Discipleship: Fulfilling the Law

The apostle Paul once wrote of love as a “continuing debt” to one another, saying, “he who loves  his fellow man has fulfilled the law.” He cited four of the Ten Commandments and then included all others, explaining that they “are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as  ourself.’” He said, “Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” You can read it in Romans 13:8-10.

When we consider Paul’s teaching about the relationship between love and the law, it is interesting how we seem naturally inclined to reverse it. We seem to find ourselves more comfortable with the idea of the law fulfilling love than we are with the idea of love fulfilling the law.

Love and law

When it comes to relationships, most of us like to know where we stand. We don’t feel comfortable not knowing whether others like us or don’t like us. We feel better if we have some clear evidence, some way to measure, where we stand with others. Maybe that is why we find ourselves more comfortable with the law being the fulfillment of love, than love being the fulfillment of the law.

The statement, “love is the fulfillment of the law,” does not mean the same thing as the statement, “the law is the fulfillment of love.” The first statement makes love the principal thing and the law the secondary thing. The second statement makes the law the principal thing and love the secondary thing.

In the first statement, the law is subsumed within love. In other words, love is bigger, wider, broader, deeper and richer than the law. When one loves, one has fulfilled the law, but one has also done more than that—one has loved.

Let’s see how that works with the second statement, “the law is the fulfillment of love.” In this case, we would be saying that love is subsumed within the law. We would be saying that the law is wider, broader, deeper and richer than love. We would be saying that when one has kept the law, one has not only loved, but one has done more than love—one has kept the law.

But that is not what Paul is saying. He is saying that love fulfills the law. A person can keep the law without loving. But one cannot love without the law being fulfilled in them. The law gives instruction in the ways that one who loves will live. But the difference between the law and love is that love works from the inside and the law works from the outside.

Different motivation

A person motivated by love does not need to be told to behave in a loving way; a person motivated by law does. Maybe that is why we tend to get uncomfortable with the idea that faith in Christ has superseded the law. We fear that unless there is an outside agent, the law, compelling us to behave rightly, we probably won’t. We know our love is weak, so we don’t trust ourselves to behave with love without a threat of unpleasant consequences as motivation.

The problem with that is obvious: Love cannot be compelled, forced, coerced or threatened into being. Love is freely given and freely received, or it isn’t anything at all. Love is unconditional; anything short of unconditional is something other than love. It might be acceptance, it might be approval, it might be pleasure, it might be happiness, but it is not love, because love has no conditions. That is why our “love” is so easily strained when the people we love fall short of our expectations and demands—as they invariably do.

We fall short of theirs, too. But we usually expect them to overlook and understand the ways we fall short of their expectations. In either case, what we call love is often stretched thin by the failure of either party to measure up to what the other feels is appropriate behavior.

Conditional love

When we allow the demands and expectations of the people we love, however unreasonable they may be, to dictate our lives, we are not free, but imprisoned. Likewise, if we withhold our love from others, making it conditional upon whether they are at any given moment pleasing us or doing what we want them to do, then we are being manipulative, not loving.

When we love others, we love them for who they are, not for what we want them to be. More precisely, as Christians, we love others for who God has made them to be in Christ, not for who we want them to be for us. It is only when we drop the selfish habit of withholding love from others until they adequately please us, that we can also free ourselves from the prison of
striving to please others in order to win or retain their love.

If someone loves you, they do not have to remake you into their image. And you, just as surely, do not have to make someone into your image in order to love them, either.

Unconditional love

“Love is blind” is an old saying that illustrates how silly the common understanding of love is. It is usually taken to mean that love does not see the flaws, problems and warts of the object of love, and is therefore naïve. That is a good description of infatuation, but it is a terrible description of love.

Love is honest. It sees things as they really are, and loves what is real, not some image. A good marriage, for example, is one in which each partner, in love, puts up with the various selfish, immature and obnoxious behaviors of the other. The partners do not waste their emotions and energies trying to manipulate and manage each other through the typical shame games, guilt-trips and favor withholdings that plague so many marriages. We ought to expect that people will not measure up to the silly, grand ideals we hold out for them, and wise people, people who love, know that.

When love is unconditional, then iron can truly sharpen iron (Proverbs 27:17) without the accusations, resentments and recriminations that usually go hand in hand with our typical selfish efforts to “correct” one another.

It would be comical, if it were not tragic, how we can say to each other, “If you loved me, you would not have… (fill in the blank: said that, embarrassed me, done that, forgot that, bought that, sold that, asked that, ruined that, etc.) or “If you loved me, you would have… (been nice to my mother, ironed my pants, stood up for me, known what I meant, etc.).

Maybe an actor in the movies, following a script, would do all the things we wish others would do, at least while the camera is on, but real people in real life don’t—and neither do you.

