Romans 13:8-14

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From chapter 12 verse 1 Paul has been giving us a summary of Christian ethics: that way of life that flows directly out of and is a consistent reflection of the grace of God that has saved us from sin and death. There is a particular way of life that is a fit response to the grace of God and Paul has been describing it in these paragraphs. The paragraph we are about to read concludes and sums up this general summary. From the beginning of chapter 14 Paul deals with some specific ethical issues that have caused controversy in the Roman church. In the final paragraph of chapter 13 he is still describing the Christian life in a general way.

Text Comment

v.8       Once again, as several times before in this section of the letter, Paul closely follows the ethical teaching of the Lord Jesus as we find it in the Gospels. He too described the Christian’s duty as the obligation to love one’s neighbor. Paul speaks only of the love of neighbor, not the love of God, because he is here talking about the Christian’s obligation to others.

The “except to love each other” indicates that, while other of our debts may be repaid, this one never shall be. We will always owe love to others. [Cranfield, ii, 674]

v.9       Four of the ten commandments are listed in this order: seventh, sixth, eighth, and tenth. And remember the Lord’s famous parable meant to teach us who our “neighbor” is. Everyone we have opportunity to love is our neighbor.

v.10     There is always both a negative and positive form to duty. To keep any commandment is both not to do some things and to do others. Here we have the negative: you cannot love someone you are harming. It might seem to be obvious but the observation of life  convinces us that we need to say it anyway. It is an important and necessary realism in the Bible’s teaching.

Since the obligation to love one another as yourself first appears in Leviticus 19:18 and Paul is clearly quoting that text, as the “summed up in this word” indicates, Paul means that the ancient law of God, insofar as it concerns our relationships to other people, has always been a law of love and each commandment in that law has always been simply one particular form that the love of our neighbor takes. In regard to sexual matters, true love for others is chastity; in regard to property it is respect for what belongs to others; and so on. True love will always observe these commandments because they are what love does! There is no disagreement between law and love as often as Christians have thought there was. The law is simply love’s eyes, by which it sees how to do good to our neighbor.

We need always to be reminded that the duties required by the specific commandments of the law are simply various forms of the love of our neighbor and, at the same time, to be reminded that we cannot truly love our neighbor unless we treat him or her as the commandments of God require. We need the great commandment, love your neighbor as yourself, to keep us from missing the forest for the trees; but we need the Ten Commandments to keep us from contenting ourselves with vague sentiment rather than the specific and often difficult and sacrificial action actually required by love. [Cranfield, ii, 679]

v.12     It has long been debated in Biblical scholarship whether Paul was under the impression late into his ministry that the Lord Jesus would return in his lifetime and that remarks like these, scattered through his letters, amount to proof of that expectation. Paul thought Jesus was coming very soon; before Paul would die. It is certainly possible that Paul had once thought that. If Jesus himself didn’t know the day of his return, and if Christians ever since have supposed that the Lord was coming very soon, indeed in their own lifetimes, it is not impossible that the Apostle thought that as well, at least earlier in his ministry. But, the fact is, the statement of v. 11 is true no matter when Christ returns and, so far as the consecration of our own lives to him in light, not in darkness is concerned, it matters very little whether Christ will come to us soon or we go to him soon. As Calvin put it (on 1 Pet. 4:7): “Besides, we must remember this principle, that from the time when Christ once appeared there is nothing left for the faithful except always to look forward to his second coming with minds alert.” It is, in other words, the meaning of time for us in our brief life that Paul is concerned to emphasize not the specific number of years that may remain before the Second Coming.

v.13     In moral terms – using day and night as often in the Bible as metaphors for spiritual conditions – Christians are already people of the day and so now it is their responsibility to live and act like it and show others that they are.

Now just a note as to why these particular vices are mentioned rather than others that might have been. C.E.B. Cranfield, the British New Testament scholar, is the author of perhaps the finest commentary on Romans written in the modern era, and perhaps literally one of the finest commentaries ever written on this most important book. It is a work of breathtaking scholarship. Before his commentary was published, I relied on other writings of Cranfield when preparing my doctoral dissertation and have always found him a formidable interpreter of Paul. The two-volume commentary is a typical work of biblical scholarship: largely dispassionate argument and with very few personal reflections. But in regard to verse 13 the reader suddenly comes across this:

“Chrysostom comments…” [he was making reference to the great biblical expositor and preacher of the 4th century. I remember, by the way, reading a little retrospective by a young theology student who called on Cranfield in his home when the scholar was already in his 90s and was amazed to find him quoting Chrysostom in Greek and Aquinas in Latin; Cranfield was a classical scholar before he was a biblical one.] Again, “Chrysostom comments, ‘For nothing so kindles lust and sets wrath ablaze as drunkenness…’” [ii, 688]

