Love -- Law or Gospel?

In Wesleyan theology there is a large emphasis placed on love, and many in the Methodist movement would go so far as to say “the Gospel in one word is love.”  I could agree with that statement if what is meant is that the Gospel is that God has so loved us that Christ had our sin imputed to him and his righteousness imputed to us that we would receive the benefit of righteousness while Christ endured the curse of the law for us, and that this actually took place in history as an actual event.  In other words, I can agree that our theology should be all about love if you are speaking of the love of God for us.  However if the Gospel is that we are to love God and love others because of what Jesus did then we are greatly confusing the Gospel and the Law.

Let me be clear, we should love others and love God, and in light of the Gospel we should be driven to love, I do not intend to negate that, nonetheless the Gospel has nothing to do with our love... in fact as far as action is concerned the Gospel has nothing to do with us.  The Gospel is news of a completed work, a work that was for us, but that was not carried out by us.  This is a very important post for this blog, because in Methodism as well as most of evangelicalism we are getting this confused.  As the veil has been pulled of my eyes regarding this tragic confusion of love being the Gospel instead of law I have been liberated and able to share this liberating Gospel others.  The reality that love is law not Gospel (in the sense that we are called to love) is a reality that we need desperately to discover in the UMC.

Just to get the terms right here, the Law is what we are commanded to do by God.  The Gospel is the work God did for us in Christ.  Law, our doing... Gospel, his doing.

Romans 3:19-20 ESV  Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.  (20)  For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

Galatians 2:15-16 ESV  We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners;  (16)  yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

The scripture is crystal clear that we will not and cannot be justified by obedience to the Law, because we have already disobeyed it, and have the propensity to continue in disobedience toward it.  To attempt justification by the law is an uphill battle that produces a life of despair and leads to an afterlife of torment.  It is essential that we understand that we will not be justified by our obedience to the Law, period.  We also must understand that the Gospel is about Christ’s fulfillment of the Law for us, both the righteousness demanded by it, and the curses required for transgression of it... for us.

Which brings us to this:

Deuteronomy 6:4-5 ESV  "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.  (5)  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

First off notice that the above quote is given from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy.  This is not a New Testament call to Gospel love, this is an old testament statement of Law.

Leviticus 19:17-18 ESV  "You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.  (18)  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”

Again, notice this is from the Old Testament book of Leviticus, this is not some New Testament paradigm introduced by Jesus.  This is the Law.  When you read the above verses from Romans and Galatians (and there are many more similar passages) which state we will not be justified by the Law they allude to these passages from Deuteronomy and Leviticus as well as any other passage from the Law.  Moreover we find Jesus quoting these passages directly when questioned what the greatest commandments are.  Jesus affirms that love of neighbor and love of God is the summation of the Law.  Jesus calls love the great LAW, not the Gospel.

The Law of God shows us our need for grace, it is a school master leading us to the foot of the cross.  When we take our call to love and put that call in the Gospel column instead of the Law column you create a huge problem, the very commandment which was meant to drive you to the cross instead becomes something altogether different.  It loses it’s power as love, yet gains nothing because it is not Gospel.  Our command to love is the Law, it is not the Gospel, and if you look at your own life, see the lack of love toward neighbor, and the lack of loving God with your entire heart soul strength and might you should be driven to see your need of Grace, and see that in Christ we have that grace given to us.  Yet if you refuse to see love as law, your lack of love will never drive you to grace.

Current trends in almost all of evangelicalism, and the long time trend in Methodism is to confuse love as Gospel instead of Law.  The surveys all tell us that if we focus on love we will grow our churches, and that what the world wants to see is love, and that is true.  If we make our entire focus on love than we will be the most excellent of all Law based religion, but we will cease to be Christianity.  The Jew, the Muslim, and every other major faith can claim its ethic to be love without any Gospel at all.  If we view Jesus only as example and not as sacrifice, if we see him as our best example of loving, and not as the one who fulfilled love for us, then we become no different than all other religion except that we have a better example to follow.  Yet if we see love as the law, and see the Gospel as something altogether different then and only then will we see the marvelous grace which has been given to us in Christ, and actually be freed to love from gratitude instead of loving because we are duty bound to do so.

There is a reason that even the most conservative Churches (Wesley and the Methodist church was ‘conservative’) eventually become liberal in the long run and it is because of this confusion.  With love as your Gospel you eventually end up with a religion that is entirely Law.  You can find common ground with every religious institution, every social service agency, every government, and every other humanistic endeavor because essentially they are all built on the same ethic... that is to love others and the to love the God of your understanding.  Christianity is altogether different, because Christianity alone knows that love is the summation of the law that we have been completely unable to keep, and that our lack of complete love necessitates a savior, and that Christ himself fulfilled the Law, that is fulfilled love, on our behalf and we stand on his merit, not our love.

I’d love to hear a few Methodist friends weigh in on this.


Anonymous said...

not a Methodist, but I sure do appreciate your post. Well said!!! O that people could understand it and that it would be made clear from the pulpit.
Thanks, Jane

Ryan Gear said...

