Founders Journal


God's Law and God's Love (Part 1)
God's Law and God's Love (Part 1)

Ernest Reisinger

[Back to Part 1]

"If you love Me, keep My commandments." (John 14:15)

`This is the love of-God, that we keep His commandments.
And His commandments are not burdensome." (1 John 5:3)

Law Defines Love

The full content and direction of the law is not defined by love. When the Bible speaks of the "law of love," it cannot mean that love stands by itself as a definition of righteousness. Love is a principle of action, just as Paul, speaking of our remaining sin, describes that sin as a law or principle of action: "I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. . . . But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to, the law of sin which is in my members" (Rom. 7:21, 23 KJV). As a principle of action, law directs us in the true expression of love. Love does not spontaneously follow its own way. It is the fulfilling of the law. The law is love's eyes, without which love is blind.

Realizing this proper connection between law and love will drive us to all of Scripture to discover the behavior that God clearly defines as loving obedience. Nowhere in the Scriptures will we find that love dictates its own standard of conduct. We hear our Lord say, "If you love Me, keep My commandments," not, "If you love me, love me in any way you feel."

He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he, who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him. (John 14:21)

If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love. (John 15:10)

Our Lord's commandments in respect to morality are no different from His Father's commands. Otherwise there would be war in the Trinity. (Our difficulties in understanding the Trinity are immense enough without our suggesting a division in the Trinity!) There are not two moral standards of righteousness in the Bible-Christ's and the Father's. Nor is the Bible divided against itself, such that Old Testament believers were directed by law, but New Testament believers are directed by love.

Biblical love is never an autonomous, self-directing force capable of defining its own norms or standards of behavior. It is the fulfilling of God's commandments. We must not subtract love from the whole context of biblical revelation. Love does not stand alone or act alone. It has many biblical relatives, and the law is one of them.

A Heart for the Law

Likewise, the true Christian does not let his own heart-even though it is a renewed heart-spontaneously decide what is right. That heart must be directed by God's law. Indeed, the Spirit writes the law on the hearts and minds of all who are born again (Heb. 8:10; 10:16).

Does that mean that we come to know the law simply by reading an inscription on our hearts? No. The teaching of Hebrews 8:10 and 10:16 is that the renewed heart has an affinity with, and love for, the law of God, resulting in cheerful, loving obedience. "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:3). "I delight in the law of God" (Rom. 7:22). Here again we see an important bond between God's law and love.

If fallen man has the work of the law written on his heart so that he does by nature the things of the law (Rom. 2:14-15), how much clearer it must have been written on Adam's heart in his original state! And if the renewed man has the law written upon his heart, surely it cannot be different in principle from what was first written on Adam's heart and later written on tables of stone at Sinai.

Scripture dispels that ignorant, erroneous idea that love is its own law and the renewed conscience its own monitor. And yet, this wicked fancy continues to abound among Bible teachers, despite the clear testimony of Scriptures to the contrary.

I recently read an article by a brilliant young author who was busily sowing the seeds of antinomianism. In the article he raised a question about sexual purity: "What perspective does Paul press on the Corinthians to dissuade them from sexual morality?" (The author was referring to 1 Cor. 6:18-20, where the apostle tells the Corinthians to "flee fornication.") The young writer answered his own question: "The death of Christ by which they were purchased." What the author failed to consider, however, was how Paul or the Corinthians knew what sexual immorality was. How did they know-and how can we know-what constituted sexually immorality?

It is one thing to use the death of Christ, whereby they were purchased, as a motive for obedience to flee fornication. It is another thing to know and understand our duty to be chaste. The duty is not found in the word love. It is found in the seventh commandment.

The same author noted that "obedience flows from the redemptive work of Christ." Surely a proper motive for obedience is our gratitude for Jesus' redeeming work. But there must also be an objective standard for obedience before we can understand how to obey. Motive is one thing-specific duty is another. They are different, though vitally related.

Shouting "Love!" (the motive) tells us nothing specifically about our moral duties. The proper expressions of love are defined by the commandments of God. Though the Christian life is not initiated or sustained by commandment or law, Christian duty has no definition or direction without divine law.

When Paul says in Romans 13:9-10 that the commandments are summarized by the law of love, his point is not that love replaces law or is exempt from it. Law is not abrogated by love; it is fulfilled. Love neither supersedes law nor releases us from obedience. It enables us to obey. Love does not make stealing or coveting, or any breach of the law, something other than sin for the Christian (though some would give this passage that meaning). Love so penetrates and so constrains us that (not reluctantly or through fear, but joyfully) we act toward our neighbor in all things, great and small, as the law bids us. Yes, Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, but not from the law itself. That would be to redeem us from a divine rule and guide, from that which is "holy, and just, and good."

Love as `a New Commandment'-John 13:34

An often misused text of Scripture is John 13:34, where Jesus says: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another." Does this verse imply that a new law-the law of love-has replaced the older Ten Commandments? Is that what Jesus meant when He spoke of "a new commandment"?

To understand this verse, or any verse, we must first examine it in its immediate context and in its remote context. But before doing that, it would be helpful to remind ourselves of some principles for interpreting Scripture.

Interpreting Scripture

In the very first chapter of The Westminster Confession of Faith, we have a rule of interpretation.

The infallible rule of interpretation of scripture is the scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture, (which is not manifold, but one) it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly. (1.10)
This rule has been called the "analogy of Scripture" or the "analogy of faith." Its meaning and importance have been well stated by Charles Hodge.
If the Scriptures be what they claim to be, the word of God, they are the work of one mind, and that mind divine. From this it follows that Scripture cannot contradict Scripture. God cannot teach in one place anything which is inconsistent with what He teaches in another. Hence Scripture must explain Scripture. (Systematic Theology [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 19521,187)
No doctrine concerning Scripture is of more importance to the Bible student than that which affirms its unity and harmony. From that principle flow the following rules for interpreting Scripture:
  1. When the plain sense of Scripture is clear, seek no other sense; therefore, take every work at its usual, literal, primary meaning unless the context dictates otherwise.

