Lawful Love: How the Law Preserves and Propels Our Love

Lawful Love: How the Law Preserves and Propels Our Love

What is love? Love for others is treating them as God would have us treat them. It is law-keeping, with a glad and believing heart, that seeks the good of others in the goodness of God. Indeed, we may see glimpses of “love” in fallen humanity—as in the way a father loves his children (Luke 11:11–13)—but ultimately, true love stems from a heart cleansed from godless selfishness. Such love is demonstrated on the cross of Calvary, and has been “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5).

For the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
– Romans 13:8 –

What is love?

In our day, love is often defined by some sentimental feeling. Some emotional experience. Some pitter-patter in your chest. Or some dance-beat, à la A Night at the Roxbury. (Blessed is the man who has no idea what I’m talking about). But rarely is love associated with law-keeping, rules, or righteousness. Which is to say, rarely is love defined according to the Bible.

In our “if it feels right, do it” sort of society, love does not shack up with legal requirements. But in the Bible where love is defined by God (1 John 4:8) and demonstrated on the cross (1 John 3:16), love is regularly related to the God’s law. In fact, Romans 13 says, “Love is the keeping of the law” (v. 8) and “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” Likewise, Galatians 5:14 reads, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”

In those places Paul reiterates Jesus’s own view of the law. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). And later in the same Gospel (22:36–40), Jesus explained that the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments: to love God (Deut. 6:4) and to love neighbor (Lev. 19:18). Indeed, against popular opinion, the Law was not given to merely enforce rules. It was given so that the people of Israel might love one another with absolute righteousness. To say it differently, God’s love is defined and delimited by covenantal laws.

The Third Use of the Law: Love

Against modern versions of uber-autonomous selfish “love,” the Scriptures portray a kind of love that commits itself to the other person even at the expense of personal freedom and comfort (see Ps. 15:4). This is why Paul quotes from the Decalogue in Romans 13:9For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” To love your neighbor implies rejecting all actions that might steal, hurt, or take advantage of others.

But more than that, lawful love is modeled after God’s faithfulness to Israel. Just as Yahweh commands his people to be holy as he is holy (Lev. 19:2), he also commanded them to love one another as he loves them. Leviticus 19:18, the verse cited by Paul (and quoted by Jesus in Matt. 22:40), says “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” Importantly, this command is not an exception to the rest of the Mosaic commands. Rather, as Jesus said, it synthesizes the message of the Law and Prophets (Matt. 5:17; 22:40).

When striving to love one another, we must go to the Law to see what love looks like. But first we must recall that before the Law directs us how to love, it reveals the holy character of God and the misshapen character of man.

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