Love Is the Fulfillment of the Law (Romans 13:8-10)

Romans 13:8-10 is a powerful passage where Paul states that all of the law is wrapped up in loving our neighbors as ourselves; love is the fulfillment of the law.

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.

Romans 13:8-10, NIV

He echoes Jesus who said:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

Matthew 22:37-40, NIV

And, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12, NIV)

Love Is the Fulfillment of the Law

It’s important not to confuse the order of this statement. People often get this backward and live as though the law is the fulfillment of love. The trouble is that when the law is the fulfillment, we may try to learn what love is by examining the law. Christians start assuming that the rules they follow are inherently loving in every context.

The Pharisees made this mistake when they assumed that it was the law that made them righteous. In Matthew 12:1-8, they question Jesus about his disciples picking and eating grain on the Sabbath, which is unlawful. Jesus points out that David and his men broke the law by eating the consecrated bread, and even the priests break the law on the Sabbath to perform their duties. The law, in and of itself, doesn’t make a person holy, nor does breaking the law necessarily make one unholy.

Similarly, in Mark 3:1-5, Jesus poses this question: “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (NIV) Jesus frames the law as a matter of good and evil, saving life and taking life, as opposed to mere obedience or adherence to the letter of the law. He makes his point by healing a man’s withered hand.

This confusion about which thing is the fulfillment (love or the law) commonly leads to justifying a lack of love. There are at least two ways that people do this.

  1. If the law supersedes love, then even when we know we’re not being “loving,” we can feel justified because the law will protect us. I see this often in business settings, Christian or otherwise, especially when it comes to finances.
  2. If the law defines what’s loving, then we can justify hurting or oppressing others in the name of obedience to the law. In my experience, this often manifests as “love is obedience” and seems common in conservative Christian circles.

Let’s consider these.

Protection Under the Law

I once worked for a company that paid employees twice a month, and the paydays would sometimes fall on weekends (the offices were closed on weekends). The employee handbook stated that if this happened, paychecks would be handed out before the weekend, on Friday. Occasionally, the company would decide to hold the paychecks until Monday, instead, but they wouldn’t tell us until that Friday when we were expecting our checks.

This was less a problem in the middle of the month, but at the beginning of the month, this could cause issues with late payments for rent (among other things). Once when this happened, I heard some co-workers lamenting that this was going to result in late fees. I started to get upset about this, particularly when the owner of the company started saying things like, “They should have planned ahead and been more responsible with their finances,” as if they hadn’t worked the payment schedule into their financial planning.

I thought I was composed enough to advocate for my co-workers, so I went into the VP’s office in the hopes we could come to some kind of understanding (or at least get some transparency about why we weren’t getting paid or how to better communicate with us in the future). The first thing I was told was something along the lines of, “We’re not breaking any laws. We’re well within our legal rights to withhold paychecks for up to 30 days.”

Now, where I lived at the time, that was true. I wasn’t there to argue the legality of what they were doing. I was there to see if they we could help those employees who couldn’t afford to miss a paycheck. In my mind, this was an ethical issue, not a legal one, and when they made their defense, I just about lost it.

I think the religious leaders who had Jesus arrested were using similar logic to justify themselves. In Matthew 27:1-10, the chief priests absolve themselves of any responsibility for Judas’s betrayal of Jesus and hide behind a facade of obedience by refusing to add his blood money to the temple treasury. Moreover, they get the Romans to crucify Jesus for them! Now they can say that they neither accepted what was unlawful from Judas nor killed Jesus, but of course, this is mere rationalization not in keeping with the spirit of the law.

Love is the fulfillment of the law.

Love Is Obedience

When the law fulfills love, obedience to the law becomes the same as being loving. This interpretation of Romans 13:8-10, which switches love and law, causes problems in the previous part of Romans 13.

Paul says that governing authorities are put in place by God, and “whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.” (v.2, NIV) This creates a theological challenge: how can governments that oppress people be opposed? Shouldn’t Christians merely acquiesce to the laws of the land?

We see many examples in scripture where the answer is, “No, you shouldn’t just follow the laws of the land.” In Daniel 6, Daniel ignores the decree of the king and is thrown to the lions, and in Daniel 3, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are all thrown into a fire for breaking the law. In both those stories, God saves the offenders, and Christians generally consider them righteous because of their faith in God despite their unlawful actions.

We just mentioned earlier about David, who broke the law concerning consecrated bread, and about priests who break the Sabbath law for the sake of their duties. In both cases, they didn’t just break the law of the land, they broke God’s law in God’s land, and in the latter case, both the Sabbath law and the priestly duties were given by God.

One way this manifests in congregations is legalism:

  • “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15, NIV) becomes a convenient blinder against “love is the fulfillment of the law,” (Romans 13:10).
  • Most references to “law” are assumed to be about Old Testament law, which we conveniently blanket as “no longer applying to us.”
  • Mentions of love as the law or the command are simply ignored or framed as “love is whatever the law says.” Examples: John 13:34, 15:12, 17; Galatians 5:14, or James 2:8.
  • “We just need to be faithful to what’s in scripture. It’s not for us to question what God tells us to do.”