So drinking, carousing, sexual immorality, quarreling and fighting all go together. The one sin fosters the others. But then Cranfield adds this personal reflection: “(and his words recall poignant memories to one who for some months during the Second World War shared pastoral responsibility for a large concentration of venereal disease patients.)” In other words he is telling you that in Paul’s day as in our own these particular vices go together. There is a reason why they are mentioned in a single sentence.

v.14     Paul tells us elsewhere to “put on” the new man (Eph. 4:24) or the virtues of new life in Christ (Col. 3:12). In Gal. 3:27 we read that anyone who has been baptized into Christ has “put on” Christ and in Col. 3:10 we read that Christians have “put on” the new self. And here we are told to “put on” the Lord Jesus Christ. It is characteristic of Paul to relate the indicative and the imperative in that way: we are to be what we have become, we are to bring to expression, to life, what Christ has made us to be; we are outwardly to manifest what we have become inwardly by the work of the spirit of Christ. And it is also characteristic of Paul to see the godly life as simply the character of the Lord Jesus himself being reproduced in his people. Godliness is simply another term for Christlikeness and, as Paul wrote earlier in Romans 8, the great object of God’s saving love and work is that those he has chosen and redeemed might be conformed to the image of his son.

And, also typical of Paul, as when he tells us to put to death the deeds of the flesh and to put on the new man, here too there is a double action: to put on Christ and not to give an inch to our still remaining sinful tendencies, what Paul calls “the flesh.”

There are certain texts in the Bible that will live forever in the consciousness of the church because of the use God made of those verses or that verse in the life of some prominent Christian. Such texts take on a special élan because of the role they have played in the history of salvation and the history of the church. One reason Romans will forever remain fixed in the center of the church’s mind and heart is because there are so many texts in this book that have proved the very voice of God to some important man or woman in the history of the church,  became instrumental in the revolution of grace in that person’s life, and, through that man’s life, in the life of the church. Think, for example, of Romans 1:17 in the life of Martin Luther. When Luther finally understood what Paul meant by saying that in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed and that the righteous will live by faith, not only did he himself find salvation, but the Protestant Reformation inexorably followed in train.

Or think of William Cowper, the great poet and hymn writer, finding light and life reading Romans 3:25.

“The first verse I saw was the 25th of the third chapter to the Romans where Jesus is set forth as the propitiation for our sins. Immediately I received strength to believe it. Immediately the full beams of the sun of righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement he had made, my pardon sealed in his blood, and all the fullness and completeness of my justification. In a moment I believed and received the gospel. … Unless the Almighty Arm had been under me I think I should have died with gratitude and joy.” [In Ella, William Cowper, 90-91]

But wonderful as these accounts are and significant as those texts were in those lives, there is another that, I think, towers above them and it concerns this last verse of chapter 13. It was this verse, this last statement in Paul’s general summary of Christian ethics that was the instrument the Holy Spirit employed to change the heart of Augustine, perhaps the greatest mind, and certainly one of the greatest men the Lord ever gave to the Christian church or, for that matter, to the world. The Protestant Reformation, in many important respects, remember, was a return to the theology of Augustine. The great reformers were Augustinians to the man!

Augustine, you remember, had been raised in North Africa in a family that was spiritually mixed. His father was a pagan but his mother, Monica, was a devout Christian who raised her son to love and serve the Lord. But he had sloughed off that training. He spent some years in living the life of pagan university student, took a mistress, dabbled in the popular philosophies of the day,  and paid little attention to the Christian training his mother had given him. He was a brilliant young scholar and his intellectual promise landed him an appointment as professor of rhetoric in Milan, one of the great intellectual capitals of the Roman world.

There he fell under the influence of Ambrose, the great preaching bishop who was then at the height of his powers. He began to read the Bible again. But there was an obstacle to his becoming a Christian; a very serious obstacle. Augustine was increasingly unhappy about the moral condition of his life, but becoming a Christian, as his mother had long prayed he would, meant a radical, painful break with his former way of life and he wasn’t sure he was up to the heroically moral life he understood the Christian life to be. He felt he should become a Christian, he was convinced of the truth of the message, but he was overawed by the obligations he would be undertaking. As a result he kept putting the decision off. Here is Augustine describing that time in his Confessions.

“I had no answer to make to you when you said to me ‘Arise, you who are asleep, rise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light’ (Eph. 5:14). Though at every point you showed that what you were saying was true, yet I, convinced by that truth, had no answer to give you except merely slow and sleepy words: ‘At once’ – ‘But presently’ – ‘Just a little longer, please’. But ‘At once, at once,’ never came to the point of decision, and ‘Just a little longer, please’ went on and on for a long while.” [VIII, vi, 12]

More than anything else, he goes on to say, it was the prospect of renouncing his sexual life and the other pleasures of the world that kept him from committing himself to Christ. And then, one day, near the end of August in the year 386, Augustine found himself, struggling with his decision, walking in the garden of the house where he was staying with his friends in Milan. Listen to him describe his torment.

