MESSAGE FOR SEPTEMBER 3, 2000 FROM ROMANS 13:8-10
This week, we continue our study of Romans as we remain in the section of the letter Paul devotes to calling believers to live, individually and corporately, in a manner consistent with the transforming power of the gospel. This week, we will look at three verses which treat the most powerful expression of this transformation in a believer’s life and the cardinal virtue for the Christian, love. In 12:1, at the beginning of this section, Paul exhorts us to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” In the text we will look at this morning we will see that the transformed life is a life filled with love for others. A renewed mind is a mind given to thoughts of how to love others more and more. Let’s read what Paul says about this in 13:8-10. He says, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9The 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." 10Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
Paul begins this text on love in an interesting way, by commanding that we should, “Let no debt remain outstanding.” That phrase has been jumped on by certain people in the church to forbid all debt of any kind. That cannot be what it means because the Bible has laws and teaching on the topic of debt in areas like debt cancellation, interest charged on debt and debt repayment. Paul has a valid word to say about financial debt here and it is that debts should be paid promptly and in a manner consistent with the contract. If Paul were to see the way many American Christians today irresponsibly handle financial debt, he would have much to say by way of rebuke, but that is not his main concern here. In fact, the word translated “debt” is really part of the transition between this section on love and the one preceding it on being subject to the governing authorities. In verse seven Paul has said, “…If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” You hear the idea of owing someone or being in debt to someone. In the original, the word “owe” in verse seven is the same root word as the word “debt” in verse eight.
Paul is saying in essence, you must pay up all your debts to the government and others, be they financial or otherwise. By using the word “debt” to describe our obligation to love others, he is not implying that this is some sort of onerous, burdensome task we must carry out only because we are legally bound to. That is the way many of us look at financial debt, but that is not what Paul is saying here. His point is to say, first, for the Christian, love for others is not an option, it is an obligation. You cannot go to your creditors and say, “You know, I think I will stop paying on our mortgage or car.” You don’t have the option to NOT pay back what you owe without penalty. You have an obligation. You are bound. Likewise, the Christian is not free to decide not to love someone. That is not an option. We owe others the debt of love. As believers, it is a divine call on our lives to love others. If we have people in our lives we have a grudge against, if we have people whom we have not forgiven or are uncharitable to, we have fallen woefully behind in paying our debt of love to them. And God will not release us from that payment to them no matter what they may have done to us. Second, Paul wants to get across the truth that this debt we owe to love others is one we will never be able to cross off our books. This is a never-ending debt that is always outstanding for us.
This strong, “debt language” Paul uses here indicates the priority of love for the Christian. An “unloving Christian” is a contradiction in terms. We see the primacy of love so clearly in Scripture. Jesus said “All the law and the prophets hang on” two commandments and the second one is “love your neighbor as you love yourself,” which He quotes and Paul quotes here from Leviticus 19:18. The best known reference to the primacy of love in Paul is probably 1 Corinthians 13 where he gives an extended treatment explaining Christian love. Only one Christian virtue merits this kind of extended exposition, not faith, not joy, but love. He closes that section in verse 13 with, “And we know that these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” We see this primacy of love in Paul’s listing of the fruit of the Spirit. It is no random choice of Paul’s that love is first on the list. In Galatians 5:6 Paul makes an extraordinary statement as it relates to Christian living when he says, “…The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” As we’ll see in a moment, love is the fulfillment of all the law. These statements about love are so absolute, so comprehensive, so powerful, they must get our attention.
This means if we do not see plenty of genuine expressions of love in ourselves and if other people do not know us as loving people (as that is biblically understood), that is no small problem. That’s like being a singer who’s tone deaf. That’s like being a surgeon who can’t hold a scalpel, a math professor who can’t add. If we are weak in this area, it speaks volumes about where we are as Christians if we are genuine Christians at all. We must hear the weight of this teaching and allow the Holy Spirit to impress upon us the crucial importance of these truths.
Let’s look at Paul’s chief burden in this text. The main point of the passage is stated three times, once in each verse. In verse eight, Paul says, “he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.” In verse nine, after listing four of the Ten Commandments Paul says these and “whatever commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Finally, in verse ten, Paul says, “Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.” Now, when Paul essentially repeats himself three times in three consecutive verses, that should clue us into the fact that the point he is making is extraordinarily important. Therefore, we are going to spend most of the rest of our time looking at this main point which is, “Love is the fulfillment of the law.”
Before we deal with that point, let’s first briefly clear up two possible misunderstandings of this call to love others. First, we must know that the command to love others is not just intended to be applied to other Christians. Although we have a special love for the community of believers, these calls are to love all people. When verse nine quotes the text from Leviticus to “love your neighbor as our yourself” we must define “neighbor” as Jesus does in the parable of the good Samaritan—as anyone we can help. Second, we must know that this command to love others as you love yourself is not an implicit call to love ourselves. Several years ago, this teaching was hijacked by the Christian therapeutic community and given a psychological interpretation. They said that the command to love your neighbor as you love yourself was a call to love yourself. “How can you love others if you don’t love yourself?” was and is the misguided question often posed in connection with the text.