I don’t think legalism takes seriously the dissonance that can arise in Romans 13, nor do any of the manifestations of “love is obedience” that I’ve encountered.

Love is the fulfillment of the law.

Romans 13:8-10

When we place love as the fulfillment, we can use it as a measure of the law. Paul says that loving others fulfills the law, (v.8) that all commands are summed up in loving our neighbors as ourselves, (v.9) and that love is the fulfillment of the law because it doesn’t harm others. (v.10)

A command, therefore, that harms a neighbor can’t be fulfilled in love, because love doesn’t harm our neighbors. A law that oppresses others can’t be fulfilled in love, because it can’t be summed up in loving our neighbors as ourselves. Things that can’t be fulfilled in love can’t be from God, because God is love. (1 John 4:8)

So, when Paul says that governing authorities are set in place by God for our good (Romans 13:4) and that all authorities have been established by God (Romans 13:1), it seems to me that Paul is being hyperbolic. He doesn’t mean “literally every governing authority in the world/history,” because if love is the fulfillment of the law, then doing what’s loving is more important than mere obedience to authorities. (Remember Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, David and his companions, the temple priests, Jesus, etc.)

Paul does a similar thing when he uses the term “law.” Throughout Romans, he uses the term “law” to refer to different things without necessarily making explicit distinctions. In Romans 2:14, Paul refers to the Old Testament law (the Gentiles don’t have “the law”) and some sort of spirit of the law (they are “a law” to themselves). In Romans 3:27, he refers to both a law requiring works and a law requiring faith. In Romans 4:15, he says, “The law brings wrath,” (NIV) and in Romans 7:6 he says we’ve been set free from the law, but then he says the law is “spiritual” (7:14) and distinguishes between the law of the Spirit and the law of sin and death (8:2).

In other words, Paul seems to be trying to help his readers understand how to discern the law. Which “laws” and commands do I need to obey? Which governing authorities are those put in place by God? And in Romans 13:8-10, he gives a measurement: that which is fulfilled in love is the law, the commands, and those governing authorities set in place for our good.

Love is the fulfillment of the law.

Measure Carefully

It’s true that there are occasions in scripture where God asks people to follow instructions without explanation, but that doesn’t seem to be God’s desire for humanity as a whole, and according to Paul, it doesn’t seem to be the goal of God’s commands. Blind obedience is worthless. 1 Corinthians 13: anything we do without love is useless, and love is the greatest thing that remains when other things fall away.

We should measure carefully the laws by which we live and the authorities to which we submit, and like many people throughout scripture, we should choose those actions which are fulfilled in love, even if they oppose the laws and authorities around us. Even religious leaders can fall into the trap of following a love that’s fulfilled in the law rather than a law that’s fulfilled in love.

Love is the fulfillment of the law.

2 thoughts on “Love Is the Fulfillment of the Law (Romans 13:8-10)

  1. Excellent article. I would love to know what if any, opinion the author has on how vaccinations and masks etc.. should be handled in a way that Love would be the fullfilment of the law. Thank You.

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    1. Hi, Alisa. For me, there are two important statements that Paul makes in this Romans passage: love your neighbor as yourself and love does no harm to a neighbor. There are two questions I ask myself, then: how do I love myself, and is my choice harming someone else? Of course, how we answer those questions is subjective for each of us, but here’s where I fell:

      When something is getting ready to hurt me, I try to protect myself, so if something is potentially harmful to my neighbor, I should try to protect them, too (love my neighbor as myself). The vaccinations and masks fulfill both of those things, and that seems loving to me. They’re an attempt to both protect myself and protect my neighbor. The risk to myself from the vaccine and from masks is basically zero, so I don’t even risk harming myself.

      I also know people who can’t get the vaccine for medical reasons, usually because of chronic ailments that make it too risky. The same is true for masks; I know one or two people who can’t wear masks for extended periods of time because of chronic health issues in their respiratory system. That means they’re extra-susceptible to the COVID virus and have fewer options for protecting themselves. It seems to me that by choosing not to get vaccinated or wear a mask myself, I could potentially harm my neighbor. Love does no harm to a neighbor, so I think it’s most loving for me to get vaccinated and to wear a mask.

      I did get the vaccine, and I do wear a mask, even when it’s not required, because my kids can’t get vaccinated yet, and variants can still spread through me even if they don’t do me any serious harm. It’s also an act of solidarity with others during this pandemic, which I also think is loving. I’ve done things by myself that others have mocked me for or that have made me feel different and uncomfortable or even embarrassed. Sometimes, an act of solidarity can make go a long way in helping someone feel belonging and comfort. I want my neighbors to know I stand with them in this season of suffering, that they’re not alone. All of this sounds to me like loving my neighbor and doing no harm.

      Like

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