the state or of the statute-book has, or ought to have no concern. But though the law of conscience be sufficient for these, it needs, in the actual state or character of humanity,.and for the effectual regulation of the commonwealth at large - it needs to be supplemented by the civil and criminal law of the country. And accordingly both influences might tell at once on the same individual. Both considerations are pressed by the apostle upon his converts - and this by the way proves that the distinction on which we insist is not a vain one - when he says, “Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.” It is well that you should keep hold of this distinction between a lower and a higher regimen - the regimen of fear, and the regimen of conscience-as it might prepare you for understanding another regimen, even higher than that of conscience; and lead you along to another distinction - we mean the distinction that we now announce between the regimen of conscience and the regimen of love.

In every exercise of the conscience, there seems a balancing between the right and the wrong - a comparison of opposites, grounded on the knowledge both of good and evil, whereupon, in virtue of its sense of rectitude, it enjoins a preference for the one, and an avoidance of the other. Now this work of comparison on the part of a moral agent, might as unnecessary be dispensed with - if in doing what is right he always did that which he liked -best; or, in other words, if the taste and affections did of themselves prompt, and at all times, that very conduct, which, had the arbitration of conscience been required, it would have pronounced to be our righteous and incumbent obligation. It might seem hard to say that conscience in this case would be persueded - yet there is a certain sense in which it would be true - for it is obvious enough, that if ‘we abandoned ourselves to our own heart’s desire, and that desire was ever, spontaneously and of its own full accord, on the side of that which is most righteous and best, the office of conscience, at least for the purposes of guidance or regulation, would then be uncalled for. And however difficult it might be to say that love would supersede conscience, we need go no farther than to our text for decisive instances of love superseding the commandment. For certain it is, that if we thoroughly loved a neighbour, loved him as we do ourselves, we could no more inflict pain or violence upon him than upon our own persons - no more rob him of his property than cast our own into the fire - no more deceive him by a falehood than willingly give ourselves up to the wiles of an impostor - no more wish aught desirable thing of his to be ours, than we should aught of ours to be either abstracted. or destroyed. To a man thus actuated the prohibitions of kill not, and steal not, and lie not, and covet not, were altogether superfluous - nor would his conscience need at all to ruminate, on the rightfulness, either in respect of matter or authority, of any of these commandments. What under the regimen of conscience would be a thing of obedience - the very same, under the regimen of love, would be a thing of inclination. Love would be an equivalent, nay a greatly overpassing substitute for law. Under its simple and spontaneous impulse, there could be the working of no ill. Of itself it would do the work of all the commandments. Where such an enlargement takes place upon the character of man, the will might with all safety be left to take the place of conscience. The law of God would be his delight; nor could there be any hazard of disobedience at the hands of him, the delight of whose heart lay in the fulfilling of the law.

Now the question comes to be, Which is the higher moral state - that of him who loves his neighbour as hmself, and in virtue of this affection would abstain from doing him any evil; or of him who, without this affection, but in virtue of the commandments, and under a sense not only of the authority, but their rightness, would alike abstain from doing him any evil. Were it because of their authority alone, then the obedience might proceed from an apprehension of the threatened penalties, or be a forced obedience undr the regimen of fear. Were it because of their rightness, then would it be a higher, for now a duteous obedience, under the regimen of conscience. But what we ask is, Whether, when not because he thinks of the commandments, but because he realises the saying in which they are briefly comprehended, even loves his neighbour as himself - whether, when it is because of this that he kills not and steals not and lies not and covets not - whether it be not now a still higher, being now a willing obedience under the regimen of love When he has gotten so far as that love supersedes law, has he not reached a higher stage in this moral progression from one degre of excellence to another ? - and were this consideration thoroughly pondered and pursued into all its conequences, might it not serve to elucidate an else mysterious passage of be Bible - where we read that the law was not made for a righteous person, for a person thus far refined and exalted in his principles and feelings - but for those in the ruder or more rudimental and initiatory stages of their moral discipline; and who for the restraint or regulation of their conduct needed that the coarser appliances of law, its obligations or even its terrors, should he brought to bear upon them?

It is thus we might understand the apostolic averment - “That the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for man-slayers, for whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for men-stealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine.” To this purpose serveth the law. “It was added because of transgressions.” Every commandment in the decalogue, with the exception of the fifth - for we do not except the fourth, which tells us not to work upon the Sabbath - is of a negative or prohibitory, rather than of a prescriptive character. It tells us not of the things which we are to do, but of the things which we are not to do; and most certainly they are such-things, that if the moral dynamics of love to God and love to man had full operation in our heart, we should have no wish for the doing of them. And yet, as already hinted, we should feel it a hard and difficult thing to say that love might supersede conscience; and so as that the element of moral rightness, or the consideration of what we ought or of what we owe, might never be present to the mind - merely because there reigned an affection there, which formed a sufficient and a practical security for the observance of them.
We apprehend that if destitute of the conception or knowledge of the moral character of actions, as right or wrong, we should want an essential feature of that resemblance to the Godhead, the restoration whereof is one great object of the economy under which we sit - even His admiration of the one and his abhorrence of the other, so that like Him we may love righteousness and hate iniquity. It is true that Adam was interdicted in paradise from the tree of knowledge of good and evil-and therefore that, apart from this knowledge and by the spontaneous tendencies of his own perfect nature, he may have been kept close to the one and altogether clear of the other. But instead of this there was one commandment laid upon him - and by the way a negative one, or not a bidding but a forbidding - even that he should not eat of this tree. It was on his transgression thereof that his eyes were opened;. and his conscience we have no doubt, his sense of good and evil and of the difference between, them, would then come into vigorous play.

But we must not therefore imagine that in the process of man’s regeneration this sense of good and evil behoves to be extinguished. He will be “renewed in knowledge;” and as a proof that, though heaven be that holy place into which sin doth not enter, yet that the knowledge or conception of sin will be there, is evident from this, that holiness will be there; and what is holiness but the fearful and determined recoil of perfect moral excellence from all that is oposite to itself? - a property of such high estimation, that some would vindicate the origin of evil, on the principle that it afforded a scope for the display and the exercise of holiness. However this may be, certain it is that the love or charity of heaven will not supersede there the conscience or moral sense, which takes cognisance both of the good and the evil - as manifested both by the song of the redeemed to Him who washed them in His blood, and by their intelligent ascriptions to Him who sitteth on the throne, of "Holy, Holy,Holy, Lord God Almighty; and Just and true are Thy ways, Thou King of saints".
At all events, there seems to be a progression, an ascent by successive stages from a lower to a higher discipline, in the moral education. and moral history of our species - whether we comprehend or not the various footsteps of it - As when the spirit of bondage gives way to the spirit of adoption, or the oldness of the letter to the newness of the spirit; or as when the terrors of the law are succeeded by a delight in the law; or as when the commandment formerly graven on tables of stone, comes to be graven on the fleshly tables of the heart; or as when the law fulfils but the office of a preparatory schoolmaster for bringing men to Christ, or guiding them onward to the higher lessons of the gospel; or finally, as when the supremacy of law makes place for the supremacy of love, even of the charity which never faileth, but abideth and reigneth everlastingly in heaven, after that the means and the preparatives for this great consummation have all vanished away. I’m apt to think the man that could surround the sum of things, and spy the heart of God, and secrets of His empire, Would speak but love; with him the bright result would change the hue of intermediate scenes, and make one thing of all theology.
Go to Lecture 94
Back to Romans index

Home | Biography | Literature | Letters | Interests | Links | Quotes | Photo-Wallet