One sentence spoken by Jesus had always perplexed me: "You are my friends if you do what I command you." (John 15:14)
I always thought to myself "What sort of person would demand that their friends obey them in order to be considered their friends? Who would say they will only love you if you do what they command?"
Probably only someone who is arrogant, bossy, and controlling. But no Christian wants to say Jesus is arrogant, bossy, or a control freak!
Yet there are more places where Jesus and other Biblical authors equate love for Jesus/God with obedience to His commandments:
- "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." (John 14:15)
- "They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them" (John 14:21, NRSV)
- "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me." (John 14:23-24, NRSV)
- "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full." (John 15:10-11)
- "For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome." (1 John 5:3)
- "And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it." (2 John 1:6)
So what is going on here?
Delighting in God's Commandments?
Equally perplexing to me was how the Psalms could talk about loving God's commandments:
- "For I find my delight in your commandments, which I love. I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes." (Ps. 119:47-48)
- "Therefore I love your commandments above gold, above fine gold." (Ps. 119:127)
- "The rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb" (Psalm 19:9-10)
This may seem especially strange to Christians since Paul at times portrays God's Law as something that brings knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20), brings wrath (Romans 4:15), causes sin to increase (Romans 5:20; 7:5), and ends up leading to death (Romans 7:9).
Probably most Christians have at some point heard a sermon about how the Law is bad but the Gospel is good and the Gospel is the remedy to sin which was caused by the bad Law. (Even though Romans 7:10-12 explains this is not true, for the Law is good and righteous, it is just our sinfulness that prompts us to rebel against God's good Law). So for a long time I didn't understand why the Law was a good thing.
But finally, I had a breakthrough that helped me make sense of how love for God and obedience of God's commands go together.
What Does Jesus Command?
I think the key is found by looking at what commands Jesus gives to his followers:
- "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another." (John 13:34)
- "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." (John 15:12)
- "The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also." (1 John 4:21, NRSV)
- "And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us." (1 John 3:23)
Also, Jesus sums up the Old Testament law in this way:
- "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets." (Matt. 22:37-40, also parallels in Mark 12:29-31, Luke 10:26-28)
Paul agrees with this:
- "Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For 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.' Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law." (Romans 13:8-10)
So to shorten the length of this post, I won't bother going into the Old Testament to look at what it says, because it will just agree with these two summaries by Paul and Jesus.
Solution: God is Love
Therefore, I think the answer to how love for God and obedience of God's commands are connected is by remembering that God is Love (1 John 4:8). This means that if we love God, we will also love that which God is: love.
The doctrine of the Trinity is how Christians can understand God as being Love in his very being. The three Persons within the single Triune Godhead all know and love each other perfectly, and so God in his most inner being actually is the most perfect and loving relationship.
And as seen above, all Jesus' commands to Christians involve love for God and love for fellow Christians and all others, which matches with how the Old Testament Law is summed up as love of God and love of others.
Therefore, if God is Love and God commands us to love both God and others, then we can say that God only commands what He is!
Thus, if we love God, we love Love itself, and accordingly, we will love to act in ways that are loving towards both God and all others.
Now Jesus' sentence "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" makes total sense!
(Jonathan Edwards' work True Virtue says something very similar, although he does not arrive at this conclusion in the same way, and personally, I think the approach above is more Biblical and less metaphysically speculative than Edwards').1
Could we flip this around, and say that acting in loving ways towards others is, in some way, expressing love for God Himself? This could possibly be supported by verses such as Mark 9:36-38, Matt 18:5, Luke 9:48, Matt. 10:41-42, Mark 9:40-42, Matt. 25:40, where love for others is treated/rewarded as if it is love for Jesus himself.
This could also help make sense of the last half of 1 John 4:7, NRSV "everyone who loves is born of God and knows God" and the last half of 1 John 4:16, NRSV "God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them."
Although speculative, I wonder if this is how it could be possible for God to save people who never heard of Christ? Maybe, if these people aspired to love Love in general - and since God is Love - then God can apply the atoning effects of Christ's death to these people, presuming that if these same people had a chance to know Love incarnate (i.e. Jesus Christ) they would have been drawn to Him and believed in Him? We can't know for sure until eternity, but I think it could work.
Note: This would not include those who only loved others that were immediately beneficial to themselves (e.g. friends and family, and which could perhaps be extended to include those who only love people of their own ethnicity, language, religion, nationality, etc.) - see Matt 5:46. I agree with Edwards when he argues that love for only a small group of individuals is not really love at all, but is actually selfishness and will inevitably lead to hatred of others outside of this limited group.2
Of course, I don't mean to say that we have to love God and others perfectly to be eternally saved; no one but Jesus has ever done that! That's the whole reason why we needed God to step down into human history as Christ to die for our sins, because otherwise, even the most loving person we can think of - say for example, Mother Theresa - would be doomed to eternal destruction for the inevitable times when she sinned by not loving God and others perfectly.
