Commentary on Romans 13:8-14

Notes (NET Translation)

8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.

Paul cleverly uses the idea of “obligation” to make the transition from his advice about governing authorities (vv. 1-7) to his exhortation to love for the neighbor (vv. 8-10). In v. 7 Paul urges, “pay back what you owe to everyone.” Paul then repeats this exhortation in v. 8a, but adds to it a significant exception: the obligation of love for one another.1

The phrase “owe no one anything” should not be taken so literally as to forbid the taking of any loans. The point is that all debts should be repaid, but the debt to love one another can never be discharged.

In Rom. 13:8-10 the object of love is primarily the fellow believer, although unbelievers are not excluded. The words πλησίον (plēsion, neighbor) in verses 9-10, ἀλλήλους (allēlous, one another) in verse 8 (cf. 12:10, 16 with 12:14), and τὸν ἕτερον (ton heteron, the other) in verse 8 taken together indicate that the “neighbor” cannot be confined to the believer. Even if only believers were intended, it would be a travesty to conclude from this that love of nonbelievers is optional, for this would contradict Paul’s words in 12:17-21.2

Since v. 9 quotes the Law of Moses we know the “law” of v. 8 is the Law of Moses. For a believer to fulfill the law is for him to properly perform what the law requires.

9 For the commandments, “Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,” (and if there is any other commandment) are summed up in this, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

These commandments can be found in Ex 20:13-17 and Deut 5:17-21. The moral norms of the law were part of the law of love for Paul.

Love in the NT is not mainly or merely a warm, mushy feeling or sentiment but a decision of the will to do what God commands in regard to the neighbor. It involves commitment and action, not just feelings or intentions or attitude.3

Various Jewish authors refer to the commandment to love the neighbor in Lev. 19:18, but it was given no special prominence in Judaism generally. Probably, therefore, the central position that Paul gives the commandment echoes Jesus, who paired Lev. 19:18 with Deut. 6:5 as the commandments on which “all the law and the prophets hang” (Matt. 22:34-40). Paul undoubtedly also follows Jesus (see the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37) in interpreting the “neighbor” in the commandment to refer to other persons generally and not (as the original text of Lev. 19:18 might indicate) to the fellow Jew.4

What is perhaps . . . surprising is that Paul betrays no knowledge of Jesus’ summary of the law (Matt. 22:34-40 = Mark 12:28-34 = Luke 10:25-28), which includes love of God and of neighbor. The exclusion of any reference to God is probably not due to ignorance of the Jesus tradition. The whole of Romans is radically God-centered. The probable reason for this omission is that Paul concentrates here on social and horizontal relations within the Christian community.5

Cf. Lev 19:18; Matt 5:43-48; 19:19; 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-33; Luke 10:25-28; John 13:34-35; Gal 5:14; Jas 2:8.

10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

This verse is speaking of love as an activity.

It is clear that what Paul is asserting here is of limited application: love is the fulfillment of the law insofar as the law is concerned to ensure that no harm is done to a neighbor (13:10); he is not saying that love leads believers to observe all the demands of the Mosaic law. This text has important implications for our understanding of the relationship of Paul’s gospel to the Mosaic law. It indicates again that his gospel is not antinomian, for it results in the fulfillment of the law. However, this does not mean a reinstatement of the law. Rather, the effect of Paul’s gospel is that believers, by walking in the Spirit, are enabled to love one another, so that what the law sought, but was unable to produce, is fulfilled in them (cf. 8:3-4). Understood in this way, Paul’s teaching does not involve inner contradictions. It is not a matter of the apostle, having argued that believers have died to the law in 7:1-6, reinstating it again as a regulatory norm for them in 13:8-10.6

Paul is not saying that love completes the Law, like icing on a cake or a donum superadditum. He is saying rather that “another Law” has replaced and fulfills the heart of the old Mosaic Law. The new Law represents the quintessence of the old one, plus more and other commandments. He is saying that this is the heart of what God requires in regard to the neighbor. To love is, of course, to carry out the commandments that Paul lists. Love is not a substitute for the Law but the perfect expression and fulfillment of what the Law aims at and desires of God’s people. Indeed, love is, in a sense, a Law unto itself, for it goes well beyond the avoidance of doing harm, or even respecting and helping the neighbor.7

11 And do this because we know the time, that it is already the hour for us to awake from sleep, for our salvation is now nearer than when we became believers.

The phrase “and do this” calls the reader to put into practice the preceding exhortations (12:1-13:10) in light of the eschaton. The “time” is the age ushered in by the first advent of Christ (3:25-26; 5:6). “Sleep” refers to moral drowsiness (1 Thess 5:6-7; Eph 5:14). Some comments on Paul’s view of the second coming are appropriate here.

