Love is the Fulfilling of the Law
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
I once read the story of a man who thought he had too many visiting relatives. So he proceeded to borrow money from the wealthy ones and loaned it to the poor relatives. Now none of them come to visit. This is NOT what the Apostle meant by “Owe no one anything.”
The credit monitoring agency Equifax Canada reported that Canadian consumer debt in 2014 has swollen to $1.4 Trillion. Consumer debt, which excludes mortgages, rose 4.2 percent from 2013. This means that the average Canadian’s total consumer debt is close to $30,000.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Now he didn’t mean that we shouldn’t buy food to eat in order to satisfy hunger. In another place Paul wrote that “anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10); implying that we ought to work so we can make such provision. The Apostle is talking about the purpose of our life; we are not to live as if the purpose of life were the endless gratification of desires of our flesh.
It is clear from mounting consumer debt, that these fleshly desires are never satiated. To pursue their gratification leads to an ever increasing grip of our desires on us and our resources. Consider the ever increasing size of the screen that is “needed” for our entertainment pleasure. Or how our tastes are refined in such a way that what we considered a luxury yesterday in today’s baseline for beginning. I love fine writing instruments; calling them “pens” does not do them justice. While on vacation earlier this year I wandered into a “fine writing-instrument shop”; I had a roller-ball pen in my hand that was so finely balanced it virtually wrote all by itself; the way it glided across the page was breathtaking. (“Oh, what sermons I could write with this”, I thought to myself). It made the model of pen I already have seem common, by comparison.
I am not suggesting that there is inherent evil in fine instruments or plush furnishings or large screens. The gospel shows us, however, that life is so much more that the mere gratification of our drives and desires. Christians serve a king whose glory far surpasses the finest that humans can create for the gratification of senses.
Owe no one anything. Yes, following this admonition with respect to consumer debt keeps us from the pains and pressures and stresses of over-extended credit. Yes, there is a freedom we feel when debt free. But Paul does not have the objective of financial freedom principally in mind as he writes; as happy an outcome as that may be. Many of the people in the churches Paul writes to live some form of indentured existence, if not, in fact, slavery. About governing authorities Paul has just written, “Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due.” (Romans 13:7) “Owe no one anything”, is written in that context. It is another way of saying, “pay to all what is due.” It is not principally a strategy for lessening obligations. At the same time it isn’t an excuse to foolishly widen obligations because of acquisitiveness. It a call to be people who meet obligations; who think carefully about obligations so we can meet them.
2. But there is a debt you ought to incur; it is a debt that Christians are called to incur; that in following Jesus we are bound to incur; a debt that we can never completely discharge; it is the debt of mutual love. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another”.
The mutual love Christians are to show to one another is not to place restrictions on love. As if the obligation is only to be extended to those who show that same love to us. Indeed there is an obligation to any neighbour because the love we are called to live “does no wrong to a neighbour.” This mutual love is because followers belong to Christ who loves us and gave himself for us. It is to show to the world to whom we belong; “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” said our Lord. (John 13:35)
We read in Matthew’s gospel of the importance Jesus placed on protecting this mutual love among believers. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” Thus began our Lord as he outlined a pattern for maintaining mutual love when one believer harms another. Take note of the importance Jesus placed on resisting/ dealing with the things that undermine mutual love among believers.
John Wesley’s book Sermons on Several Occasions functioned as a theological compendium for the Methodist Societies that he organized and led. In this compendium is a sermon titled Catholic Spirit. In it he maps out a way for Christians to live in mutual love; on one side to “allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him” and yet to insist on the essential core of faith in Christ.
He went on to show how this loved worked out. “Love me,” Wesley wrote,” by this I mean provoke me to love and good works. … “Speaking to me, in love, whatsoever thou believest to be for my soul's health. … Yea, "smite me friendly, and reprove me," whereinsoever I appear to thee to be doing rather my own will, than the will of him that sent me.”
In this last sentence Wesley cites Psalm 141:5 (Common Book of Prayer) “Let the righteous smite me in friendly rebuke.” Perhaps our Lord has this scripture in mind in his instructions regarding reproving one another. Wesley shows us the attitude we need; to be open to the correction our Lord would help us see through the ministry of his people.
The divisions within Christianity undermine our witness to Jesus Christ. Yes, we need to allow liberty to think and let think, as Wesley advised. But we must be careful that it is never unity for unity’s sake—this leads to reducing faith to the lowest common denominator. (Wesley called this a spawn of the Devil.) It is unity for Christ’s sake; every believer owes their allegiance to him, indeed, we owe him our very lives.
I spoke recently with a man who has been a Christian missionary in Pakistan for years. He said living in a sea of Islam no one asks if you are Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, or United. You are Christian. In our Canadian culture the denomination name increasingly has come to mean very little to the person on the outside. We are Christian and we need to bless others who confess our Lord as their own.
