Epistles: The Law of Love (Romans 13:8-14)

The law of love

After saying that we should pay whatever we owe, Paul shifts the subject back to love: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another” (13:8; 12:9-10). Love is the most basic Christian ethic. We will always need to love one another; it is an eternal obligation.

Why? Because “the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” The way this is written, the logic could imply that “the law” is the primary goal, and love is a stepping-stone toward that goal. But more accurately, love is the goal, and the law provides guidance about how we are to love. Paul then gives some examples of harmful behaviors we should avoid:

“For the commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,’ (and if there is any other commandment) are summed up in this, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (13:9; cf. Matthew 22:36). These commandments are not a complete guide to love — they specify a few things to avoid. Written commandments can never be a complete guide to love. Human situations are too diverse for rules to be written about all possibilities. However, the law guides us — it is impossible to love our neighbor while violating these commandments.

Paul is dealing with laws about how we interact with other people — he is not saying how we should show love to God. Most of the old covenant laws about worship are obsolete.

“Love does no wrong to a neighbor,” Paul says — but love must go further than simply avoiding harm — it should actively seek to do good to the neighbor. Paul is summarizing the function of the commandments he quoted. He concludes, “Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (verse 10). If we love others, we have fulfilled the purpose of the law — and have gone further than what it requires. If we love our neighbor, we should pay our taxes. Even if the government is evil, we should respond to evil by doing good, not by taking matters into our own hands.

“And do this because we know the time, that it is already the hour for us to awake from sleep, for our salvation is now nearer than when we became believers. The night has advanced toward dawn; the day is near. So then we must lay aside the works of darkness, and put on the weapons of light” (verses 11-12). For each of us, our salvation is nearer now than when we first became believers. Christian ethics do not change with the seasons, nor does behavior become more important just before the return of Christ. But as we see troubles on the world scene, we should use them as reminders to do what is right, not using the tactics of the evil ones.

Clothed in Christ

“Let us live decently as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in discord and jealousy” (verse 13). The Roman Christians were probably not involved in debauchery, but judging from chapter 14, they probably were involved in discord and jealousy. By grouping these vices together, Paul is implying that competitive attitudes within the congregation are just as inappropriate as drunkenness. The church is to be a community of brothers and sisters, not a place where one person vies against another.

Paul then gives the alternative: “Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to arouse its desires” (verse 14). Drunkenness and immorality come from the sinful nature; so do jealousy and discord. Neither are appropriate for people who give their allegiance to Jesus Christ. When we clothe ourselves with him, imitating him, cooperation and mutual esteem will replace selfishness.

Things to think about

  • How does the law of love (verse 10) apply to our relationship with God? What does it command, and what does it prohibit?
  • When we are saved by grace, why is important that we “live decently”? (verse 13)

Author: Michael Morrison, 2004, 2011

Author: Michael Morrison


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