Lesson 5: Love

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Romans 13:8-10

In this short passage, Paul is nothing short of profound; deep in fact. Yet it is so simple that we might just fly past it and not notice how profound it is; a second grade child can easily understand it, and it requires a mature adult to miss it− that is how simple it is.

Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

If we think of love as a mere emotion or feeling, maybe we can miss this, but godly love is not an emotion, it is a commitment to put the interests of other people ahead of our own, and love in action puts the interests of everyone ahead of our own. If we actually do this, then we will not do anything to offend or hurt them, and if we love God we will not do anything to hurt or offend God. We will not do this because somebody told us that we must, we will do this because we want to.

In short, this is the transformation that Paul spoke of in 12:1-2; this is love in action from 12:9-16.

There are times when I grow weary of people telling me that the Bible never tells us how we should accomplish the Christian life; yes, dear reader, I grow weary of such remarks:

Put your love into action!

“But how do I do that?”

Love your neighbor as yourself.

“But that is too hard.

No, it isn’t too hard! Love God with your whole heart, soul, mind and strength.”

“But how do I do that?”

Make a decision that you love God, and then commit to stick with it and trust the Holy Spirit to give you the strength you need.

“But that’s too hard.”

Dear Lord, open our ears that we might hear, open our eyes that we might see, open our hearts that we might believe so that we might become like little children and enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

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Lesson 4: Dealing with Government

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

Romans 13:1-5

Paul’s message, simply stated, is that human government is ordained by God, and that’s all I should have to say about it. Yet even though human government is ordained by God, human government exists in a corrupted world environment, and we should not pretend to be shocked when it turns out to be corrupt: It happens. What is really instructive in this teaching is that the government Paul was referring to had a nasty habit of persecuting Paul and his readers; yes, maybe we should reflect on that for a while.

If I had been Paul, I might want to write something quite different on this topic, but if I had, or if he had, then a great disservice would have been done to the Gospel. God did not call us to serve His kingdom so that we could engage in political action, for His Kingdom is not of this world. Instead, He has called us to share the Gospel, to share His love with those who have not yet heard it, to nurture and mentor other, younger Christians to maturity in the faith, not to protest stupid court decisions or corruption in Congress or the White House… or wherever it may exist in your location. I will add that if we did a better job of serving His purpose in a free society, it is quite likely that a very different group of people would be elected to represent us, without our ever needing to bring up politics.

By the way, when I teach such self-explanatory texts as this one, this is often where I toss out a question, a rhetorical one of course: When you are driving your car around town, do you observe the speed limit, or do behave as the pagans do?

That one gets a groan from the group every time…

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Romans 13:6-7

Taxes: Nobody likes taxes, except the ones somebody else must pay. Here in America, we have a horrible tax system, and I will boldly declare that if the entire Tax Code went up for a vote as is, and if it didn’t already exist, no one would vote for it; no one has even read the whole thing, and the people who enforce it don’t even understand it, and if you don’t believe me, ask a tax lawyer!

Now ask yourself, how was the tax system Paul lived under? Well… it was horrible as well. Money is not supposed to be our primary concern in this life; our priority is supposed to be on things that are above, so why should the inequities of the tax system be our priority? Paul’s message is pay them what they want and get on with serving our Lord in peace and love, for that is what we are here for.

Yes, I know… I’m gritting my teeth too, but that only goes to show that we have a long way to go to attain maturity in the faith.

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Lesson 3: Concerning Revenge

Romans 12:17-21

In 12:1-16 Paul has discussed our response to grace with a series of short statements that stem from the theme of sincere love, but in 17 ff. he seems to focus on one particular subject: Revenge. While the previous section can be said to deal mostly with our relationships within the Body of Christ, this section would seem more (hopefully) to deal with those outside of the Body of Christ. Paul set up his new theme in verse 17:  Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. Our natural human inclination when we have been harmed or insulted is to strike back, to get even, but that is not the reaction of sincere love, and it has been rendered obsolete by grace.

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (12:18). We are not to stir up trouble or carry on in a provocative manner with other people, we should not be tossing insults and unkindness around, nor should we be looking for disputes, for our response to grace makes that kind of living hypocritical. God has forgiven us, He has shown love and mercy to us; do we honor Him by stirring up trouble with other people?

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.

Romans 12:19-20

If we are harmed by another, even if it is a violent attack; our response is to show God’s mercy and love to the other party, it is not for us to avenge the wrong we have suffered. If avenging or retribution or punishment is required, that is God’s job, and since God has been faithful in dealing with us, He can be counted on to be faithful in the final disposition of our having been wronged.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (12:21).