But in heaven everyone who is saved will be perfectly holy, and thus, we will be able to love everyone perfectly! Then there will be no more sin at all - for all sin is a failure to love (again, Matt. 22:37-40; Romans 13:8-10).
So Jesus is not being bossy here. God in giving us his good and perfect Law, which is summed up as love for God and love for others, is simply commanding us to do what God is: love! And if we love God, then we should love what God is (i.e. Love) and thus, love to act in loving ways.
I do want to deal with two further questions that will inevitably be raised by the above discussion which relate to some difficult topics. But if you would rather end this article on a happy note, feel free to stop reading now.
Question 1: Do We Have to Obey Everyone We Love?
So now we might wonder - does the same logic apply to others? For example, if we're married, could our spouse legitimately say "Well, if you love me you'll do what I say!"? Or could a parent demand that a child give unquestioning, immediate obedience out of love for the parent?
I would say no.
Why? Because I think Jesus' statements above which equate love for Him and obedience to Him only works because of God's special nature which means God literally is Love. I do not think this same sentence could be properly spoken by anyone else whose nature is not perfect Love.
And so, although it might be helpful and respectful to follow the reasonable requests or instructions of our parents or spouses, we do not owe them absolute obedience even if we love them, for our allegiance to the higher standard of love for God and love for all others overrides any obedience we may owe to any particular human in authority over us.
Also, note that the love commanded by God includes love for ourselves, for "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22:39) implies love for self.
So, for example, we do not have to stay in abusive relationships out of 'obedience' or 'love' to an abuser. Staying in or enabling a situation which gives an abuser further opportunities to continue abusing a person, is not loving towards the person being abused. Additionally, remaining in or enabling such a situation is simply allowing the abuser to continue storing up wrath for themselves on the day of judgement (Romans 2:5), which is not a way of showing love towards the abuser either.
Question 2: But What About God's Commands in the Old Testament?
Of course, this idea that God only commands what is loving might make us wonder about all those difficult commandments in the Old Testament to put people to death for violating some parts of the Law, or when God gives instructions for Israel to go to war against certain other groups of people. This is a complicated topic.
All I will say now is that sometimes, it is loving to destroy the doers of sin/evil if all other attempts to stop said sin/evil have failed, or if there is an immediate and severe threat posed by the doer of a particular sin/evil which requires them to be stopped as soon as possible. I do believe Christians can act lovingly when using (even deadly) force to defend others from sin/evil, if necessary.
It is also loving to enforce tough penalties that should dissuade others from committing sin that harms others and/or themselves.
For sin, as a violation of love for God/Love and love for others, is inherently evil and harmful. This is precisely why God forbids sin - not because He's trying to ruin our fun or deprive us of pleasure, but because sin is always destructive and leads to suffering for everyone involved: the sinner(s), the victim(s), and society as a whole. Allowing it to continue unchecked is not showing love towards anyone.
Although some suffering may be experienced in the act of opposing, restraining, or (at worst) extinguishing the sinner, the sinner has brought it on themselves and, in some cases, it is a fair recompense for the pain the sinner has caused others.
Now, we should recognize that the use of violence as judgement on sin and as restraint of evil in this fallen world is often partly unjust, such as when collective judgements come upon entire groups of people in the form of wars or natural disasters, even when not every individual in the group may be worthy of the judgement, or when our human justice systems wrongly convict and punish innocent people.
Yet we can be confident that God will one day right all the wrongs of temporary violence or suffering that has been unjustly done to anyone, and ultimately God will wipe away all the tears of everyone who loves God (Rev. 21:4, Isa. 25:8).
So yes, although God is Love and commands us to love others, unfortunately, this will only be perfectly realized in the New Heaven and New Earth.
In the meantime, we can be encouraged by knowing that God's love is not a wishy-washy, hand-wringing, wimpy love which just rolls over and lets evil people get away with hurting others forever, or imposes no limits on sin/evil in this world.
This is comforting, for we know that one day perfect justice will be done, sin will not triumph, and all evil will be destroyed. This will be an amazing day, and all that will remain is perfect love everywhere and in everyone.
- 1. Jonathan Edwards, "True Virtue" in Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, Volume 8, Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey (Jonathan Edwards Center: Yale University, 2008), 550-551.
- 2. Edwards, "True Virtue", 555-556. Also Edwards explains that self-love apart from love for God/love of all others will end up leading to sin: Jonathan Edwards, "Original Sin" in Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, Volume 3, ed. Clyde Holbrook (Jonathan Edwards Center: Yale University, 2008), 381-383.