Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 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.
Three times in this text Paul says, more or less, that loving your neighbor as you love yourself fulfills the law. Verse 8b: “For the one who loves another has fulfilled (peplëröken) the law.” Verse 9 at the end: “. . . and any other commandment, are summed up (anakephalaioutai) in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” And verse 10: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling (plëröma) of the law.” Let’s clarify some of the terms here from the context.
First the word, “law.” “Law” here is referring most immediately to the ten commandments from Exodus 20. You see that in verse 9: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet [these are all commandments from the ten commandments in Exodus 20], and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” There is a lot more in the first five books of Moses, which are sometimes called the law, but here Paul is focusing on the commandments. That’s his main meaning for “law” in these verses.
Second, the word “fulfill.” The words “fulfilled” (v. 8) or “sum up” (v. 9) or “fulfilling” (v. 10) refer to the attitudes and actions of love that correspond to what the commandments require. If you love, your mindset and behavior are what the law requires. Your attitudes and actions satisfy the demands of the law when you are loving as you ought. That’s what “fulfill” means. It’s not talking about prophecy being fulfilled. It’s talking about attitudes and behaviors which correspond to what the law requires.
Third, let’s clarify the word “wrong” in verse 10: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” Why does Paul focus on what love does not do instead of what God does do? Why focus on not wronging a neighbor instead of focusing on blessing or helping or doing good to a neighbor? I think the reason is that Paul is quoting the commandments and they are all negative. Verse 9: “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet.” This is what he is dealing with: the law as prohibition. He takes all those “don’ts” and says: the point in all these prohibitions is “Don’t wrong your neighbor.” Then he says: love fulfills that.
He doesn’t mean that love is not positive. He has said already in Romans 12:14, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” And in 12:20: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him.” He doesn’t mean love is not mainly positive and helpful. He simply means that here in these ten commandments the focus is on not hurting and not wronging. And yes, when you love, those commands are fulfilled. Love covers that. Love does more than avoiding what is wrong and hurtful. But it does not do less. It fulfills these commandments. And, if he chose to mention positive ones, it would fulfill them too.
Question #1: Why Does Paul Bring Up the Law of God?
So with these three clarifications my first question is: Why does Paul bring up the law of God—the ten commandments? This is going to lead to an even more important question that will affect the way we live and relate to God.
I think he brought up the law here in verse 8 because he had just said something so sweeping that it sounds dangerously overstated, especially to those who love the law of God and believe it is holy and just and good and a great blessing to man. Paul had said, in verse 8, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other.” This is so sweeping. Only love! Only owe love!
To many, especially Jews and Jewish Christians, this would sound like the law is seriously neglected. What about God’s law? Don’t we owe that? Are we not obliged to keep that? Do you mean that the law of God—the ten commandments—can just be ignored? I suspect that this kind of question would lead Paul to bring up the law and deal with the objection.
So he says at the end of verse 8b, “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” In other words,no, I am not neglecting the law. I am not acting as though the fulfillment of the law does not matter. I am not talking as though God gave the law in vain or that it was a mistake. On the contrary, when I say, “Only owe love,” I am saying the very thing that will bring the law to its fulfillment. If I took the shortcut, and said, “Only owe the commandments . . . only fulfill the law . . . Owe no one anything except to keep the commandments . . . Owe no one anything except to fulfill the law,” I might be saying something true (if you saw it in a certain way, as in 1 Corinthians 7:19), but it would not give the kind of guidance that Paul believes this church needs. It would not send the message he wants to send about how to live the Christian live.
Question #2: If Paul Cares About the Fulfillment of the Law, Why Does He Call for Love Instead of Directly Calling for Keeping the Law?
So here’s our main question: If Paul cares so much about the law being fulfilled—so much so that he makes it the ground of his call for love in verse 8 (only owe love because the one who loves another has fulfilled the law)—then why does he call for love instead of calling directly for law-keeping, law-fulfilling? What’s he telling us about the law, and about love, and about faith, and about how to live a Christian life that pleases God?
I pray that you will listen very carefully because what we are about to deal with takes us to the very heart of Christianity and to the heart of salvation and to the heart of how to live the Christian life. Let’s reach out across Romans and Galatians and let Paul take us step by step in his understanding of the law to this very place where love is a fulfilling of the law.
We start in Galatians 3:17. Paul speaks of the law coming 430 years after the promise to Abraham. So he means the Mosaic law, in particular the ten commandments. Then in Galatians 3:19 he asks, “Why then the law?” and he answers, “It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come [Christ] to whom the promise had been made.” Then he asks in verse 21, “Is the law then contrary to the promises of God?” And he answers, “Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.” In other words, the law that God gave through Moses could not give life.
Why? Not because the commandments were bad. Paul said in Romans 7:12, “The commandment is holy and righteous and good.” And not because faithful law-keeping was not in principle a legitimate way to life—it was the way God gave to Adam. In Genesis 2:16-17, notice the word “commanded”: “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” So if you want life, trust me and obey the commandment. That was the way to life. It was not a bad way. It was not a way that dishonored God.
But here’s the problem: ever since Adam and Eve fell into sin, we have all become sinners and that original way to life—the way of faithful law-keeping—is closed to sinners like us. So when God gives the law, Paul says in Galatians 3:21, “it can’t give life.” Then why did he give it?
Paul gives a series of answers. 1) In Romans 3:20 he says, “Through the law comes knowledge of sin.” We know sin intellectually and we know sin experientially because of the law and what it does to us. 2) Then in Romans 5:20 Paul says, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass.” Oh, how many ways the law increases trespasses! 2a) It provokes outright rebellion in some who don’t want any authority over them. 2b) It turns vague sinfulness into specific transgressions by its detailed prohibitions. 2c) It provokes religious people to make two mistakes: one is to try to keep it in their own power as a way to life, and 2d) the other is to try to keep it in the power of God as the way to life, yet without a redeemer—without Christ. In every one of these responses to the law transgressions multiply. The law given by Moses cannot give life.