Ben Witherington III says:

There is little reason to dispute that Paul entertained the possibility that the end might come in his lifetime, but he does not insist on some particular timing for it or that he would live to see it (cf 4 Ezra 4.26). Paul did not foresee two thousand years of church history, but when the timing of the second coming is allowed to be uncertain while the event is believed to be certain, one can treat it like company coming from afar. One needs to be prepared always, because one does not know just when it will show up.8

Thomas Schreiner writes:

Because the end is imminent, the people of God should respond with appropriate behavior. Thus one cannot deny that the imminence of the end was one basis for ethics in Pauline thought. It is also evident that Paul had not surrendered his belief in the nearness of the end when Romans was written. Some scholars have questioned the relevance of Paul’s eschatology for today since the end has not arrived. Certainly Paul never expected history to last two thousand years. Neither did he teach, however, that the end would definitely come within his lifetime or shortly thereafter. He argued that in light of the certainty of the end, and the possibility that it could come soon, that believers should always be morally ready.9

Colin Kruse states:

This long delay has led some to argue that Paul was mistaken. Here Wright’s comment is apposite: ‘Paul does not say, as many of his interpreters have supposed that he said, that the final end of which he speaks in Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, 1 Thessalonians 4-5, and elsewhere, will certainly come within a generation; but he knows that it might well do so, and insists that it is the more urgent that Christians behave already in the manner that will then be appropriate’.10

And, finally, Douglas Moo writes:

Many scholars think that Paul’s statement here, along with many similar ones in the NT, shows that the early Christians were certain that Christ was going to return within a very short period of time. And, since Paul’s imperatives are, to some extent, based on this premise, the failure of Christ to return as soon as Paul expected requires that we critically evaluate the continuing validity of those imperatives. Paul certainly betrays a strong sense of expectation about the return of Christ (e.g., Phil. 4:5) and can even speak at times as if he will be alive at that time (e.g., 1 Thess. 4:15). But nowhere does he predict a near return; and, more importantly, he does not ground his exhortations on the conviction that the parousia would take place very soon but on the conviction that the parousia was always imminent–its coming certain, its timing incalculable. “On the certainty of the event, our faith is grounded: by the uncertainty of the time, our hope is stimulated, and our watchfulness aroused.” Christ’s return is the next event in God’s plan; Paul knew it could take place at any time and sought to prepare Christians–both in his generation and in ours–for that “blessed hope.”11

12 The night has advanced toward dawn; the day is near. So then we must lay aside the works of darkness, and put on the weapons of light.

The “night” is the present evil age (Gal 1:4; 4 Ezra 4:26-27). The “day” is the new age ushered in at the second coming of Christ (Matt 24:42-44; Acts 2:20; 1 Cor 5:5; 2 Cor 1:14; 1 Thess 5:2; 2 Thess 2:2; 2 Pet 3:10). Verses 13-14 explain what is meant by laying aside the works of darkness and putting on the weapons of light.

13 Let us live decently as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in discord and jealousy.

The word translated ‘carousing’ means excessive feasting or revelry in a bad sense. ‘Drunkenness’, when associated with ‘carousing’, denotes ‘a drinking bout’. ‘Sexual immorality’ translates a word which by itself denotes sexual intercourse, but together with ‘debauchery’ denotes ‘gross sexual excesses’. ‘Dissension’ denotes strife, discord, and contention, and ‘jealousy’ denotes ‘intense negative feelings over another’s achievements or success’. Jewett notes that ‘carousing remained typical for Roman dinners, as Bruce Winter reports: tables were reserved for drinking bouts and activities with prostitutes. Cicero describes how young men behaved in the parties celebrating their coming-of-age (toga virilis): “If there is anyone who thinks that youth should be forbidden affairs even with courtesans, he is doubtless eminently austere but his view is not only contrary to the license of this age, but also to the custom and concessions of our ancestors”‘.12

14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to arouse its desires.

When we compare 13:13-14 with Galatians 5:16-24, it seems clear that to clothe oneself with the Lord Jesus Christ is equivalent to living by the Spirit. Both lead to overcoming the desires of the sinful nature and promoting Christian character and virtues.13

Cf. Gal 3:27-29.

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Moo 1996, 810 
  2. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 13380-13395 
  3. Witherington III 2004, 316 
  4. Moo 1996, 815-816 
  5. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 13429-13433 
  6. Kruse 2014, 502 
  7. Witherington III 2004, 316-317 
  8. Witherington III 2004, 317 
  9. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 13523-13529 
  10. Kruse 2014, 504 
  11. Moo 1996, 822 
  12. Kruse 2014, 505-506 
  13. Kruse 2014, 507 
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