“I tore my hair and hammered my forehead with my fists; I locked my fingers and hugged my knees…” His worldly pleasures seemed to beckon him: “Are you going to dismiss us? From this moment we shall never be with you again… From this moment you will never again be allowed to do this thing, or that, for evermore.” But, from the other side, he heard “Close your ears to the unclean whispers of your body. It tells you of things that delight you, but not of such things as the Law of the Lord your God has to tell.” [Cited in Brown, Augustine, 108]

“I flung myself down beneath a fig tree and gave way to tears… I felt that I was still the captive of my sins and in my misery I kept crying ‘How long shall I go on saying “Tomorrow, tomorrow”? Why not now?’”

“And then I heard the sing-song voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain ‘Take it and read, take it and read’.

Augustine was startled because couldn’t remember any child’s game in which such words would be spoken. He felt that this could only be God instructing him to read his Word and so he went back into the house, found a Bible, and did exactly what we tell you not to do: he opened it at random and in silence read the first words upon which his eyes fell:

“…not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

“I neither wished nor needed to read further. At once, with the last words of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled.”

And so was the great man brought to Jesus Christ and to living faith in the Savior and to that new way of life that Jesus taught and that Paul said was the only consistent, reasonable response of a sinner saved by grace. Suddenly that life was appealing to Augustine, and suddenly he believed he could live it. Believe me, Augustine’s struggle is every man’s struggle. The Christian life is a daunting life. Many wonder whether they could ever live it or even want to. If they committed themselves to Christ, could they, would they live for him? And the only answer to that question  is the answer Augustine found in Romans 13:14.

He could hardly imagine his life if it had to be lived according to the exacting standards of the law of God. “Love one’s neighbor as much as one loves oneself?” How could anyone meet such a standard? Purity in the sexual life? In Augustine’s day as increasingly in ours, it seemed preposterous that single people would live in chastity and that married people would live in complete faithfulness to their spouse. But Christians must. “You shall not steal?”

I was in a waiting room several weeks ago and with nothing to read picked up a trade magazine. An article caught my eye. It began with these two sentences:

“Recently I talked with the owner of a shop that was enjoying annual sales of about $11 million. His most difficult task? Preventing his employees from stealing him blind.” [Tom Franklin, Fender Bender (Feb 2010) 22]

The FBI reports employee theft the fastest-growing crime in America. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that 75% of employees steal from the workplace and that most do repeatedly. It also says that one-third of all U.S. corporate bankruptcies are directly caused by employee theft. The American Society of Employers estimates that 20% of every dollar earned by a U.S. company is lost to employee theft. But Christians do not, cannot steal!

“Not in quarreling and jealousy?” I have been reading of late Paul Johnson’s fascinating book, Heroes: From Alexander the Great to Mae West. Mae West may not be your idea of a hero but she is Paul Johnson’s. Johnson is nothing if he is not an engaging and perceptive student of human character. And what is perfectly obvious as one reads through these accounts of various people who in Johnson’s estimation are heroic in one sense or another, is how many of them were unkind, cranky, argumentative, difficult to live with, wracked by jealousy, and abysmally self-centered. He writes of a famous quarrel between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, two very influential philosophers in the middle of the 20th century. In this quarrel these two august academics behaved like spoiled children and Wittgenstein actually waved a fireplace poker in Popper’s face. Johnson then recalls that Popper once sent him a kind note complimenting him on his book Modern Times and, in response, Johnson invited him to his home, as Popper lived not far away. Popper replied: “Can you give me an absolute guarantee that no one whatsoever has smoked in your dining room for at least six weeks?” “No, I am afraid I cannot,” Johnson replied. “Then,” Popper replied, “I shan’t come.” The pettiness, the jealous, selfish interest, the unkindness and quarrelsomeness of human life is not staggering to us only because we are so completely used to it.

But here comes the law of God and of Jesus Christ requiring that we put others and their happiness and their welfare above our own just as Christ put our welfare above his own. A life such as Jesus Christ lived himself is what we are being called to. It is a very simple principle. It is not rocket science! It is not at all difficult to understand. The law of God is crystal clear. Even the unbeliever knows very well what the Christian life requires. And that is the rub! That is why he doesn’t want to become a Christian!

We don’t want to live this way – our flesh finds no satisfaction in it; and we don’t think we can live this way. It is impossible; it’s impractical; it is simply beyond us. And that is why so many people will not become Christians in the first place and why so many Christians content themselves with an obviously half-hearted Christian life. They can’t live that life, they think; no one can.

