**Today’s post is a little detour from our series on humans being made in the image of God. But still very closely related.**
Mat 22:35-40 ESV – 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
What are these verses telling us about the law? They are telling us that the law is not a stand-alone entity; it is a means to an end. The end—the purpose and proper fulfillment of the law—is love. Love of God and love of each other.
What does that love look like? In the case of loving God, it means realizing how great, perfect and undeserved his love is for us, and responding with a passionate desire for being close to him above anything else. It is a feeling of utter safety in knowing that he knows the worst about you and yet will never reject you or use that knowledge against you, but has in fact covered up your worst with his best and will protect you from shame. It wells up in gratitude and overflows into the motivation to please God in every way possible. Love is an emotion and motivation that springs up from within the heart.
And what about loving each other? Experiencing God’s love is our education in what love is. God’s love is something too transcendant to be captured in a set of rules. Love is the new wine that bursts the old wineskins of the law. The more we experience of God’s love, the more it flows out of us like springs of living waters, a river of life. Then we can extend to others a genuine acceptance in spite of their shortcomings and offenses, value them as creatures of God’s image, give preference to them, always act in their best interest and even delight in them.
Does law equal love?
Now, someone will point out that Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” They will object that directing another to obey the law is the loving thing to do and that I am putting shallow sentimentality above the objective truth of the law. Not so. True love would not approve or condone a loved one doing something that may give momentary pleasure but breaks God’s law and will actually produce long-term harm. True love would say, “Stop! That is not good for you! What makes you want to do that? Can we talk about that?” Wise true love would know that impulse for temporary pleasure is harmful because the law says so. If you want to know what is good and loving, the law is a good teacher. So why make a big deal over the distinction?
What’s the difference?
Here is the difference. A father sees his little son reaching for a sharp knife. He takes the knife away from the son and reminds him that he has been clearly taught not to touch it. The son cries pitifully for the knife but the father does not relent. Is that father acting out of love or out of law? Hard to tell from that description. If the motivation is love, the father will be thinking and speaking of the son’s safety, health, and wisdom as well as his need to learn obedience; in the process, the son’s behavior would be conformed to the law. But that outward behavior would be linked to an inner change. If the motivation is solely the law, the father will be focused on making sure the child’s outward behavior is conformed to the law but will leave his heart neglected and possibly even damaged.
Why then, does the Psalmist say over and over, “I love your law! Your law is my delight!” (Psalm 119, among others.) Because God’s law reveals God’s character, and the Psalmist’s deepest desire is to please God. The law instructs him in how to do that. The law helps him to know God.
But the law is limited. In revealing God’s character, it also reveals the ways in which we fall short of obeying him. The law compares us with God and the only verdict it can render is GUILTY. It has no remedy for that guilt. Without love stepping in to fulfill the law and give us credit for it, we are left in a hopeless position.
So, as a believer, I can love God’s law for all that it reveals to me. But when I interact with others, I do not come to them as a law-giver, but as a love-giver. If I have tasted God’s grace, that’s what I want to pass on to them! If my motivation is to place the burden of the law upon them, then there is something very wrong in my own heart.
Love defines law
Love defines the law, not the other way around. Just as with salvation, works (obedience to the law) are not a cause or contributor, they are a result. God does not say, “Here is my rule book. You obey it, if you do it well enough, then I will know that you love me and I will love you back.” No, God is like a wise teacher who starts with toddlers and says, “I love you, little children, and I want you to love me back. I know you cannot really fathom what love is at this point, so I will give you step by step lessons in how to “act out” love. We will start with picture books and progress to primers.” That is the message the Old Testament records.
Gal 3:23-26 ESV – 23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.
The teacher continues, “When you are mature enough to grasp abstract principles, you will be able to see how the rules simply reflect the bigger principle of love. Then you will be able to base all of your actions on the principle of love, and when you do that, you will find you are never in danger of breaking the law.”
Gal 5:22-23 ESV – 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
Fragile. Handle with care.
Here is an example of how this might play out in real life. A woman comes to the pastor and says, “I am miserable in my marriage. My husband is not loving to me; in fact, he is often mean to me. I am feeling so desperate that if I don’t leave him I think I will go crazy.” Now, we know that God desires marriages to image his relationship with his bride, the church, and that he wants marriage partners to exhibit a sacrificial love and commitment to each other. He hates the hard-heartedness that leads to divorce. So what would distinguish a law-based approach from a love-based approach in this situation?
A law-based approach would immediately point out to that woman what the law commands her to do and would threaten punishment if she did not comply with that command. The goal in a law-based approach is to maintain the rules. If the human being does not fit into the box of the rule book, lop off the offending parts of the human. And of course, in order for the rules to be enforced, there must be an enforcer, an enforcer who loves those rules. That person is a “legalist,” or, in more biblical parlance, a Pharisee.
A love-based approach would not hasten to enforce rules until it has listened to that woman with a sympathetic, non-judgmental heart. It would ask probing but respectful questions to ascertain both the facts of her circumstances and the impact on her heart. It would be patient to discern truth and apply wisdom to the situation.
Perhaps it would turn out that the woman is having a misguided reaction to marital difficulties and she needs education. Perhaps her heart is resentful and rebellious and she needs patient correction, or even discipline, to bring her to repentance. Perhaps there is marital conflict that requires wise counsel to sort out. Or perhaps the woman is actually living with a hard-hearted man who is the one who needs discipline and from whom she needs protection.
The law will still be applied. It may be painful. But it will be done in a way that tends to the heart rather than the outward appearance. Love will grieve if the law has to be enforced.
1Co 13:4-7 ESV – 4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
How can love risk believing the best about a brother or sister? Because of the Spirit of God is working in the heart of the brother or sister. The new creation does not need to be controlled from the outside, because he or she is controlled from the inside, from the heart.
Law loves the law. Love loves the person.
Law is a sledgehammer. Love is a heart surgeon.
Law looks to trap. Love looks to heal.
Law reveals the character of God and condemns anything less than perfect obedience. Love fulfills the law for us and graciously instills God’s character in us.