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).
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),
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
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.
Revised 2020 February 10b
Legalism (in my larger essay "Mistranslated
Words in the Bible")
Language and 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")