Updated: Aug 25, 2020
You know those ubiquitous wall hangings, "Live, Laugh, Love." If you don't watch "House Hunters" on HGTV or shop at Hobby Lobby, then you don't know what I'm talking about. Then there's the sign that says, "Eat" in the kitchen. Kind of redundant. How about "Life, Love, and the Law"? Now there's a slogan Reformed Calvinist Christians ought to get behind. Let's look at Romans 13:8-10, where Paul leads us to those affirmations:
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
Life…Love…and the Law.
Three times here Paul says that loving your neighbor as yourself fulfills the
law. Verse 8b, the end of verse 9 and verse 10. Before we unravel the
meaning, let's identify three key words.
The first word is law. What's the most obvious reference comes to mind when Paul mentions the law? Right…the ten commandments from Exodus 20. You hear that in verse 9. Paul starts listing some of the ten commandments. And while the list isn't complete, as was common back then, when you mention a portion of the whole, you are bringing the whole thing into the conversation. Are you with me on that? Paul doesn't have to list all ten commandments because he's intending all of them even though he only names a few. For the purpose of Romans 13, Paul means the ten commandments when he talks about law.
The second word is fulfill. We see it in verse 8 - "fulfilled the law." We see it in verse 9 - "summed up" = "fulfilled. And finally in verse 10 - "fulfilling." If your mindset is to love others, then that is the behavior the law requires. Your attitudes and actions satisfy the demands of the law when you are loving. That's what "fulfill" means. Paul is talking about attitudes and behaviors which correspond to what the law requires.
The third word is wrong. We see it in verse 10 - "Love does no wrong." So
if we're talking about love, why does Paul here focus on what love does not do? Why not on what loves does do? Why not start with blessing or helping or doing good to a neighbor rather than focusing on not wronging a neighbor? The answer is simple. The commandments Paul is quoting are all negative. "You shall not…you shall not…you shall not." Right here he's dealing with the law as prohibition. He takes all those don'ts and says - the point is, don't do wrong against your neighbor. The positive is expressed by not doing the negative. That's one of the things that's meant by loving your neighbor. Don't wrong them.
Even though Paul points out in a negative way what love does, in other
places he brings up the positive manifestations of love. Remember, we're examining part of the whole of what Paul says about love. In the positive, he has said things like:
Bless those who persecute you.
If your enemy is hungry, feed him.
Paul means that in the commandments we're looking out right now,
the point is on not hurting and not wronging. So when you love, you are
fulfilling these commandments. You're not hurting and/or harming. Love
So, as we gain an understanding of law, fulfill, and wrong, we need to ask, "Why does Paul bring up the law of God…the ten commandments?" We're all about grace, right? We're past the law, aren't we?
Many observe, and I agree, that Paul brings up the law here because he has already said something so sweeping, it might be taken in its absolute literalness. Remember who many of the people are Paul is writing to. They're Jews and Jewish Christians who love the law of God and believe it is holy and just and a great blessing to us. To them, Paul says, "Owe no
one anything, except to love each other." You wonder, to them did it sound like Paul was saying all that matters is love? Love, love, love. Only owe love. To certain ears, it could have sounded that sweeping.
Are you with me on that? Are you seeing it from a 2,000-year-ago context? Paul wanted to make sure there was no misunderstanding. That's why he said, at the end of verse 8, "For the one who loves another has fulfilled the law." So, to your Jewish or Jewish Christian sensitivities, Paul was saying he was not ignoring or neglecting the law. He wasn't acting as if the law was irrelevant or a mistake. Instead, he said owe no one anything except to fulfill the law. It's not only about love…love…love. Paul wanted to send a message about how to live the Christian life. That is a good message for all of us to hear.
So, then, okay, if Paul cared so much about the fulfillment of the law, then why did he call for love instead of directly call for keeping the law? Why didn't he say, "Owe no one anything, except to keep the law"?
