Romans 13:8 —Fulfilling the law through love.
for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
Paul is clever with his transitions. Having written about the taxes we owe to government, Paul repeats the word owe to segue to a major theme of this epistle: love as the fulfillment of the law. First, let’s examine his brief opening phrase, which could lead us to think debt of any kind is wrong.
Is a mortgage unbiblical?
No. Paul’s point is that we must pay back our debts in a responsible manner (NIV: “Let no debt remain outstanding”). If borrowing were inherently evil, Jesus would not have said, “Do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42). The Bible warns that the borrower is servant to the lender (Proverbs 22:7), but condemns those who borrow and do not repay (Psalm 37:21). You can read more about this issue here.
Love and the law
Love is a debt we will always owe one another, for it can never be paid in full. Our love must reach also to those outside the church and even our enemies, as Paul’s use of “neighbor” in the following verses suggests (recall the parable of the good Samaritan). We remain obligated to walk in love in imitation of him who so loved us as to give up his life for us (Ephesians 5:2). The ongoing nature of this obligation is also implicit in the tense of the verb fulfilled, which can be translated “has fulfilled and continues to fulfill.”
Verse 8 resumes the theme of “sincere love” Paul wrote about in verses 9–21 of chapter 12. This verse is also his on-ramp to the next chapter where he deals with the controversy about the law and the eating of certain foods. His claim that love fulfills the law is useful for not just this practical reason but is also immensely significant for understanding Romans. Here Paul serves choice theological meat.
Paul did not make up this claim out of thin air. It is grounded in the Old Testament: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:18). In his earlier letter to the Galatians, Paul referred to the same OT verse to make his point that “the whole law is fulfilled in one word,” meaning love (5:14). And most important, Jesus quoted this Leviticus passage in his answer to a Pharisee who asked him which is the great commandment in the Law:
38 This is the great and first commandment.
39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37–40)
An important distinction
Neither Jesus nor Paul said that love abrogates the law. That was accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross, which canceled the law’s legal demands (Colossians 2:14). Jesus took on himself the law’s curse that humanity deserved (Galatians 3:13). When we confess with our mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in our heart that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9), his work on the cross is applied to us with the result that we are released from the law and freed from the power of sin. Only in him do we escape the law, sin, and death.
The only person who ever perfectly loved was Jesus, so only he could perfectly fulfill the law. But now, for those of us who believe in him, a dramatic transformation has taken place. We are no longer “under law” but are now “under grace” (Romans 6:14). Our old self that was captive to sin and under the curse of the law has been replaced by a new self with a new heart that loves God and wants to obey him. The law is now written on our heart (Jeremiah 31:33); here is someone who writes well on this subject. By the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit we can love and obey God and love our neighbor.
We will follow Paul as he further develops these themes in the verses directly ahead.