Roger Severino

Why is Love the Fulfillment of the Law? Reflections on Romans 13:8-10

My good friend Robbi Fischer would often jump in to pick up the tab on a milkshake or a cup of coffee. He somehow created a certain competition of trying to out-serve one another. We would often accuse the other of trying to steal all the heavenly crowns, and to be really acting out of selfishness and greed for these eternal rewards. At times, when I tried to pay him back for the hamburger he just bought me, he would say: “Owe no man nothing, but to love one another.”

Of course, he was quoting Romans 13:8. In this passage, Paul may be giving a subtle warning about the dangers of debt, but he is primarily referring back to verse 7 which instructs believers to pay what is owed (taxes, tolls, honor). And yet, there is one type of debt that we should all owe: the obligation to love another person. Rather than a burden, however, this debt of love can be given freely and joyfully.

In the Gospels, Jesus says that the greatest two commands are to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves (see Matthew 22:37-40 and Mark 12:29-31). On more than one occasion, Paul said that the whole law is summed up by one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself (see Romans 13:9 and Galatians 5:14). Why does Paul truncate the command down to this? Perhaps John sheds light on this in his first epistle: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen.”[1] The vertical relationship with God simply will not be right without the corresponding horizontal, godly love for others.

OK, so how do we live out this command? Love is not simply a sentimental, fleeting feeling that we have. When Jesus says to love our neighbor as ourselves – and implies that everyone is our neighbor (see Luke 10:25-37) – we must consider how we love ourselves. Yes, this may have implications for having a healthy self-love, but that is not Jesus’ point. We all do love ourselves when it comes to seeking to fulfill our needs. If I am hungry, I look for food. If I am exhausted, I look for a place to rest or sleep. I love myself in seeking to meet my needs.

Loving my spouse, then, may mean sitting down and patiently listening to her when she has a need talk through something troubling her. Loving my children may mean helping to fulfill God’s best for them, whether or not they see it that way in the moment. Loving a co-worker may mean having a desire for him to flourish rather than trying to discredit him to make me look better. Loving a stranger could mean changing my road rage to patience with other drivers, or making sure that I am giving to the poor or marginalized in some way.

God’s grace towards me and forgiveness of my many sins is the basis and model for my love for others. “Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col. 3:13b).” Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another (John 13:34b). Love is the fulfillment of the law. It is our calling. Loving well is not a difficult concept, but it will cost you your life. Are you up for the challenge?

[1] The Holy Bible: Holman Christian Standard Version (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2009), 1 Jn 4:20.

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