There, that’s the “official” lesson portion− now let’s get real.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12:1-2

As we saw when we covered these verses earlier, this is not empty talk; there are serious implications in these words. These injunctions require a response to grace, a response that brings about a whole new way of living and thinking, and more than anything else, they require that we trust God like never before. Yes, dear reader, these verses call upon each of us to put it all on the line in faith. I can’t think of anything that puts this new way of life to the test more than being the victim of a violent attack of some sort, for these are the things of nightmares, fear and emotional as well as physical trauma. As though that isn’t enough, here we are called to respond in love to the very one(s) who have caused it all; this is about the most counter-intuitive thing I can think of… but that’s just me.

Paul still has not mentioned the word, but what he is describing is forgiveness.

The reality is that a victim of violence will not move on in life if they cannot find a way to let go of the anger, rage and hurt of their experience and this is not likely to happen if they lust for revenge. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m not sure if I can do this on my own, in fact I doubt it very much.

But there is good news…

Grace has a dual purpose. First grace takes our sin away, making it possible to receive the gift of eternal life, and second it provides us with the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and it is by the strength and mercy of the Holy Spirit that we can overcome serious traumas of whatever kind in this life, not by our own will. God has given us the path and the resources to travel the path of this life; the only question that remains is that ancient question we all must answer: Will we trust God?

And with that question, we have come full circle; back to the where we began.

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Lesson 2: Put Love into Action

Romans 12:9-16

Paul continues in these verses with his discussion of our response to grace. Here, he sets the tone with verse 9: Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Our response to God’s grace must be one of love, both love for God and love for others, and this love must be sincere. It is interesting that Paul should modify this sincere love statement with the concept of hating what is evil and clinging to what is good; it would appear that in our sincere love, we are to maintain the highest of ethical standards, not allowing ourselves to misuse our new freedom.

So then, what does love in action look like in practice?

Paul begins shedding light on this question in the verses that follow, first of all with an emphasis on what we should do to put love into action:

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves (12:10). Because our response to grace is that we love others, we should be devoted to one another, and we should put others ahead of ourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord (12:11). Because our response to grace is that we love God, we should serve Him with enthusiasm always. Because our response to grace is one of love, our attitudes should reflect that love for God and other people: Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer (12:12). Since we have a whole new attitude because of the grace we have received, our love should result in generosity toward other people: Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality (12:13).

Many commentators refer to this section as the “Law of Christ” but at least for me, it doesn’t really read that way; I highly doubt that Paul is intending to give us a list of rules that we check off as we go. Instead, I think he is simply pointing out some no-brainers as if to say that since we love God and love others, these are the natural kinds of things that should follow. In the next three verses, his emphasis shifts slightly, but he is still speaking of sincere love:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Romans 12:14-16

As we read these verses, notice that they are not things that are common in this world. I’ve never met someone who blessed their oppressors, for instance; have you? I don’t always see people rejoicing with their friends who are rejoicing, for all too often a person sees their friend rejoicing while harboring resentment because their friend was fortunate in an area where they hadn’t been as fortunate. Harmony is surely lacking in our world, while pride and conceit are commonplace; and so many decline to associate with the less fortunate. Real sincere love is a very rare thing in our world, but within the church, it is supposed to be a given.

In fact, the apparent lack of love in some church bodies is a sore subject for many people. Some of them complain loudly and criticize bitterly about the lack of love in this or that church, some even leave church entirely because of it. While on the one hand I might be inclined to feel for such people, on the other hand, after going through these verses, I can’t help thinking that they aren’t exhibiting love either. Thus, I’ll add a response to grace that Paul alluded to in verse 14, but hasn’t mentioned yet by name: Sincere love requires quite a lot of forgiveness, for all of us are works in progress.

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Lesson 1: Humble Service

Romans 12:3-8

Paul set out his proposition in verses 1-2, that we offer ourselves as living sacrifices and be transformed by the renewing of our minds as a response to grace− in verses 3-8 we have our first lesson on how to go about it: Serve the body of Christ in humility.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. (12:3)

So, it would seem that the first step in the transformative process is that we adopt an attitude of humility. Right away, we can see that not being conformed to this world was something Paul was very serious about (v. 2) for in this age of “game”, “swagger” and “bling” humility is very much out of style. Verse 4 uses the metaphor of our bodies in the same way that Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians 12 as he shows that each of us has a unique part to play in the Body of Christ. While this is easy enough to grasp, he takes another shot at the attitudes of this world in verse 5 when he says each member belongs to all the others. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen Christians bristle at that one.

In verses 6-8 Paul refers to spiritual gifts that each of us has received by the Holy Spirit.

I hope you will consider this carefully: In a context of humble service, a context that is not only counter-intuitive but also counter-cultural for most of us, Paul tells us to exercise our spiritual gifts in humble service to the Body of Christ. Think about the magnitude of the implication of this…

Not only are we to adopt an attitude of true and honest humility, not only are we to consider or positions as members of and belonging to the Body of Christ, but we are to serve the Body of Christ. Yet even more striking than that, we are to rely upon our spiritual gift from God in our service, which is to say that we are not to rely on our own strength, ability or talent, but on God’s grace alone.

