“Love Is the Fulfilling of the Law” (Romans 13:1-10)
Do you want to know what you should be doing this week? I can tell you with sure confidence what God’s will is for you this week. It’s pretty simple, actually. I can sum it up in one word: Love. That’s right. Love. In terms of how you deal with the people you encounter this week, that’s about the size of it: Love them. How can I be so sure of this? Because God’s Word tells me this is so, that this is God’s will for each one of us. It’s no mystery. It’s quite clear.
We heard it in the Epistle reading for today, from Romans 13, where St. Paul writes: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For 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.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” And so our theme this morning: “Love Is the Fulfilling of the Law.”
“Love is the fulfilling of the law.” I suppose we need to clarify a couple of terms here. First, what do we mean by “the law”? We’re talking here about the law of God. God’s law, as expressed in the Ten Commandments. And even more specifically, Paul is talking here about what we call the Second Table of the Law, those commandments that deal most directly with how we treat other people. Paul lists some of them: “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet”–and then, to cover all the bases, he adds, “and any other commandment.” Paul says that all of these commandments can be summed up in this one commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Now was Paul just going off on his own with this idea? By no means. In fact, our Lord Jesus Christ said the same thing. Somebody once asked Jesus what he thought was the greatest commandment in the Law. And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love God. Love your neighbor. That’s how Jesus summarizes the Ten Commandments.
And to be sure, love for God comes first. St. Paul isn’t denying that. Paul is just emphasizing our dealings with our neighbor. That’s where so much of our everyday living occurs: in how we treat our neighbor. Of course, how we treat our neighbor is a reflection of how well we love God, who created our neighbor, who loves our neighbor–yes, that neighbor for whom Christ died, that neighbor whom God places in our path in order that we might be a channel of God’s blessing towards him. And so Jesus and Paul are in agreement: Everything that has to do with how we treat our neighbor, God’s will for how we treat him or her, can be summed up in this one word: Love.
So when we talk about “the law” in this context, we’re talking about God’s law for how we deal with each other. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Now what do we mean by “love”? Well, I can tell you this much: It’s a whole lot more than just a warm, fuzzy feeling. No, love goes much deeper than that. It’s more than a feeling, a fleeting emotion. Rather, love has to do with action, with a decision to act in a certain way. What to do, and what not to do, toward our neighbor. Basically, it’s to help and not to hurt him. It’s to treat others the way you would like to be treated. That’s what is meant by “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Or, as Jesus put it in the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Love is a decision. Love is an action. It’s a decision to act in helpful ways toward my neighbor. And it’s a decision to not act in selfish ways that would harm my neighbor, to serve me at the expense of him.
This will be played out in the choices you make and the actions you take. And this is where we move from the general to the specific. In this or that situation, where there are three or four–or even more–options for what we could do that would be loving, which one will we pick? This calls for thoughtful consideration. There could be more than one right answer. But the general principle will be the same: How would we like others to treat us?
Let’s think of some examples. And we’ll take them in terms of the various commandments that Paul lists. “You shall not commit adultery.” Love fulfills the law by not taking advantage of another person sexually. “You shall not murder.” Love fulfills the law by not harming your neighbor in his body, but rather helping him in his need. “You shall not steal.” Love fulfills the law by respecting your neighbor’s property. “You shall not covet.” Love fulfills the law by not scheming to get what your neighbor has, even though you could get away with it. You see how this love business goes. You want to do the right thing by your neighbor.
Love is the fulfilling of the law. The problem though is, even as Christians, we don’t always do this. Even though we know what we should do, our follow-through is often lacking. Our actions go contrary to God’s commandment to love. Instead, we act selfishly. This is what is known as sin. And it is deadly. For with God’s law comes the consequence for when we break it. And the due punishment for sin is death. “The wages of sin is death.” Even eternal death, under God’s righteous wrath and condemnation. So, big problem confronting each one of us.
This is why the law, as good as it is–the law can never save you. Because we don’t keep it well enough to pass the test. We need something else. We need the gospel.
And here again, both in terms of the law and the gospel, one word sums it up: Love. Only it’s not the love that we produce. No, it’s God’s love for us–God’s love for us in Christ–that is what fulfills the law and the gospel for us.
God’s love is the fulfilling of the law. Christ Jesus fulfills the law on our behalf. There would finally be a man who keeps the law of God perfectly. His name is Jesus. Christ Jesus, the very Son of God come in the flesh–Jesus comes as our brother and our substitute. He keeps the law without fail, without sin. Jesus always does the right thing. He is the one righteous man. Jesus always does the will of God as it should be done. Jesus does love his neighbor as himself. Jesus’ perfect life of love then is credited to our account, as a gift, as though we had done so ourselves. His love is the fulfilling of the law.
And out of that great love of his, Jesus fulfills the law in this respect as well: He bears the judgment that the law pronounces on sinners. He takes our sins, all of them, and carries them to the cross. There he dies as the one sinner in the whole world, taking the punishment for all of sinful humanity upon his innocent shoulders. The holy Son of God sheds his blood in the place of, and for the sake of, every sinner who has ever lived, you included. All your sins are atoned for, covered and cleansed, by the blood of Jesus Christ. You are forgiven, yes, you. Imagine: That record of sin you have accumulated over the years, all those times you have acted selfishly and not loved your neighbor as yourself–all that guilty record has been erased, wiped away, clean and as good as new. That’s what Jesus your Savior does for you.
And by faith in him, trusting in Christ Jesus for your salvation, not in your own works–through faith in Christ you are saved. You receive Christ’s righteousness as a gift. You receive his resurrection, rising to new life in Holy Baptism and rising to eternal life when Christ returns.
And so love is the fulfilling of the gospel. God’s love for you, in Christ–this is the total and complete good news that you and I so desperately need.
Now, then, this sets us up to carry out God’s command to love in a new way. We’re not doing it to be saved, because we can never do it well enough. But rather, because we are already saved, purely by Christ’s doing, now we are ready to live the new life of love. God has given us his Spirit. Now we have the desire to do God’s will. Now we have new power to do it.
Of course, we still have our old sinful nature to contend with, and so we will fail and fall short, and we feel our shame in doing so. This is why we always need to come back here for more forgiveness, which we receive in the Lord’s Supper. We always need to come back for renewed strength to do God’s will, to experience God’s love anew, to equip us to love others. We pray, day by day, as each new situation arises, that God will help us love that neighbor that we’re having trouble loving. And God hears and answers our prayers.
And so God helps us to love our neighbor, which is what he desires that we do. God really expects that we will do this. You do have the capacity to love others, precisely because you have first received God’s love for you. You know what love is like. It’s how God treats you. God will help you and strengthen you, dear Christian, to love your neighbor as yourself.
One of my favorite prayers gets at this so well. It’s the post-Communion prayer we often pray: “We give thanks to You, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore You that of Your mercy You would strengthen us through the same in faith toward You and in fervent love toward one another; through Jesus Christ,” etc.
That gets at it, doesn’t it? Faith toward God and fervent love toward one another. How Christ fulfills the law and the gospel for us, by his love, which we receive in this Sacrament–this refreshes and strengthens us now to fulfill God’s will for us in how we love our neighbor. So come and be refreshed and strengthened. God’s love for you will enable you to love others.