The summary effect of the law is given in Romans 3:19, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” The law cannot give life; it stops our mouths and makes us all accountable to God. If we are going to have life—eternal life—we must have it not from the law, but from Someone who bears the curse of the law that we deserve and who keeps the law in a way that we can’t—namely, Jesus Christ. Every human being needs Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
In all of its negative effects this is where the law was leading—to Christ. The law was not leading from self-dependent law-keeping to God-dependent law-keeping as the way to life. No, no. The problem is far greater than that. We don’t just need a new motive. We need a Savior. The law was leading from all law-keeping (self-dependent or God-dependent) to Christ as the way to life.
Paul says it in at least three different ways. In Galatians 3:24 he says, “The law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.” And in Romans 10:4 he says, “Christ is the end [goal] of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” And, most important for us this morning he says in Romans 8:2-3, “The law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin,he condemned sin in the flesh.”
In other words, something had to be done for us that the law could not do. If we are going to have eternal life, even though we are sinners and deserve eternal death, we need a Redeemer, a Savior, someone to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and what the law cannot do for us. We need someone to bear the curse of the law that we deserve and to satisfy the demands that we can’t.
That is why we need Christ. And that is what he came to do. Romans 8:3, “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.” How? “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin,he condemned sin in the flesh.” That is he bore our condemnation. He died for our sin. He took our penalty. Galatians 3:13 puts it like this: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”
Ever since Adam fell, and we became sinners in him, the only way to eternal life was through a Redeemer, a Savior, a Substitute. And Christ became that substitute both by bearing the curse, the condemnation of the law that we deserved, and by fulfilling the righteousness that we could not perform.
And all of this work by Christ on our behalf—the deliverance from the law’s condemnation, and the provision of his righteousness (Romans 10:4; 5:19; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9)—all of this great work of Christ we receive freely as a gift through faith alone, not works. We are forgiven all our sins and clothed with all Christ’s righteousness by faith alone. Romans 3:28, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (see Romans 5:1; Galatians 2:16).
What Does Life Look Like Now?
And so the great question that Paul is dealing with now in Romans 12–16 is what does life look like for people who know that by faith alone all their sins are forgiven, and all their condemnation is removed, and all of God’s righteousness in Christ has become their righteousness—what does life look like? How do you live the Christian life? What do you pursue? What do you focus on?
Two Different Answers
Do you say, “Now I am forgiven by faith alone, and now I have the imputed righteousness of Christ by faith alone, and now I have the Holy Spirit within me by faith alone, so now I will go back to the law—the ten commandments, and whatever other commandments there are (Romans 13:9)—and I will focus my new God-given ability on the these commandments and fulfill them”?
No. I don’t think that is the way Paul guides us. I think he wants to speak rather like this: “Now I am forgiven by faith alone, and now I have the imputed righteousness of Christ by faith alone, and now I have the Holy Spirit within me by faith alone, so now I will continue to make my focus Jesus Christ every day, and I will look to him for everything my soul craves. And from my union with Christ, nurtured hour by hour by focusing on Christ as my great Savior and mighty Lord and infinite Treasure, I will love people. Christ will be my focus, love will be my fruit.”
Why Does Paul Want Us to Speak One Way and Not the Other?
Why do I think Paul wants us to speak that way and not the other? Lots of reasons,1 but I close with only one—the one that has been most precious and powerful in my life in the last four and a half years (since I first preached on it): Romans 7:4, “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ.” That is, when Christ died to bear the law’s curse you died in him, and when he obeyed in death to fulfill the law’s demands, you obeyed in him. The law is not your focus anymore. What is? Wrong question. The question is, “Who is?” and the next part of the verse gives the stunning answer: You have died to the law through the body of Christ “so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead.”
Paul puts the risen, living Christ where the law was. Once you were alive to the law, but now you belong to Christ. In the place of law is a Person—a great Savior, a mighty Lord, an infinite Treasure. Our daily, hourly focus is now on him—his deliverance, his help, his guidance, the beauty of his love and justice and power and wisdom and truth, and all the joy of knowing him. And what comes of this union with Christ at the end of Romans 7:4?
Fruit. “. . . so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.” And what fruit is that? The fruit is love (Galatians 5:22; 5:6; 1 Timothy 1:5). And, yes, that love does fulfill the law—not perfectly2 (Christ alone has done that for me), but truly, because my life now in Christ has a new spirit, a new passion, new direction.
The Short Answer
That’s a long answer to the question: Why does Paul call for love as a way to fulfill the law instead of directing our focus directly to the law? The short answer would be: because he wants Christ to be glorified as our sin-bearer and our righteousness-provider and our love-enabler through faith alone. Therefore, owe no one anything except to love them. And to that end make Christ your everything.
1 For example, see Galatians 5:22; 5:6; 3:5; Romans 7:6; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Romans 13:8; 8:4; etc.
2 The law commands, “Do not covet,” yet there will always be some measure of coveting—some measure of unholy desire—in me till death or till Jesus comes. Therefore, I will never fulfill the law perfectly in this life. Yet there is real fulfillment. This imperfect but real fulfillment is seen already in the Old Testament in texts like Psalm 32:1-2/11; 41:4/12; 51:3/7; 143:2/11; Ecclesiastes 7:20/15; Isaiah 53:6/11. In these texts it is confessed that the saints are sinners and yet are called righteous, even in their behavior. That is they are law breakers and law fulfillers at the same time. They are the righteous unrighteous.