Do Christians live by law or love?


In previous articles, I focused on the negative side of the attitudes and behaviors of a segment of American Evangelicalism. This negative side is legalism. Certainly, not all believers in Jesus Christ are gripped with legalism and live accordingly. One of the main points of those articles is that to think and behave in the manner many Evangelicals do is contrary even to the rudimentary tenets of Christ’s teachings.  

Legalists (of which I’ve labeled myself a recovering one), work hard at and pride themselves for doing what God commands. Like the ancient Pharisees, they even add more rules and laws to make sure every little part of the biblical Law is followed. The irony with legalists and their rules is that they live contrary to Christ’s teachings. Indeed, legalists’ pride for self-effort and their perfect works is contrary to the empowered life of God’s Spirit. To live by self-effort without flaw, mistake, or breaking even the tiniest rule is to violate God’s Law in the third commandment:  “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”  How is that?  Briefly, to take God’s name in vain is not merely to misuse God’s name in crude speech.  The Scripture teaches the application of that commandment is broader than that.  To wear Christ’s name, yet to deny him by living legalistically, hypocritically, or by rejecting his clear teachings, is to take his name in vain.  For a fuller discussion on this important issue, I commend the Westminster Larger Catechism Questions 111 and 112, and J. Douma’s The Ten Commandments. Legalism is pathetic and does terrible harm to Christ's reputation. 

Counter the legalist’s self-effort is the positive side of the life of Christ.  A previous article showed how the early Christians had a powerful reputation for their love for Christ, for one another, and for their neighbors.  Theirs was an authentic, proactive concern and care for others. They were living the Christ life, which is to live out of Christ’s love for believers in the power of the Holy Spirit.  This is how it should be with Christians today.

Their love was not motivated by sentiment or even merely because they were trying to follow in Jesus' footsteps.  God called them, regenerated their hearts, indwelled them by the Spirit, and baptized them in union with Christ. Their affirmative, dynamic love flowed from Christ’s work of love, the plain teaching of Scripture, the infusion of Christ’s spiritual life, the supernatural empowerment and fruit of God’s Spirit, as well as the model of Jesus.

Love defined in 1 Corinthians 13

Jesus’ love is demonstrated in the four Gospel accounts.  It is also clearly taught throughout the rest of the New Testament.  However, the most succinct and straightforward teachings on Christ’s love is found in the thirteenth chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians (New Testament).  The context of this chapter is in a section where St. Paul is explaining how people with saving faith ought to conduct themselves and to live with one another and with the world.  The core of their living is in Christ, and the expression of that Christ-life core is love.  This love is genuine affection and for those who are in Christ by faith, Paul says this love is necessary, expressed, permanent and superior to everything else.

Love is necessary

Paul begins each of the first three verses by stating an existing condition.  Then he shows the results of that condition when there is an absence of love. In the first verse, he says you can speak any language, earthly, or heavenly for that matter, but without real affection, you are no better off, as the ancient church Father Chrysostom said than a “positive nuisance.”  By speaking many languages, Paul implies the one has knowledge, so-called wisdom, and eloquence.  But words of a brilliant master linguist without love are irritating, senseless clangs.

For Christians to have, according to verse two, the best of all spiritual gifts, without love, we are nothing.  And we might give to others or offer up our lives sacrificially, our offering might have some benefit for others, but it is of no profit to ourselves if there is no love.

His point is that love is an absolute necessity for the Christian life.  Remove it and all else is ultimately empty.

Love is expressed

The second thing he points out is that true affection is expressed (chapter 13, verses 4-7).  He paints for us a picture, as one person put it, “of putting on love’s matchless beauty.”

