One of the great things about meeting and walking with Jesus is that you slowly discover that even the deepest, darkest recesses of your life are seen by Him. Some react, as John 3:19, says in hatred to the light of Christ shining into their lives, but the fact is true for everyone that the light of Christ touches every area of your life, and this is what the book of Romans addresses and one of the many reasons why it is so revolutionary.
Take the Sermon on the Mount, for example. What makes this the greatest sermon ever recorded is that Jesus clearly shows that words, thoughts, actions and behaviors are not in a vacuum: they spring forth out of the very depths of our being. Who we truly are shows up in how we truly are.
Think, for example, of Matthew 5:22 where Jesus teaches that to harbor and unforgiveness toward someone in your heart is the same as murder in the eyes of God, or when He says in Matthew 5:28 that to lust after a woman in your heart is the same as adultery. We’re all murdering adulterers at heart, right? Again, when we walk with Jesus nothing is off-limits and we discover just how great is our need for His presence and Spirit in our lives.
This passage in Romans does the exact same thing: it teaches us that true, genuine, authentic, dynamic Christian relationship with God and others takes place upstream of our words, thoughts, and actions. The central theme here is LOVE as is the central theme of all of Scripture. The Holy Spirit of God would seek to teach us here that love – real, true love – is so fundamental to the Christ-follower that to be without love is to be without Christ Himself.
One of my favorite in classes in college was a physical geography class, and in this class we would periodically go out into the field to have a “hands-on” experience with what we studied in the classroom. One lesson I remember vividly was going out into the National Forest and hiking to the headwaters of the Etowah River. This river was well-known in that area and supplied life to much of the wildlife in the region. When we arrived at the headwaters, which was just a natural spring coming out from underground, my professor said, “If you go upstream far enough, you arrive at the source. The wildlife, the trees, the hills, and the people are all beneficiaries of this source.”
Just like that lesson I learned in the National Forest in North Georgia, this passage would teach us that Christianity is an “upstream” relationship. Every single thing in your life springs from a source, and The Spirit would convict you that the source for our lives should be the love of Christ. The lessons that we are to learn here are the most important lessons we can learn, and I don’t think we can take them seriously enough or think too hard or often about them. Let me pass on to you, this morning a few burdens about love that the Lord has laid on my heart. It is my prayer that this morning is just the start of a renewed heart and mind for each of us as we examine and consider the love of Christ toward us and our affection toward Him and others.
Here is, I think, the first lesson the Spirit would teach us about love from this passage: LOVE IS A PERPETUAL DEBT. Look at verse 8: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another…”
In our Western, American minds, we think of debt as something that has a definite beginning and end. I need to purchase a home, so I incur debt from a bank that I pay off; I need an education, so I incur debt from the federal government that I pay off. We think of each payment toward this debt as slowly chopping away at the total amount owed until we have completely paid off our debt and never have to make another payment again.
However, this is the thing about the Christian life: we never make any progress in paying off our debt to love one another. No matter how many “love payments” we make, we never “chip away” at the principal amount. It is the same value that we talked about last week with forgiveness: how many times must I do this, Jesus? SEVEN TIMES?!? No, Justin, love, like forgiveness, is without end.
Consider these words of Jesus from John 13:34-35 which, in our human minds, is near impossible to grasp: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Just how important is this command? Well, Jesus’ follow-up words are this: “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples.”
So, in order to understand Romans 13, we must first understand John 13 and travel to the depths of Christ’s love for us and, in doing so, we discover the depths of love to which we ourselves are called.
He loved us when we were His enemies; He loved us when we rejected Him; He loved us when we denied Him; He loved us when we committed the same sin over and over again; He loved us when we crucified Him; and, GET THIS, He loved us when He knew most of us would never love Him in return. JUST AS I have loved you, so you are to love one another. The love that Christ calls you to love others with it is a lifetime calling for all people, at any station in life, and that never changes. Love, for us, is a perpetual debt which we always owe.
Is this how we view and understand love? Is this how we exercise Christian love to others? Or, are we surrounded by people with whom we “click” and who are, for us, enjoyable company. I shudder to think of how far I still have to go in understanding this depth of love, and you should, too, because this is the biblical standard for Christian love.
When we begin to grasp the unimaginable depth of this calling, then we begin to understand a related truth about biblical love, which is that: LOVE IS NEITHER A CATEGORY OF EMOTION OR BEHAVIOR.
