To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Location: Mud Creek, Tennessee, United States

Friday, January 14, 2005

Love = Fulfillment

Romans 13:8-10
Preached Sunday morning, January 16, 2005
New York Avenue Church of Christ

After laying a foundation of man’s sin and God’s grace, Paul begins Romans chapter 12 with an exhortation to give ourselves to God and let him transform us. In practice this transformation, we saw last time, is manifests itself in not being conceited. Every human being is truly equal before God in one important way. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Acknowledging that equality has certain consequences: we don’t think too highly of ourselves and we treat others well. Chapter 12 closes with exhortations to manifest this communion with our fellow human beings by not seeking revenge. We are supposed to bless our enemies, not curse them. We are only being arrogant when we try to play judge, jury, and executioner. God will take care of judgement.

Chapter 13 begins with a description of one arm of God’s judgement: civil government. Civil authority is “God’s servant for your good” (13:7). Therefore Christians are obligated to follow the directions of government—to obey the law and pay taxes. That’s the first seven verses of chapter 13. Then, in verses 8-10, Paul puts our obligations into a larger context. Christians are to “owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Now, let’s be clear what Paul means here. First, he’s not talking about financial debt. He isn’t talking about ordinary, everyday obligations at all. We know this, because he just got through telling us we have an obligation to obey the government. Paul is essentially cutting through all the particulars here to the rock-bottom obligation that motivates all our lesser obligations. That obligation, apparently a very simple one, is to love one another.

Love is our debt to one another. Is it really that simple? Why this emphasis on love? Another apostle, John, answered that question for us: “We love because [God] first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). What’s more, God is love (1 Jn. 4:7). In loving one another, then, we have communion with God himself. “Beloved, let’s love one another, for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God” (1 Jn. 4:7). To love God, we have to love one another. In loving one another, we really love God (1 Jn. 4:21). Humanity sinned and fell forever away from God. Yet God’s love for us is the greatest there can be. He spared no expense in his efforts to bring all creation back into relationship with him. We can never completely repay that debt to God [1].

It’s good, then, that love is its own fulfillment. As Paul tells us here, “love is the fulfilling of the law.” Jesus said the same thing in slightly different words. When asked to name the most important law, Jesus told us to love God with all we have and love our neighbor as ourselves. “On these two commandments,” Jesus said, “hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt. 22:40). Notice Jesus’ choice of words here—the whole law of Moses and words of the prophets are supported by these two principles of love. Bear in mind that Jesus’ exhortations to love are not additional laws on top of the others. I once met a man who thought they were. He insisted that there were really twelve commandments: the ten in the Old Testament and these two of Jesus. But love is much more than additional commandments—it is the essence of the law, the underlying principle. What does every command of God ever given to man have in common with all the others? Love, for God and for each other.

For Paul, law essentially has to do with keeping sin in check. In a sense, law really is a collection of “Thou shalt nots” [2]. In our lives the law brings wrath (Rom. 4:15) and is powerless to overcome sin (Rom. 8:3). Love is something else. It is the power to obey the law, as well as the positive force behind all of God’s laws, the underlying reason for each particular law.

Focusing on the underlying truth of love, rather than the particular details of laws, is the sign of a mature relationship with God. Immature relationships require a long list of dos and don’ts, but a mature faith goes right to the heart of the matter: love. We can see this kind of relationship on an earthly level in dealing with children. Very small children need a long list of particular instructions to stay out of trouble: Don’t touch the hot stove. Don’t run with scissors. Don’t cross the street alone. As we mature, we learn principles of safety and no longer rely upon long lists of instructions. The same is true with love. It is the underlying force behind not only law, but obedience to law. In that sense love fulfills the law. If all Christians really lived as those who love one another, we would obey all God’s ordinances for us. And how much different the church would be! No dysfunctional families, no divorce. No alcoholism or substance abuse. No dissension and discord. No laziness in telling the good news to our neighbors. If we really put love into practice, the church would do powerful work in bringing souls to Christ, in equiping disciples, in being a shining light in a dark world.

