Love and law

How does love relate to God’s law? Which is more important? In churches today is it true that love matters, but the law has nothing to do with us any more? How can we know what love is? Is it just a feeling, or something more?

All Christians know that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and that Jesus’ great commandment is that we should “love one another” (John 13:34). But many of them are confused about what this really means. They are especially confused if you ask them about God’s law. The purpose of this article is to help get rid of some of this confusion. There are three basic things we need to say.

One – God’s law describes love

Imagine that a man begins cheating on his wife, by sleeping with his friend’s wife. What excuses might he make? He might say, “But I really love her – it feels so right”. What does the Bible say about this? What it says is very simple. It tells us that the man’s feelings are wrong, and not to be trusted. Love is not defined by a feeling. Adultery is not an act of love, but of selfishness. The man has treated his own wife badly, by not keeping his promises to her. He has treated his friend badly, by taking his wife. He has treated his lover badly, by leading her away from her own husband. How, though, could the man have known this? Where should he have looked to know whether his actions were truly loving?

The answer is that God’s law tells us what love is. Its commandments are not something different to love, but the same thing in a different form. Paul tells us this in Romans chapter 13, verses 8 to 10. He says “he that loves another has fulfilled the law”. He is not saying that we can love instead of fulfilling the law, because in the next verse he explains what “fulfilling the law” really means. It means to obey the written commandments. Paul says, “For this, ‘you shall not commit adultery’, ‘you shall not kill’, ‘you shall not steal’, ‘you shall not bear false witness’, ‘you shall not covet’; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’”

What Paul is telling us is that love and law are like the two sides of a coin. They must always exist together. You can look at one side instead of the other – but the other side is always there! We may choose to emphasise love, but this does not mean law has gone away. If love becomes lawless, it is not truly love any more. “Love does no harm to its neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Many Christians think that when Jesus came, he abolished the law. In fact, Jesus explained that he had not come to do this. He said, “Do not think that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets. I have not come to destroy them, but to fulfil.” (Matthew 5:17). He continued, and explained that this means that all of the ten commandments apply to us fully today. He gave a serious warning, which we would do well to hear: “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19). There is no true love if we are not obeying God’s commandments. Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

Two – God’s law has always been the standard of love

In fact, the Bible has always explained that the law given by Moses was all about love. Many Kenyans think that the Old Testament is about a failed plan in which God tried to save people through their obedience. But this proved too hard, and instead he had to save people freely by grace instead. They then see the Old Testament times as a harsh time of law and failure, and the New Testament as being a time of love and forgiveness. This is a terrible misunderstanding of the flow of Biblical history. In this article it is not our task to look at how to understand the Testaments rightly. But we do need to understand that God’s law has always been the law of love.

When Jesus Christ was asked to summarise the law of Moses, his answer was about love. He said that all the teachings of the law and the prophets were based on two great commandments. The first was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). The second is to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). What we must notice is where these two commandments come from. They were not new ideas that Jesus had invented. They were both written in the law of Moses. The command to love God is in Deuteronomy 6:4-5. In fact, they were part of the central Jewish confession of faith, called the “Shemah”. Just as today every Muslim repeats the words “There is no God but Allah”, so every Jew has always repeated the command to love God as part of his creed.

The command to love our neighbour is also found in the books written by Moses. It is found in Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself; I am the Lord.” The problem that Jesus corrected when he was on earth was not in the law of Moses itself. It was in the twisted, wrong traditions and corruptions of the scribes and the Pharisees. Christ took the people back from these errors to the law’s original meaning.

The law describes love, because the law describes God. Every law is a description of the person giving the law. Corrupt laws and harsh rules come down from corrupt and harsh rulers. Helpful and useful laws come from rulers who genuinely want to serve their people. Because God is love, God’s law describes what love looks like in action. It shows us what pleases him and what he desires. He is a God who loves faithfulness and commitment, and so he forbids adultery. He loves truth, and so he forbids lying. He is the one, true, living God who is worthy of our worship, and so he commands it from us. This is why King David, in describing God’s law in Psalm 119, delights in it. He does not think of it as harsh, oppressive, or something that we should desire to be free from. This Psalm teaches us that our “freedom from the law” is not about taking away the commandments.

Three – The law is now written on our hearts

There is a great difference and blessing that has come to us as Christians now, under the New Covenant. We have seen that the difference is not that the law is taken away from us. Rather, the New Testament teaches us that the law is now written on our hearts – not simply on pieces of stone. It becomes part of us in a much deeper way. This is what the prophets before Christ’s coming had promised. Jeremiah spoke of the New Covenant and said, “But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; after those days, says the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:33). Comparing these verses with Hebrews chapter 8 shows that when Jeremiah spoke these words, he was not speaking about the earthly nation of Israel in a future millennium, but about Christians today.

Paul taught the same thing in Romans chapter 8. In chapter 7 he shows us that the law on its own can never bring about godliness. The sinful nature is too strong for it. But Christians do not have the law on its own. They have the Holy Spirit living within them. In verses 3-4 he says that now that Christ has died and paid for our sins, the righteousness which the law requires can now be fulfilled in our lives, by the Spirit. In verse 7 he explains that the “carnal” (i.e. unconverted) mind cannot submit to God’s law. Because in that verse he is comparing the unconverted mind with the mind of the Christian who has the Spirit, this implies that Christians can and do submit to God’s law in their minds (also see verse 9).

If we remember Romans 13:8-10 (which we began with), some things now become clear. The ten commandments are the same outwardly at all times – both before and after the coming of Christ. But with the coming of Christ and the sending of the Spirit, the law is not taught in the same way. Now that the Spirit has come, all of God’s true people are converted. There are no “half-Christians” – nobody like the Israelites who were born into the nation, but who were not true believers. All of God’s people today have the law written on their hearts. It lives inside them. Now, that law is to be fulfilled not only outwardly, but in every possible way. With the help of the Holy Spirit a living, continual obedience to God’s law is a real possibility (though of course we all still fall into sin, 1 John 1:8-10 – this does not mean we become perfect). As we live this out, our lives become lives of love. The New Testament teaching emphasises love. But this is not because love is different to the law. It is because of the much greater power and reality that is now at work after Christ has risen from the dead. That reality is described most fully by love, and so Christian lives must be characterised by love in all of its fullness – not simply good outward behaviour.

This is a powerful challenge to us and to our churches. Are we known supremely as people of love, where that love is the love described throughout the Bible? It is not a lawless love, just a collection of good feelings and happy smiles – but real, principled, continual, sincere, warm-hearted obedience. It is not a loveless law-keeping, good behaviour that keeps the rules outwardly but with no true compassion and care between believers. It is a life like the Lord Jesus Christ – who fully kept all the commandments, and gave up his own life at the cross for us.

For further study, the letter 1 John and the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel chapter 15 should be carefully read.

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