Love is patient

True affection is expressed unselfishly (13:4). For one, authentic love is patient. Patience is restraint when you have the right to act.  Jesus gives a parable of this in Matthew 18:21-35.  His lesson is about a king whose servant owed him an insurmountable debt that he could not possibly owe.  Yet the king was very patient with him.  The debtor, in contrast, was very impatient with his own servant who owed him a small amount of money.  This kind of loving patience is also the ability to delay a response, especially when wronged.  Jesus did this for our sake (1 Peter 3:20).  He was patient with the soldiers who apprehended him, patient with the political powers that tried him, and the religious powers that condemned him. With his power, he certainly could have freed himself and leveled Jerusalem and Rome with barely a whisper. However, out of love for God and for his own, he knew this restraint would lead him to the cross.  It was his destiny to pay for our sins (in fact, for our lack of love and impatience) on the cross.

Love is kind

This authentic love is also kind (read Luke 6 and Ephesians 4).  In a sense, patience is a passive quality - a restraint.  Kindness is an active quality - a bestowal or giving. Kindness is not to be confused with niceness.  Nice connotes a passive pleasantness or sweetness.  Kindness is assertive and proactive.  It may not be masculine to be sweet, but it is manly to be kind; for God is kind. This type of kindness is a characteristic of God’s gracious work in the lives of those who trust in Christ.

Kindness proceeds from a tender heart.  It contributes to the peace and happiness of others.  It is the opposite of one’s disposal to do harm to others.

Love is not envious

The third quality of this genuine affection is that it is not jealous.  This kind of jealousy is a selfishness that boils with intense desire. In the bad sense, it is like envy, that feeling of “uneasiness at the sight of superior excellence, reputation or happiness enjoyed by someone else, accompanied by some degree of hatred...often with a desire to depreciate the person or to have pleasure in seeing him depressed”  (Barclay).  This is what we see going on in Acts 5:17, 7:9, and 13:45.  This envy-filled jealousy springs from pride and ambition. It is shocked that another has obtained what one has a strong desire to possess.  True affection has a desire that others would find success and happiness in their lives.  

Love does not brag

Still another characteristic of true love is that it does not brag.  It is not anxious to display itself like the little banny rooster who struts around because he thinks his early morning crowing caused the sun to come up.  Love is not ostentatious, putting on a display to build up oneself at the expense of others, parading oneself and campaigning to be at the center of attention.  In contrast, true love is humble (2 Corinthians 10:13), emanating from Christ’s humility (Philippians 2).

Love is not arrogant

It is also not proud, or more literally, it does not “swell up like the bellows of a ship.” This Christ-love is not puffed up.  Paul made it clear that a central problem the Christians were having in the city of Corinth was that they were indeed proud.  And their pride manifested itself:  they were contentious (4:6), had a bad attitude toward Paul (4:18), were arrogant in their speech (4:19), were apathetic toward sin and evil (5:2), and displayed an intellectual arrogance that repulsed even non-Christians (8:1).  Reverse those things and you have a view of Christ’s love.

How love behaves

The next major thing Paul points out about this authentic Christ-love is how it is expressed behaviorally (13:5-6).  He has five ways of how love acts, though he puts them in negative terms.  First, it does not act unbecomingly.  That is, true love is not rude or deliberately does something to hurt or embarrass another.

Next, love does not seek its own selfish ways and benefits as explained above.  Not that love is totally devoid of self, but rather self in an arrogant, self-absorbed way that becomes the source of impatience, unkindness, bragging, and unseemliness.

Thirdly, love is not provoked to seek revenge by wrongs or evil.  Love desires justice and what is righteous. It even seeks those things.  Love’s response toward sin and evil is not a desire for personal revenge but rather earnestly desires good consequences would come about so that the sinner or evil doer would change, or repent, or pay so that those who suffered at his or her expense would be properly, fairly served.  Love is not triggered to seek revenge nor allows unjust wrongs to provoke and embitter.

Along with this is the fact that true love does not take into account a wrong suffered.  There is no doubt you will be wronged.  Love for another does not put the wrong they did to you into a mental registry for which there is a plan to retaliate.  Instead, love desires grace and mercy to come upon the offender so that there would be restitution, reconciliation or repentance.  

Note, the thrust of the good news about Christ’s life and work is that he took the registry of our sins, even the sins against him as our God, and paid for them through his sacrificial, loving death upon the cross.

