Commentary on Romans 13:11-14
In Romans 13:11–14, Paul exhorts believers to live fully into the new identity given to them through Christ’s death and resurrection. This new life is a divine gift that is both a present reality and something that will only be fully realized when Christ returns.
Earlier in Romans, Paul detailed his understanding of the gospel as “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Romans 1:16). Only God’s saving action can free humans from the bondage of sin and death that characterizes life apart from God. The good news is that divine salvation comes through Christ’s death for people while they are still sinners (Romans 5:8)—that is, while turned away from God towards various idols and behaviors that are destructive to self and community. Such a “life” ultimately results in death (for example, Romans 1:18–25, 28–32; 6:23). But Christ’s giving of his own life demonstrates God’s love and brings people into a new and eternal life that is characterized by this same other-oriented love (for example, Romans 12:9–21; 13:8–10).
According to Paul, when someone trusts or has faith in God’s gift of Christ, they are placed in right relationship with God, or “justified” (Romans 5:1). Divine salvation is thus a reality for believers in the present but will only be fully realized in the future. Paul, for example, says in Romans 5:9 that those who have been justified by Christ’s blood will be saved from God’s wrath (see also Romans 6:5, 8; 8:18–25). God’s transformation of believers and of the whole creation began with Christ’s death and resurrection but will only be fully realized in the eschatological future. Thus, the gospel is not only how people are initially brought into relationship with Christ; it is also how they are to continually live out this relationship.
In other words, Paul envisions God’s work in the church and the world as still in process. Beginning in Romans 12:1, therefore, he explicitly issues imperatives to believers to allow the gospel to continually transform their lives to increasingly reflect Christ (for example, Romans 12:1–2). This is a holistic process that involves an individual’s body, spirit, and mind. But even more so, Paul is speaking of the collective transformation of the entire body of Christ, or church, of which each believer is a part (Romans 12:4–5).
Reading Romans 13:11–14 in this context helps make sense of Paul’s seemingly abrupt “wake-up call” here. Yes, the Roman Christians have already been freed from sin and death in Christ, but the glorious day when Christ will return and their salvation will be complete has not yet come (Romans 13:11–12). The contrasts of night/day, dark/light, and taking off/putting on reflect the character of this living-in-between. Currently, the old era of sin and death clashes with the new, eschatological era of divine life and love that has already come into the world through Christ’s death and resurrection. Consequently, the forces of sin and death still assail those who belong to Christ, seeking to draw them into behaviors that do not align with their new identities and seek to destroy the community that is Christ’s body (verses 13–14).This is why Paul needs to exhort the Roman Christians to continually embrace the “day” (verse 13) and the accompanying light of Christ that has already claimed them and that calls them to remain faithful until the Day when Christ returns (verse 12).
In order to stand firm in the battle that rages in the meantime, Paul commands believers to “put on” or clothe themselves (enduō) with both the “armor of light” (verse 12) and the Lord Jesus Christ himself (verse 14). The latter is a particularly striking image that can be fruitful for preachers to explore. In Galatians 3:26–29, Paul describes baptism into Christ as people clothing themselves with Christ. This reflects a shift in what primarily defines a person: it is no longer their religious background, ethnicity, gender, or social class, but rather Christ, who unites a diversity of people into the one people of God. Romans 6 similarly portrays baptism as being united with Christ in a transformative way. Claimed by Christ from sin and death, people are empowered by the Spirit to live new lives that reflect Christ’s love (for example, Romans 7:4–6; 8:1–17; 12:3–21).
Paul’s command to “put on” Christ in Romans 13:14 also likely references the transformation of believers at baptism that takes them out of the realm of sin and death and places them in Christ.1 It therefore serves as further exhortation to live consistently with this new reality. The implication is not that one might “put on” and then “take off” Christ as often as some twenty-first century readers change their clothes, but rather that one continually embraces a Christ-like life in a world that presents many alternatives. A preacher might thus present clothing oneself with Christ as a metaphor for tangibly manifesting in one’s daily life their core identity as a Christian. This image has some resonance with how some today see clothing as an important expression of one’s identity. A sermon, therefore, might call for meditation on the extent to which an individual’s and a community’s actions and choices truly reflect their identities in Christ.
As the church celebrates the first coming of Christ during Advent, Romans 13:11–14 challenges Christians to fully embrace now what they will become at his second coming. It need not fuel a fear-based sermon about the end times. Instead, it invites us to boldly bring into the light those attitudes and behaviors that are damaging to oneself and the church, trusting God’s Spirit to start working new creation in our lives now, even as we await the fullness of this in the future.
- It is possible that in Paul’s time, a person was actually dressed in new clothing after baptism.