That is reading into this text a meaning that isn’t there. The command is NOT to love yourself and maintain your self-esteem. The command is to love others AS you love yourself. The love for self is assumed and this love for yourself has nothing to do with self-esteem. The Bible assumes you love yourself. Ephesians 5:28-29 in the context of the marriage relationship says, “He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church…” Love is defined in the Bible not in terms of self esteem, but in terms of the care you give. When you love others as you love yourself, it simply means you will work to care for and bless other people with the same energy you give toward caring for yourself. And if you are busy trying to apply that command, you have discovered just how radical this command is to love others as you love yourself.
Now, let’s look at the central question Paul’s treatment begs here and that is, if love fulfills the law, how does it fulfill the law? Or, to ask it more broadly, what is the relationship between the Old Testament moral law and love? We know that when Paul says that “love fulfills the law,” he is not speaking of the ceremonial law that governed Jewish worship, but the moral law that governs behavior. We see this in Paul’s quotation of the four of the Ten Commandments. He quotes four of the commands which speak to how we are to treat others.
There are two broad answers to the question how love fulfills the law or how the law and love are related to one another. The first is: The law defines love. The law plays an all- important role in correctly shaping our understanding of love. Love can so easily be misunderstood as only a strong emotion or sentimentality. We may think because a person cries easily or is very emotional in their personality that they are full of love. And they may be. But just being emotional or sentimental is not biblical love. Notice that so often the Bible defines love in functional terms, not emotional terms. Jesus says in John 14:15, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.” Notice that love for Christ is fundamentally seen NOT in some gushy sentimental expression, it is seen in obedience to His teachings. As we will see, that doesn’t mean that love isn’t also emotional. But the law defines what are valid, true expressions of love so we can know whether a particular feeling is truly agape love, and is therefore backed up by actions, or whether it is only a superficial, feeling-only counterfeit of real love.
The law, because it defines valid expressions of love, cuts through the self-deception we practice whenever we think we love someone when we really don’t. When we, for example, watch the “Save the Children” television commercials, see the distended bellies of the children and shed a tear over the plight of those destitute people, it is easy to think we love them in some way, that our tears are expressions of Christian virtue. The proof of our love is defined by the law of God. In First John 3:17 the apostle restates the law of love in Deuteronomy 15:7. He says, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” The law says in Deuteronomy 15 that if you see a brother hungry, feed him. That is love, biblically defined. This function of the law to define love is implied by Paul in Philippians one. In verse nine he says, “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight…” The implication is that our knowledge of truth will enable our love to increase. The more we know the law of God as it defines what biblical love is, the more God is able to use that knowledge to enable our love to abound more and more.
If we have the love of God placed in our hearts and have a desire to love people more and more, then we will delight in the law of God. The reason for this is because the law continually sharpens our understanding of how we can express the love God has placed in our hearts. The law becomes a precious friend to us because it points us in specific directions, showing how we can love people more biblically. The law still has a vital role in the life of the believer. As we’ve seen in so many places in Romans, no one is saved by following the law. To try to find salvation in the law is utterly futile. But Paul, like Jesus before him, expects believers to follow the law. Romans 8:4 tells us Christ “condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live/walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” The law is fulfilled in the person who lives or walks in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is not some sort of legal or positional fulfillment of the law. It is fulfilled as we walk in God’s power through the Spirit. Its not done by self effort, but in the Spirit-enabled “obedience that comes from faith” we saw in 1:5. As we believe, we are given the power of the Spirit to fulfill the law.
Paul in Romans expects believers to follow the law NOT for salvation, but first, as a response to God’s love. Romans 12:1 says, “…brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy pleasing to God…” We are to be totally committed to God (fulfilling the righteous requirements of the law) in response to his love expressed in his mercy through the gospel. Second, Paul expects us to follow the law out of the love that God has placed in our hearts for others. The love implanted in our hearts by the gospel compels us to follow the law of love. And this leads us to our second answer to the question of the relationship between love and the moral law of God.
A second way love fulfills the law is: The love God has placed in our hearts through the gospel is WHY we obey the law. The law defines love—it helps us to know HOW we are to express love to others, but the love God has placed within the heart of a transformed believer is what dictates WHY we do the good thing and refuse to do any harm to others. The commandments in the law define valid expressions of love, but it is the LOVE God has placed in us through the gospel that compels us to obey them. You see, biblical, from-the-heart love has, as John Murray has pointed out, at least three facets and one of them is that love is compelling. A huge part of the transformation the gospel brings about in us is the change that comes to our hearts causing us to love others. The heart transformed by the gospel is a heart that has been transformed to inwardly compel us to love others. This is not a heart that obeys the law out of some dead, external sense of obligation. We are not to be motivated purely by the external command to do good things for people. NO!