All of us, in every relationship we have ever had or will ever have, at some point along the way, in one way or another, experience disappointment, if not betrayal. That is a two-way street. We eventually, in one way or another, disappoint, if not betray, the people we care about, too. But to love is to know full well what you are dealing with—one flawed, imperfect and weak human being relating to another—and to love in spite of it all.

The point is: Love is not based on whether the one being loved measures up. Love travels in a different universe from that, and its chariot is forgiveness.

Forgiveness: root and fruit of love

Jesus was once invited to dinner by a Pharisee. During dinner, a woman who was well known as a sinner came in and started anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume. Standing behind him at his feet (in those days, people ate by reclining on a backless couch at the table, so their feet were
directed away from the table), she wet his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.

Naturally, the Pharisee thought this intrusion irregular, but said nothing. He simply thought to himself: “Good grief. If Jesus were really a prophet, he would know what kind of big-league sinner this woman is.” The implication being, righteous men don’t truck with sinners, especially woman sinners.

Jesus knew his thoughts, though, and asked him this:

Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more? Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. (Luke 7:41-43)

Then Jesus turned to the woman and said to Simon: “Look, Simon. You didn’t show me any particular love when I got here, but this woman certainly did, and big time. Do you know why? Because she is a big-time sinner who needs her sins forgiven, and she trusts me to do it, so she loves me big time. But you? Well, Simon, you don’t think you need much in the way of forgiveness, at least not from me, so you don’t show me much love. It’s like that with people who think they are reasonably righteous—they don’t love much, but people who know they are sinners and want my forgiveness, well, my grace inspires them to great love.”

The more we understand how much we’ve been forgiven, the more we love God who forgives us. And the more we love God who forgives us, the more we forgive our neighbor who wrongs us. Forgiveness generates love, and love generates forgiveness.

Love comes from God. He loved us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:6-8), and in Christ he demonstrated his love for us by forgiving us.

Love defined

Paul describes love in 1 Corinthians 13. He begins like this:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I
gain nothing. (verses 1-3)

The only real value, in anything at all, is love. Doing good things, following the rules, keeping the law: these are not the same thing as love, and they can be done without love. Paul continues:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (verses 4-7)

Paul never says of love: “It keeps the law.” Meditating on these beautiful characteristics of love ought to make it plain that love is on a vastly higher and deeper level than merely keeping the law. He goes on:

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (verses 8-13)

Everything is temporary—from prophecies to knowledge to childhood to the spiritual manifestations we put so much stock in—except faith, hope and love, which never fail.

Law rooted in love, not vice versa

The law, contrary to what many well-intentioned Christians believe, does not define love. The law and love may intersect at many points, but they are definitely not the same thing. The law is rooted in love, but love is not rooted in the law.

Just as the law does not define love, so love does not define law. It transcends the law. The law exists only because God loves. I doubt anyone would want to say that God loves only because he first had a law.

Even though the law is a product of love, the law can be misused and turned into something that harms, rather than helps, when it is administered by cruel and pitiless people. But love, from which law springs, cannot be misused.

In his love, God tempers justice with mercy. Regarding the way God views the law and justice, James wrote: “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (James 2:12-13).

Now here is a curious thing! Many religious people have the idea that God’s spiritual blood is constantly at a furious boil at the sinning masses, and that he is first and foremost the God of justice who is itching to blast the evildoers. So naturally, most people who believe this caricature of God go around either worried about or resigned to their obvious toboggan slide to hell.

But James, the biblical writer who is a hands-down favorite of works-oriented Christians, says two remarkable things in the just-cited passage: 1) people are judged by the law that gives freedom, not the law that condemns, and 2) the only kind of people who will get judgment without mercy are people who have not been merciful, because mercy triumphs over judgment!

This ought to be no surprise, because like Zechariah reported, “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another’” (Zechariah 7:9). In other words, in God’s view, there is no other kind of judgment but the kind that is tempered with mercy and compassion. When God talks about judgment, he is talking about something quite different from what a lot of religious people are talking about.

God loves. And because he loves, he gave the law. Because he loves, he judges. Because he loves, he judges us all guilty, since we are. Because he loves, in judging us guilty, he has mercy on us. It is because he loves that he sent Jesus. It is because he loves that he sent the Holy Spirit. It is because he loves that he moves us to turn to him (repent), to trust him (have faith), and that he saves us from sin and death (salvation).

When we love, we are behaving like God. Jesus said, “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Psychologists say that at the most fundamental level, what all human beings need and want is to be loved. If we want to be loved, then Jesus says we need to love, and that, he says, sums up the Law and Prophets.

Released from the law

The law, which justly brings all human beings under condemnation and death, has been replaced by the Spirit, which brings life through Jesus Christ (compare Romans 7:6 and 8:1-4).

Through faith in Christ we are no longer under the condemnation of the law. The law has no claim on us, because we stand in Christ, not under the law. In Romans 6 and 7, Paul uses the analogy that we die with Christ and are raised with Christ. The point of his analogy is that the law, which had a claim on us until death, has now lost that claim, because we have died. Our new life is in Christ, and is not under the law.

