A sad situation is enveloping large parts of the evangelical church today, especially those associated with the emergent church. Increasingly we are being told that love is the only thing that matters in the Christian life, and any talk of obedience or keeping God’s commandments is somehow legalistic or in fact counter to love. Thus a new antinomianism is creeping through our churches.
We hear it said more and more today that ‘love cannot be commanded’ and that the Christian walk has nothing to do with rules, regulations, laws, commandments and the like. It is all about a love relationship – end of story. Now with all dangerous teachings, there is of course a good amount of truth here.
Yes of course at rock bottom the Christian life is one of a personal love relationship with the Father through the Son via the Holy Spirit. And of course it is true that we are saved by grace through faith, not by seeking to keep the law of God. But once we are justified, there is the matter of sanctification.
We are to grow in grace as we seek to do that which is pleasing to God. Nowhere in Scripture are we told that once we are justified by faith, we can live however we will. The free grace of God is not meant to become license for us. This truth is found in both Testaments. In the Old Testament Israel was freely saved by Yahweh’s grace. He delivered them from bondage in Egypt and freed them to serve him.
We read about this mighty deliverance in Exodus 1-19. But in Ex 20 we read about the giving of the law. The law followed God’s gracious saving act. Israel was meant to show their gratitude for God’s deliverance by obeying him and keeping his commands. This did not save them – they were already saved.
In the same way today we are saved by what Christ has done on our behalf. We cannot save ourselves. But once saved, we gratefully seek to do His will and please him. The Scriptures everywhere speak to these truths. Love and obedience go together. Let me cite just a few passages given by Moses:
Deut 6:5-6 – Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.
Deut 10:12-13 – And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?
Deut 11:1 – Love the LORD your God and keep his requirements, his decrees, his laws and his commands always.
Deut 30:16 – For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws.
Notice how loving God and keeping his commandments are intimately connected. But I already hear the protests of some: “Yes, but that was in the Old Testament. We are no longer under the law today so none of that applies to us anymore”. Well, sorry to burst the bubble of these critics, but we find the same teachings in the New Testament. In fact, Jesus said exactly the same thing as Moses did. Consider just a few quotes as given to us by John in his gospel:
John 14:21 – Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.
John 14:23 – Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
John 15: 10 – If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.
John 15:14 – You are my friends if you do what I command.
And consider these words from John’s epistles:
1 John 2:3 We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.
1 John 3:24 Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.
1 John 5:2-3 This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.
2 John 6: And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.
These eight statements by John should make it crystal clear that there is absolutely no dichotomy whatsoever between loving God and obeying God. There is no disjunction at all between having a love relationship with Christ and keeping his commandments.
Most of Christendom has recognised these truths. The Puritans have especially rightly emphasised this close relationship between love and law. Let me here conclude with the thoughts of Ernest Kevan, the first principle of the London Bible College, who knew the great value of studying the Puritans. As he said in Moral Law (P&R, 1991):
“The bestowal of the power for a holy life needs to be accompanied by instruction in the pattern of it. In what does sanctified behaviour consist? It consists in pleasing God. What is it that pleases God? The doing of His will. Where is His will to be discerned? In His holy Law. The Law, then, is the Christian’s rule of life, and the believer finds that he delights in the Law of God after the inward man (Rom. 7:22). The Christian is not lawless, ‘but under the law to Christ’ (1 Cor 9:21)….
“To insist upon this function of the Law of God in the life of the believer is not to become legalistic. Legalism is an abuse of the Law: it is a reliance on Law-keeping for acceptance with God, and the proud or the servile observance of laws is no part of the grace of God. The joyfully rendered obedience of love, however, is a quite different thing and is of the very essence of Christian life. For a man to obey God because he loves to do so is not legalism; it is liberty: but, let it be remembered, it is still obedience….
“A sovereign is no less a sovereign because his subjects love him. God does not cease to be God as soon as His people are reconciled to Him; He does not forfeit all rights to command as soon as people come to love Him. There is, therefore, nothing incompatible between love and obedience; for in the truly sanctified life there is loving obedience and obedient love.”
Kevan is of course simply drawing upon the wealth of wisdom found in the writings of those who have gone before, including the Puritans. They rightly knew that the good news of the Gospel makes no sense without the bad news. Grace and law, in other words, are intimately associated.
Without a clear concept of the law and its demands, we will not have a clear concept of our need for Christ. As John Bunyan rightly stated, “The man who does not know the nature of the law cannot know the nature of sin. And he who does not know the nature of sin cannot know the nature of the Saviour.”
The reason so much of our gospel preaching today is so anaemic and ineffective is because we have truncated the good news to a sentimental and sloppy notion of love. We instead need to tie in biblical love with biblical holiness. And until we restore obedience to our understanding of the Christian’s love relationship with Christ, we will continue to flounder and lose our voice.