Summary: Love is the final apologetic.
Francis Schaeffer wrote that love is the final apologetic; it is the last word in the Christian’s defense of the gospel. John’s Gospel informs us that Jesus gave his disciples one last command before he was led away to be crucified: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13.34-35). Additionally, John’s first epistle is saturated with comments about God’s love for his children and encouragement for Christians to love one another: for example, For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. … Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth (1 John 3.11, 18). The apostle Peter tells his readers that they may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption that is in the world caused by evil desires; the list of Christian virtues that follows is capped off with the virtue of love (2 Peter 1.5-7; cp. 1 Peter 4.8). Paul makes over one hundred references to love in his thirteen epistles. He frequently describes what love should look like and in several letters he lists some of love’s attributes (1 Corinthians 13; Galatians 5.22; Ephesians 5.2; 1 Thessalonians 4.9-10).
As in 1 Corinthians 12 and 13 where Paul transitions from the gifts (charismata) to love, so too in Romans 12.9-21 Paul transitions from the theme of spiritual gifts to love and behavior that is characteristic of love. Thus, what follows Paul’s comment, Let love be genuine, is a description of what love is to look like. It is the foundation of all Christian action. Paul explains how the believer ought to behave toward other members of the Christian community as well as how they ought to respond to non-Christians. More than that, there is no place in the Christian love paradigm for retribution or vengeance: Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Paul’s previous uses of agapē (love) in Romans has been to speak of God’s love (5.5, 8; 8.39), or Christ’s (8.35); in Romans 15.30 and 5.5 he uses it to refer to the Spirit’s love. But here he uses it to speak of human love (also 13.10; 14.15) (cp. James Dunn, Romans, p. 739). Love must be genuine, sincere and without hypocrisy. Love is an imperative! “Of the 31 imperative verbs in the NRSV [New Revised Standard Version] (which sticks closely to the structure of the Greek), only nine translate imperatives in the Greek (vv. 14a, b, c; 16d; 19b; 20a and b [quoting the Old Testament]; 21a, b). The others translate verbless clauses (vv. 9a; 10a; 11a), infinitives (vv. 15a and b), and participles (vv. 9b, c; 10b; 11b, c; 12a, b, c; 13a, b; 16a, Bible, c; 17a, b; 18; 19a)” (Douglas Moo, Romans, p. 771 n.4).
LOVE’S DESCRIPTION (12.9-13)
In Romans 12.3-8 Paul briefly summarized the gifts of grace bestowed upon the church by the Holy Spirit, he now “fires off a volley of short, sharp injunctions with little elaboration. … Related to the rapid-fire style of this section is its loose structure. There are few conjunctions or particles to indicate the flow of thought” (Moo, p. 771). The section appears to be composed of aphorisms for Christian living with love being its unifying theme. That is, Paul begins by saying, Let Love be genuine. This is followed by a series of injunctions that describe what love looks like. Love is the apex of all Christian virtues. Ironically, many people have difficulty defining exactly what they mean by the word love. Though many struggle to define the word, they seem to know it when they see it and they feel its absence when they are deprived of it. Indeed, love is the foundation of all binding quality relationships. Jesus summarized God’s requirements toward humanity in two statements: first, love God with all your heart and, second, love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22.36-40).
Paul refers to two types of love. The first, agapē, is used in the New Testament to describe God’s love for his Son. Jesus uses the same word to describe how the disciples are to love him and one another. It is a love that has particular reference in the love that the Father has for the Son, but it is also used broadly in Scripture. There is no theme more powerful or more predominant in Scripture than that of the love (agapē) of God. The spiritual virtue of love is the height of spiritual disciplines for the believer. Exemplifying the love of God is something more than loving the brethren, as important as that is. Jesus requires something more; he commanded his disciples to love their enemies: You have heard it said ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven … If you love so who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? (Matthew 5.43-46; cp. Luke 6.27-36).