May 6, 2018
If you were to describe to someone what characterizes a mature Christian, what would you say? Perhaps you would mention their knowledge of Scripture, time spent in prayer, ability to work conversations toward the gospel, or willingness to be a generous giver. And all of those things are glorious. But I wonder how many of us would mention that person’s affections. Richard Sibbes, the great English Puritan preacher of the early seventeenth century wrote, “The strongest Christians have the strongest affections.”1 And chief among the affections given to us in the Bible is love.
Therefore, I wonder how many of us would say, “The most mature of believers is the most loving of believers.” Or, paraphrasing Sibbes, I wonder how many of us would say that the most mature believers are those who love most.
It may be that we would be hesitant to say such a thing simply because of the way that love is so mangled and misunderstood in our present day. If you hear someone say that the most important thing for believers is to love, you can instantly be tempted to assume they mean: excuse others’ sin, have no concern for truth, and the like. A couple of years ago, as I was preaching on 1 Corinthians 13, I remember saying that I’d been tempted to title the sermon “The Difficult and Battered Reality of Christian love,” going on to note that the exhortation to love often signals a call for believers to deny the reality of hell, condone homosexual practice, or refuse to confront the professing believer who is walking away from the faith.
But if the abuse of love or labeling of some shallow sentimentality that doesn’t care about holiness as “love” has led you to want to distance yourself from the topic of love, then reading your Bible and setting out to obey it is going to present a great problem. And the reason why is because love is everywhere in the Bible. I could go on and on with examples of this, but let it suffice to say that if we asked the Bible what is the chief mark of holiness or maturity in a believer, the answer would clearly be that a mature believer is one who loves. Love is the first fruit borne by the Spirit’s indwelling presence in our lives.
Therefore, when Paul began this section of Romans where he outlines what it looks like to live as a Christian, we noted in 12:9 that it wasn’t surprising for us to find his opening statement to be: “Let love be genuine.” Nor should we be surprised, then, to find that after speaking of the believer’s relationship to governing authorities in 13:1-7, he instantly returns to the topic of love in our text this morning (13:8-10), as he begins, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” And the reason why he does so is because love is at the center of living a life that is honoring to the Lord. Or, we might say, love is the centerpiece of a life characterized by persevering, obedient faith.
Now, that’s a big statement to make, so my hope this morning is to show you why we can say that. First, let me just highlight the exhortation to love that is in our text, then I’ll show you why love is at the centerpiece of obedient Christian living. So, the exhortation:
Paul’s exhortation in this text comes right at the beginning of verse 8 as he writes, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other.” And the reason he begins with this idea of owing something is because of what he had just written in verse 7, as we saw two weeks ago, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” Thus, the link between the end of the text we looked at two weeks ago and our text this morning is quite clear. It’s in the word “owe.” What is less clear, however, is what Paul means in verse 8. What does he mean when he says, “Owe no one anything”?
Now, some have obviously taken this to mean that Christians should never borrow. You don’t have a mortgage, borrow money to go to school, etc. And if you just take that phrase “Owe no one anything,” on its own, perhaps you could draw that conclusion. But there are a couple of notes that make that interpretation of this phrase nearly impossible.
For one, it is practically impossible to live out. If you live anywhere at all, you’re typically going to owe someone money. Signing a lease at an apartment puts you in a situation where you owe the lessor for the time you’re going to live there. If you use utilities you owe the utility company for what you’ve used. If you hire someone to mow your yard and you don’t pay them ahead of time, you’ll owe them for mowing. And we could go on. So, practically speaking, it’s basically impossible to never owe anyone anything.
A second reason this exhortation cannot mean that Christians can literally never be in a position of owing anyone anything is because Paul just mentioned in verse 7 that we are constantly in a position of owing. We owe taxes, revenue, honor, and respect. As long as there are people in positions of authority over you in life—which is always the case with all of us—then we’ll always owe honor and respect to people, if nothing else.
But if he doesn’t mean that we can literally never be in a position of owing someone something, what does he then mean? The point of Paul’s exhortation is that any debts we incur should be repaid. We should pay our utility bills, rental bills, and mortgage payments on time. We should fulfill the terms of our contracts regarding any debts we owe. This is the point.
But really he is bringing this up just to say that there is one debt that you’ll never be able to pay out in full. He says, “Owe no one anything [i.e. repay all your debts in full] except to love each other.” Thus, though you pay all debts, that one is an exception; it can’t be repaid.
