Application of the law of love is not left in some kind of feel good, nebulous, indefinite la la land that leaves us free to do anything we want as long as we “just love one another.” It is hard to practice the law of love – REALLY hard. As long as we are bound to some system of law as a means of justification before God we can’t practice the law of love as God intends it to be manifested in our lives.
But how do we know what the law of love looks like in practice? Here is where example is seen as essential to understanding God’s will for us. It is not through the example of early Christians. They serve as examples to us in the way in which they were expressing their faith in Jesus and their love for him. Their example is binding only so far as we can see them following Jesus and the apostles in the things they were doing.
The example that is binding on us is the example of Jesus. From how he treated people, responded to their needs, taught, observed the Sabbath, the feast days, his attitude toward the Father and on an on. His example is valid because we know he was the perfection of the Father. He knew exactly what his Father wanted of him and of all his children. Jesus always did the will of his Father and in doing so showed what the Father is like. We, in doing what he did and for the same reason he did, will do what is required under the law of love.
As we look at him we see the heart of the Father – his character, his love, his mercy, his grace. It is this that we are called on to restore to our lives – the image and likeness of God. That goes all the way back to the beginning – the reason behind our creation – the purpose God had in mind in creating us.
God’s purpose is the same for us as his family, his called out ones, whether we are thinking in terms of all Christians (what is generally termed the “universal” church), or the disciples in a region or in a city or those who gather in a meeting house, or in someone’s home, or individuals. That purpose is to restore to us that most fundamental of all qualities, the image or likeness of God. It is to restore us to the mission he gave us – the role we are intended to play in fulfilling his purpose in creation.
The words of Paul lead us all the way back to creation. This is clearly stated in 2 Corinthians 5:17
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
But he hasn’t taken us back to Eden. We are a new creation. We haven’t just started over, we have been “born again.” God’s new creation has come, not just in the sense that we have had our sins forgiven, but that the whole thing that God holds in store for us has begun. The new creation has broken into the world and we are his image bearers. God’s purpose for creation is “back on track” and we are to help him carry it forward. We, as God’s people are obligated, not only to be transformed into that image, but to reflect it into the whole of this dark, sin-cursed world by working with him and for him.
Paul also teaches the same thing about the collective of the saints, the church.
“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:15).
Some call this “inaugurated eschatology.” The end things have already begun and God is carrying everything toward his ultimate purpose for me/us and all his creation. As we study the Bible on any question we must ask ourselves “How will this help me/us to manifest the image of the creator in the world in which we live? How will this further God’s purpose both for me and for the rest of creation?” Whatever decision is before us, our decision must take his purpose into consideration whether as individuals or as a group of believers.
To be conformed to his image means more than just obeying commands. Being the image bearer of God and how we obey are very much related, but the dimension of purpose requires reflection on whether or not this action accords with or furthers his purpose. The imperative of developing a God-like character is not met by perfunctory performance. It is realized in conforming to his likeness in the things we do.
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).
That leaves one more thing I believe we need to take into consideration in determining God’s will for our lives and for the church. For want of a better way of expressing it, I call it principle.
“For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another!” (Galatians 5:13-16).
How does the law of love express itself? Do we have to have an express command, example or necessary inference for the things Paul lists as the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 …
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law..”
There is no law for these things except as they flow out of the law of love. How do you command joy? Gentleness? Peace? It can be determined on the basis that they are eternal values or principles rooted in God’s character and nature of love that they are binding on us. That being so, they are imperative upon us, not as a code of law, but as the realization and manifestation of the image of God. They are how we are to realize and express our liberty as God’s creatures. Through the law of love as it operates through these principles we find the freedom to become what God always intended us to be. If we are bound to law of any other kind we are not free.
Freedom in Christ is not freedom to do whatever we please, neither as individuals nor as the church. By its very nature, freedom demands that to be free we must meet the responsibilities that come with that freedom in order to maintain our freedom. Those responsibilities are not expressed in a code of law, but in “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus,” (Rom. 8:2), as opposed to law of the kind that Paul had spoken of in the 7th chapter. This law of the Spirit must be understood in the sense of it being a principle of action rather than another code of law as was the law of Moses.
It is in this area of principle that the really hard work of determining God’s will for us lies. Legalism is easy. That is why it is so readily accepted and so strongly held to. Legalism requires no thought, only rote performance. The hardest work the legalist has to do is searching out all the laws, proving to himself and other men that he is right in all his inferred conclusions. The only decision the legalist has to make is whether he will obey the strict letter of the law or not. Anyone he perceives as not adhering strictly to the letter of the law is, in his consideration, disobedient and apostate. One who acts on this basis is not walking by faith, but by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).
Legalism gives the legalist a false sense of security built on trust in himself that he is legally correct. This is the opposite of faith which trusts God that he has forgiven and will forgive him of whatever way in which he has fallen short of God’s ideal. This is also why the legalist cannot really understand and accept grace. The legalist always dwells on what grace is not rather than on what it is and what it does. If he understood grace he would not be a legalist.
Principle, which is inevitably rooted in the character of God, concerns not a legal conformity but the response of man’s character as he is being transformed into the image of God. This means we have to focus on God to determine exactly what a specific principle is as well as having some insight as to how to apply that principle.
This may in some respect be what has been described as “natural law.” But natural law cannot be distanced from its originator as the deists maintain. It is not just built into the creation and left to us to figure out what it is and how to apply it. It simply cannot be understood without knowing its originator. It still is the law of God, built into the creation as an expression of his nature and glory.
For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. Romans 1:20
Principles, in the sense of which I speak, are as authoritative in determining how one responds to God as are his commands. Take for example the principle of mercy. I know it is commanded, but the Bible teaching on mercy does not begin with a command. It begins with a presentation of God as a merciful God. (see: Genesis 39:21; Exodus 15:13; 2 Chronicles 5:13, et al).
God expects human beings to respond to him by being merciful because he had shown himself to be merciful to them. This is the principle behind Jesus’ words explaining the model prayer …
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15).
Even in passages that show mercy as a requirement (law) what is commanded is invariably rooted in the character of God (his divine nature) and defined by his mercy (loving-kindness) toward man. Principles simply cannot be commanded as can things such as baptism or the Lord’s Supper. But showing mercy is obedience to God, even if it had never been stated as an explicit command.
More tomorrow …