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Law and Love have no Quarrel

Category Articles
Date March 25, 2011

God expressed the Moral Law in the Ten Commandments. Those commandments list ten specifications of our duty to our redeeming Lord and to our fellow man. When Jesus was asked which of the Ten Commandments should be regarded as the greatest he answered in terms of man’s duty to love the Lord and to love his neighbour. We can sense a tension between these expressions of the Moral Law. Are we commanded by God’s authority to fulfil a duty to obey him according to the ten specifications, or are we to be impelled by love to express our gratitude to God by lovingly devoting ourselves to him and lovingly serving our neighbour? If we regard this tension to result from even a small degree of contradiction between what God expressed through Moses at Mt. Sinai and through Jesus regarding the great commandment, we will find ourselves defaulting toward either duty or love. In fact, what Jesus says about love does not contradict or supersede what Moses published at Sinai, but rather complements and further clarifies the character of God’s Moral Law. In sum, it is not our duty to obey ten regulations nor is it our calling to love in vague and unguided fashion. It is our duty to love and to love according to the contours of the holy specifications given to us in the Ten Commandments.

If we try to keep the Moral Law from a duteous determination, we have violated the heart of all its commandments because they are to be kept lovingly in response to the God who first loved us and demonstrated that love toward his people as he tells them in the words: ‘I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery’ (Exod. 20:2). Those words that form the prelude to the Ten Commandments reveal to us not only what God has done for his people by liberating them from their sin and bondage, as typified by the Israelites’ release from Egypt, but they also implicitly indicate to us why God has acted so benevolently toward his people. The Lord was not compelled by some legal duty to redeem his people, but rather he was impelled by his own holy love. That is precisely why the heart and essence of the Moral Law is love. Our formal and outward obedience to ethical regulations does not begin to fathom the true depth and respect the true character of the Moral Law of God, who is love. It is the heart’s attitude, not the outward movement of the hand, that makes us right or wrong in God’s sight.

Our grasp of this imperative of love helps us better to understand our Lord’s disposition toward and dealings with us. He who is our sovereign Lord, who has all authority and dominion over heaven and earth, could rightly speak to us ever and only in the tones of command. However, we find him speaking to us in Scripture in words of glad tidings – the gracious indicatives of the gospel. When God does employ the imperatives, they flow from the good news of what he has graciously and lovingly done and take the shape of inviting appeals and loving directives instead of imperious edicts. If the God of all authority and dominion so lovingly condescends to invite us to come to his beloved Son and find in him rest, should we who have tasted this loving goodness of the Lord not also relate to one another in the same way?

We live in a largely loveless day. It is a time when people are inflated with a sense of personal entitlement and at the same time bombarded with carnal commands and civil orders. The natural man understands and employs only the words of directives that come from his superiors, directing and compelling him to obey or to face bitter consequences. The natural man seeks to use such commanding communications with his inferiors and even with his equals, in an attempt to lord himself over others. With such a culture of commanding prevailing over people, is it any wonder that there is so much crime and incivility and so many miserable and depressed people in our world?

We who have heard the loving tones of the gospel should speak in new tongues and sing new songs. Ours is not the language of directive so much as it is the language of loving indication. We do not bark out orders like tyrants, but we express the loving humility of servants who have been loved and saved by our gracious divine Master. Our priority is not to tell others what they should do, but rather to inform them of what God has done and what he and we as his grateful servants offer to them. When the King of heaven and earth speaks to rebellious sinners with such tender compassion, and acts as though he who knew no sin were the greatest sinner of all, suffering as such to save sinners and heal them by his wounds, those who speak and act with imperious commands are not speaking his truth in love, but are speaking like thugs seeking to usurp God’s authority and oppress his people. Ultimately, all people are either made into tender lovers of others by God’s grace or remain tyrannical oppressors of others by their natural inclination. Let us be more consciously and consistently the former, not the latter.

Editor’s Note: Recommended reading –

Love Rules: The Ten Commandments for the 21st Century
Various authors
128 pages, paperback
£6.00, $12.00
ISBN 978 0 85151 957 9

William Harrell is Pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia

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