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Owe No Man Anything but Love

Category Articles
Date May 3, 2011

There are some profound and practical implications contained in the way that the Ten Commandments are stated. One of the easiest things that anyone reading them can observe is how they are cast in negative terms. We are not to have any gods before the Lord God our redeemer; we are not to make and worship idols; we are not to take the Lord’s name in vain. Even the positively stated Fourth Commandment is implicitly negative, telling us not to forget to keep the Sabbath holy. The manward commandments are clearly negative in form, telling us not to murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, and covet. Implied in the positively stated Fifth Commandment is a directive not to dishonour our parents.

Why are these ten specifications of God’s Moral Law stated so negatively? The most obvious answer to that question is that the Law is addressed to people, all of whom are sinners. The Lord is simply telling his people to stop their sinning in its most obvious and outwardly manifested aspects. Some people grasp this starting point of the Law’s application but go no farther. The Pharisees of old and the legalists and formalists of today are examples of such who fail to progress beyond their superficial grasp of the Law to a more profound understanding that the heart and essence of the Law is love. This kind of erroneous understanding, however, is not the only way in which we can fail righty and radically to understand and apply the Moral Law.

It is a common temptation for us, once we come to understand that the Law’s essence is love, to pervert the true aim and priority of the divine Lawgiver who commands his people to love him with all their being and to love their neighbour as themselves. This perversion is the same sort of thing we commonly witness, if not commit, when husbands take the Apostle Paul’s instruction to their wives that they be submissive to their husbands as a club with which to compel their wives’ submission. When God directs wives to be submissive to their husbands, he is speaking directly to wives and only indirectly to their husbands. When the Lord directs husbands to love their wives, he in the same way speaks directly to husbands and only indirectly to their wives. Those directly addressed have a duty imposed upon them by God; those indirectly addressed are simply informed of how they can pray and to some extent what they can expect from those directly addressed by God. So it is with the whole Moral Law. We each one are addressed individually and personally by God to love him, the One who first loved us, and to love our neighbour with the love we have received from our God. Yet, instead of our concentrating on our duty and delight (by the enabling of our God’s grace in our lives) we can preoccupy ourselves with how others are fulfilling the Moral Law, especially in their obligation to love us!

So much of our grief and frustration and the pain we cause others and ourselves traces back to this perversion of God’s royal law of love. Simply put: the positive divine command that we should love is what we are to do, regardless of what others are doing. We might expect our brethren to love us as they obey this command, but we cannot and should not insist and try to compel them to love us. We are not commanded by God to add our imperfect and puny voices to his commanding and authoritative Word. We only deepen our own disappointment and serve to entrench others in their lovelessness when we try to do so.

It is understandable that we poor sinners – redeemed though we may be – should resort to attempts to extort love from others. The sin that makes us unlovely in God’s sight is the supreme thing that makes us unlovely in the sight of others, and we sense this even if we do not know it. Therefore, we feel that we must pressure others and compel them with commands as we try to extort from them that which can only be freely and graciously conferred. If we love, we do not seek to compel others to love us. Instead we believe, hope, and endure all things as we pray for and await the fruition of true love in others, all the while refusing to be satisfied with the compelled counterfeit of love.

Does this mean that we can never speak to others about what we at least perceive to be their failure to love us? Here again the negative casting of the Law serves as our guide. The things forbidden in the Moral Law are outward deeds that are forbidden by God under the heading of our doing no harm to one another. We can and should, therefore, concentrate on our loving of others while confining ourselves to addressing what our brethren in the church and even our neighbours in the world do that actually causes us harm and injury. The civil laws of men and nations recognize this and seek to prevent crimes and punish those committing them. But even in this limited way of our appealing to the provisions of the Law of God and laws of men, we should always bear in heart and mind our duty to owe no man anything but love.

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

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