Commentary on Romans 13:11-14View Bible Text
In this passage, Paul puts into place a series of contrasts that are easily remembered and well-known in biblical literature: night versus day, darkness versus light, honor and virtue versus debauchery and licentiousness.
These pairs of opposites can easily be coined in terms of “us” versus “them,” encouraging one to find one’s proper place on the side of light, day, and virtue.
We might be tempted to think that we know exactly what Paul is discussing in this passage. Thus, we are quick to assume, with Luther for example, that Paul draws a contrast between the debauchery of Rome, ruled by heathens, and the virtue of Christians.1 Certainly, Paul did not shrink from criticizing pagan behavior and expected more restraint from his fellow Christ-believers. However, the passage deserves to be unpacked carefully, lest we simply appropriate it as comforting us in a conviction that Christians can adopt an attitude of superiority towards the world.
In Romans, Paul presents a narrative that recalls how his addressees became a community of Christ-believers. In chapters 1:18-8:39, he reminds his addressees of the manner in which God, through Christ, intervened in the world for them and reconciled them to God, in order to create a people of God composed of Jews first, but also of nations.
The community in Rome reflects this diversity and is a result of God’s action in the world through Christ. When Paul discusses sôteria (salvation) in Romans, he refers to the manner in which God has revealed God’s people as composed of Jews and Gentiles. It is particularly obvious in chapters 9-11, but it is present also in Paul’s summary of his gospel in 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
If salvation is understood in terms of God creating a people for God, then the implications of salvation become community-oriented and are concerned with the ways in which different nations can live together and give glory to God in their life together (Romans 15:5-6). Salvation needs to be realized socially.
In that framework, our passage is less about one’s personal, individual behavior and salvation (even though, of course, personal salvation is an aspect of one’s life in a community) and more about the relationships that various Christ-believers have with each other. These relationships are connected to the social setting of the community (13:13-14), and they are understood in terms of the new aeon that started with the death and resurrection of Christ (13:11).
These relationships are at the center of everything that Paul puts into place in his letter to the Romans, but they are articulated most concretely in chapters 12-15. Without these practical implications, the story that Paul has told in the previous chapters would have no true impact on the Christ-believers in Rome.
The ethical injunctions are introduced in chapter 12 with two verses presenting the guiding perspective for the entire ethical section. Paul writes: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Salvation needs to be actualized in the everyday behavior of the Christ-believers, a behavior that must reflect the standards of God and not those of the world. In chapter 13, this conformity to God’s standards is reflected in the call to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14). This language echoes other formulations in Romans (6:3-5 and 8:17) and might have been connected to the ritual of baptism. This powerful metaphor expresses the change of self understanding experienced by the Christ-believers and the consequences of this change.
In chapter 13, Paul’s conviction that the Christ-believers now have the possibility to behave in ways that will express an attitude of “sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” is tied to being aware of the time in which his addressees live. For Paul, Christ’s death and resurrection have inaugurated the new aeon, in which the old powers (death and sin), even though they have not disappeared, no longer rule over the Christ-believers.
In the new aeon, the Christ-believers’ master is God. Concretely for the life of the community, it indicates that one no longer lives by the standards of the world, whatever they are. In Ancient Rome, these standards were traditionally associated with debauchery and licentiousness, and so Paul is comfortable using these conventional measures of life in order to criticize them. However, he completes these rather standard ethical injunctions with a perspective immediately related to his conviction that the Christ-believers’ master is God.
In this regard, it is important to keep our section (Romans 13:11-14) connected to what comes directly before and directly after. What comes directly before (Romans 13:10) reminds us that this short passage is connected to an ethic of love, completely directed towards one’s neighbor. Similarly, what comes directly after (Romans 14:1) exhorts Paul’s addressees to welcome those they might be tempted to judge because of their weakness of faith.
Our passage should be understood as directly and closely connected to the entire exhortative section of the letter. In that manner, it is impossible to simply understand the section as an invitation to focus on one’s personal salvation to the neglect of those around us or to construct the world in terms of “us” versus “them.”
Indeed, the death and resurrection of Christ has drastically changed the context of our world. We are no longer in the hand of the powers of this world. But this newly gained freedom does not allow us to place ourselves above others. Rather, it is a call to remember that Christians need to live their lives in the world, but not according to the standards of the world. Be in the world, but not of the world.
1 Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans. Glosses and Scholia vol. 25 of Luther’s Works (H. C. Oswald ed., Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972), 481.