2. “Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” This is not the same thing as saying, “all you need is love.” It is to say that everything God does is permeated with love because God is love. God acts consistently with who God is at all times and so love is always what God does. The giving of the law—those ten words that govern how his people walking in company with him and with one another—is the expression of love.
The ten commandments are divided into two tablets. The first four commands govern our relationship with God the second six commands govern relationship with one another/neighbour. Paul cites from the second tablet regarding stealing, murder and covetousness noting that these and other commandments are summed up in “Love you neighbour as yourself.” You can also put it this way, says Paul, “Love does no wrong to a neighbour.” Plainly, then, to steal, murder, coveting, commit adultery is to do wrong to a neighbour. Love does none of these.
Here we see how the law and love are related; that God’s law is the application of love. Indeed this is how the law and gospel are related, for Jesus is the good news himself. We could never imagine Jesus doing any of these things the law prohibits to his followers, nor to any other person. Further it is in the cross of Christ that we see love most clearly as he gives himself without remainder for us; love is a self-forgetful self-giving. God’s law orients us to look outside ourselves to God and others; this is consistent with the character of love—God’s love, that is.
Of course the law isn’t merely that we refrain from wronging the neighbour but actively to promote their wellbeing. Love your neighbour as yourself seeks not simply to refrain from stealing but promote prosperity; not simply to refrain for killing but promote their health and welfare; not simply to refrain from begrudging their achievements but taking joy at accomplishment.
We have this romanticised view of love that is too small a concept to really capture what the gospel declares as the grandeur of the height and depth and length and breadth of the knowledge surpassing love of Christ. In our romanticized view we like to think that right affections will give rise to nothing by loving actions. If this is so why is it that the person I say I love the most—have the greatest affection for—is also the same one I find it easiest to treat insensitively? . Such is the corruption of the human heart. We deceive ourselves, says the gospel, to regard our hearts as pure. We need our Saviour’s redeeming love who by the power of his Spirit sets us free from the grip of this corruption.
3. I have a question that I have been thinking a lot about in recent days. Do I believe that God wants humans to flourish? Is God really interested in human flourishing? When we read, “Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law,’ or other Biblical admonition for that matter; do we hear it as restrictive—as sucking the joy out of life—or as promoting human flourishing?
When God gives his commands to his people—is it just because God wants them to stand out? Is the law’s purpose so his people will be different than other cultures as if there were virtue in oddity? Or is it because God knows something about our humanity that we have rebelled against; it is because God knows us better that we know ourselves and truly understands what is for our flourishing.
I am challenged as I work through the study material our small groups are taking up this fall. Dr. Timothy Keller, in this study Gospel in Life: Grace Changes Everything, begins with the call of God through the prophet Jeremiah “to seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7) Keller then explores how that call applies to the church in seeking the welfare of the communities in which we find ourselves.
Dr. Mary Poplin is a professor at Claremont Graduate University in California. She recently published an article exploring what she calls the faith of secular humanism. It was her observations about how secular humanism speaks of Christian faith that caught my attention. (http://www.tothesource.org/7_23_2014/7_23_2014.htm)
“Much of our secular humanist culture is not intentionally hostile to Christian principles. They are simply unaware that Judeo Christianity has truth in it that cannot be found elsewhere. They cannot imagine a living and active God that transcends the principles of secular medicine, sociology and psychology. For example, in Robert Putnam and David Campbell's famous book, American Grace, they report that church and synagogue attenders are better neighbors, more generous, and more civically engaged. They summarize that this is because they are in intense social networks. They even suggest nonbelievers might do just as well if they formed "close, morally intense, but not religious social networks."
Likewise, prominent psychologists, Krause and Ellison studied 1300 adults finding that people who believe that God has forgiven them are two and one-half times more likely to forgive others unconditionally and to have higher levels of life satisfaction. They attribute this also to the psychosocial institutional climate of the church, not to a God who forgives.”
On a similar note, though an atheist, Italian philosopher, Marcello Pera writes, “Two divergent theories may be compared on common ground, . . . and one may be judged better than the other. … By “better” we mean that it recognizes and respects more fundamental rights, satisfies more expectation, allows for more efficient, transparent, democratic institution and so on…. In the end, we must choose. As the history of liberalism and modernity shows, the Christian choice to give oneself to God, or to act . . . as if God existed, has yielded the best results.”
What struck me was how each of these scholars, from different disciplines of study, observed that there is something about Christianity and Judaism that promotes human flourishing. They can see what we inside the church often do not. Our commitment as believers to mutual love and love of neighbour for Christ’s sake blesses the world.
Psalm 133 is a Psalm extolling the joys of unity. It begins this way: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” We know moment like this—gatherings of family or friends that were happy. Imagine a world where nothing inhibits the expansion of these joys. A world where love only give sway to more love. We all know that that would be a world of true and endless human flourishing.
Friends the debt of mutual love we owe; the love that does no wrong to a neighbour and is therefore, the fulfilling of the law; this love looks forward to that day when, through our Saviour, all will be made right: to that great consummation of all things when love will give way to nothing except more love.