In Romans 13, the apostle Paul is teaching believers what it means to live the Christian life of sacrifice. First, he speaks of living in submission to those in authority. Then, shifting to the theme of loving one’s fellow human, Paul makes this declaration: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). Similarly, in Galatians 5:14, Paul states, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
The law Paul is talking about in these verses is the Law of Moses, which was given by God to Israel (Exodus 20—40; Leviticus 1–7; 23). The law included the Ten Commandments and all the moral, ceremonial, and civil regulations that governed the life of the people of Israel in their covenant relationship with God. Paul indicates that the entire law can be summed up in one operative word—love. Believers can fulfill every demand of the Mosaic Law by loving others. The only legitimate debt and the one debt Christians can never fully repay is the ongoing obligation to love one another: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Paul illuminates the truth that love is at the core of the law. The love command—“love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)—is at the heart of the law of Christ: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2; see also 1 Corinthians 9:20–21). James calls the command to love your neighbor as yourself the royal law: “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right” (James 2:8).
The law has always pointed to Jesus Christ: “For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God” (Romans 10:4, NLT). The Law of Moses is something humans are incapable of keeping (Galatians 3:10). We cannot meet the demands of the law in our own power (Galatians 3:24; Romans 8:4; 10:4). Our Savior, the Lord Jesus, fulfilled the law perfectly and provided His righteousness in exchange for our sin (see Matthew 5:17).
By faith we believe and accept that Jesus Christ bore the curse of the law when He died on the cross. And through Him we receive the Holy Spirit, who enables us to keep the divine law of love: “Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law” (Romans 13:10, NLT). Now, instead of worrying about what we can never do, namely, keeping the law, we are free to yield to the Spirit and allow Him to love through us.
One day when Jesus was teaching the crowds, a Pharisee asked Him, “What is the greatest commandment of the law?” Jesus answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37–40). Christians now satisfy all the demands of the law by loving God first and then loving others.
It is impossible to love God and not love people. God’s heart, His very nature, is love. If the Spirit of God dwells in us, His love will flow through us to others (1 John 3:10, 14, 16; 4:2–20). Our love for God will cause us to see people as God sees them and love them as God does.
Finally, it’s vital to understand what the Scriptures mean by “love” in these verses. Love that fulfills the law is agape love. This love is not based on emotions, but an act of the will. It is self-sacrificing, deliberate, active love. To love someone with God’s love is to promote that person’s best interests—to actively work not to harm but to bring good to that person. This love is directed not only toward fellow believers but to all people, even our enemies. Regardless of our emotional response to another person, agape love will act for his or her good, regardless of the cost. That is the kind of love Scripture speaks of when it says to love your neighbor as yourself. That kind of love is the fulfillment of the law.