Lesson 13: The Gospel of the Law of Love (13:1-14)


Bible students have long puzzled over what appears to be a sudden shift in Paul’s instruction to the Roman church.  However, when returning to the overall theme of this section in 12:1-2, we can understand that Paul is providing further clarification about what it means not to be “conformed to this world” but to “discern what is the will of God” (12:2). Throughout this entire section, Paul gives a coherent set of instructions on how we should relate to God, ourselves, believers, enemies, as well as civil government, the world, and Christ’s return:[1]

1.     God:                               Be a living sacrifice (12:1-2)

2.     Ourselves:                     Be humble with believers (12:3-8)

3.     Believers:                       Be loving to fellow believers (12:9-16)

4.     Enemies:                        Be honourable with everyone (12:17-21)

5.     Government:                 Be obedient to the authorities (13:1-7)

6.     World:                           Be obligated only in love (13:8-10)

7.     Christ’s return:  Be watchful for Christ’s return (13:11-14)

In this passage, 13:1-14, being “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” includes instructions on how to behave towards the prevailing government authorities, believers, and even our enemies. This is all the more relevant because Christ’s return is imminent (vv. 111-12).

A Christian’s obligation to earthly governments (13:1-7)

Few teachings in Scripture have been more misunderstood or misapplied by governments against their citizens. When looking at this passage outside its historical context and the greater biblical context, one can easily see how this might occur.  In other parts of Scripture, it is abundantly clear, we must only submit to the governing authorities as long as that submission does not result in disobedience to God. Peter’s rejection of the Sanhedrin’s demand is an excellent example.  “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Other examples include the Israelite midwives in Egypt who feared God more than Pharaoh (Exodus 1:17). Daniel’s three friends also would not bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image (Daniel 3). And Daniel himself, refused to obey King Darius (Daniel 6). In each of these instances, they defied the state. So, when we interpret this passage, we assume, unconditional and absolute submission to every and all demands of the state is not biblical. However, no matter which forms of government, it should be obeyed if its laws and demands do not violate biblical teaching. The reason is, human government is God’s providential provision for an ordered and just society.  The degree to which the state adheres to biblical principles determines the quality of life within the country for its citizens.

Throughout the history of the church, Christians have advocated various types of responses to their government:[2] 

These include (but are not limited to):

1.     The government is fundamentally corrupt, so there should be no participation in its work, military, or elections.

2.     Christians can work with the government but view the government's work completely outside the church. The church and the government are in two entirely different spheres of influence. When Christians perform the duties of government, they only do on behalf of the government

3.     Other Christians believe they should influence the government to function more biblically. So, they become involved in politics and the military.

v. 1a command

Although Paul says “every person," he primarily refers to Christians in the church. All believers are commanded to “be subject to the governing authorities.”  The verb “be subject to” means to obey the directives and orders of the “governing authorities.” “Subject” is a strong word Paul and others use for obedience (Titus 2:9; 2 Corinthians 9:13; Hebrews 13:17). Submission, therefore, means to accept the claims and to order one’s life to a higher authority. The command implies a choice by the Christian to accept the authority of the government and not to resist or oppose it.[3] 

There has been some question to what is meant by “governing authorities.”  Some interpreters think it relates to cosmic forces such as angles.  However, Paul never suggests Christians should be subject to such powers (1 Corinthians 15:24-27; Galatians 4:8-11; Colossians 2:15).  So, there is little doubt Paul is referring to human state government.

vv. 1b-2 Theological reasons for the command

The first reason Paul provides for submitting to the state is, its authority comes from God (“no authority except from God”). He clarifies this reason by adding, “and those that exist have been instituted by God.” The critical word is “instituted” or “ordained” (kjv) (literally, ‘put in place’) This reason is taught throughout the Old Testament:

By me, kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; by me princes rule, and nobles, all who govern justly. (Proverbs 8:15-26) 

Other examples include Isaiah 41:2-4; 45:1-7; Jeremiah 21:7, 10; 27:5-6 and Daniel 4:7, 25, 32. However, the word “instituted” does not necessarily imply God approves of the actions of the state. It only means, the state’s authority is derived from God’s authority. This is why Jesus said to Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11).

