The Centrality of Love
“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’ ” (v. 9).- Romans 13:8–10
In 1967, the song “All You Need Is Love” by the Beatles spent three weeks as the number-one song on U.S. radio. Although not written from a Christian perspective, the song reflects an important truth about Christian ethics. Ultimately, God requires from His people that they love Him above all else and love their neighbors as they love themselves (Matt. 22:34–40). In fact, love is so vital that of the chief Christian virtues—faith, hope, and love—only love will never pass away (1 Cor. 13).
So, in order to please the Lord and thank Him for our salvation we need to love Him and love others. Sounds simple, right? And, in one sense, it can be very simple. It is easy for us to complicate things, to come up with rules and checklists that turn the Christian life into a process of checking off our do’s and don’ts. Remembering that God emphasizes love for Him and others simplifies so much.
Yet, we must say more than that our duty is love. For, to say that what we need to do is love does not tell us what love is. The problem is that the definition of love is not self-evident. Many fundamentalist Muslims think it is loving to blow themselves up in crowded marketplaces. Modern Western culture says it is loving to allow people to sleep with whomever they want. Some secular ethicists believe it is more loving to abort a Down syndrome baby than it is to give that baby a chance to live. Impenitent thieves and murderers surely do not think society is being loving when society puts them in jail.
In our fallen condition, we cannot figure out what love is without help. Thankfully, the Lord has given us this help in the form of His moral law. As we see in today’s passage, the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” sums up all of the specific regulations found in God’s law (Rom. 13:8–10). True love has a precise content—God tells us what it is in His law, and He does so with particular clarity in the Ten Commandments.
John Calvin comments, “God intended nothing else by all his commandments than to teach us the duty of love.” When we speak of the use of the law as a guide to the Christian life, we are not replacing love with the law. Instead, to seek guidance for what pleases God in the law is to seek what it means to love Him and our neighbor. Until we are glorified, we need the moral law to show us what love is. Without it, we may do things that we think are loving to others but which may in fact not be loving at all.
Many people find it hard to conceive of love and the law as going hand in hand. That, however, is a reflection of our fallenness and not the teaching of Scripture. We do not belong to God unless we love our neighbor, and we cannot love our neighbor without knowing and doing God’s law. Let us seek always to use God’s law to determine how to love God and others (1 John 3:10).
Passages for Further Study
2 John 5–6