Romans 13:8-14 contains a profound call to love our fellow man, to develop a deep horizontal love, to love on the level. Paul says in verse 8: Owe no one anything, except to love each other.” On the one hand he encourages us to get out of debt while on the other hand he tells us we have an ongoing debt of love. The Christian is always a love-debtor, no matter how much love he gives.
Every time we meet someone we ought to say to ourselves, “I need to show him or her the love of Christ. I have a great and wonderful debt to pay.” If you have ever had a personal debt, be it ever so small, you know that the first thing that enters your mind when you see that person is that you “owe” them. We need to truly see ourselves as spiritual debtors. When we go to church, town, work, shopping, school – wherever we go, whoever we meet, we owe love. This is our debt – loving on the level.
Paul concludes verse 8 with, “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the Law.” How does loving one’s neighbor fulfill the Law? The Ten Commandments contain two divisions, sometimes called the two tablets. The first division gives us vertical, Godward commands such as, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). The second division contains horizontal commands that pertain to human relationships. Each division can be summed up with a single commandment, just as Jesus explained in Matthew 22:37-40. Keep both the vertical and the horizontal commandments and you will keep the Law! Here in his letter to the Romans, Paul is assuming that his readers have a vertical love for God, but do they have a horizontal love for others? If so, they are fulfilling God’s Law.
When we love our neighbors we will refrain from breaking the horizontal-relational commands. Paul gives some examples in verses 9-10. When you love your neighbor you will refrain from adultery. When you love your neighbor you will regard his life as inviolable. When you love your neighbor you will respect his ownership of property. Just think how irresistible Christianity would be in everyday, uneventful life if Christians truly loved their neighbors as themselves. If we were to consistently see ourselves as love-debtors, just think how the gospel would spread! We would be living out the Law, and the authenticity of our inner spirits would sound wide the ring of truth to the needy world.
Paul does not view this call to horizontal love as a casual matter. He sees it as having utmost urgency (vv. 11-12a). Paul’s sense of urgency is stressed by the word “time” in his opening phrase: “Besides this you know the time…” What kind of time is it? The New Testament calls it “the last days” – not in the chronological sense but qualitatively. These “last days” began with Christ and could culminate in “the day” (v. 12a) of His return at any moment, but that is not the point here. Paul was telling his hearers, and us, that we are living in “the last days.” This brings urgency to this matter of loving on the level. Believers are to wake up from spiritual lethargy and love their neighbors while they have opportunity to do so.
Paul next tells us there is something we must put off and something we must put on if we are going to succeed at loving on the level: “So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (v. 12b). Paul is specific about “the works of darkness” we are to discard: Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy (v. 13).
First, there must be no “orgies and drunkenness.” These words used together picture drunken individuals having a so-called “good time” and disturbing the citizens of the town. The Christian who wants to love must set aside such pursuit of harmful pleasures. Second, there is to be no “sexual immorality and sensuality.” Sexual immorality” is a Greek word that can simply be translated, “bed,” and the word rendered “sensuality” is one of the ugliest words in the Greek, describing one who is not only given to immorality, but is incapable to feeling shame. The Christian who wants to love must understand that one cannot both love people and live for sex. The third specific is to abstain from “quarreling and jealousy.” This phrase describes someone who cannot stand being surpassed and grudges others their success and position. Tragically many believers act as if it is their holy duty to keep others in their place. Such behavior can never exist in a heart that truly loves a neighbor.
There is much that must go if we are to love on the level. May none of us be so naive as to think any of this is irrelevant. These evils are the precise reason there is too little love in the Church and in the world. However, there is a glorious positive side to this, given in verse 14: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” It is true that if we are Christians we have already put on the Lord Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:27). But our text here in Romans has reference to a practical day-to-day, repeated putting on Christ. We are to embrace Him again and again and again.
Paul emphasizes that it is “the Lord Jesus Christ” that we put on. We bow to His Lordship. He is King of all or He is not King of all. This is where we gain the capacity to love. Loving on the level comes from the negative (putting off the works of darkness) and the positive (putting on Jesus Christ day-by-day). We must constantly do this. Our ability to love vertically and on the level comes from God’s love to us (1 John 4:19). His agape love reaches down to us in Christ, it is poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, and we return it back to God and to those around us. His great love is the source and motivation of our love.
God’s sacrifice for us, His love lavished upon us, ought to make us completely dependable in our showing love to the world. Let us cultivate a sense of debt. Just as when we owe someone money and our debt is the first thing we think of when we see him, so it may be with our debt of love. Let us enlarge our definition of neighbor as, “My neighbor is not necessarily someone like me. It is any person God has put in my way whom I can help.” Let us cultivate a sense of the time – “It is later than it has ever been before.” Let us consciously put off the works of darkness (we individually know what these are) and put on Jesus – every day!
Romans 13:8-14 Study Questions:
Verses 8-14 show Paul using the idea of fulfilling the Law through love. How can love fulfill all of the Law?
Why does Paul use the image of day in verses 11-14 to explain the behavior that he expects Christians to engage in and the image of night for what they shouldn’t do?
In verse 13 Paul notes three pairs of activities Christians should avoid. How are bad temper and jealousy just as destructive in a Christian community as drunkenness and sexual immorality?
Paul’s solution to avoiding the activities of the night is to “put on the Lord Jesus” (v. 14). How are we to do this?
In what ways does this entire chapter set a course for the Church to live attractive lives in the local community, surrounded as they are by the watching stares of puzzled pagans?
Think about your Christian community, your church or a small group. In what ways can your community live in a way that is more attractive to the surrounding culture?