Now, let’s think about what we’ve already seen in Romans, again let’s consider why Israel did not obtain righteousness by the Law. They relied on their own strength and ability to follow the Law, but they did not rely on God for His righteousness. How are we to live as Christians? We are to rely on God in all things to serve His purpose and not our own abilities.

Paul is just getting started in these life lessons; there’s a lot more to come See you next time…

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Be Transformed

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12:1-2

As all of you know, whenever we see the word “therefore”, we are reading a passage that draws a conclusion from what has preceded it. While that is certainly true here, this one isn’t just referring to the verses just concluded, for this is the beginning of a new unit (12-15) and thus, “therefore” is drawing a conclusion from the preceding unit (1-11), which is a very important distinction. The first unit in Romans discussed grace; the second unit discusses our response to grace. Thus, Paul is telling us that in response to God’s amazing grace, we are to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God.

Verse 1 is, in a sense, a counterpoint to the Old Testament worship in which animals were sacrificed and rituals were observed. Notice the presence of the words “offer”, “sacrifice” and “worship”, all three of which are terms that pertain to worship in the Old Testament. The old system of worship involved symbols and ceremonies, but worship in the New Testament involves “spirit and truth”. Consequently, the proper and true manner of worship for the Christian is for us to offer ourselves to God as living sacrifices. Please understand: This is no platitude; it is an imperative. A fair question right about now would be, “OK, but just exactly how do I do that?”

You will no doubt be relieved when I tell you that Paul has provided the answer in verse 2: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. 

My goodness, how we love to quote this, but how many of us actually do it? How many of us actually believe that it is possible? Surely this is nothing more than an abstract ideal, a goal that cannot be realized in this life!

Maybe we should all pause and re-read it; look carefully at the words, the grammar…

Holy heart attack! This is no abstraction; it too is an imperative!

So, here’s another question: Would the Apostle Paul command us to do something if it is impossible? Perhaps we need to think about this some more. Do you recall what Paul told us regarding Israel’s failure to attain righteousness? Yes, that’s right: They never obtained righteousness because their faith was in their ability to conform to the Law, but what God wanted was for them to put their faith in Him… and with God, all things are possible.

Notice that in the imperative of verse 2, there is a contrast, a duality that is set up by the word “but” “Do not be conformed… but be transformed” Thus we have a choice to make: Either we live as the world does with its values, activities and ways of thinking, or we allow the Holy Spirit to transform our minds so that we have an entirely new way of thinking with different values that lead us to a different way of life; this is our choice, and to be quite candid with you, it is very much like the choice that Israel had to make.

As Paul continues in 12:3-13:14, he will fill in many blanks for us, so that we can see more clearly how to accomplish this task; I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait to see what comes next!

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Moving on to Application

The last major section in Romans is comprised of chapters 12-15, and takes an entirely different tone than we have seen so far. Many commentators assert that chapters 1-11 are “doctrinal” in nature, while 12-15 are “practical” and in a sense they are right. However, I maintain that all of them are “doctrinal” because they are all teachings, which is what “doctrine” means. To me, the main difference between 1-11 and 12-15 is that 1-11 teaches spiritual truths of the Christian faith, while 12-15 applies these truths into daily practice.

We might notice, for example, that in 6-8, Paul sets out the reality of the new life in Christ (6) and the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit (8) in general theological terms. In those chapters Paul tells us all that God did for us when we were saved by grace, one might say. In 12-15, however, Paul shows us what this looks like in much more specific terms. In 6:4 he tells us that in baptism we were raised up from death to live a new life; now he will tell us precisely what the content of that life should be.

This section is divided into two parts, the first of which is 12:1-13:14, and teaches the ethics of the Christian life. These ethics are things which are and are not Christlike, since our goal in this life is to be as much like Him as possible. For instance, if I were to remind you that as Christians we should not run around town raping, robbing and pillaging, would you be surprised or offended? How about if I told you that it isn’t cool to have an affair with your best friend’s wife (or husband)? These are the kinds of ethics Paul gets into in 12:1-13:14; the non-negotiable kinds of things.

14:1-15:18, on the other hand, is not so obvious− and infinitely more interesting for the modern reader. This section, rather than seeming like a list of rules, covers matters of opinion and teaches that there are many areas in which a Christian is free to choose his or her unique way of doing things. Paul will make the case that we are to continue in unity and love without attempting to bend others to our will in matters of opinion. Of course, he also will teach us that in exercising our freedom in these areas, we need to be sensitive to the needs of others and thus avoid causing them to stumble.

In short dear reader, this is a thrill-packed section that we’ll jump into next time; see you there!

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