The Law Is Love

I have been reflecting this week on God’s law. How is it that the Psalmist can say, “Oh, how I love your law; it is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97)? We live in an age where “rules are meant to be broken.” This results in two main attitudes towards rules: make them or break them. We equate God’s law with rules, and the slide from a general, fuzzy idea about rules to man-made rules is not a difficult one for many people. This is easily seen in the way people are often more offended when man-made rules are broken than they are when God’s law is broken. Or, they think that God’s law is being broken when the man-made rules are broken. There is a direct correspondence in their minds between man-made rules and God’s law. There is something very, very wrong here.

When Jesus summarizes the law with the two great commandments, “Love the Lord your God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus is saying that the essence of the law is love, particularly our love for God and our love for neighbor. The Reformed world has (rightly, in my opinion,) divided the Ten Commandments between the first four, which describe our duty to love God, and the last six, which describe our duty to love one another.

The issue I am getting at is most visible when we formulate two sentences back to back: 1. We like the idea of love; 2. We don’t like the idea of “rules” or “law.” The Old Testament does not allow us this divorce, quite frankly, and Psalm 119 in particular. The problem may be that we have wrong ideas about the law. As is usual with such things, the problem is in our theology, not in God’s law.

First problem: thinking that the law is firstly about its application, and not primarily about its essence. Let’s be clear: the law must be applied, and it applies to every situation in which a person could possibly find himself. But what IS the law fundamentally? The law is fundamentally an expression of God’s own character. And God is love (among the other attributes). Hence the law is love, and reflects that attribute of God, even as it also reflects the holiness and righteousness of God. Here we must be very careful not to confuse law and gospel, as some are in the habit of doing. The law is our love for God and our love for one another. The gospel is God’s love for us. We must also not confuse the order in which they occur. God’s love for us is first. His love is what enables us to love God and neighbor. Hence, while they must always be carefully distinguished, they must also never be separated. Many people are in the habit of confusing the branches of application with the trunk of the essence. When we do that, we are in danger of a very subtle form of Pharisaism. Even the Reformed world is not immune to this temptation. We can look at the outstanding treatment of the Ten Commandments in, say, the Westminster Larger Catechism (with which I fully agree, incidentally), look at the gargantuan number of things treated under each commandment, and say, “that’s the essence of the law.” Those treatments of the law are an explanation of how its branches reach into every realm of our lives. They do not directly describe the essence, which is love. The problem of confusing branches and trunk is that studying the branches without realizing they come from the trunk will result in loveless application of the law, which actually eviscerates the law of its very essence! In seeking so desperately to fulfill all the conditions of the branches, we leave out love!

Second problem: thinking that “the rules” are always to be applied in the same way to every situation and every person. Let’s be clear here as well. The Ten Commandments apply to everyone, and with regard to the weightier matters of the law, they do apply in the same way to every person. But the branches may not apply in the same way to every person in all situations. This is why it is completely misguided, in my opinion, to seek to arrive at a set of rules that will apply the branches of application to all people in the exact same way all the time, so as to regulate every aspect of their lives. Let’s take as an example the much vexed question of the Sabbath, and a particular, often controversial, action that one is contemplating doing on the Sabbath: throwing a football around on a Sunday afternoon with one’s children. Most people want to have a hard and fast rule about whether it is allowable or not, and this rule would apply to everyone. Not so fast. For some people, this could be done purely for the sake of “getting the ants out of the pants” of the children, thus preparing them to worship God better in the evening service. This could quite conceivably fall under the category of works of necessity (and those without children should be slow to judge this as a motivation!), and even mercy (to the parents, that is)! However, for others, it might bring to mind competition, scores, and other things that are really not conducive to worship. What I am getting at here is that the same action might very well be in accordance with the Fourth Commandment for one family and not for another! If this example does not convince, one could use the different and much less generally controversial action of taking a walk on the Sabbath. For many people, if not most, this would not present any problems. It is merely enjoying God’s creation. However, suppose the person contemplating taking a walk is a competitor in walking competitions. Could this not distract the person from what is conducive to worship? It could. The principle is that the Sabbath is for worship, and what is conducive to worship is allowable to do on the Sabbath. However, the Bible doesn’t spell out in huge detail what is and what is not acceptable. I believe that this lack of detail on application in the Bible exists for the reasons I have given. Furthermore, it is even possible that a given action could change in its implications for a single person depending on their station in life, as well as their age, thus changing the connotations of that given action. The question we are supposed to ask is this: can I love God and neighbor by this action, and will this action be conducive to worshiping God on the Sabbath? Tying the question of application back to the essence is the only way, I believe, that an application of the law can be judged as to whether it is biblical in a given situation or not.

The essence of the law is love, but you could scarcely tell by the way some people propound it. Instead, it is often changed so that the essence of the law is regulation. And the lack of love in the regulation results in judgment on people who may not actually be breaking God’s law, at least not in the way the one judging might think. It behooves us in the Christian world to study God’s law much more deeply with love for God and love for neighbor in mind. I plead with my readers to reconnect law with love. Many problems in the Christian church could be solved, I believe.

10 Comments

  1. Ron said,

    January 3, 2020 at 8:09 pm

    A young man was struggling with whether he loved God. Truly loved God. After all, what does it feel like to love God? Is it fair to unleash simplicity simplistically?

    If God is his attributes, then to love true holiness (for instance) is to love God. Added to that, God’s law is a reflection of His attributes. So, for instance, to truly love the sixth commandment – on God’s authority alone and not because it suits us – is to love God.

    Where the love of God often breaks down is when we don’t love the true equity of God’s case laws, which too are his law and, therefore, a reflection of his attributes and, therefore, himself. We tend to love God, but only so far.

