The Law of Love

There are several words in a (Biblical) church context that have multiple meanings -- with unfortunate results. "Love" is one of the words I'm particularly sensitive to (see "Love" in my essay "Mistranslated Words in the Bible" and my more recent essay "On Love"). It appears that people (particularly pastors) who conflate the Biblical idea of charity (the Greek word 'agaph' means approximately "doing The Right Thing regardless of the cost to the one doing it" and is usually mistranslated in most Bibles as "love") with the popular (American) English language usage ("whatever makes me feel good" as in "I love apple pie" or "I love my wife" or more generally, unconditional affirmation) and in my experience even those thoughtful preachers who claim to make the distinction, once you are in the habit of smudging multiple senses into a single defined word, any word is fair game. That's a very long complicated sentence, so here it is again in simpler language: The English word "love" means "makes me feel good." It is a very bad translation of the Bible Greek word in most Bibles which really means "Do The Right Thing regardless of the cost." Preachers sometimes try to explain the difference from the pulpit, but their redefinition is mostly lost on the people sitting in the pews. In all my life I only knew of one (maybe two) people who actually did the Bible kind of Charity, neither of them pastors (including several who could explain the difference).

God's Law

Today we look at "Law" with particular reference to God's Law, the Torah of God, written down by Moses in the four books Exodus through Deuteronomy -- Genesis is history, not law, mostly eyewitness documents written by various people in various literary styles and collected (perhaps by Moses) and bound up together with his four books of the Law. There is also some history and some poetry in the four Law books; one of the marks of their authenticity is that there is little or no attempt to organize the text into any coherent structure, things just got written down in whatever order things happened, and nobody dared to change any of God's Word.

We generally (and I believe correctly) understand God's Law as a set of commands, (in the King's English) "Thou shalt..." and "Thou shalt not..." Murder, stealing and adultery (three of the Ten, for example) are forbidden. You are required to give all of your devotion and priority to God. The Golden Rule (GR: "Do unto others as you would have them do to you") is also there in the Torah -- the wording is slightly different, because it uses that confusing L-word, but the intent is clearly and exactly the same as the GR -- in the middle of the middle book of the Torah, in the same chapter as "Don't get tattoos" and "Don't pimp your sister," and the same reason is given separately for each: "Because I am the LORD your God" -- if you can't figure out why it's a Good Idea, at least do it because God said so. Also in the Law are specifications about circumcision, kosher dietary rules, special holy-days, and a whole bunch of stuff about sacrifices and ceremonial cleansings. They are all there scrambled together, with little or no distinction given between them there in the Torah, they are all God's Law, given by Moses to His people Israel.

But that does not mean there is no distinction.

Jesus and Law

Jesus told people that Loving God first, last, and always (he called it the First Great Commandment, which I abbreviate "1C") is binding on all people everywhere, you cannot get to Heaven without it, and that the Golden Rule is almost as important (the Second Great Commandment = "2C", because it comes after the First) and is also binding on all people everywhere -- Jesus didn't tell us, but it's not hard to figure out why God cannot allow you into His Heaven unless you are unconditionally committed to following the GR at all times without exception, because otherwise people get hurt, and it wouldn't be Heaven if people got hurt there, would it? There were other Laws in the Torah that Jesus sort of brushed aside, "Concentrate on Justice, Truth, and Mercy" (otherwise known as the GR), he said, and "not neglect" (his words) the little stuff like tithing and the Sabbath. But if for some reason you can't do both, focus on the GR.

Paul and Law

The Apostle Paul was much more explicit. Some of the Law (he named several items like stealing and murder) are "summed up" in the Golden Rule, they are obligatory on all people everywhere, but especially you Christians. You don't understand the GR? That's what the detailed Do's and Don'ts are for, to explain (like a teacher, "schoolmaster" in the King's English) what you should be doing. Once you get the GR, you don't need to memorize all the example Do's and Don'ts, because you will already be doing them. Other parts of the Law (he named several items like circumcision and kosher foods and special holy-days) are not intended for you Gentiles. It's pretty much exactly the same distinction Jesus made. These laws here on the left, the Jewish ceremonial stuff, are not for Gentiles; but if you want to do that stuff, do it all. But don't make life tough on the people who understand that it's not for us. These laws here on the right (the GR in all its variations), do them. He drew a bright shining line between the two kinds of laws, Do the Right Stuff, don't worry about the other stuff.