This is at the center of what God told Jeremiah about the New Covenant he would institute with His people. He says in Jeremiah 31, "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts." Do you hear that inward motivation? This New Covenant is what Ezekiel speaks of in 36:26 when God tells the prophet, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” Do you hear the effects of this New Covenant heart transplant? Out goes the heart of stone—that cold, hard, loveless heart that can only serve God out of some external sense of duty. In goes the heart of flesh—the new, sensitive heart that God can easily shape and mold and compel to love others. God will put His Spirit in these New Covenant people and will MOVE THEM, that is, internally compel them to “follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”
What Paul is doing in Romans 13 is explaining how God “moves us.” His explanation is that, through the Spirit, God places a love for Him and a love for others in those who place their trust in Christ. This is a new heart that has been set aflame by God to love other people. This love motivates and energizes us to do something for someone. If this internal, motivating love within us is not the spiritual power behind our obedience, then we will certainly degenerate into legalists who do things for others ONLY because we HAVE to. There is no love, no inner transformation in that—that is just being a rule keeper. The person transformed by the gospel has a new heart that has been transformed by God so they will WANT to express love to someone in the ways defined by the law. That’s why they delight in God’s law because the law shows them how to do what they, because of their transformed hearts, desperately want to do. The person who loves has fulfilled the law because he will be doing from the heart what the law stipulates externally!
Tom Shreiner says it this way, “…Love is the ultimate fulfillment of the law because one who lives in love has been transformed at such a deep level that love flows from the heart… this kind of radical transformation cannot be accomplished apart from faith and the work of the Holy Spirit. Only those who trust God’s promises and provision and are empowered by the Holy Spirit are able to love. Love does not merely involve the keeping of certain external commandments, but, as a result of grace, is a renewing of the affections of the heart.” This idea of love as a product of a transformed heart fits the context here in Romans perfectly. This section of Romans is about the impact of the gospel on a believer. This person is called to be totally committed to God—a living sacrifice. They are transformed by the renewing of their mind.
In addition to love being compelling, this love is emotive. That is, there is an affinity with and affection for the object of our love. Now, we said before that love is not purely emotional or sentimental, but true love DOES have an emotive element to it. It is not mechanical or robotic—we FEEL something at least much of the time. When Lazarus died, Jesus wept so evidently the people observing him grieve for his friend said, “See how he loved him!” The actions of biblical love are accompanied by affection from the heart. That affection will be displayed differently in people of differing personalities, but it will be there. If it’s never there, there is no biblical love present. Love is an internal motivation for obedience to the commands, but is it also an internal affection toward the object of that love. This love God puts in our heart is a love that deeply cares for others. It hurts for others, rejoices with others. Just as it’s unbiblical to speak of an “unloving Christian” it’s also unbiblical to speak of an unimpassioned Christian. Love that is from God is a fire that moves our heart to action.
This love God has placed in our hearts through the gospel is not only compelling and emotive, it is also limiting. When we love someone, that will cause us to limit our actions toward them in such a way that we will not harm them. This is the aspect Paul speaks of when he says in verse ten, “Love does not harm to its neighbor.” Doing a person no harm for Paul means what he says in verse nine, not murdering, stealing, coveting, committing adultery. Now, we must clarify that this does NOT mean that loving someone means never hurting their feelings. This is a gross distortion. Jesus graphically rebukes the Laodicean church in Revelation chapter three by telling them he is about to “spew them from his mouth.” Yet, to these same people he later says, “Those whom I love I rebuke.” Jesus tells the disciples in Luke 17:3, “…if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” Jesus and the Scriptures know nothing of papering over the sin of our brothers that is so often practiced in the church today in the name of being “loving” or “gracious.” “If your brother sins, rebuke him.” This must be done gently and in great humility but if you show me a loving church as that is defined biblically, I will show you a church that rebukes those in sin on both an individual, one- on-one basis, as well as corporate church discipline. Paul says love does not harm to people.
Living in a fallen world as redeemed sinners, it’s so easy to harm people. The good news is the love in our hearts from the gospel will work to restrain the sinful impulses we have to wound people with our mouths and our actions. Love is a wonderful restrainer of our carnal tendencies. It acts as a guard, a wall of protection over our mouths and our hearts to keep us from hurting other people. If we find ourselves repeatedly prone to hurting others, there is something wrong with our hearts. There is in us a shortage of gospel-induced hurt, limiting love. There are times when we are in a difficult situation with someone and we are not sure how to respond to them—there is not direct biblical text we know of that shows us what we are to do. In times like those a great question we should immediately ask God, “Lord, what is the loving thing to do for this person as you define love?” That is a great way to depend on the Spirit to guide us! That gets to the very heart of the matter because we are called to love others as we love ourselves.
As you have heard Paul’s treatment here on this foundational part of the Christian life, what is God saying to you? As we have said, this is such a huge issue for the believer. This is half of the Ten Commandments. Jesus said this is 50% of the two great commandments on which all the law and all the prophets hang. Can it be said of us that we are people whose lives clearly bear the unmistakable mark of the Christian, love? Do we have that inner, heart compulsion to love other people? Do we have within us that tender concern for others? Do we love someone enough to rebuke them when they are sinning? Do we delight in the law of God because it helps us to know how to do what we desperately want to do, love others? These questions go right to our hearts. If we have truly received the gospel, these things will be true of us to some degree. May God give us grace “that our love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight…” for His glory.
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