The Law and Love

As a child, I spent a lot of time in a wooded park near my school building dirt bike jumps. My friends and I would dig holes just after the jump as motivation to gather plenty of speed before riding over it. I should note I do not recommend this activity‌, and neither did the police. On one afternoon, putting the finishing touches on a jump, a mildly displeased officer approached out of nowhere. “You’re not allowed to do that,” she scolded, instructing me to destroy and abandon the jump. I, terrified, obeyed; the law was here—the cops! I felt like a criminal, thinking I might even go to jail. It wasn’t until years later I realized the truth that the law and the police officer probably saved me from breaking my arm or worse.

As Christians, we too can feel terrified of the law. Some of us grew up in church settings where the law was so ignored or misunderstood that we never developed an accurate perspective. But like my realization about laws protecting children from injury, God’s law is good.

More than just a list of do’s and don’ts, the law serves several purposes, and our focus today as Christians is how God’s law teaches us to love Him.

When we talk about loving God, it's easy to mistakenly think about having fond feelings about God. It is tempting to love God like we love our pets, all emotion, but this isn’t what the Bible means. Think about your parents; if Mom and Dad ask you to be on time and do your chores, then the best and most obvious way to love them is to obey. If we ignore what our parents ask while saying we love them, what are we really communicating? To put it another way, if you ask your best friend to keep something in confidence, but he goes and shares it with others, would you feel loved even if he told you he loved you? I imagine not, and loving God is similar. As God’s children, we must love Him as He desires to be loved. And in order to do so, we must discern what pleases Him in His law.

The Goodness of the Law
As a tugboat pilot, I am often working with new boats and new captains. One of the first things I do when I’m on a new boat is read the “captain’s expectations.” This is a posted list of the captain’s desires for all to see. After reading it, I know what makes each captain happy. But if I don’t read it, pleasing him will mean a lot of guesswork, which is unwise.

In His Word, God lays out his expectations, calling it His law. God’s law comprises many instructions and requirements that are not only rules, but expressions of who God is. His law flows out of His very nature; when God says not to steal, it’s because God is not a thief. When God says not to murder, it’s because God is not a murderer. These laws are not random; they are tied to the very character of God.

Historically, we describe God’s law as having three purposes: a mirror, a fence, and a guide.

A Mirror
The first purpose of the law is to help us see our sin. The problem is we must keep the law, yet it is impossible to keep. Every step we make in the right direction is undone as our efforts are exposed as sin. Ultimately, the situation is hopeless, we cannot keep the law. But coming to this realization does not save us from the law’s penalty. The punishment of hell still awaits those who cannot keep God’s law perfectly. However—and this is extremely important—in seeing our helplessness, the law points us to the only possible rescue, Christ, opening our eyes to His gospel. In this way, even though the law condemns, apparently making matters worse, it actually serves to lead us to Jesus and is therefore very good.

The first purpose of the law is this: to show us we need Christ by revealing how hopeless we are without Him.

A Fence
The second purpose of the law is to contain the sinfulness of the world. What would your house look like with no rules? You could eat candy before bed, you could drive Mom and Dad’s car whenever you want, and you could sleep on the couch and watch movies all night. That all sounds pretty fun, but eventually everyone in the house, including you, would lose your minds (and your teeth!) because of the disorder. The dirty dishes would pile up and peace ‌would be a thing of the past. Rules establish order and justice, and God created an ordered universe. God’s law, given in His Word and built into our hearts, serves to address injustice, to instruct different ‌people to dwell together peacefully, and to keep the globe from spinning into greater and more chaotic wickedness. It’s like a fence; it doesn’t stop all sin, but it restrains it a great deal.

The second purpose of the law is this: to keep the world from becoming even more sinful than it already is.

A Guide
Finally, the third purpose of the law is like a captain’s expectations, it shows us what we as Christians must do to please God. Both Jesus and the apostle John tell us that those who love God are those who keep His commandments (John 14:15, 21-24; 1 John 2:3-5). Loving God isn’t simply having warm, fuzzy feelings about Him, it’s seeking to please Him. And end to which, in the Bible, God graciously instructs us. So, if you’ve ever wondered, “how can I love God?” The answer is God’s law. The Lord loves a joyful and obedient heart, and the law provides us with a glorious opportunity to love Him precisely the way He desires.

The third purpose of the law is this: to guide us into a life of loving obedience to our loving God.