Nice post, Jay. I had a discussion with some friends recently about this very topic. When people are raised in a church that basically teaches "just be good, nice people", being a Christian is viewed as a works-based, save yourself kind of religion discipline.

It can result in either 1) people who feel guilty because they're not always good, nice people or 2) people who no longer take the faith seriously because it sounds like a Mr. Rogers episode.

When sin and the need for a savior are not dealt with, the result is a shallow and sappy faith.

Dave Pettengill said...

As one of your Methodist buddies I couldn't agree with you more! Everything has to be focused on the gospel message of what Christ has done for you and I. I recently brought up this very topic to a group of people. I talked about how we have to help show people we need to share about Christ's sacrifice (Gospel) and live out that love in our lives with others around us (law). I believe that God is love not that he is loving, or has loving attributes but he is actually love. I shared how we can be evangelically missional. That if we just preach that Christ died for our sins but we don't live out our faith or care for those struggling around us then we get the situation that Ghandi said, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." But on the other end which I see in the Methodist church many times is we are very good about caring for the down and out, the hurting, the lonely but we don't share the truth of the gospel with them. When we do this like you said how are we any different than other religions or good-hearted non profits? It can't be an either or but it has to be a both and situation. All the while understand that without the truth of the gospel we would all be lost as we are a sinful and broken people. Thank God for his grace, mercy, and forgiveness and for the opportunity to share that with those around us.

Jay Miklovic said...

Thanks Jane, Ryan, and Dave.

Dave, the problem with Ghandi's statement is that it is a cop out that every unbeliever can use regardless of the 'performance' of believers around them. Nobody will measure up, or even come close to the character of Christ. The unbeliever can always raise the 'you are not like your Christ' argument, and they will always be right. If someone says I am not like my Jesus my only response is Amen, and praise God that he is not like me!!

Check my most recent post, I get a little more into my feelings on this. I think we are sort of on the same page, but not completely. We diverge a little when you say we need 'both/and' because that leaves us on the slippery slope of works righteousness, or leaves the salvation of the world dependent on our ability to love.

Let's get together sometime soon. Maybe we could hit up that new 'Deets' bbq, it is excellent.

Dave Pettengill said...

I agree totally that our salvation is by Christ alone. I am not saved by working in a soup kitchen, buying groceries for a family in need, walking an elderly woman across the street but living out our faith I believe is crucial. We are told multiple times in the book of James in the second chapter that faith without good deeds is dead. Now we are in no way saved by our good deeds as Ephesians 2:8-9 points out but I believe it is crucial for us to have both faith and good deeds. As James 2:17 says, "It isn't enough just to have faith. Faith that doesn't show itself by good deeds is no faith at all-it is dead and useless." I understand though that my good deeds compared to Christ's righteousness is garbage but I am called as a Christian to care for the orphans and the widows in their troubles (James 1:27) and this is a pure and lasting religion in the sight of God. I would say we need good deeds not to justify our salvation or to receive salvation but it is what we as Christ-followers are commanded to do as people of faith. That while we are definitely not saved by our "good deeds" we are definitely called to have a faith that is lived out with good deeds. A life that is just focused on good deeds misses out on salvation that comes through Christ alone and is empty and hollow. However a life that is just faith but is not lived out in good deeds is like James said dead and useless. I also agree that many will use that Ghandi quote to discredit Christians and use it as an excuse to dismiss Christ. I myself am a man in need of a savior and in me there is nothing good but through Christ I am made clean and am a new creation in him. I will never receive salvation through through my good deeds and the world will never receive salvation on my ability to love them but my hope is that by my reaching out to them in love may it provide me an opportunity to point them in the direction of the God who is love and sent his son to the cross to die for them. Through God's son's sacrifice may they experience true love and forgiveness for sin.

Jay Miklovic said...

no disagreement here Dave, totally am with you on all you just wrote, and specifically on the passages you quoted.

However, none of the passages you quoted insinuate that people will come to faith by our good works. This is one of the places the missional movement gets it wrong. The quote by St. Francis about preaching with words if necessary is entirely counter to the 'faith comes by hearing' discourse of Romans.

We do good works because faith
gives us the desire to do so, not for our justification or anyone else's. (I know we agree there.) Good works are an evidence of true faith, and believers do not have to be called to them... they are the natural outflow of new belief and 'living' faith. If we want to see the church ablaze with 'good works' the only route is to focus entirely on the Gospel.

You feel me on this?

BTW you did not answer my critical appeal... Deets?

Rev. Jeremy Smith said...

This is a well-written article that I agreed with in the first paragraph but I think we part ways down the line. Let me write a bit and I would welcome conversation.

Obviously, the Gospel is about what God has done for us: God's love made real and present in creation, prophets, and most fully through Jesus Christ. The Gospel is sheerly what God has done and continues to do for us. As well, Christ fulfilled the Law and we are no longer under Hebrew Bible commandments. I suspect we are in agreement here.

Where you lose me is when we say that Love is the Law. I cannot agree with the premise because I believe Love is not and cannot be a Law.