  2. Subordinate passages must always be interpreted in the light of leading truths.

  3. What is obscure must be interpreted by the light of what is plain. Peripheral ambiguities must be interpreted in harmony with fundamental certainties. No interpretation of any text, therefore, is right which does not agree with the principles of religion, the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.
In addition, if you have only one passage of Scripture on which to form some important doctrine, you will probably find, on closer examination, that you have none.

With these reminders before us, let us examine John 13:34: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another."

The Context of John 13:34

John 13:34 is part of our Lord's lesson on servanthood. He illustrates this concept by washing the disciples' feet (13:3-16). Nowhere in this entire chapter is our Lord giving a code of moral conduct or an objective standard of righteousness. That is not His subject in John 13. Therefore, we must be careful not to ask of this verse, What is the biblical standard of moral conduct? Love is the answer, but not to that question; which is to say, that is not the question raised here. To answer "love" to that question may sound very pious, but we would still need to define "love." How does Christian love act? In what direction does love go? How does love manifest itself toward God and man?

John 13 does not tell us those things. It does not teach us that we are to worship God; or that we are not to steal, murder, or commit adultery; or that we are to honor our father and mother. Our Lord's subject instead is "servanthood," and the key to verse 34 is found in the words, "as I have loved you." These words take us to the supreme example-the suffering servant-and that takes us to the cross.

A cross without a broken law is a cross without sin. Without law and sin, the cross is a jig-saw puzzle with the key pieces missing. Basic to the cross is Christ's satisfying divine justice, thereby upholding the law. The spirit of the cross is His manifesting saving love. The cross affirms law and love together. Verse 35 says, "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." Does this mean that all men know that we are His disciples if we march around holding up "Love" signs, or singing "Love, love, love"? Of course not! They will know that we follow Christ if they see Christlike love in our actions-holy deeds of mercy as defined by the Father's commands.

To follow Jesus' example is to love what Jesus loved, and to hate what Jesus hated, conforming our conduct to the same standard that He perfectly obeyed. He could say, "I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me" (John 5:30). Where is the Father's will expressed in respect to morals? In the holy commands of Scripture. Jesus was indeed a law-keeping Savior.

Was the Command to Love New?

Was the command in John 13:34-to "love one another"-new? No, the law of love for God and man is the summary of all the commandments, and has been from the giving of the law to Moses.

Hear, 0 Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart; you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deut. 6:4-9)

You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. (Lev. 19:18)

Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?" Jesus said to him, "`You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets." (Matt. 22:35-40)

These passages, and many more, prove conclusively that to love is not a new obligation. Nor is it a new, different standard of right conduct. There. already was a perfect, eternal standard of morality in the Ten Commandments, which has always been summarized by the law of love.

What Was New About the Command to Love?

What was new about our Lord's command in John 13:34? The answer is in the words `as I have loved you." The text offers a living demonstration of servanthood. In the person and work of Jesus, love was manifested, yes, personified, as never before!

Our Lord displayed:

  • a love superior to its objects.
  • a love that never varied.
  • a love that deemed no sacrifice too great. He gave Himself. "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends" (John 15:13).
  • a love that did not subordinate, abrogate, or mitigate the law.
The love that Christ explained and manifested had always been commanded but never so pointedly demonstrated or personified. Such a demonstration was new! This commandment was also new in respect to its objects. God's new commandment was brotherly love, "that you love one another." Brotherly love is a special kind of love, going beyond love for one's neighbor. It is intended for a special people-the people of God.
Brethren, I write no new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which you heard from the beginning. Again, a new commandment I write to you . . . because the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining. He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in the darkness until now. He who loves his brother, abides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (1 John 2:7-11)
Brotherly love regarding the family of God is a new dimension to an old commandment. The commandment is new in respect to its manifestation of servanthood and new in respect to the objects of this love. Not only are we to have kind affections toward all men-that is just plain Christian benevolence. And genuine love to neighbors is extended to all according to their circumstances. We are even instructed to love our enemies. But this is not "brotherly love."

Brotherly love-the love of godly men and women for their godliness-is peculiar to the household of faith. An affection directed toward the excellency of true religion, it delights in holiness and truth. It loves the image of God reflected in God's true sons and daughters. This love attracts the eye and wins the heart because it embraces that divine nature of born-again men and women.

God imparts to His own a portion of His own loveliness. He made them new creatures of His free and distinguishing grace. Christ loves them as His own, calling them "My sheep." The Holy Spirit loves them, and they love each other. To love Christ is to love those who are like Him. Among His people, all divisions vanish: name and nation, rank and party, race and gender. All are lost in the common name Christian. Jew and Gentile, bond and free, rich and poor, male and female are one in Christ. We have one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Eph. 4:5).

It is by the mark of brotherly love that Jesus' disciples are to judge themselves. "We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren" (1 John 3:14). This is also the criterion by which Christ would have the world judge the sincerity of His religion and the truth of His gospel. "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).

THIS NEW BROTHERLY LOVE does, not negate the objective standard of the Ten Commandments. It applies the commandments in a fresh and compelling way to the communion of the saints. Love and law, working together, give us clear guidance in how to please God and know His will. The law shows us our sin and thrusts us to the cross and the Savior for mercy and grace. Love constrains us to walk a path of righteousness defined by the commandments and marked by joy and humble servanthood. That is the right relationship between law and love.