In the first eleven chapters of Romans, Paul discussed several significant themes. While challenging to summarize, clearly Paul meant to reinforce in his readers a deep sense of God’s great mercy and love in Jesus toward all people. Whatever the past, present, and future, we can take heart in God’s steadfast embrace and redemption of our world and our lives in Jesus, even at the cost of the cross.
On this foundation, Paul turned to reinforce in his readers how they should respond to God’s acts. “God has demonstrated his great mercy and love. Now live the new life he gives you!” So Paul exhorted followers of Jesus to be transformed from within by God, that they would outwardly live the good and perfect will of God.
At the core of this transformed life is love. Beginning in chapter twelve, Paul showed a number of ways our love for God should flow out in specific, loving attitudes and actions to any and all around us. The love we are to incarnate, modeled on God’s love for us in Jesus, is not to be limited to family and friends (though surely it should characterize those relationships!) but is to be extended to strangers, official persons (e.g., government authorities), and even enemies!
To underscore the concrete nature of love, Paul employed a financial image: debt fulfillment. This may run counter to our sensibilities about love. We often think of love in emotional and sentimental terms. Here Paul characterized love in terms of obligation and transaction – fulfilling a debt. In this regard, love does not subsist in emotions. It consists in will and act – first God’s, then ours.
Yet clearly such love is more than mere obligation-transaction. Paul shifted and enriched the notion of love in stating that the debt-fulfillment of love does no harm to another. This admonition reminds us of medical ethics. Yet even the “does no harm” prescription is only the minimum. The ultimate is to restore a person to true well-being. And this we see in Paul’s robust love-admonitions to bless and do good to those around us.
Christian love, then, is more than an emotional state; it is a transaction. The “debt” imagery reminds us of this. Yet, it is also more than mere “financial satisfaction”; love is restoring, beneficial action, a regimen of being blessing and medicine to another. Even as God’s love is truly medicinal for us, when God heals us, we in turn must become practitioners of love to those around us, not only doing no harm, but far more, making them well.