The Law of Love and the Love of Law
Some Christians make the mistake of pitting love against law, as if the two were mutually exclusive. You either have a religion of love or a religion of law. But such an equation is profoundly unbiblical. For starters, “love” is a command of the law (Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:36-40). If you enjoin people to love, you are giving them law. Conversely, if you tell them law doesn’t matter, then neither does love, which is the summary of the law.
Furthermore, consider the close connection Jesus makes between love and law. For Jesus there is no love for him apart from keeping the law (John 14:15). But he says even more than this. Jesus connects communion with God with keeping commandments. When we keep Christ’s commandments, we love him. And when we love Christ, the Father loves us. And whomever the Father loves, Christ loves and reveals himself to them (John 14:21). So, there is no abiding in Christ’s love apart from keeping Christ’s commandments (John 15:10). Which means there is no fullness of joy apart from the pursuit of holiness (John 15:11).
God’s law is an expression of his grace. The law is God’s plan for his sanctified people to enjoy communion with him. That’s why the Psalms are full of declarations of delight regarding God’s commands. Even with the passing of the Mosaic covenant, surely the Psalmist sets an example for us. The happy man delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on it day and night (Ps. 1:2). The precepts and rules of the Lord are sweeter than honey and more to be desired than gold (Ps. 19:10). Yes, the law can incite the natural man to sin (Gal. 3:19, 22). But God’s people rejoice in his statutes and behold wondrous things out of his law (Ps. 119:18). They long to be steadfast in keeping his statutes (v. 5). In the eyes of the believer the law is still true and good; it is our hope, our comfort, and our song.
Let’s not be afraid to land on law—never as the means of meriting justification, but as the proper expression of having received it. It’s not wrong for a sermon to conclude with something we have to do. It’s not inappropriate that our counseling exhort one another to obedience. Legalism is a problem in the church, but so is antinomianism. Granted, I don’t hear anyone saying “let’s continue in sin that grace may abound” (Rom. 6:1). That’s the worst form of antinomianism. But strictly speaking antinomianism simply means no-law, and some Christians have very little place for the law in the pursuit of holiness. One scholar says about an antinomian pastor from 17th century England: “He believed that the law served a useful purpose in convincing men of their need of a Saviour; nevertheless, he gave it little or no place in the life of a Christian since he held that ‘free grace is the teacher of good works.’” Emphasizing free grace is not the problem. The problem is in assuming that good works will invariably flow from nothing but a diligent emphasis on the gospel.
The irony is that if we make every imperative into a command to believe the gospel more fully, we turn the gospel into one more thing we have to get right and faith becomes the one thing we need to be better at. If only we really believed, obedience would take care of itself. No need for commands or effort. But the Bible does not reason this way. It has no problem with the word “therefore.” Grace, grace, grace, therefore, stop doing this, start doing that, and obey the commands of God. Good works should always be rooted in the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection, but I believe we are expecting too much from the “flow” and not doing enough to teach that obedience to the law—from a willing spirit, as made possible by the Holy Spirit—is the proper response to free grace.
For as much as Luther derided the misuse of the Law, he did not reject the positive role of the law in the believer’s life. The Lutheran Formula of Concord is absolutely right in when it says, “We believe, teach, and confess that the preaching of the Law is to be urged with diligence, not only upon the unbelieving and impenitent, but also upon true believers, who are truly converted, regenerate, and justified by faith” (Epitome 6.2). Preachers must preach the law without embarrassment. Parents must insist on obedience without shame. The law can, and should, be urged upon true believers—not to condemn, but to correct and promote Christlikeness. Both the indicatives of Scripture and the imperatives are from God, for our good, and given in grace.