“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Rm 13:8-10)
To Paul, observance of the law was a very important subject. Throughout the book of Romans, Paul talks about how Christians should treat the law.
Paul’s attitude toward the law sounds rather negative in Romans.
“Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law” (Rm 3:20)
“A person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” (Rm 3:28)
“The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase.” (Rm 5:20)
“My brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ” (Rm 7:4)
“But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law” (Rm 7:6)
According to Paul, we should die to the law and be released from it because we can’t become righteous by the works of the law.
But, we should also know that Paul doesn’t describe the law itself as a bad thing. Paul clarified that “The law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Rm 7:12).
So, the law itself is not wrong, but trying to become righteous by observing the law is wrong. The reason Paul described the law negatively was that many people, especially Jewish Christians, insisted that faith in Jesus alone was not enough and that one had to observe the law in order to become truly righteous.
To Paul, it was a dangerous and completely wrong way of thinking because it undermined what Jesus did on the cross and the righteousness God made through His sacrifice.
So, Paul strongly denied that kind of assertion and made it clear that God’s righteousness, which is the only thing that can make us righteous, has nothing to do with our observance of the law, but with His grace and Jesus’ redemption.
“But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known… And all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Rm 3:21, 24).
For us to be justified freely means that our works have nothing to do with our salvation. No matter how zealously we observe the law, we can’t be justified without faith in Jesus, since no one can perfectly observe the law because of our sinful nature.
What’s more, no matter how we have lived thus far and no matter how many times we’ve failed to obey God’s law, we can still become righteous if we truly believe in Jesus, accept what He did to save us on the cross as truth, and receive Him in our lives. That’s what ‘freely’ means. And, that’s what ‘grace’ means. In order to be justified, we must depend only on Jesus’ grace and His redemption.
That’s why Paul described the law negatively in regard to our salvation, not because the law itself is sinful, but because he really wanted to emphasize the truth about the gospel—that one can become righteous in God’s sight not by observance of the law but only by having faith in Jesus Christ, the righteousness of God. That’s the basic principle we, as Christians, should continue to keep in mind in regard to the law and salvation.
Then, the important question left is “how should Christians who were already justified by faith in Jesus, apart from the law, treat the law?”
Paul talked about this throughout the book of Romans. After strongly insisting that people are freely justified only by Jesus’ redemption, Paul said,
“Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law” (Rm 3:31).
This is how Christians should treat the law. Even though the law has nothing to do with our salvation, we still should make every effort to uphold the law—not to become righteous, but to live as God’s people who were already justified by His grace.
Through God’s law we know how God wants us to live. After delivering the Israelites out of Egypt, the first thing God did was to make a covenant with them and give them His law.
God wanted His people to be holy in His sight and in the sight of all other nations. So, God commanded them, “You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them. I am the Lord.” (Lv 18:5)
So, the purpose of God giving us His law is for His people to be holy by reflecting His goodness in the world so that others can see it and turn back to God. Thus, the law itself is holy, spiritual, and righteous.
The real problem was not the law itself, but our sinful nature that hinders us from obeying God’s law and makes us do things that God commanded us not to do. As Paul said, “The law was…weakened by the flesh…” (Rm 8:3).
But now, everything has changed since we started believing in Jesus. First, the problem of our sin is solved in Jesus. Sin is still very powerful, but we are no longer under its reign “because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” (Rm 8:1)
Second, through the power of the Holy Spirit who helps us, we’re now able to obey God’s law. As Paul said, “The righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Rm 8:4)
To sum up, Paul never denied the importance of obeying God’s law. He always emphasized that God’s people must uphold His law. What Paul strongly denied was not obedience to the law itself, but trying to be saved by works of the law.
Therefore, even though observing the law has nothing to do with our salvation, we must still try to observe God’s law if we’re really God’s people. That’s how we can check if we have true faith in Jesus or not.
Now, there’s one more important question left about our relationship with the law. We’ve talked about how only faith that upholds the law is true faith and that our genuine faith must be shown through our lives.