But, of course, it can be lived; it has been lived – if not perfectly by any means – really, sincerely, enthusiastically, faithfully, and consistently. And the key lies in that final sentence of Romans 13 that, by the grace of God, transformed the great Augustine’s soul by putting paid to his doubts to his fear to sign up for the Christian life because he thought it impossible to live. It put to death his hesitation, his unwillingness to embrace this radical calling to live according to the law of God and the example of Jesus Christ.

I said when we read the text that “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” in the language of the Apostle Paul means to put on the life of Jesus Christ, to become like him. The transformation that God has wrought in the hearts and lives of his children has the purpose of conforming us to the image of Christ, making us more and more like him. So we are to be in our daily life, what God has made us to be by his grace. How daunting is that! How impossible! For small, weak, selfish people to live a life of true love for others, of peace and purity and selflessness! But, in the language of Paul and the rest of the New Testament, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” also means to depend upon him for his help, to look to him for the power to overcome the flesh and to live in newness of life.

Think of the very many ways in which this is put in the Bible. Jesus, remember, famously said,

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” [John 15:4-5]

Abraham Kuyper Jr. once in an article written for a church paper, said this:

“A key saying can be found for a number of [peoples], and in each case it indicates the [people’s] religion and morality. The Greek [he was thinking of the ancient Greek] says: Know yourself. [It is self-knowledge that is going to do it.] The Roman [he’s thinking of the Stoic] says: Control yourself. [It’s the will that is going to do it.] The Chinese says: Improve yourself. The Buddhist says: Extinguish yourself. The Hindu says: Sink into yourself. The Muslim says: Subordinate yourself.”

But then he went on:

“But we should note that for the Christian the key saying of the Savior is: “Without me you can do nothing.” [In van Reest, Schilder’s Struggle, 176]

The Christian doesn’t find this impossibly high and demanding standard for our behavior in Holy Scripture and then suppose that somehow or another we are to do this, live this way by ourselves and in our own strength. The only possible results of such a program would be hypocrisy or despair. Jesus doesn’t say that we cannot live this life and bear this fruit. He says only that we cannot do it without him. The Christian life isn’t rocket science in this way either: you don’t have to be especially smart or gifted to live it. Intellect and gifts have nothing to do with living the Christian life. Depending on Christ day by day, faith in him, his intellect, his gifts are the key.

And, of course, the Apostle Paul says the very same thing. However weak he knew himself to be, however hopeless it may be for him to imagine that he could live such a life of neighbor love in his own strength, he made bold to say that because the power of Christ rested on him, “when I am weak, then I am strong” and “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

That too is what Paul means when he exhorts us – after all, he is writing to Christians – to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires.” And this is what Augustine discovered in that glorious moment of blinding insight: Christ would make this self-giving and self-forgetting life actually possible. He would enable us to live it when we could never live it ourselves. Just as we cannot possibly earn our way to heaven – sinners that we are – so we cannot possibly live the Christian life in our own strength and by the accomplishment of our own effort. As Christ must give us righteousness, so he must likewise enable us to live as he lived, loving God and others every day.

When you set your sights this high – to love your neighbor as you love yourself – to love him or her as yourself, to be pure in mind and life, to be gentle and kind, to be a peacemaker rather than a quarreler, not to do wrong but to do good to others in every way – I say when you set your sights so high it becomes perfectly obvious to you that such a life requires a supernatural source, a power that you do not have in and of yourself, help from outside and from above. And that is what Christians are given, that help, that power from above.

And those who look for it daily, find it daily. Of course they do. God loved us from eternity past with a view to our living this life and no other. Christ redeemed us on the cross to free us to live this life, his life, and no other. The Holy Spirit made us new creatures in Christ precisely so that we might live this life and no other. So what is the Christian to do: set these impossibly high standards for himself or for herself and then look up to the Father, to the Son, and the to the Holy Spirit to enable you to fulfill this grand, daring adventure: to live a life of love in a world of hate, a life of purity in a world of debauchery, and a life of peace in a world of conflict, and a life of self-control in a world given over to the desires of the flesh. No one who seeks God’s grace and Christ’s help to live so heroically will find that help denied!

Think of him beside you – for that is where he is – and think of how easily you would do things the way you ought to do them if only he were there watching and encouraging and smiling. To do it for him, would make it so much easier. To do it with his smile, to do it with his help and feel his hand patting you on the back, ah, then it could be done. Then anything can be done. You would do all of this, love your neighbor as yourself, maintain purity in heart and life, spread peace and love wherever you went. You would know you could do it because he would be standing right there. But he is with you and beside you and within you by his Spirit. He is standing right there. Believe and obey!