One point of clarification might help here. In Rom. 10:4, we see that Christ is the end of the law for all who believe. So which is it that overcomes the law—Christ or love? The answer is—yes, both. Christ frees us from the necessity of obeying the law of Moses to attain salvation, and he embodies the love that fulfills the law’s requirements. That doesn’t mean we are saved by obeying the law perfectly through love. We are still saved only by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross for our sin. Jesus did obey every jot and tittle of the law. He is the only man who ever lived who did not deserve punishment. Yet he suffered beating, flogging, humiliation, and execution, because he loves us.

Jesus’ death on the cross—beaten, torn, bleeding, suffering—illustrates something very important about love: It’s not always pretty, and it doesn’t always feel good. Being loving is not the same as being nice. These days it’s hard to stress this fact too much. Have you ever had to discipline a child because you loved the boy or girl? Parents who love their children have to punish their children from time to time for their own good. But have you ever known a child who was happy about it at the time? Love is not always comforting or comfortable, at least in the short term. Jesus’ crucifixion was certainly not pretty or nice. And his words and actions weren’t always nice. I doubt Peter enjoyed being called Satan (Mt. 16:23), and you would have had a hard time convincing the moneychangers that Jesus loved them as he was kicking over their tables and chasing them with a whip (Jn. 2:14, 15). But he did.

Frequently, in fact, the most loving action we can take will deeply offend the person we’re trying to help [3]. Sometimes we must speak the truth to those we love, even if it hurts both us and them to do so. How many times has someone tried to justify a terribly bad decision—adultery, debt, you name it—with these words: “Don’t I deserve to be happy?” But if we really love someone, they deserve to hear the truth of God’s Word, even if it makes them unhappy. We sometimes call that “tough love.”

Several years ago Ron, a good friend of mine, taught me something about how Christians can practice tough love. For years he has worked to help alcoholics and addicts come clean. As a recovering alcoholic himself, clean for many years, Ron knows what he’s talking about. One of the best ways to show love to an addict, Ron says, is to let him live with the consequences of his actions. Take for example, an alcoholic who has lost his license for drunk driving. A Christian, in an effort to show “nice” love, might say, “If there’s anything you need, just let me know.” And before long, the Christian has become that man’s personal taxi service. He’s lost his license for drunk driving, but he still gets to go anywhere he wants pretty much whenever he wants. That kind of “nice” love isn’t helping anyone. It’s better to let the man suffer the consequences for his actions—let him walk or ride a bike to the store. Maybe then he’ll face up to what got him there in the first plce and he’ll change his life. It may seem harsh not to help someone. I’m sure the alcoholic in this scenario wouldn’t appreciate being refused a ride. He might even rail at the Christian for such “un-Christian” actions. But in some cases not helping someone—particularly when they need to learn to help themselves—is simply the most loving thing we can do.

Christians are sometimes accused of being unloving when we proclaim the need for repentance from sin. But there is no way to enjoy the joy of God’s eternal kingdom without turning away from the life of sin and reaching out for new life in Jesus Christ. Christians, therefore, have to call sin sin. We have to proclaim the need for the lost to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. It’s the only way anyone can be saved. But do you think most people like to be told they need to change their entire orientation toward life? I don’t think so. But those outside Christ are sleeping in a burning building. They may not see the flames yet or smell the smoke. They may not even feel the heat. But if nobody wakes them and helps them come out of there, they’ll burn to death. And if Christians allow that to happen because we don’t want to offend anyone, then we really don’t have any idea of what love is about.

Christians may have faulty understanding of love for a variety of reasons. Maybe we don’t know the Scriptures well enough [4]. Maybe we know what they say but haven’t meditated enough on what they mean. Perhaps we’re still too conceited to care very much. In any case, we need to allow ourselves to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, and that comes from sacrificing our own comfort and smugness to be changed by God (Rom. 12:1,2). If we’re willing to be changed, we can be sure God will change us—but we shouldn’t expect the process to be very nice.