The Greatest Commandment
Referring to the third purpose of the law, R. C. Sproul says, “This is the highest function of the law, to serve as an instrument for the people of God to give Him honor and glory.” Of all three purposes we just talked about, the third is the most important—helping us to love God.

When the Pharisees ask Jesus in Matthew 22:36, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” Yet Jesus didn’t stop there. He says, “And a second [commandment] is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Jesus is not placing our love for God on the same level as our love for people. Rather, He is connecting the two commandments. To love God is, and always will be, the greatest commandment, but if you’ll notice, almost every other law has something to do with other people. We sometimes describe our love for God and love for people as loving “up” and “out,” to the heavens and to our neighbors. And though this can be a helpful illustration, it may lead you to think of these two love acts as being entirely separate. In reality, these two types of love are intimately interwoven.

In Matthew 25:35-40, Jesus makes an important point: the love we show to our fellow man, we show to God.

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

The commandment to love our neighbors isn’t simply a sidekick to the greatest commandment, it feeds into it. When we love fellow image bearers, we are loving God just as loving our siblings is a way of loving our parents. In fact, if our love for our neighbors isn’t energized by our love for God, it isn’t really love at all. It all starts with a desire to please God.

It might seem too easy to simply do what the Bible says and love God. But, for one, even though it’s there in black-and-white, it is not easy; it’s extremely difficult. And for two, it really is that simple. God desires we practice obedience as love and trust towards Him, which is why He gives us His law.

So, instead of thinking of love as being “up” and “out,” imagine it as being “out to up.” Like boiling water on the stove, steam flows out from under the lid to all the sides, warming your hands and wetting the stove before floating toward the ceiling. Genuine love begins and ends in God, and our love for Him should motivate everything we do. So, love your friends, love your parents, and love your neighbors, all because God has loved you and commanded us to love Him by obeying His law.

The Law in Christ
With Jesus, the law can be ‌confusing. Jesus assures us in Matthew 5:17 that He has not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. When we reflect on this, we can sometimes forget the first part and think that, because Jesus has fulfilled the law, it is no longer relevant to us today. But that isn’t what Jesus is saying. Jesus did not destroy law, rather, He has polished and revealed it perfectly.

Pastors and theologians will often divide God’s law into three categories, ceremonial, civil, and moral. While imperfect distinctions, these divisions help us appreciate the different ways in which Jesus fulfills the law. Whereas God’s people once made ceremonial sacrifices through priests, Jesus is our high priest forever and the perfect sacrificial lamb. Whereas God’s people were once civilly set apart from other nations by their lifestyle and regulations, Jesus sets us apart by giving us His Spirit. Finally, whereas the moral elements of God’s law (how we are to live) remain in effect for all people, God has justified (declared righteous) His people in Christ forever thanks to Christ’s morally perfect life. Again, out of love for God, we strive to live moral, obedient lives. But, because Christ has accomplished this for us, grace catches us when we fail.

The New Testament reveals ‌Jesus was deeply concerned with His Father’s law, but so were the Pharisees. Unlike the Pharisees who ardently studied the law, Jesus understood the law correctly. He knew that the whole law and everything in the Scriptures pointed to, and would be fulfilled in, Him. In His ministry of life, death, and resurrection, Jesus not only gave us His perfect record of law-keeping as our very own, but He secured for us the ability to actually keep it ourselves. When we place our trust in Jesus, it’s because His Spirit is within us transforming our hearts, turning them like satellites toward God’s southern sky. Though perfection is out of reach in this life, the Spirit empowers us to live a life of obedience as Christ did in response to God’s grace.

If you could touch the original documents God’s Word was written on, they would crumble to dust in your hands; man has had God’s Word for a long time! But in His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that though the heavens and earth may pass away—though the entire universe may be destroyed—not one jot or tittle, not one stroke of the pen, not even the tiniest dot on the smallest “i” of God’s law will pass away (Matthew 5:18). Jesus could make this radical claim because He is the living Word of God. God’s law is serious, but it is good, and—because of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection—it is forever.

As modern Christians, we sometimes struggle to find relevance for what was written in the Bible 2000 years ago. But Jesus makes it very simple: Love God with everything that you are and love one another. We can start loving God right now by loving the people He created. So go out, taking it one person and one act of love, at a time, and fulfill God’s great commandment just like Christ did.

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