The Law of Love
Then, what laws should we keep and uphold? That’s the question that today’s passage talks about.
First of all, we don’t keep all 613 laws in the Old Testament. We don’t observe the special days of Judaism. We no longer offer animal sacrifices. We don’t observe certain food laws. We don’t have to be physically circumcised to become God’s people. Those ritualistic laws were abolished with the coming of Jesus because they just served as “our guardian until Christ came.” (Gl 3:24).
The law that Paul is saying we must uphold with faith is the law of love. Let’s read Romans 13:8-10 together again.
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Rom 13:8-10)
Love: The Continuing Debt
Here, Paul describes loving one another as a continuing debt. Paul already talked about debt in Romans chapter 1.
“I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome.” (Rm 1:14-15)
The reason Paul said, “I am obligated to everyone,” was not because he actually owed them, but because Jesus gave the gospel to Paul to deliver it to others.
To Paul, preaching the gospel always remained ‘the continuing debt’ because even though he tried to preach the gospel to everyone wherever he was, there were still many people who hadn’t heard it.
Paul uses the same concept when describing how we should love others. Loving one another must be our continuing debt because Jesus commanded us to love each other and gave us His wonderful love by laying down His life on the cross. And, as John said, “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 Jn 3:16).
Jesus commanded us to love others just as He loved us. We know who we were and what He sacrificed to love us. According to Romans 5, we were still sinners and even God’s enemies when Jesus laid down His life to save us.
This love is the source of our love toward others. We can’t just stop loving others, saying, ‘I’ve loved enough’ because loving others is our continual debt.
Love and the Law
Lastly, let’s talk about the relationship between love and the law. There are many commandments and laws in the Bible. But all the laws can be summed up in just one command of love. “Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.”
Then, the question is, “if love is the fulfillment of the law, do we really need to know about the laws in the Bible? Isn’t it enough for us to just love others?”
When it comes to Christian ethics, there are many ways to approach it. One of them is deontology. Deontology is an ethical theory that uses rules to distinguish right from wrong. In the Bible, there are many ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s.
So, it seems easy for us to distinguish right from wrong. Deontology is simple to apply. It just requires us to follow certain rules. But, the weakness of deontology is that it doesn’t take into account specific situations.
For example, divorce is prohibited in the Bible. So, from the deontological point of view, we can simply say, ‘You can’t divorce no matter what because the Bible doesn’t allow it.’
But, what if the husband abuses his wife, or one of them cheats on the other with someone else, or there is a severe disagreement that can’t be resolved and they fight every day because of it, can we still say, ‘you can’t divorce because it’s prohibited in the Bible’?
If we say that, other people may think that we lack love and understanding and that we wouldn’t act that way if we really loved them.
So, despite its strengths, rigidly following deontology can produce results that many people find contradictory to love.
2) Situation Ethics
Another theory I want to introduce is what’s called ‘Situation Ethics’ or ‘situational ethics.’
It says that moral judgments must be made within the context of a situation. Those who support situation ethics base it on love being the ultimate principle. They insist that love is most important and can be expressed in different ways in different situations. They also say that within the context of a situation, one should come to the most loving decision.
This view is opposed to deontology, which applies fixed universal rules to all situations, without exceptions. For those who support situation ethics, love must be the most important principle that affects one’s moral decision making even if it goes a bit against certain rules written in the Bible.
So, deontology is more related to ‘the law’, and situation ethics is more related to ‘love’. And, I think both are right and we need to consider both when deciding how we treat others.
What I’m personally opposed to is the extremes of each theory, which insist that one’s situation is not really important, or that we don’t need laws because love is the most important value.
From the biblical point of view, I think that we need both—the law and love. They should work together. We need love to truly follow the law because if we only follow the law without love, we can hurt others as a result. But, we also need the law to truly love others because the law teaches us the right way to live. In other words, the law gives direction to love.
Christian ethics is very complicated. There are many things to consider, so Christians have different points of view in regard to certain ethical subjects. But, what’s important is for us to try to find God’s will through our consciences and uphold God’s law out of the love that Jesus showed on the cross.