Now what happens when you confuse charity with unconditional affirmation? Charity is Doing The Right Thing, even if it might be unpleasant, but affirmation is what you give to people who will not behave. They don't want to work hard at running the race, but you give them a blue ribbon anyway. They don't like all these horrid Do's and Don'ts, so you release them, no consequences, just everybody put on a smiley face Kum-Ba-Yah and be free from all rules! So they see Paul using the word "freedom" in Gal.5:1 "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free." Yay! No rules!  And "...Do not let yourselves be burdened by a yoke of slavery!" Slavery is about rules and Do's and Don'ts, but we have No Rules! And they stop at verse 12, just before Paul starts listing a bunch of rules he expects all of us to do, like good slaves of Jesus Christ. What they have done is drawn a different line around the Law than Paul and Jesus did. Paul gave examples of the Law that the Galatians were not bound by, and it was circumcision; whereas giving up your own convenience for the benefit of other people (GR) is not in the list. Right there in Gal.5, Paul draws that big bright line between ceremonial laws and the GR. And the preachers who draw a different line around the whole Law completely missed Paul's point. Because they forgot that the Greek word the translators unfortunately rendered as "love" in English really means giving up rights and privileges, it does not mean "No Rules" (which is what the English word means to almost everybody, including most often those same preachers). So the "gospel" they preach from the three-quarters-epistle of Galatians is in fact "another gospel" like the one Paul condemned in Gal.1:7, the same only different. Different because they lost all of the Law of God, and the same because it is not God's (and Paul's) gospel, but something totally other and abhorrent to God and people alike.

Jesus and Paul are not confused. Both the ceremonial stuff and the GR, both are there in the Torah. Jesus is careful to use the word "Law" only for the things you are obliged to do. Paul is mostly careful to use the word "Law" only for the ceremonial stuff, but he did call the GR "the law of love" because it's still a Law of God (like gravity, things don't work properly without it). Neither Jesus nor Paul confuses the two kinds of law. Both of them tell us that the ceremonial stuff is not what our faith is all about, but rather the focus is on God (1C) and the Golden Rule (2C). Doing the ceremonial stuff never got anybody into Heaven, mostly it helps us to understand how important 1C is. But if God is not the most important in your life, you wouldn't even survive in Heaven. And if you are not in the habit of doing the GR all the time to everybody without exception (2C), then it wouldn't be Heaven for anybody else. And if you prefer "No Rules" here and now, what makes you think you will like all those rules -- or even the single Golden Rule, which is all the other rules put together (as Jesus sort of hinted, and Paul said clearly, twice) -- any better in Heaven?

Under Grace, Not Under Law

Preachers like that line in Romans 6:14, they use it often. Perhaps they know better, but when they quote this half-verse, it sounds like they are saying that God's Law is not applicable to us Christians, we can do anything we want, because God's Grace erases the consequences of everything we do, in contradiction to what Paul said in the very next verse. I know one preacher who actually does know better -- he preaches often from Eph.2:10 -- but his message is muddled because he does not say so when he quotes the half-verse from Romans. Some of the people in his congregation -- I can think of a couple -- imagine themselves to be Christians because they said the Magic Words or prayed the Magic Prayer and this pastor also teaches OSAS (Once Saved, Always Saved), but they have (or in one case, had) not yet got the message that we owe it to God to give our very best to Jesus in serving other people (the GR), so people get hurt, some more some less. God is gracious, the one or two people I mentioned above, they are in the same congregation, under the same preacher. God got through to them. Other people (mostly) figure it out over a long lifetime of seeing it in God's Word and working hard at it. "Many are called, but few are chosen," Jesus said. Paul told the church in Philippi [2:12] to "work" at it.