The fifth point Paul makes is that love does not rejoice in or over unrighteousness.  It takes no delight in sin or evil. Love is grieved by wickedness, evil, and injustice.

The apostle goes on to present us with a positive way how love behaves:  genuine love rejoices in the truth.  Since love does not rejoice over unrighteousness but does rejoice over truth, then love is never apathetic or neutral.  This is not merely truth as facts, but moral truth that has its connection to God and his good character.  Love and truth are intimate companions, one person said.  Another wrote, “Love does not avoid truth, and love does not compromise truth.”

The positive side of love is that is it expressed optimistically (13:7).  True love covers over all things (1 Peter 4:8). It keeps things in confidence in order to protect another’s reputation.  That doesn’t mean love keeps quiet about another’s heinous sins or crimes.  Love in this instance is such that it does not wish to broadcast to everyone something bad about a person, even if it is true (1 Corinthians 9:12). One aspect of this is that love does not broadcast slights and personal offenses for the purpose of getting revenge.

It also believes all things. This means that even when love has no forensic evidence, it believes the best.  Not that a loving Christian is to be gullible, easily fooled or conned; rather s/he puts the best construction on things, unless of course there is sufficient warrant to believe otherwise.  For example, when a child tells his parent something, even if the parent is in doubt, out of love the parent will take the child at his word until such time as there is proof otherwise.

Love also hopes all things.  True love is biblically optimistic.  We often think of hope as the wish for a possible, positive future.  But this loving hope is not a hope found in situations, history, the environment, or in people. It is an assurance of a certain future that is rooted in a sovereign God who has all things under control and works all things together for our best (Romans 8:28ff). It is hope found in Christ alone.

The other positive aspect of this love is that it endures all things.  For the sake of Christ and the sake of others, love perseveres and endures whatever comes to it, positive or negative.

Another perspective on this is to say:

     Love deals well with all things.

             When love has no evidence, it believes all things;

                        When the evidence is adverse, love hopes all things;

                                   When hope is disappointed, love endures all things.

We have seen that in contrast to pathetic legalism, the authentic love in Christ, that flows from Christ is necessary and expressed through certain behaviors.  Now we conclude by looking at the last two qualities about this love: it is permanent and it is superior.

Love is permanent

Authentic love has a permanency about it (13:8-12).  True love is enduring. Its effects endure.  Other things, even the supernatural gifts that the Christians in Corinth so highly prized, are transient. Not so with love.  Furthermore, love is mature.

Love is superior

Finally, true Christ-like affection is indeed superior (13:13).  Of the greatest virtues of the Christian life: faith, hope and love, it is love that is the highest significance and importance.  And it is the fundamental quality of the character of a true Christian - not self, not the Law and not legalism.  Faith and hope are far greater and better than any law-produced virtue. And love is far superior to even those virtues! As Paul points out in the Romans 13, love fulfills the law!  Authentic love will love and worship God and him alone. Love will rest in God, and seek him always, but especially on God’s special days of worship.  Love would never dishonor parents or authorities, or betray a marriage bond, or murder, or steal from others, or injure their reputation or falsely accuse another, and love would not be enviously greedy. 

Authentic love in Christ is at the core of a Christian's life

For the genuine Christian who has placed saving faith in Jesus Christ, authentic love is a necessity in life.  Authentic love which comes from the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ and through faith, is at the core of the true Christian’s renewed soul.  It is expressed in a certain way, which by the way does mimic Jesus. It is also permanent and is it superior to all other virtues.

For Christians, this authentic Christ-love is what ought to motivate us as Christians today. This love is not motivated by sentiment, nor even merely because we are trying to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. This affirmative, dynamic love flows from the cross of Christ, the plain teaching of Scripture, the infusion of Christ’s spiritual life, the supernatural empowerment and fruit of God’s Spirit, as well as the model of Jesus.  And it then flows from us in a positive, godly, good way to one another and to all people.