It is in this condition, the condition of belonging to Christ and being released from the law, that we bear fruit to God (7:4). Our sinful nature, which would use the law to destroy us if it could, can no longer do so, because we are no longer under the law. Instead, we serve God in a new
way, the way of the Spirit, not in the old way, the way of the law.

What does this mean in practical terms? At least this: There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ. To repeat, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ. Warning: Your natural defenses might not let you believe this at first. It might help to repeat it a couple of more times. If that doesn’t help, you could try looking up Romans 8:1 and reading it slowly. It is hard for us to believe, but it is the gospel.

Those who are in Christ take their stand against their sinful nature on the basis of faith in Christ and life in the Spirit (which are the same thing), not on the basis of the law. On the basis of the law, we lose. On the basis of faith, however, we win. That is not because we ourselves win, but because Jesus is our victory.

We do not need to worry that God has rejected us, or that he will not listen to our prayers, or that he won’t save us, or that he won’t forgive us, or that he doesn’t love us or even that he doesn’t like us. God’s relationship with us is not based on the law; it is based on his Son. If it were based on the law, we’d be sunk. But, thank God, it is not. It is based on his Son, whom he sent to save the world because he loved it, you included (John 3:16-17).

In the Son of God, who became human for us, all the barriers to love have been broken down, whether those were between Jew and Gentile, between enemies, within families, between nations, or between anybody else (Ephesians 2:14-18; Matthew 5:44; Ephesians 5:25; Isaiah 2:4; etc.). Because we trust in Christ, who loves us and makes us into a new creation in his own perfect humanity, we are free to love others in spite of all the reasons humans have to hate others.

Sin not our master

The reason sin shall not be our master is because we are under grace and not under the law (Romans 6:14). If we were under law, sin would be our master. But since we are not under the law, but under grace, sin cannot be our master.

You would think that if we were not under the law then sin would most surely be our master. But that is not how it works, according to Paul. Only grace frees us from sin; the law does not. The law only perpetuates the problem by keeping us enslaved to sin. Sin is overthrown only by grace.

“So you’re saying we can just sin all we want!” someone wants to say. But I didn’t come up with this stuff—Paul did, and Christ made him do it. And yes, we sin all we want. We always have, and always will. And that is just the point. The grace of God changes what we are inside so that we no longer want to sin. At least not in the same way we did before. We might still succumb to temptation, but we don’t want to, we don’t like it, and we fight against it. If we do succumb, we don’t pretend it is OK, and we don’t make excuses for it.

We see our sins as sins, we confess them to God, we trust him for the forgiveness he says we have in Christ, we thank him for his indescribable grace, and we get up and get back in the fight against our sinful nature and keep on striving to live godly in Christ.

We can do that because we trust God to never stop loving us. John tells us in 1 John 4:16, “We know and rely on the love God has for us.” In verse 19, he continues, “We love because God first loved us.”

Think about that. It is God at work in us—God who makes us into a new creation in the perfect humanity of his Son—who turns us into the kind of people who love. This is not something we bring into being by our will, by setting our mind to it. We do not bring it about through our own reason and effort.

We love because God did something for us through Christ that we could never do for ourselves. He became human for us, and he was perfect—he loved and kept the law for us—so that when we are attached to him through faith (which is the only way we can be attached to him), we become something new, a new creation in him.

His atoning reconciliation on our behalf is what makes us into something different from what we are, not our actions, attitudes, emotions or willpower. Through faith, through trusting him, we participate in his perfect love. Don’t ever think that we actually love with perfect love
ourselves, because we don’t. Our salvation from sin and death and our new selves, our new lives in Christ, come only from him and by him and of him, and he gives all this simply because he loves us.

Christ, and Christ alone, is our righteousness (Romans 3:22; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Philippians 3:9; etc.). It is his humanity that God accepts as righteous on our behalf. All religious ideas of human “measuring up” are worthless, because such a thing is impossible. Humanity is saved only because Christ became the perfect human for us, and we partake of that salvation and become a new creation only in him and only through faith in him. There is no other way.

Paul wrote: “For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). We cannot trust ourselves to do that, but we can trust him to do it.

Final thoughts

When Christians say the law is superseded by faith in Christ, they are not saying something has been lost. They are saying that something has been gained—something that so transcends the law as to make it obsolete.

Remember the telegraph? It was a wonderful boon to communication. But today, it makes much more sense to give your mom a phone call on Mother’s Day than to have someone tap her out a message at the telegraph office. The telegraph network as a delivery system, as great as it was at the time, is obsolete because communication technology has transcended it. (It’s only an analogy. If it helps, use it. If not, toss it.)

Christ’s command that we walk in love (2 John 4-6; John 13:34) transcends the Ten Commandments. It goes beyond them. Those who walk in love fulfill the law. The one transcends the other, and they are not the same thing. As John wrote in John 1:17, “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

Author: J. Michael Feazell

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