When we love, the highest form of love is to do so freely:

- If we love to obtain eternal life, then that is works-based righteousness of the worst kind. We can convert 1000 people to Jesus Christ out of love, but if we do so to obtain eternal life, it is not love but self-service.

- If we are compelled to love (as if it were an NT law or a knife being held to my neck to give food to beggars), then it ceases to be love. We then act out of coercion instead of compassion. There are many degrees of this but in essence if we are required to love then we cannot truly love.

I could go on, but at its essence, love that is coerced or acting for its own self-benefit is not love. Love that is a Law demanded by anyone from God on down is not really love because we do not make the choice freely.

So you can see why I am leery about putting Love into the law column, but equally I recognize that our own actions are not in the Gospel column. So, then, where does love abide?

Perhaps love is the vessel by which the Gospel is proclaimed in the world. A selfless love for God and neighbor is not one that seeks righteousness but smooths the way for the Gospel to be spoken and acted out. Love ceases to be a requirement or self-promotion and rather becomes a thoughtless (but not without reflection) habit.

While that is a philosophical point, it does diminish your final paragraphs which seem to be the bulk of your goal of writing this, namely to differentiate Christianity from any other religion or social agency because love cannot be the Gospel. It isn't, you are correct. But the law cannot be love either and coercion to love cannot be the common factor for all others that Christianity supersedes.

Love then becomes a tool for the Gospel but is not the Gospel and is not Law either. We can learn from and engage in loving acts with other religions, we can work with secular organizations who share our own broken desires to love...because we are not confusing the Gospel for the vessel by which it is brought in.

I know that's a long comment and I apologize. But conflating Law and Love seems intrinsically wrong to me, and further using that conflation to negate relations with other religions and social agencies strikes me as missing the point of love in its highest form.

Jay Miklovic said...

Rev. Jeremy-

Thank you for your thoughtful response, let me try to address your comment in parts.

You said: "Obviously, the Gospel is about what God has done for us: God's love made real and present in creation, prophets, and most fully through Jesus Christ. The Gospel is sheerly what God has done and continues to do for us."

Believe it or not this statement is one we do not agree on as much as you might think. The Gospel is what God has done for us in Christ by His life lived for us, his death died for us, his resurrection for us, his ascension for us. The Gospel is good news of a historical occurrence. Creation and the prophets testify to the coming Gospel of Christ, and we now live in light of the Gospel. Nonetheless the Gospel is not 'what God continues to do for us'. It is what has been finished already for us.

You said: I cannot agree with the premise because I believe Love is not and cannot be a Law.

I think Mark 12:28-31 answers this. Because of the Gospel we love, that is true. We love b/c Christ first loved us, no doubt. Moreover our disposition to the law as believers is different than it was as unbelievers. We are obedient because it is our desire, we love because it is now our desire, not because the axe is about to fall. Because of the Gospel we are free to obey the law not out of fear or obligation, but out of our desire. Nonetheless, because we desire to love, it does not negate that it is still law.

You said: "When we love, the highest form of love is to do so freely"

To that I say Amen. This is Pauline theology at its best. We are freed from the curse of the law to obey it joyfully. You could replace 'love' in your statement with any other Godly commandment and it would still be true.

You said: "Perhaps love is the vessel by which the Gospel is proclaimed in the world. A selfless love for God and neighbor is not one that seeks righteousness but smooths the way for the Gospel to be spoken and acted out. Love ceases to be a requirement or self-promotion and rather becomes a thoughtless (but not without reflection) habit.

I disagree. Love is a clearly a commandment in scripture. That cannot be avoided, it is OT and NT commandment. It does not serve as a vessel, it is a commanded behavior. Again, in light of the Gospel we find this behavior to actually be our desire. You statement about 'acting out the gospel' concerns me more than any part of this comment. The Gospel is a historical sequence of events. When we witness, what we do is share good news of events that have transpired for you, and for me. It is not tied to our actions at all. Certainly our actions will affect people's willingness to listen, nonetheless the Gospel is entirely independent of us.

Finally, you assessment that the first portion of this post was to build the case for the last section is not really the case. The last couple paragraphs were merely to show the logical conclusion of the confusion of Law and Gospel. I have no problem working with secular institutions, or working with people of other faiths, or anything of the sort. I even find that when it comes to the LAW all religions are nearly identical and contain the same ingrained 'law on the heart' ethical code. Nonetheless it is the Gospel (the historical, happened in time, Gospel) that differentiates Christianity from all other religion.

Looking forward to your response, this could be a potentially great dialog.

Dave Pettengill said...

Hey Jay,
Too get back to the critical issue at hand yes Deets sounds awesome! I went there once and it was good stuff!

kreendurron said...

This reminds me of a post by a friend of mine.
He titled it.
"Love is no the movement. It's the Law, and you can't do it."

Here's the link for those interested.


Shawn said...

great post jay. you should check out these works on the subject:

Elert Werner. "Law and Gospel"

Walther, C.F.W. "The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel"

John T. Pless. "Handling The Word Of Truth: Law And Gospel In The Church Today"

Zahl, Paul. "Grace in Practice"