As Christians, we have to learn not only to give, but to receive love. One of my personal sins is that I want to do everything myself; I’m one of those folks who find it hard to receive help. Many of us do. And practically all of us find it hard to receive correction. We may have no trouble admitting in a general sense that we’re sinners, but when someone brings a particular sin to our attention, we bow up. A friend of mine once asked for advice on some troubles he was having in his life. After he talked a few minutes, I decided his main problem was that he was spending way too much time and energy feeling sorry for himself. At one point, while he was going on with his list of problems, I simply said to him, “Come on, you just need to get over it.” Suddenly he was silent. After a moment, my friend said, “Thank you. I needed to hear that.” Now, it’s possible that my words were spoken as much from impatience as love, but in any case that brother certainly knew how to receive loving help—even when it wasn’t nice or pretty.

So love isn’t always nice. It can be tough. Still, the word “love” is thrown around so loosely these days that it’s easy to think of love as simply soft and sentimental emotion. Many, many people have leaned on the idea that “all you need is love” as an excuse to do anything they want—all kinds of sin—as long as it’s done in the name of some vague conception of love. Here in Rom. 13:8-10, Paul warns against that kind of sloppy thinking. Even while he proclaims the supremacy of love as underlying law, Paul reminds us that the details of God’s law are still important: don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t be greedy [5]. In the book of Romans Paul shows us both sides of the coin. In chapters 1-5 he made it clear that sinners are justified apart from the law. Beginning in chapter 6 he makes it clear that obedience to God is still important [6]. For Paul, love is an outpouring of our new nature, a reflection of our new life in Christ. By allowing our lives to be governed by God’s love, we will be obedient even in matters not specifically covered by the law [7].

Jesus had something similar to say. Even while proclaiming the superiority of Love in our hearts, Jesus makes it clear that our lives must be obedient in the details of our actions as well. In Lk. 11:42, for example, he told the Jewish religious leaders, “woe to you Pharisees! You tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God; these things you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” Let’s be clear. Our salvation doesn’t depend on getting every detail of our lives correct. Salvation comes to us by faith, through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. We don’t earn our new life; it’s given to us by God. But once we are new creations, God wants us to live that new life obediently.

God doesn’t want for his people to be hounded by a long list of commands [8]. He wants us to be guided in all things by love. But let’s not misunderstand. If we’re not following the particulars of Christian behavior—if we’re greedy, gossiping, slandering others, haughty, or ruthless, for example (Rom. 1:29-31)—then we’re not really being loving [9]. Love in our heart manifests itself in obedient action.

The reverse is not always true. External obedience to God’s instructions is not necessarily a sign of love [10]. There are a thousand reasons to behave ourselves that have nothing to do with love—fear; a desire to be popular, respected, to fit in, etc. But God wants more than just obedience in our actions. He wants us to have not only changed behavior, but changed hearts. He has given us new life and wants us to live like the new creations we are (Rom. 6:1-4).

In the sense that God wants to change our hearts, the Bible is not an “instruction manual.” God’s Word is not primarily intended to be a set of procedures or instructions, like a cookbook. No, it’s much more than that— not an instruction manual, but a Word of transformation.

Most of my adult life I’ve thought of Christian discipleship as two main things: knowing the facts of the Bible and behaving myself. Now I’m trying something different. I’m trying to learn what it means to be transformed, to be a new creation. I’m praying to do more than simply follow the instructions. I want to commune with God in a relationship of love, deep down in my heart. In everything I preach and teach I’m inviting you to build a loving relationship with Christ, too. And I pray that you’ll help me, that we’ll help each other, to press on toward that goal.

I’ve got a feeling there’s more to this love business than any of us can imagine. I commit my life to following wherever it leads me. Will you the same? Do we dare?


1. Jack Cottrell, Romans, vol. 2. College Press Commentary. Joplin, MO (College Press): 1998, p. 371.
2. Anders Nygren, Commentary on Romans. Philadelphia (Fortress): 1972, p. 434.
3. David Lipscomb & J. W. Shepherd, Commentary on Romans, 2nd ed. Nashville (Gospel Advocate): 1940, p. 238.
4. John Piper, "Loving One Another Fulfills the Law," online sermon text at
5. Ibid.
6. Cottrell, 2:370.
7. Raymond T. Stamm, Exegesis of Galatians. Interpreter's Bible, vol. 10. Nashville (Abingdon): 1953, p. 557.
8. Piper.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.

Copyright 2005, A. Milton Stanley


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