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Romans (Series 2)

Law of Love

Romans 13:8-14

Lesson audio

In this short passage Paul prepares us for the controversy of Romans 14. He lays out for us the law of love for all Christians.

Law of Love

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet,"[1] and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself."[2] Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

(Romans 13:8-10 NIV)


Human organizations in general are based on one of two principles: terror, and debt. Terror is easily understood – but not too stable. History has shown that stable organizations built by man work on the Godfather principle: do someone a favor – and now you owe me one. Lyndon Johnson, as president, told his staff that whenever he called a congressman, they’d better make sure that congressman owed the president a favor.

God, in building his church, rejected that principle. It’s not to be a Mafia-like or political organization, but rather one which gives without expecting anything in return – just as Christ gave at the Cross.

This is somewhat difficult for most Christians. When you ask them about “love thy neighbor” they almost always think in terms of giving. In principle they are in favor of this; but they work on the principle of “if I were a rich man.” Small charities are easy when you are rich. Most of us aren’t rich. But do you not see that the measure of your love for others is not what you do in your wealth, but in your poverty? Anyone can be generous with a pot of gold. Especially when it’s someone else’s pot. (I will be so generous once my rich uncle dies.)

It is true, though, that when we help someone else they do feel obligated to return the favor. There is a simple way to practice true love in this. Let them indeed feel obligated – but tell them to pass it on instead of repaying you. That way your good deeds are multiplied more than you know, and the only debt left is the debt of love.

Sum up the commandments

Paul here repeats Christ’s summation of the commandments:

Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'[2] This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'[3] All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

(Matthew 22:37-40 NIV)

We are introduced here to the principle of displacement: the idea that the “thou shalt not” of the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments is not replaced but displaced by the “thou shalt” of the New Testament. By substituting the positive we fulfill the negative.

The problem, of course, is in the doing. “Thou shalt not” has the advantage of being crisp and clear; “love your neighbor” is rather vague. C. S. Lewis gives a fine insight on this. He points out the phrase, “as yourself.” Just how do I love myself? Quite well, thank you; I’m very forgiving, think highly of myself and generally consider myself the life of the party. No problem says Lewis - if you simply apply the same standard to everyone else. Fair is fair, right?

This lifts matters to a higher plain. Instead of asking, “what can I get away with and stay within the commandment” we simply ask ourselves what we’d like to have done in the same situation. This simplifies matters greatly.

Do no harm

It often seems that the Bible is very good at confronting black and white decisions. When all the consequences of every possible action are known – even probabilistically – making a decision can be reduced to mathematics. We’re good at black and white.

Technicolor takes a little more help. Making decisions when the consequences are uncertain or unknown to us is more difficult. Even the process of making such decisions is often cloudy – just how shall we decide? In those situations the human mind reaches for guidelines – sometimes called proverbs, or rules of thumb, or “I wonder what my dad would have done.”

Here is the guideline of love: First, do no harm. This is a commonplace among doctors and medical personnel. Not sure what to do? Don’t undertake any treatment that could harm the patient. It may appear as hesitancy, but there’s a reason the paramedic waits for the backboard.

The same is true with us. Not sure what to do in a situation? First thing: don’t do anything that “might help” but certainly will harm. Dare we say, “wait upon the Lord?”

Second Coming

Romans 13:11-12 NIV And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. (12) The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.

It sometimes surprises those new to reading the Scriptures how often this subject is connected to the Second Coming of Christ. Because of recent changes in church thinking, we need to explain this more fully than in the past.

Emerging church thinking

It was rather a surprise to this teacher that our new pastor could preach a sermon on heaven and not once mention the second coming, the resurrection of the dead and the last judgment. Upon further inquiry, there appears to be some rationale behind this.

  • First, this is not “seeker friendly.” It is presumed that the seeker is not at all desirous of hearing about sin, judgment and hell. But who is? My doctor tells me when things are bad medically; my preacher ignores these spiritual warnings. So it is.
  • Second, it is “too complicated.” Not so much sin and judgment, but the study of Revelation can become quite complicated. This is particularly true for those with no education in world history. My opinion? You may be right about Revelation; but the seven last things are mandatory.
  • Finally, it is “religious activity” – study of the Scripture as opposed to right living. The emergent church holds that orthodoxy is the enemy of orthopraxis (right living.) The classic view is that orthodoxy is the foundation of orthopraxis.

We see here the perils of Christianity Lite: By ignoring this we eliminate much of the motivation of love:

Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, "Peace and safety," destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

(1 Thessalonians 5:1-3 NIV)

What does the Bible say?

At the risk of too much of a side trip, just what does the Bible say about this?

  • First, that the judgment (and return of Christ) are coming.[1]
  • Second, that people will pooh-pooh this.[2]
  • Finally, that the Lord is delaying because of his patience, wanting all to be saved.[3]
Practical command

So what shall we do? Positive and negative:

  • Put aside the “deeds of darkness” – list to follow, shortly.
  • Put on the armor of light.

Here again is the principle of displacement. It is not sufficient to clean up your act; you must replace the sinful life with the spiritual one.

Daylight Behavior

Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.[3]

(Romans 13:13-14 NIV)

Midnight Sin

Have you ever wondered why midnight sin is so prominently discussed in the Bible? Recall that they had no electric lighting! But there are other reasons:

  • One is that it is more tempting. It’s done in secret, and that adds a tang to the sin. Adultery by appointment doesn’t sound nearly as attractive as a sudden, passionate, “irresistible” affair.
  • Another reason is that we still have enough sense of shame to know it’s wrong. That doesn’t stop us, but we don’t like the consequences if we are found out.
  • But that’s better than the alternative: a hypocrisy which separates our pious image of the day and debauched character of the night.
Obvious – or not

Paul breaks things down for us into three categories, one of which is somewhat surprising:

  • First, there is group sin. Oh, we might feel guilty having an affair – but hey, it’s a party, everybody’s doing it. Sex and alcohol seem to go well together in large groups.[4]
  • Some of us are introverts. Sex is a private affair; but note that it’s paired with “debauchery.” The word in the Greek means “filthiness.” Let your mind wander over that for a second or two.
  • Here’s the surprise: sex, drunkenness and debauchery we expect to make this list. But dissension and jealousy? Surprise!
Imitation of Christ

There is an answer to this: “clothe yourself with Christ.” Since the earliest days of the church the principle of right living (orthopraxis again) has been the imitation of Christ (WWJD?) Displace, squeeze out the sin and debauchery and replace them with Christ himself. How do you do this?

  • First by prayer and meditation.
  • Second by reading and studying the Scripture. Know the mind of Christ.
  • Finally, by imitating the good deeds of your Lord and those who follow Him.

Love God, and do as you please.

[1] Hebrews 9:27, and similar

[2] 2nd Peter 3:2-4

[3] 2nd Peter 3:8-9

[4] And it is not just a young man’s sin; the orgy isn’t unknown in the retirement village.

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