Why, though, does Paul assume that you and I owe love to others? When you search the Scriptures in order to see how this works, the answer is rooted in Christ’s love for us. For example, think about 1 John 4. We’re all familiar with verse 8 where John tells us that God is love. John then continues, noting how God has shown his love to us, writing, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (vv. 9-10).
You can see, then, that John is writing all about God’s love for us. God is love, and he has shown his love for us by sending his Son to into the world to die and appease divine wrath against us. But then look at what John writes next. He says, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (v. 11). In other words, it’s God’s love for us that puts us in a place where we owe love to others.
And you see this throughout the Scripture. In Philippians 2 Paul can say that if we’ve received comfort and love in Christ, then we should show that to others. In the parable of the man who is let out of prison and his debts forgiven, he is expected (obviously) to forgive the debts that others owe him. In fact, you and I feel how terrible it is (when we read of that parable) that the man who has been forgiven the debt he could never repay, refuses to show grace to another. He owes grace to others, we might say.
And we could go on with other examples, but the idea is clear: because we’ve been the recipients of the greatest love one could ever know in how our Lord loves (and has loved) us, then we are indebted to show love to others (like the man in the parable). And because Christ’s love for us is infinitely glorious in nature, we will always be indebted to show love to others. It’s a debt that can never be repaid. That’s Paul’s exhortation and argument as he begins our text: pay all your debts except the one that can never be repaid—loving others—and in that, spend your life paying out love to others, even into eternity.
But I’ve started the sermon today arguing even more than that. I’m arguing that love is at the centerpiece of Christian obedient living, the most crucial element in our holiness. On what basis can I say that? Well, that's the second point in the sermon:
Paul grounds his command to love others by saying, “For the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (v. 8). What does he mean by “the law?” I think he means the law of Moses in the Old Covenant, and I say that because he goes on to list some of the ten commandments. He writes, “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” (vv. 9-10).
What is Paul getting at, then, by saying that one who loves his neighbor fulfills the law? What he’s saying is that the essence of the law in the Old Testament was love. Now, you can think about the law as hundreds of commandments (and indeed there were), but at its core, the law was about love. All the commandments the Lord gave were the outworking and application of love.2 They were telling us and showing us what love looks like when lived out.
Therefore, if you love your neighbor, you’ll happily obey the commands of God toward others. Paul lists this truth in a negative way. After listing commands about things you shouldn’t do to your neighbor (like steal, murder, covet, and commit adultery), Paul notes that “love does no wrong to a neighbor,” and “therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” If you love your neighbor, you’ll obey the commands God has given in the law about how to treat him, and, therefore, love is at the center of Christian obedience to God’s commands.
Now, this is simple and straightforward, but realize that the fact that Paul gives this exhortation, knowing that we can live in obedience to it, shows us two glorious truths that I want to conclude nothing.
Though the law was always aiming at love, it could never actually produce it. It could do nothing to change our sinful hearts. It could hold up a picture of our sinful hearts to us but not actually change us. But, remember what Paul said back in Romans 8:1-9? God has done what the law (weakened by our sinful flesh) couldn’t do. He first sent Jesus to die and rise and pay for our sins so that the condemnation pronounced over us by the law and enslaving nature of sin was removed. That was the first step in us walking in obedience to God’s commands. As long as we were condemned in our sins, we were powerless to obey God’s commands.
And the second is the Spirit, whom Paul says has set us free in Christ and who dwells in us. Until we had the Spirit, we were powerless to obey. But now he indwells us. And he not only indwells us but creates godly desires—such as love—within us. So, the law held up a picture of love but could never produce people who actually loved. But God has done what the law could never do. Jesus lived, died, and rose for us, and the Spirit indwells us so that now we are those very people who bear the fruit of love in our lives and, thus, happily obey God’s commands toward our neighbors.3 And I want another note:
When Paul mentions us fulfilling the law, he’s not implying that you and I are under the law of Moses as Christians. This isn’t Paul suggesting that we go back to not picking up sticks on the Sabbath, not wearing a shirt with two different kinds of threads, or refusing to eat bacon. He’s made clear, arguing repeatedly through Romans, that, as Christians, we’ve died to the law of Moses. The law of Moses has had the effect in our lives of showing our need for Christ and pointing us to him as our only hope so that we have died to the law and been raised with Christ.
So, how do we think through the Christian’s relationship to the law and to commands in our lives today? I think the best way to think through it is to think of the law of Moses as something like training wheels or scaffolding on a building. Training wheels and scaffolding on a building provide a crucial and necessary element if one is learning to ride a bike or doing work on a building. They provide structure, you might say, but their purpose is always to lead us to something greater.
