There is a perpetual debate within the Church over Christians’ need to adhere to biblical rules. Overall, we hope to condemn legalism, while not condoning sin. Legalism in the Christian context is to follow the letter of the law, but not its spirit—to love rules more than God or our neighbor. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their legalism, in which they paraded themselves around as righteous, while preying upon the poor in practice: “You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27).
Today many Christians fall into one extreme or the other, when it comes to following the Bible’s rules. But these Christians handpick certain points of church doctrine to emphasize, while neglecting others. By exploring some key biblical passages on the topic of love and rules, I will argue that it is impossible to make sense of either God’s love or His law without the other.
“If you love me you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)
Love is the center-point of the Christian faith. In Jesus’ words, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). To paraphrase the understanding of the early Church, love is the “way of life, and the haven of promises, and the treasure of faith, and interpreter of the kingdom.”1
Love today is often seen as indefinite positive affection for someone else. In this understanding, a parent who sees his child misbehaving might decline to punish the child, to make clear his deep “love.” Likewise, as children of God we might assume God has the same understanding of love. Even as we stray from His commandments, we might tell ourselves (consciously or not): ‘the important thing is that I love Jesus, even though I’m not always good about adhering to His “rules.”’
Jesus made clear that this is an untenable position: when we do not follow His commandments, we are not truly loving Him. To see why this is, we need to refine our understanding of love to better match that of Jesus. A working definition of love is the one presented by St. Thomas Aquinas. For him, to love someone is to will their good.2
While this may sound like a sterile way to think about something so passionate as love, this definition encompasses all the different uses we have for such a complicated concept.
Another way of saying “will another’s good” is to will their proper end. For humans, we do not always will our “proper end”—what is best for us. That is why we sometimes must encourage friends to align their goals with what is good for them: we love them, so we want their good. But God’s will is always in line with His good. He is good. Thus, to love God, to will His good, is to will what He wills.
What does God will? We don’t always know. As Blaise Pascal writes, everything we see on earth implies the existence of a “hidden God” who “moderated the way He might be known” so as not to force Himself on unwilling humans. However, the Bible is God’s word given directly to us. To find His will, that is where we should start. Jesus’ incarnation, the “word made flesh” (John 1:14), verifies the authority of God’s word over us. Jesus showed that God’s word and God are one and the same. Jesus never supplanted any of God’s commandments, but grounded their authority in the person of God. Thus God’s will, as far as we can know and act on it, is found in His commandments. So, to love God—to will His good—is nothing more or less than to follow His commandments.
“For the commandments…are summed up in this word: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Romans 13:9)
God’s commandments found in the Scriptures often seem dry and burdensome. But Paul argues above that all 613 of the Old Testament’s commandments can be applied in the simple admonition to love your neighbor as yourself.
It might seem like we’ve taken a wrong turn: we started out loving a perfect God, but now we have to love our fellow humans, even the worst of the worst. Yet the Christian philosopher Kierkegaard argues that a more perfect love is not one which has for its object a more perfect being. Rather, perfect love can love even sinners.3 As we grow in love we will love those whom it is less natural for us to love, whether through distance or imperfection. Love for neighbor (near and far) is a natural consequence of love for God.
The question remains: why did God give all these rules if He could have just told the Israelites to love? Even though it seems that God’s commands changed (or simplified), God’s character never changed. We did. Beginning in the Garden of Eden, God only had one rule: don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Simple enough. Adam and Eve didn’t need any further help because they weren’t tainted by the tendency towards sin that plagues us today. But after the Fall, God gave His people the manual on how to live a holy life: pages and pages of regulation in the Hebrew scriptures. Humans need all those guardrails to keep from sinning. The Fall changed our nature, causing our moral compass to go off-track.
Then, Jesus simplified things. “Love one another,” He said simply. God’s word incarnate, He modeled for us what love is. In Him, God’s commandments jumped out of the page. He likewise sent a Helper, the Holy Ghost, to restore our moral intuition. All along, love was the point. God’s goal for mankind was relationship with Himself.
‘If anyone says “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.’ (1 John 4:20)
As John argues, loving our neighbor is actually foundational for loving God. To love our neighbor is to love what is good in him. That is, to love our neighbor is to love the ways he resembles God. Man is in the image of God. Put another way, humans are sacramental for God, the physical signs of God’s character. Since God is not here, our brother might be the closest to seeing God we can get.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30)
Besides loving our neighbor, Jesus’ only other explicit commandment is to love God. Thus, we’ve come full circle: to love God is to follow His commandments, but to follow Hsis commandments is nothing other than to love God. Even though we’ve made a circle, we have not wasted our time. Growth happens in circles, not straight lines. This circle is a flywheel of spiritual growth, where progress in one part leads into growth in the other, which leads again in turn to the first. To love God is but to be drawn back down to earth to love our fellow humans, who in turn help us practice and strengthen our love for God.
However, one might reject that following commandments is enough to fulfill our duty to love. That is nothing more than the legalism of the Pharisees, whose “love” for God was actually just a cover for their egotism. The key to ensuring that loving God is not just legalistic self-love is sincerity.
Sincerity is the virtue in which our actions align with our ideals. Sincerity is the opposite of legalism, of hypocrisy. We are sincere when we let God’s commandments bore into our innermost being. Sincerity is what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount: if we refrain from killing our brother but continue to hate him, we have not surrendered our lives to God’s commandments (Matt. 5:22). Jesus is praising sincerity when he says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8).
Living a sincere life means that one’s external behavior reflects an internal reality. The sincere person rejoices in the truth—he has nothing to hide. We can grow in sincerity by scrutinizing our actions in the light of our ideals, and by raising our ideals through the practice of righteous action. Ultimately, sincerity creates a two-way channel for love to bloom into our actions, and for good works to increase our love.
We’ve seen how the path to love is deeply intertwined with obedience to God’s commands. This gives the lie to both legalism and lawlessness. Any attempt to divorce love from obedience has not properly considered Jesus’ path to the Cross, when He cried to the Father, “not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Love and obedience to God are united in Christ’s perfectly sincere life, as they can be in ours.
Bryce McDonald ’21 is a senior in Leverett House studying Philosophy and Classics.