In other words, if Paul made the law the ground of his call for love, why
did he call for love instead of directly call for law-keeping? Why did he give us this stew of law and love and faith and how to live a Christian life pleasing to God?
Definitely not because the commandments were bad. As Paul says in Romans 7:12, "So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good." Faithful law-keeping was a legitimate way to life. It was the way God gave to Adam in the garden. He told Adam, you keep all my laws and all will go well with you. So if Adam wanted life, all he had to do was trust God and obey the commandment. That was not a bad deal. It was the way to life. Nothing wrong or bad about the law. The law gave life.
But here's the problem. Sin. Adam and Eve were the original sinners. And so here we are. Total depravity - as Luther and Calvin and others characterized what Augustine wrote about original sin. We have wandered far away from faithful law-keeping. That's why Paul said in Galatians 3:21 that the law "can't give life." Not because there's something wrong with the law, but because there's something wrong with us. Romans 8:3 adds:
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he
condemned sin in the flesh.
So there it is. It would be great if our obedience to the law could save us, but we're sinners in need of a Savior, so it can't. The law is good and it produces all kinds of good things…behaviors and attitudes and how we treat others. But because of sin we can never perfectly fulfill the law.
Think about it this way. How many of you obey the speed limit laws? You ought to, all the time, right? Because to everybody's best calculations, they're the safest speeds to travel in a particular place or down a particular highway. The speed limit is there to protect us. The same with seatbelt laws. Are you with me so far? The law is good. We know what it is intended to do. But now listen to Romans 5:20: "Now the law came in to increase the trespass." What happens as the result of speed limits? Right…people break them, breaking the law, thereby getting punished. Think about people in open rebellion against the speed limit. So it takes the general principle…certain speeds are unsafe…and turns it into a transgression by detailed prohibitions. And then we do two things. By honoring all speed limits, we think we're always good drivers, and we think as good drivers we'll always be safe. Or we violate them, because we think we know what's safest.
Here's something you might want to write down:
The law given by Moses cannot give life.
It can reveal when we trespass…when we sin. It can show us the right things to do. That's good. But because of our sinful nature, we will never be able to perfectly fulfill the law. Broken people break the law. So if we are going to have life - eternal life - we can't find it in the law. We have eternal life in the One who bears the curse of the law that we deserve and who keeps the law in a way we can't; namely perfectly and without sin. Every person needs Jesus' blood and righteousness.
The law drives us to the foot of the cross. The law is good. It shows us how we ought to live. It defines what is good and right for us to think and do. The law sets the standard for godly behavior. Think about how life would be if we perfectly fulfilled the demands of the law. But we can't because we're us. And so we look to the cross. As Paul says in Galatians 3:24, "The law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.
So here's where we're at. As broken, sinful people, the only way to eternal
life was through a redeemer. Jesus became our substitute. He is our Savior. And Christ became that substitute both by bearing the curse, the condemnation of the law that we deserved, and by fulfilling the righteousness that we could not perform.
So we are saved, through Christ alone. But there's more. You know there's
always more, right? What does life in Christ look like? How do you live the Christian life? What do you pursue? What do you focus on?
I love how John Piper puts it:
Now I am forgiven by faith alone, and now I have the imputed righteousness of Christ by faith alone, and now I have the Holy Spirit within me by faith alone, so now I will continue to make my focus Jesus Christ every day, and I will look to him for everything my soul craves. And from my union with Christ, nurtured hour by hour by focusing on Christ as my great Savior and mighty Lord and infinite Treasure, I will love people. Christ will be my focus, love will be my fruit.
Now here's the beautiful final point. Because Christ died for us, we have
died with him. Through obedience to him, we now share his focus, to love one another. Our focus is now on Jesus…his help, his guidance, the beauty of his love and justice and power and wisdom and truth, and all the joy of knowing him.
Loving others the way Christ has loved us fulfills the law. When we do that,
Christ is glorified as our Savior and love-enabler. So Paul says owe no one anything except to love them. Always strive to make Christ your everything.