So it is with the law of Moses. When the Lord gave all those particular commands about what kind of clothing you should wear, that you should give the first ten percent of your income to him, etc., they were specific laws that had to be obeyed. If you picked up sticks on Saturday, you were sinning, simple as that. However, these laws were also pointing to us something greater—like training wheels on a bike. They were pointing us to the kind of heart that the Lord wants from his people—a heart that loves God and neighbor. Once, for example, someone develops a heart of understanding the Lord’s grace, desiring to be generous and trust the Lord, and love for the Lord’s mission and people, he doesn’t need a command to give the first ten percent of his income away. Instead, he asks, “Do I have to limit it to ten percent?” He’s become a cheerful giver from his heart. And once that heart is in place, the law of the Old Covenant can fall away—like scaffolding on a building or training wheels—because the heart of love that the law was always pointing to has been achieved. So, we can see where the law is pointing—toward a heart of love out of which obedience naturally flows.
Now, let’s jump to eternity for a second. If the Lord were to return today, and you and I were given resurrected bodies and were made to dwell with the Lord forever, with the earth itself being made new and the curse removed, do you think that the new creation would have laws written all over everything like, “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and the like? Of course not. But why? Well, the reason why is because when we are with the Lord, our hearts will be made so gloriously sanctified that we won’t need to be told not to covet. We’ll love our brothers and sisters so perfectly that we’ll rejoice in their good, not covet. In other words, once we love perfectly, we’ll not need any laws written on the walls of heaven; we’ll naturally carry out all of those commands from our hearts of love. That is the perfect picture of what the law was pointing us toward—a heart that loves perfectly. That’ll be us in eternity.
But now let’s come to the present. Brothers and sisters, our hearts are not yet perfected in love, and they won’t be until eternity. And until then, we need commandments in our lives, and that’s why the New Testament is full of them. That’s why Paul can say in 1 Corinthians 9:21 that though he’s not under the law (of Moses), he is not without law. He’s under the law of Christ, compelled to obey all of the commands laid out for us in the New Covenant, even as we are. And in the new covenant, we finds commands galore. Our text next week will command us not to be sexually immoral, not to get drunk, not to get caught up in quarreling or jealousy. And you and I need to be told those things because our hearts can sometimes get selfish, hardened, deceived by sin, and unloving toward God and neighbor. And these commands tell me that I better stop those pursuits and repent. Our hearts are not yet perfected in love. They’re not yet what the law of Moses was pointing us toward and what we’ll be in eternity.
However, once we place our faith in Christ—who lived, died, and was raised for us—and the Spirit comes to indwell us, producing fruit like love, joy, peace, etc., we do find our hearts longing to love God and neighbor, don’t we? Don’t you find your hearts moved with genuine love for others so that you want to do them good? My guess is that you didn’t come here this morning, thinking to yourself, “I want to do wrong to my neighbor,” but probably, “I want to do good toward and encourage others today.” And if that’s the case, then that the Lord’s work in your hearts, moving you so that you will (out of a heart of love) obey his commands. That’s what Paul is saying. You’ve been changed so that you love others, and that is making you naturally—or better, supernaturally—live in obedience to Christ’s commands toward your neighbor. That’s what Paul is saying in our text.
And what I want us to recognize is that if you see that in your heart, then the Lord is giving you a glimpse now of what you’ll be like in eternity. He’s already doing this work in your heart now. So, be encouraged and live that out. And as you feel love in your heart toward others, stop and thank the Lord for the Spirit’s work, and then walk in obedience to that love in obeying the Lord and doing good toward your neighbor. Then, as we all live that out, what a glorious picture of church community that will be. So, let us give thanks to the Lord and commit ourselves to obeying him in love, even as we now come to the table. Amen.
1 Richard Sibbes, “An Exposition of the Third Chapter of the Epistle of St. Paul to the Philippians,” in Works of Richard Sibbes, vol. 5, ed. Alexander B. Grosart (1862-1864; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2001), 125.
2 Charles Leiter, The Law of Christ (Hannibal, MO: Granted Ministries Press, 2012), 127.
3 For those of us who have been believers for a while, the Spirit’s impulses and desires in us may begin to feel natural. That is good and ideal. However, it may make it so that you greatly misperceive the Spirit’s work in your life. You may not sense the Spirit’s compulsion in you to love God and neighbor just because you think, “Well, that’s how everyone feels.” That’s not true, though. You just feel like it’s true because you’ve become so accustomed to the Spirit’s desires within you.