A bumper sticker puts it like this, “I owe, I owe, so it’s off to work I go.” The life of debt is a common fact for many modern people. Between house and car payments and the like, almost all people exist under debt’s cloud. For this reason, Paul’s employment of “opheiletes,” (“debtors”) becomes a transitional key. This phrase closes Paul’s discussion about how God’s spirit enables believers to live in the spirit and shun life in the flesh. Thus, Paul helps believers/stewards appreciate that they are no longer debtors to the flesh; rather our debt to the spirit frees us to remember that “we are children of God.”
Paul varies the metaphor of “debt,” substituting images of believers being adopted and heirs of God, beginning with verse 14. Yet being debtors proves a powerful concept in Paul’s transition. One can be either in debt to the flesh or in debt to the spirit. If in debt to the former, then one can anticipate the consequence, which is death. Or if one is God’s debtor, then the result is life. Here Paul writes of life in the sense that Jesus speaks of life: “Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).
For modern people “to be in debt” is a concept that needs little explanation. Consequently, as a theological notion, “indebtedness” resonates with us. We, of course, commonly understand debt in its monetary permutations, but there is a sense in which owing something to someone makes sense. Whether our debt is owed to a teacher, coach, parent, or pastor, believers who honestly look at their lives conclude quickly that our gain is a result of another person’s interest in us—and help. Few piano players learned to play the piano on their own—although it sometimes happens. Most of our surpassing achievements we accomplish because someone guided us.
Clearly Paul’s use of the idea of debt goes well beyond our learning a craft or an art. But the principle is similar. Paul wants believers to recognize that we have a clear choice, because one way or another, we will always be in debt to someone or something. For Paul the choice is between life in the flesh and life in the spirit. Life in the flesh insinuates that our passions and whims control us. Yet, life in the spirit suggests that God and God’s spirit control a person’s actions. Life in the flesh leads to death; life in the spirit leads to life and life that is abundant.
This Roman’s text (beginning at 8:5) is unusual in that it offers ethical teaching in a part of Romans that mainly concentrates on dogmatic theology. Paul occasionally inserts moral exhortations in the first eleven chapters. This is one example: Paul suggests that those who live by the spirit will live in particular ways. The ways of living indicate whether or not one lives by the spirit or by the flesh.
Being in debt means that one is under an obligation to repay the debt. Good stewards are faithful managers; whether this means managing our talents or our money. But the question arises: “How does one repay a debt to God?” Paul might answer this question by telling us that the most faithful way to put our account straight with God is by passing along to others what God has already given us as a gift. Thus, for good stewards the gifts of mercy, forgiveness, and the love of Christ become methods of repayment. Stewards can only manage what God has first given to them. Vis-à-vis the debt of love, 1 John 4:19 puts it nicely: “We love because he first loved us.”