What Paul is saying in the first half of Romans 6 is that Original Sin (he didn't use that term) made us selfish and slaves to our selfish passions. Once we start doing selfish things -- it's called "sin" because other people get hurt, which runs up a debt -- then we no longer have Original Sin to blame, we get stuck in the selfishness habit of our own doing. We become "slaves" to sin. The Hindus got pretty much everything else wrong, but they have a wonderful word "karma" that expresses the consequences of sin. The Hindus don't say so, but karma has present consequences as well as future. You are stuck. In Redemption God "redeems" (pays the price) of our captivity, buys us back from the SlaveMaster, so we are no longer slaves to sin and selfishness, but instead we are slaves of the Person Who bought us, that is, we become slaves of Jesus. Simple economic transaction. Slaves of ("under") Grace, not Law (which requires that debts be paid). If we never sinned at all, then we would have no debts to pay off, and never owe anybody anything, and wouldn't need to be bought back. But we sinned and he paid the bill, so we have that obligation.

BUT we still have the universal obligation to the Golden Rule, which applies at all times to all people everywhere, including Christians after they were redeemed. Just because we were bought back out of slavery to Sin does not mean that we can with impunity jump back into sinning and rack up more debts for Jesus to pay off. It doesn't work that way. If that's what you want to do, then it means you never "repented at all" -- the word means that you made an honest and lasting effort to STOP SINNING -- so the Redemption was a fraud, and you were never saved at all. Jesus paid your price and never got anything for his effort. If you are a Real Christian, Paul tells us, you will stop sinning. Mistakes Happen, but they are the exception, not the rule. They are the dirty feet Jesus needed to wash, not the whole body that Peter thought he needed to ask for in John 13:9.


Let me make this perfectly clear: doing the GR does not get you into Heaven, it only makes it possible for there to be a Heaven after you get there. It is important that you do it now, today, because otherwise how will God know that you can and will then? What gets you in, is never failing to do the GR. None of us ever succeeded at it, we are too selfish, born that way. The "selfish" part is Original Sin, inherited from Adam, but following our selfish ambitions at the cost of other people is sin, our own choice and fault, and there will be no sinners in Heaven. There is no karma for doing Good, you should do that anyway, because that's what God made us for, but all those failures, that's karma. It not only keeps you out of Heaven, it sets you up for repeated failure. There are no do-overs, but Jesus paid for your karma on the cross. That's "grace" and it pays for past failures. Now stop sinning. That's what Jesus said to the woman taken in adultery, and to just about everybody else. Paul said the same thing in Eph.2:8-10. People stop reading at verse 9, but Paul makes it clear in verse 10, God expects you to do Good. And you can, if you want to, with God's help. And if you don't want to do Good all the time without exception, you wouldn't like it in Heaven. That's OK, God has graciously prepared another place where there are No Rules. People can do anything they want to you -- yes, it works both ways -- and there is no Law to prevent them or punish them. They will be punished, but God is not there to do it, the other people (the people who don't want any rules) will do it. Is that what you want? I don't. God doesn't want it either, but you get to choose: not what it's like when you get there, but you choose where you want to end up. Do you want to be in a Place where everybody follows the Rules so it's nice? Then you must also be a (nice) Rule-follower. Or the other place, the place for people who don't want nice.

They don't tell you in church (but they should), all those pesky rules, like the sex stuff and traffic laws, even what clothes to wear, those are all specific cases of the Golden Rule. People get hurt when the rules are violated. Nobody wants to get hurt, so doing that stuff is a violation of the GR. The mature (in the King's English 400 years ago, "perfect" meant grown-up or finished like the Greek word it translates; much later the word came to mean "without flaw" but most modern Bible translators have not figured it out yet) adult people have learned not to do those bad things that harm other people. The rest of us are still working on it. Most people don't care if people around them get hurt, so of course God will not be inviting them into His Heaven. Don't do that.

Tom Pittman
Revised 2020 February 10b


Legalism (in my larger essay "Mistranslated Words in the Bible")
On Love
Language and Love
Selfish Love
The Job Affair
Love, A Christian Perspective
Love Is Selfish
Love Is God
Charity vs Love
The Counterfeit Religion of Relationships (including links to other essays on the topic)
Why the word "relationship" is not in the Bible (in my larger essay "Mistranslated Words in the Bible")