The second reason follows from the first. If God has instituted the governing authorities, then opposing these authorities means resisting what “God has appointed.”  The consequence of resisting God’s will results in “judgment” (“damnation” in the kjv is too strong). Within this context, “judgment” could refer to penalties for violating secular laws. However, Paul usually uses the word “judgment” for God’s end-time judgment (2:2-3; 3:8; 5:16; 11:3).  Later, in verse 5, Paul uses the same language (“wrath”) to refer to the wrath of the “rulers.” It, therefore, seems reasonable to assume “judgment” implies civil punishment (vv. 4-5) derived as an expression of God’s authority. John Murray comments, “We have here in this term “judgment” the twofold aspect from which it is to be viewed. It is punishment dispensed by the governing authorities. But it is also an expression of God’s wrath and it is for this reason that it carries the sanction of God and its propriety is certified.”[4]

vv. 3-4 Practical reasons for the command

Paul also provides several practical reasons to submit to the state. The assumption is that the state powers have a positive role in the life of its citizens. This is made explicit when Paul says the government “is God’s servant for your good.” In this sense, the state operates as a ministry of God as long as it does God’s will. When it violates God’s will, it no longer has authority. God has delegated the authority to do good and confront evil to the state. However, the definition of “good” and “wrong” is given by God, who has entrusted the state with this authority.  

Paul argues that if our conduct is “good,” we will have nothing to “fear” from their authority to punish neither do we have to be in “terror” of those in authority. Instead, we will have the state’s “approval.” However, if we do “wrong,” we should fear “the sword.”  The sword is a symbol of authority and ultimately a symbol of death. The state’s authority, given by God, is to restrain and punish evil. This authority is the state’s and not the individual who suffered the wrong (12:19). Paul also sees the state as “the servant of God” to do “good.”  So the state must act in accordance with biblical principles to promote the welfare of its citizens.  A state violating biblical principles does not have this authority.

v. 5 Two more practical reasons

Paul begins this verse by restating our need to “be in subjection” to the governing authorities. The “wrath” mentioned here refers to the punishment of the state.  And then he adds a final practical reason: we should do so “for the sake of conscience.” Christian conscience is informed by the Holy Spirit and refers to our ability to think critically about moral issues (12:2).  It also implies action–responsibility and obligation–as a result of such reflection.  In relating “conscience” to the first five verses, we understand it means Christians are to submit to the government because they recognize God has instituted the state for their good.[5]

Application of submitting to the state: Christians should pay taxes (vv. 7-8a)

Paul now gives a practical example of submitting.  Submission means Christians should pay both “taxes” and “revenue” to the government. By so doing, they will “owe no one anything” (v. 8a).  This could well have been the main reason Paul adds this whole passage on being subject to the state. Christians may have been avoiding paying taxes to Rome. We know there were widespread protests against Nero’s tax system in a.d. 58.

Paul mentions two forms of taxation: “taxes,” which were a direct obligation to Rome. This tax was levied on persons and property (Luke 20:22; 23:2); and “revenue” or “custom,” which were taxes on goods and customs. It was often the case, a great deal of graft and oppression was associated with tax collection.

The Jewish Christians had just been able to return to Rome after their expulsion as part of the “Chrestus” riots. Besides this, Jews were uncomfortable with supporting any form of the Roman government. This is why the Jewish leaders asked Jesus if it was right to support Caesar by paying his taxes (Matthew 22:17). Most Jews would have answered negatively.  Rome, like any government, did not look kindly on such disobedience.  Refusing to pay taxes was one of the accusations brought against Jesus when he was before Pilate (Luke 23:2). Gentiles, too, were very unhappy with the taxation system.

Often it was the poor who were most affected by its corruption. However, Paul would not have wanted the Roman church to become mixed up with anti-government protests over taxation. Not paying taxes meant both Jewish and Gentile Christians were in danger of prosecution, not to mention the disunity this might have caused within the church. Paul does not want them to be financially obligated to the state.  Their only obligation should be to “love each other” (v. 8a).

Reflection on vv. 1-7

Paul has presented a surprisingly positive view of the state in these verses. Still, often the state demands loyalty, resulting in disobedience to God.  Only thirty years after Paul wrote this letter, John the apostle also wrote concerning Rome (Revelation 13). However, John’s assessment is much different.  At that time, the persecution of Christians under Emperor Domitian was underway. John does not see Rome as a servant of God but as a servant of Satan. In Revelation, Satan, described as a red dragon, gives authority to Rome.

So, both views of the state are correct. As Paul states earlier, we need a transformed and renewed mind to test and discern what God’s good and perfect will is concerning obligations to the state (12:2). When the state operates within God’s moral justice as given in the Law, it is a servant of God. However, when it operates outside God’s justice, it is an instrument of Satan.[6]

It requires a great deal of spiritual maturity to know when to support and oppose the state. At the time of Paul, the Roman government was no paradigm of good government. Paul himself, will be executed by Rome a few years after writing this letter. Within our context, governments are also operating outside of biblical principles—for example, their support of abortion. Whether a Christian should withhold tax from such a government requires a significant reflection on this text and God’s provision for the government.