  2. Steve Drake said,

    January 6, 2020 at 8:35 am

    Tying the question of application back to the essence is the only way, I believe, that an application of the law can be judged as to whether it is biblical in a given situation or not.

    If the essence of the law is love, then we must define ‘love’. If we are to connect the branches of application to the trunk of essence, then we better define what that ‘love’ looks like as it is being applied.

    GB, is there more to come? If we are to reflect God’s love in our application, then it behooves us to understand a proper knowledge of all that God’s love entails. Our current culture thinks God’s love is lenient and permissive; that He shows no displeasure over sin, accepting people as they are, with no consideration of His Holiness. They think that God’s love, as well as our expression of that love, should nullify God’s righteousness, justice, and holy wrath. The balance is hard.

  3. rfwhite said,

    January 6, 2020 at 4:29 pm

    GB: Along the lines of Steve Drake’s comment, your post reminded me of the content of First John. To get at what love is and is not, John refers to the contrast between Jesus and Cain in ch. 3, with the contrast distilled to self-sacrifice and self-denial vs. self-interest and self-preservation (1 John 3.16-18). Could we say the essence of the law is cruciformity, that is, love exemplified in the cross of Christ?

  4. Steve Drake said,

    January 6, 2020 at 7:46 pm

    RF,
    If the contrast was simply self-sacrifice and self-denial to show my love, it would be fairly simple: not I, but you, always. Not my will, but thine, always. I then take a humble backseat, covering my face, always deferring to your will and your decisions in everything. I’m fairly positive this is not what you mean, but help me out here.

    If love is simply cruciformity, as exemplified in the cross of Christ, then again I think we are back to the above; not my will, but thine, not I, but you. I lay down my life to your will, your decisions, your conclusions on all subjects of knowledge.

    I guess I”m driving perhaps at something Ron touched on in #1 as to case law. How does my love uphold sound doctrine with false teachers, for example? How does my love equitably judge wrong behavior, (i.e., same-sex desire and homosexuality) or should it? How is the essence of the law:love, to help me with brothers and sisters in the church who think abortion is perfectly acceptable and vote accordingly, as another example? Thanks.

  5. Ron said,

    January 7, 2020 at 7:12 am

    Steve,

    I think I’m tracking. Let me toss some things your way.

    How does my love uphold sound doctrine with false teachers, for example?

    By loving God, you want his truth to be proclaimed. By loving man, you desire that nobody is led astray.

    How is the essence of the law:love,

    You’ve just bumped into the problem with strict paradigms. They can filter out too much. It’s like when one tries to see everything through a lens of covenant or a “law-gospel” paradigm that might end up eclipsing how the law can be one’s delight. (Psalm 1:2; Romans 7:22)

    Love is not the (only) essence of law. That’s two simplistic. Perhaps love is an essential property of law but it’s intuitively false that it is not one property among a larger set of essential properties. Is there not some other property or properties without which law loses its identity? Aren’t God’s commandments also holy, just and good? (Romans 7:12)

    Paradigms have their place but they often tend to distort or filter out what’s otherwise true, useful and even clear.

    I suppose one might propose love as the property with the most priority among others, but that too might require further explanation. For starters, how should we define love and loving in this context?

    I learned of one person who always wanted to do what was “most loving.” Such strictures can be debilitating. One can begin to wonder about the ripple effect of any just decision. How might it effect others not immediately involved etc.? What are all the loving ramifications? What is “most loving” can easily foster needless speculation beyond our pay grade while eclipsing the immediate task at hand, like child like faith and obedience, which show of our love for God.

  6. rfwhite said,

    January 7, 2020 at 9:24 am

    4 Steve Drake: Fair enough. Here’s more of what I was thinking when referring to love in 1 John. There, as you know, the love we’re talking about is coordinate with truth and righteousness: they ought always to be found together, else they are not of God but are of the world. Love is always properly conceived only coram Deo. In that light, love will uphold what God says is truth and reject what God says is error. Love will equitably reject what God says is wrong and uphold what God says is right. Maybe it’s better, then, to say that the trio of love, truth, and righteousness is the essence of the law. I’m mulling this over with you.

  7. Steve Drake said,

    January 7, 2020 at 11:21 am

    Ron and RF,
    Thanks for your input. It seems we have a puzzle to be worked out, I suppose, between ‘God’s love’, as a backdrop and adjunct to His divine wrath, and our proper and God-honoring expression of that love.

    Ron’s comment of the person who always wanted to do the ‘most-loving’ thing brings quite a bit of subjectivism to the table, right? Is this then left to individual conscience? I would venture to say that in many cases it does.

  8. January 18, 2020 at 11:01 pm

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  9. greenbaggins said,

    January 19, 2020 at 2:25 pm

    I hope people are not interpreting my words as saying that because Jesus summarized the law as loving God and loving neighbor, that therefore I was intending in the above post to exhaust the attributes of the law. I believe that if the law reflects God’s attributes, then it reflects all of them. However, when asked to summarize what doing the law means, Jesus says love. That must be an acceptable summary, must it not?

    As to the case law and the general equity thereof, I believe that stating the essence of that case law is love is the very point I am trying to make. My post was addressed to people who tend to divorce law from love, which I think is a huge problem in Christianity today.

  10. Ron said,

    January 20, 2020 at 8:48 am

    Yes, Lane. I thought as much. As for me, sometimes I post in order to tease out something that I believe there’d be agreement on. My intent is often for clarification so that one isn’t misunderstood or so that the wrong idea is not received. The problem with such an approach as mine is it can be seen as combativeness.


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