Verse 10 says that love is so massive, so all-encompassing, so powerfully present in the Christian that it itself the “fulfillment of the law.” And yet, when you talk to so many people – believer or unbeliever about love – there is this gross mis-categorization of love as something so much less than biblical love that it would be unrecognizable to the apostle Paul. When we fail to understand the depth of Christ’s definition of love, we tend to classify it as either primarily an emotion or a behavior, and neither categorization is either helpful or true.
For example, when we categorize love as an emotion – as many younger people that I talk to tend to do – we make love subject to the fickle whims of our emotions, and we all know that emotions are a wonderful helper and terrible master. One minute we feel as though we are on top of the world, and the next minute, for sometimes no discernable reason whatsoever, feel as though the world and its concerns are crushing the life out of us. So, naturally, when we categorize love as an emotion – alongside anger, happiness, frustration, sadness, and many others – we not only fail to ever experience true, liberating, unmatched biblical love, but we also find that we never seem to quite understand the thousands of biblical passages and commands about love. Love as an emotion makes the entire Bible seem constantly out of reach.
Similarly, when we categorize love as a behavior – as many older people that I talk to tend to do – we err in the same way. Many people say of love that it is a “commitment”, which is a vital part of love, but love as a commitment and nothing else relegates love to a dry series of decisions or behaviors which may be completely void of the affection we find in biblical love.
Many will claim to “love others” when they perform acts that they see and understand to be loving: providing a meal, filling up a gas tank, loaning some tools, helping with a project, babysitting children, cleaning a house, and the list goes on and on. These “acts” may be performed out of a spirit of love, or they may simply stem from guilt, shame, pride, conviction, or many others. Just as love is not an emotion, it is also not a behavior.
Look with me at the defining passage on biblical love, I Corinthians 13. “Love is…PATIENT, KIND, does not ENVY, does not BOAST, is not PROUD, does not DISHONOR OTHERS, is not SELF-SEEKING, is not easily ANGERED, KEEPS NO RECORD of wrongs, does not DELIGHT IN EVIL, does REJOICE WITH TRUTH, it PROTECTS, it TRUSTS, it HOPES, it PERSEVERES.
This definition obviously transcends emotion or behavior. This definition of love is better understood as DNA as it is interwoven with our emotions, our thoughts, our words, our actions, and everything we do. LOVE for the Christian is WHO WE ARE, and this is why it is a debt that we never pay because as long as we are living and breathing, we are called to love one another. In our transformed state, we always owe a debt of patience, kindness, hope, perseverance, trust, and protection to everyone. In the same way, our debt to never envy, dishonor, act selfishly or out of pride is never paid. Love, for us, is who we are and marks every thought, word, action, and behavior. This is why the Holy Spirit would tell you this morning that:
IF WE FAIL TO LOVE, WE FAIL ENTIRELY. Look again at verse 9 and pay attention to these words: “whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Holy Spirit leaves no wiggle room when He compelled Paul to write that “whatever other command there might be…” are included in that summation. This is how huge Christian love is: the entire message of Scripture is summed up in the command of Christ to love. What that means for us is that if we do everything else right – we have perfect church attendance; we read our Bible every day and pray without ceasing; we but we fail to love, then we must face the truth that we ourselves don’t know or understand Christ and everything that we have done or are doing is, as Paul says in I Corinthians 13, “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal”. Without love, in other words, we are noise and we are noise without purpose, out of sync, and a noise that only pushes people away. Tragically, I believe that many, many Christians and churches fall into this category and the thought of standing before the throne of Christ and having to answer for how we love, knowing that every command we were given was tied into love should sober us up and give us a pressing urgency to love deeper.
We have, as I have said many times before, the greatest and most important mission in the entire universe, and the only mission which has eternal consequences. We are called to reconcile mankind to their Creator and bring hope into the world, but, in the absence of love, we fail Christ and His church in our effort to complete this mission.
We are going to wrap up our time together this morning by taking communion together. We don’t do this as just another function of our service, but this is a serious time and I can’t encourage you strongly enough to go before the throne of God as we do this and examine your heart. Have you short-changed love? Are there areas in your life in which you can recommit yourself to Christ in order to be more loving and more ably fulfill this mission? This is the time for such commitment.
Each week this blog will be updated with a word for the week from my current studies.