A Christian’s obligation to love his neighbour (13:8-10)

v. 8

Paul now returns to the individual Christian’s obligation to love. But before he does so, he reminds us we are “to owe no one anything.”[7] Our only indebtedness as believers is “to love each other.” This does not mean we do not have other obligations.  In 1:14, Paul speaks of his obligation to preach the gospel to everyone.  And in 8:12-13, he instructs us that we are under obligation to the Holy Spirit to live a life pleasing to him. So our obligation is to God, but we also must love others. We can be released from the obligation to the state by paying its taxes and respecting and honouring our rulers, but we can never be free of the obligation to love. The commandment to love is a major theme throughout the Old and New Testament (12:10; John 13:34; 15:12; 1 Corinthians 13; Philippians 2:3–4; 1 Thessalonians 4:9; Hebrews 13:1; 2 Peter 1:7; 1 John 3:11; 4:7, 11–12; Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 6:5; 10:12,19; 11:1,13,22; 13:3; 19:9; 30:6,16,20).  Paul says, we fulfill the law by loving one another. However, although a believer has “fulfilled the law,” they have not exhausted their obligation to love. That obligation always remains an outstanding debt.  It is surprising, though, that Paul says a Christian had fulfilled the law when in chapter 7, he said we are incapable of fulfilling it on our own. As well Paul also says:

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 order so that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us. (8:3-4a)

We can fulfill these requirements by walking according to the Spirit, living according to the Spirit and setting our mind on the Holy Spirit (8:4-6). This is possible only if the “Spirit of God dwells in you” (8:9). So as John states in his letter, the reason we can love one another is that love is from God (1 John 4:7). John goes on to say, “We love because he [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:19) Our ability to love one another is God’s love flowing through us by the power of the Spirit (cf. 15:30).

vv. 9-10

Paul now describes what this love means. He first lists the second table in the Ten Commandments,[8] and adds, “and any other commandment.” He then declares these laws are all “summed up” by quoting Leviticus 19:19, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving ourselves is not an implicit command to self-love. It simply means we are to love with sincere and real love. Paul also explains why love sums up these commands. It is because “love does no wrong.”  

            Of first importance is that neighbour-love does no harm. It is unthinkable for us to harm those whom we love intentionally.  Similarly, as we seek our good and avoid personal harm, we also seek our neighbour’s good and avoid doing them any harm. Given what Paul has previously said earlier in the letter about the Mosaic law, this positive view of the law is noteworthy.

So, we find the law and love come together in the great command of God. This is what Jesus himself said to one of the Jewish leaders when asked about the greatest commandment of the Law. Jesus replied:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”  (Matthew 33:37-40)

These two commands are not two independent commands. When Paul only quotes the second commandment, he implicitly includes the first. It is only because we love God that we are filled with the Spirit and so are enabled to love our neighbour. Both of these commands are summed up as “the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). In the context of Leviticus 19:18, the neighbour is a fellow Israelite. But a few verses later, Israel is instructed to love the non-Israeli foreigner (Leviticus 19:34). And if there is any doubt to whom “neighbour” refers, Jesus makes it clear in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37).

A Christian’s obligation to Christ (13:11-14)

Paul now returns to the first two verses of chapter 12. There he spoke of a renewed and transformed mind. In these verses (13:11-14), Paul explains why it is so important for Christians to have a renewed mind because the time is short, and the final day of our salvation is nearer than we think. As a consequence of such spiritual knowledge, Paul includes three more exhortations for believers as they await the culmination of their salvation.

It would appear from these verses, Paul expected Christ to return immediately. We know that did not happen, so was Paul wrong?    To answer this question, we have to look at all the New Testament teaching of Christ’s return. When we do, we see it says the Lord's day is at hand (Philippians 4:5; Hebrews 10:25, 27; James 5:8; 1 Peter 4:7; Revelation 22:10-12, 20). However, there is no need to interpret this as expecting an imminent return. Paul had to warn and encourage the Thessalonian Christians concerning Christ’s return (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12). And in this letter to the Romans, Paul teaches about Israel’s conversion, which at that time had not occurred (11:12, 15, 26). Peter also states, one day to God is as a thousand years to us (2 Peter 3:8).  Jesus himself says, no one knows the day or hour (Mark 13:32). However, all believers throughout all the generations are to live with the watchful expectation of Christ’s return (Mark 13:33-37).

The reason: Christ’s return is close at hand (vs. 11-12a)

v. 11a

Paul begins the passage with “besides this, you know” which links what he just said about loving our neighbour (vv. 8-10) with what follows (vv. 11-14). We are to know “the time, that the hour has come.” The reference to time and hour is to an event rather than clock-on-the-wall time.  This event is, “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.”  This statement refers to the return of Christ (1 Corinthians 7:29; 10:11; James 5:8; 1 Peter 4:7; 2 Peter 3:9–13; 1 John 2:18; Revelation 1:3; 22:10). In the same way that dawn arrives at the end of a long dark night (present age), so the time for Christ’s return is dawning. “The night is far gone; the day is at hand.” This metaphor of the dawn refers to the time in which all Christians have lived, now live, and will live until the return of Christ.  We live in a time just before Christ returns to restore justice and peace on earth.[9] As Christians, we must anticipate the sun coming up and the Son returning. 

Four exhortations (vv. 11b, 12b-14)

v. 11b Stay awake

The implication of this knowledge of Christ's imminent return is to keep spiritually awake; as Paul says, “wake from sleep.” This recalls Jesus’ imperative to “be on guard, keep awake” (Mark 13:32-37). The term “sleep” is a metaphor for death, but here it means spiritual slowness (Ephesians 5:13–14; 1 Thessalonians 5:6). We are spiritually alert, growing in spiritual maturity.

v. 12b Cast off darkness; put on light

Paul now uses a common metaphor of taking off and putting on clothes. Here he urges Christians to “cast off works of darkness” and to “put on the armor of light.”  The “works of darkness” are the sins that are part of this present evil age (2 Corinthians 6:14; 1 Thessalonians 5:4–5)[10]. The reference to “armor of light” means weapons of righteousness (2 Corinthians 6:7; 10:4; Ephesians 6:11, 13; 1 Thessalonians 5:8). These are God-given resources to fight spiritual battles.  The emphasis here is on light and refers to living in the morning, which is Christ (John 8:12; 9:5) and in the love of our brothers and sisters in Christ (1 John 1:17; 2:10).

v. 13 Walk properly in the daylight

Holy Christian living does not involve such things as “orgies,” “drunkenness,” “sexual immorality,” “sensuality,” “quarrelling,” or “jealousy.”  Although some of these are not done today within the church, others are still evident. Paul describes Christian behaviour in the negative, what not to do.  But the positive is implied; that is, a Christian should live soberly,

v. 14 Put on our Lord Jesus Christ

In Paul’s letters, he often uses the metaphor of “putting on.”  He speaks of putting on the new man (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10), of putting on the armour of God (Ephesians 6:11), of putting on the armour of light (v. 12), of putting on the breastplate of righteousness (Ephesians 6:14) and of faith and love (1 Thessalonians 5:8), of putting on compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness and patience (Colossians 3:12). As profound as these all are, nothing matches the metaphor of “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.”[11] To put on Christ is to be in union with him: in his death and in his resurrection and, on the last day, in his glorification (6:1-10; 8:30). Ultimately, to put on Christ is to be clothed with his righteousness. There is no more wonderful metaphor.  All we are, all we have, and all we will be, we have in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul’s second exhortation in this verse encourages the believer to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” By “flesh,” Paul means our sinful condition continues to be with believers until their glorification. Although Paul has just mentioned indulgences in sensual desires (v. 13), there is no reason to restrict this warning to those. In the previous verse, Paul has also mentioned “quarrelling” and “jealousy.”

Questions for Reflection

Study it

1. [13:1] What does Paul mean by “governing authorities”? Who are they? 

1. [13:1,2] What does it mean then that God “instituted” and “appointed” governing authorities?

2. [13:2] How do you understand “judgment” in this verse? 

3. [13:1-7] List all the theological reasons why we should obey the government.  List all the practical reasons.

4. [13:4] What does it mean, the government “does not bear the sword in vain”?

5. [13:4-5] Whose “wrath” is Paul referring to in the verses? Why should a Christian pay taxes?

6. [13:6-7] The notes indicate Paul addresses the issues of Christians paying taxes.  Do you agree or disagree?

7. [13:8-10] Looking carefully at the text, what does Paul say about loving our neighbour?

8. [13:10] Why does loving your neighbour fulfill the law?

9. [13:11-14] How does Paul tie together the return of Christ with his exhortation to submit to the government?

10.            [13:14] What does “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” mean?

Live it

1. Is it encouraging there is no authority which is not under God and everything is under his control?

2. Have you ever experienced an example where the government or any other higher authority used these verses to demand obedience?

3. Have you ever resisted submitting to the authority of the state?  What were your reasons?  How did the state violate a commandment of God?

4. Do you live in joyful expectation of Christ’s return? Does this knowledge affect how you live today?

5. How do you stay spiritually awake?

6. What do “works of darkness” and “armor of light” mean in your life?

[1] Stott, 348.:

[2] H. Richard Niebuhr describes five Christ-culture options in his book “Christ and Culture.” See also D. A. Carson, “Christ & Culture Revisited.”

[3] Toews, 314.

[4] Murray, Vol. 2, 149.

[5] Schreiner, Romans, 667.

[6] Stott, 343.

[7] This is not a command to avoid financial debt or not to loan someone money. Although this is good advice, within this context Paul is speaking about obligations to the state.

[8] He does omit, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.”  But there is no reason not to include it and many later manuscripts do.

[9] Thielman, 615.

[10] Osborn, 421.

[11] Murray, Vol. 2, 170.