Issues Facing Missions Today: 53c. The Dynamics of Divine Love in a Divided Community (3)
(3) Love of God and Obeying His Commandments
(3) Love of God and Obeying His Commandments
A persistent infection in the Church is the notion that love supersedes law, or faith contradicts works, or grace precludes ethics. James attacks this erroneous dichotomy directly (see ch. 2), although it is not in his case a correction of Paul but a consistent interpretation of Paul. John, too, refuses to admit any such confusion.
For John, obeying God’s commandments is what it means to love God. The word ‘commandments’ (Greek, entolē) appears fourteen times in 1 John (and four times in 2 John).—this is an important part of the message. John equates knowing God with obeying his commandments (1 John 2.3-4). The orthodox community of John obeys God’s commands and does what pleases him (1 John 3.22). Like Jesus (cf. Matthew 22.36.40) and Paul (cf. Rom. 13.8-10), John identifies the chief commandment—the commandment that helps to interpret the others—in the commandment to love:
1 John 4:21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
He actually expands this, saying,
1 John 3:23-24 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
The commandment to love is not a replacement of other commandments but a lens by which to see the intent of the commandments. John reaffirms the ‘old commandment’ even as he emphasises the new commandment of love:
1 John 2:7-8 Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you have heard. 8 Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.
The logical connection between obeying God’s commandments and obeying the commandment to love God and others should be understood well. John’s theology is not just doctrinal, it is also relational—those who obey the commandments of Jesus are those who ‘abide’ in him (1 John 3.24). Believers, like children, are in a relationship with God, who is their Father. This relationship is characterized by love and, like any relationship of this sort, children show their love by obeying their Father. Thus, there is no cashing in the old commandments for a new one of love. Rather, the new commandment of love—which is an old commandment too! (Deuteronomy 6.5; Leviticus 19.18)—reaffirms the old commandments. John affirms the relationship between obedience to God’s commandments and love of God:
1 John 5:3a For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments….
2 John 1:6 And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments….
This connection is at the heart of the Old Testament. To love God is to keep his commandments (Deuteronomy 7.9; 11.1; Joshua 22.5; Nehemiah 1.5; Psalm 119.47-48, 127; Daniel 9.4). The people of Israel are called into a relationship with God in which love and obedience are two sides of the same coin.
The heretical group that has left the church to which John writes is a group that has not only denied that they have sinned but that has also rejected the commandments. Perhaps they held to a theology of love, using the same language of the orthodox, but did so while rejecting the commandments of God. We do not know this for certain, but we do know that this is a perennial confusion in Church history and not least in our day. John, however, corrects this error: to love God is to obey his commandments, just as the Old Testament has always taught us.
What is new, then? The new commandment of love is not new as a commandment. It is new in that love has been defined definitively in God’s sending his Son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins. Love as commandment has become love as redemptive sacrifice. It includes not only the command but also the sacrifice necessary to bring forgiveness and cleansing for our breaking of God's commands.
Divided communions or denominations or churches often seek to repair the differences without addressing the issues. Instead of focusing on the besetting sin that is the cause of division, the focus is placed on mending relationships. The handlers of reconciliation often seek to maintain conversations, listen to one another, restore relationships, rebuild trust in each other, heal the hurt, affirm the community while recognizing (to what end?) the things that divide (that is, tolerate and overlook issues by reducing them to matters of indifference). John will have none of it where the issue is sin. To deny the sin is to deny the need to be forgiven and cleansed, and to deny the need to be forgiven and cleansed is to deny the need for Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for our sins, and to deny Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for our sins is to deny that the Father has sent the Son to take away the sins of the world, and to deny that the Father has done this is to deny the Father himself. There is no pseudo-righteous ethic of unity that can separate love of God from obeying His commandments.