How Shall I Love My Neighbor? By Keeping the Law!

An advice column dedicated to gift-giving in December accidentally explored a very biblical topic – the relationship between love and the law. Question one: What shall I do about a boyfriend who buys expensive but inappropriate gifts? The mind wanders: Did he buy her a chain saw last year? Hang-gliding lessons? Question two: My family members have requested gift cards in prescribed amounts, from specific stores. Is this really gift-giving or a sanctioned way for people to lift money from each other's wallets? Both questions want rules for gift-giving, that is, the right way to show affection through gifts.

Love and law in Romans

     On that theme, Paul says “Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10). Paul describes God’s love for his people in Romans 1-8, then explains the way believers love each other in Romans 12-13. Romans 13:8-10 essentially says, “If you love someone, keep the law.” Romans 12-13 never denies that love is a feeling, but it stresses that love is also law-governed behavior.

     Paul focused on love in Romans 12:9-16, but since love is the core of the Christian life, he returns to it in 13:8-10. In this paragraph, “love” appears five times, three times as a verb, twice as a noun. The section begins with a command to love, followed by a reason: love fulfills the law (13:8). Next, because law explains how love fulfills the law, Paul restates several commands from Exodus and Leviticus (13:9). Paul repeats that love fulfills the law; it is also the way to love our neighbors (13:10). Paul concludes by exhorting the church to show love and obedience today, for the time is short. It is time to lay down deeds of darkness and to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (13:11-14).

     Romans 13 affirms this connection between law and love. But we should begin where Paul does, with God’s redeeming love, for that provides the basis and motivation for adherence to every command. The indicatives drive the imperatives.

     Therefore, when Paul commands disciples to love everyone in Romans 12:9-10, we recall that God poured his love into our hearts by his Spirit (5:5). When he says "Love your neighbor as yourself" (13:8), this rests on the principle that God loved us when we were his enemies (5:8). And if we fail to love others, the promise stands: nothing can “separate us from the love of Christ” (8:35-39). In short, Romans 13:8-14 rests on Romans 3 to 11. Paul’s commands graciously teach believers how to answer God’s prior love. Romans 13:8-10 teaches believers how to love others – by keeping the law. Romans 13 also corrects a possible error. When Paul described the Christian’s freedom, he said "You are not under law, but under grace" (6:14). But Romans 13 shows that “not being under the law” is no invitation to lawlessness.

Jesus and law

     Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15). He also said “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (13:34). So then, Jesus’ example is normative. In the Gospels, Jesus is a walking law. He is a normative narrative - unless he is exercising his divine prerogatives or accomplishing salvation. Paul adds that the law teaches believers how to love each other. Specifically, if we love someone, we will not rob them, murder them, or covet their treasures (Rom. 13:9).

The law teaches us how to love

     Paul focused on love in Romans 12:9-16, but since love is the core of the Christian life, he returns to it in 13:8-10. Reading 13:8-10 slowly, we notice that “love” appears five times, three times as a verb, twice as a noun. The passage has a sandwich structure. 13:8 and 13:10 both say love fulfills the law and 13:9 cites five laws, four from Exodus, one from Leviticus. So the law explains how believers love one another. Romans 13:11-14 then say the church must show love today, for the time is short.

     To repeat the great point that laws show people how to love. We must acknowledge that many people assume that love and law are contrary. To explore this sensibility, imagine a newly married couple that shares a zeal for coffee. The husband typically awakens at 6 a.m. and the wife at 7 a.m. daily. The wife decides to show affection by setting their brewer to 6:00 so coffee awaits him when he rises. The grateful husband decides to bring coffee to her bedside at 6:59 daily, so the aroma of coffee, not a screeching alarm clock, will gently rouse her daily. These are spontaneous acts of love. To codify these acts, we suspect, will ruin them. A joyful gift becomes a duty and a day without coffee, whether brewed or delivered, becomes a failure, even an offense.

     There is no point in denying the beauty of spontaneous acts of kindness. We can lose our joy if we codify everything. On the other hand, sinners, corrupted by their fallen nature and a host of bad habits and examples, need both directions and fences. We need the law’s “You shall not” dicta. Indeed, Paul begins with a prohibition: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (13:8).

     In a clever play on words, the command to “owe” nothing (opheilo) echoes 13:7, which says, “Pay to all what you owe” (opheile). A literal translation of Romans 13:7-8 might read like this:

     13:7a: "Pay what you owe to everyone."

     13:8a: "Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another."

     So the command to pay debts is repeated and reversed: “Pay your debts to everyone” (13:7). Then Paul forbids all debts but one, the continuing debt of love. Paul’s move from financial debts (13:7) to the debt of love is word-play, but more. To live under financial debts is to restrict one’s to love others. How can anyone give generously when crushed by financial debts?

     Origen said believers should “steer clear” of financial debts, “retaining only the debt [of] love, which we ought to be repaying every day.” We should never owe anyone anything, except the enduring debt of love. Love is always an obligation and no one can completely fulfill it. One can always do more and beyond that, we often fail to love in the most obvious ways. This should leads us to repent.

     After Paul says “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law,” he cites four social commands, not in the canonical order: “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet” (13:9a). Paul concludes that “any other commandment” is “summed up in this “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (13:9b). The phrase “any other commandment" shows that Paul aims for a big point, not a precise list. The goal is to love our neighbors as ourselves.

     Love and law collaborate in that the commandments teach us how to love and the disposition of love supplies the motivation. Scripture says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Prov. 4:23, NIV). Our hearts, or settled affections, drive our actions, as Jonathan Edwards knew. The mind and will are not independent agents. They are loyal soldiers and servants of the heart. If the heart is bent on something, the mind will find a reason. We find grounds for doing what we live, whether that love is cycling, photography, or eating.

     As I worked on this passage, our family dog, Taxi, became ill. Dogs can become expensive, so when my wife and I received our rescue dog, we had agreed that we would not spend over $700 on veterinarian’s fees if our dog got sick, since that was the cost of supporting a child overseas for a year. But when Taxi was nine, she got sick and the treatment plan cost $800. Did we follow our decision and let our dog go? No, we love our dog, so we reasoned, “It’s only an extra $100.” The treatment worked and she recovered.

     Jesus said the great commandment is to love God with heart, your soul, mind, and strength. And the second declares, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus knew that proper loves nudge everything in the right direction as surely as false loves scramble and misdirect. When Jewish leaders thought of killing Jesus, he named their core problem - “you do not have the love of God within you” (John 5:42). True love spurs a desire to please God and to serve family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors.

Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books. His most recent is Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation.