The Heart of the Law

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A very popular mistake among Christians is that of contrasting love and the law, as though we had to pick and choose. Will we live according to love, or according to the law? But if we must love, isn’t that a law, a great commandment? And if we keep the law truly, won’t we realize that love permeates all of it? Love God and love your neighbor—this is the law and the prophets.

“Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:8-10).

In the previous verse, we were told that we should render to all their due. The word used there is the noun form of what we have here in v. 8, where it says not to owe anything. Not to owe here does not therefore mean that we are never to have obligations. It means that we may have no obligations inconsistent with the obligation to love (v. 8). If you love your neighbor, then you have fulfilled the law with regard to him, which means that you have fulfilled your obligations (v. 8). The apostle Paul then lists five of the ten commandments, and then includes all the others, and says that they are all summed up in the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (v. 9). Love does no harm to his neighbor (v. 10), which is why we know that love is the fulfillment of the law (v. 10).



As with so many passages of Scripture, to take a snippet out of its context and absolutize it is a good way to distort the Bible. “Owe no man any thing” has a nice ring to it, and is right up there with “neither a borrower nor a lender be.” Unfortunately, this absolutist view collides with Scripture. Jesus commands us to lend, for example. “But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again” (Luke 6:34-35). Not only does He command loans, He commands dumb loans to our enemies. The ability to lend is a profound covenantal blessing (Dt. 15:6-8). Charging interest for need loans is lawful outside the covenant, and is prohibited within (Dt. 23:20). Moreover, the law presupposes the lawfulness of borrowing (Ex. 22:14). The law does not slam the person who is in need of a loan, but rather protects him (Lev. 25:35-36). At the same time, it is still better to lend than to borrow, just as it is better to be warm and dry than cold and wet (Dt. 28:12). The borrower has the weaker hand (Prov. 22:7), which relates to our text here—unwise debt interferes with the obligation to love.

Before considering some common problems with our obligations, we need to settle one other issue first. The biblical laws with regard to loans and interest, brothers and non-believers, are laws that apply to poverty-relief loans. They are not laws that apply to a business investment, for example. But, having said that, the obligation to love your neighbor applies as much to your neighbor with whom you are working a business deal as it does with a poverty loan. If a poor man cannot pay back a loan, and he avoids his benefactor, he is not loving him. And if a man has a business deal blow up on him, and he does not return his investors’ calls, he is not loving them. There are different kinds of debt, but there is only one kind of neighbor love.

When we understand love the way we ought, we must always begin with what our love should look like when extended to our brother, and not what his love extended to us should look like. Perhaps it should look like that, and perhaps you are quite right. But that is also not your principal business.

First, don’t abuse your family. “Whoso robbeth his father or his mother, and saith, It is no transgression; the same is the companion of a destroyer” (Prov. 28: 24). The fact that you haven’t paid back family members makes it worse, not better. Second, don’t abuse the Golden Rule. Just because you wouldn’t mind if that were done to you doesn’t mean they don’t mind. Don’t exercise other people’s generosity and forgiveness toward you on their behalf.  That’s another form of taking. Third, don’t refuse to pay what you can pay. Words are free, communication is free, even if you are flat broke. When love is there, the debtor initiates communications before the creditor needs to, and is persistent with it. Fourth, don’t abuse the passage of time. A poor memory is not the same thing as a good conscience. And fifth, don’t measure his love with the yardstick of your debts. Measure your own love with it.

The Lord Jesus teaches us (Matt. 22:40) that the entire law is summed up in these two commandments—love God (Dt. 6 :5) and love your neighbor (Lev. 19:18). The apostle Paul teaches the same principle here. He says that certain specific commands, and any others you might be able to find, are summed up or “comprehended” in this one command. The Decalogue sums up the whole law (Ex. 34:28), as do these two commandments, which means that these two sum up the Ten Commandments as well.

Love does no harm to his neighbor. The great lesson for us here is that this harm is defined, not by our intentions or motives, but by the law of God. Just as love fills out the law, so the law defines love. The law is the riverbed and love is the water. If you have no riverbed, but a lot of sentimental water, what you have is a swamp in which a lot of fornication occurs. If you have no water, but a long riverbed, you just have something for the tumbleweed to blow down the length of.

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