Someone once asked Jesus which command was the most important. He answered, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:36-38). Our relationship with God ought to be characterized by complete devotion.
Our need for grace
But who is able to keep this commandment completely? We all fall short. Yet in his grace, God not only forgives our failure, but also transforms us and works in us to make us righteous in Christ.
The fact that we fall short leads us to appreciate God’s mercy and grace all the more. Without grace, we could not hope for a victorious life in Christ, for on our own, we are helpless to live in the love of God. But grace gives us hope and meaning in our walk with Christ. Grace encourages us to live in Christ, because it teaches us that righteousness is God’s gift to us in his Son (Titus 2:11-14).
Even while we were enemies, God sent his Son to die and be raised for us. God’s indescribable generosity toward us gives us reason and motivation to love him.
We gratefully give our lives in willing service to God, not out of the demands of law, but out of his love in us. Demands never produce love. Love produces love. God gave himself for us because he loves us, and our response is rooted in his love, not in his law, which could never save us (Romans 3:20-26).
Through no goodness of our own, we have been rescued from death and given eternal life. The more we realize how much God loves us, even though we deserve death, the more we are thankful for his grace, and the more glad we are to live for him. The more we know God, the more we love him, because he lives in us. "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19).
Obedience motivated by love
There is no limit to the love God has for us, who gave us his own Son in whom we have died to sin and now live in righteousness. "If you love me," Jesus said, "you will obey what I command" (John 14:15). If we know Christ, we obey his commands (1 John 2:3-4).
Jesus did not say, "If you obey me, then you will love me." It never works that way. Obedience does not lead to love. But love does lead to obedience. The more we know Christ and rest in his love, the more we freely obey him. But striving to obey God without first knowing him and trusting in him for love and grace produces guilt, frustration and a judgmental heart.
Obedience is the fruit of knowing God for who he really is—the one who loves us unconditionally and who places his love in us through Christ.
John wrote: "This is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love" (2 John 6). Obedience to God springs from love. That’s why love is the greatest commandment.
Obedience grows in the garden of God’s love. Knowing God and trusting him to love us despite our sins, as he has already proven in Christ (Romans 5:10), motivates us to obey him.
The greatest commandment tells us that love should motivate everything we do. And yet we fall short in our motives. Sometimes we do right for the wrong reason. Perhaps we are afraid of what the neighbors might think, or what other Christians might think, or what the pastor might think. We want others to think well of us, so we do right, but our motive is essentially self-centered.
Sometimes we do right because we think God will punish us if we don’t. That may be true (he chastens every child he loves), but it is a substandard motive for obeying our Creator. This is like the obedience a slave gives.
Other people do the right thing because they think they’ll be blessed for it—they obey because they think God is paying them to do it. Their relationship with God is like that of a servant instead of a member of the family. It’s better than not obeying at all, but it is less than the love relationship, the intimate fellowship with him, that God wants for us.
Acceptable to God
If we are in Christ, if our faith is in him, then we are acceptable to God. "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1).
God’s grace is sufficient. We may fall 490 times, and yet God forgives (and he doesn’t keep count). Sometimes we don’t even know what we are doing, and we don’t realize we need to quit, but God forgives our ignorance.
Is God too merciful? Maybe it seems that way sometimes. The Pharisees thought that Jesus was too merciful. And yet Jesus demanded more than they did. He told his disciples to take up a cross and follow him, to forsake everything and be willing to die for him.
Jesus walked to the cross by himself, forsaken by all his disciples, to die for us. What a precious gift! Though we deny Christ at times, as Peter did, God restores us, as he did Peter.
We are witnesses of Christ, as Peter was, and we sometimes get caught in hypocrisy, as Peter did. But in the end, we have God’s assurance that he is faithful in his undying love for us and that he promises us eternal life in Christ, as he did Peter.
The greatest commandment helps us see the gospel. It tells us that we have an unlimited obligation to the one who is unlimited in his love and grace for us. Our life is a gift of God. The more we know God the more we love him, and the more we love him the more it is our pleasure to serve him and do his will. And his will, of course, is that we love him, that we trust him, that we have faith in him, and that we have eternal fellowship with him in his Son.