Legalism, Love, and the Law

 One of my favorite shorter articles on Christian ethics is John Murray’s contribution simply called, “The Christian Ethic.”  At one point in this article he discussed how God’s law and love relate in Christian ethics.  He gave three specifics: The primacy of love, the priority in love, and the specific nature of the correlation of law and love.

The section I’ll post below made me think of legalism.  Legalists are very law-heavy and quick to judge others when it comes to the details of the law.  Legalists will quickly condemn Christians, preachers, books, Christian music, and so forth if these things do not measure up to their law-heavy and detailed standards.  Legalists are always upset with someone or something and they rarely encourage, help, or share the burden of those who are (in their eyes) inferior.  They are quick to complain and condemn, but slow to encourage and help.  I don’t think it is an overstatement to say this: the more legalistic a person is, the less he or she truly loves others.  The opposite is also true.

Here’s Murray’s discussion of the primacy of love in the law:

  1. Love is primary because only by love can the commandments be fulfilled.  Love is emotive, motive, impulsive, and expulsive.  It is emotive in that it constrains affection for its object, motive because it is the spring of action, impulsive because it impels to action, expulsive in that it expels what is alien to the interests of its object.  We know only too well what a grievous burden is formal compliance with commandments when there is no love.  Why is labor so distasteful, why so much heartlessness, and with heartlessness deterioration in quality and the mark of dishonesty on the product?  It is because there is no love.  Most tragic of all is the evidence of this in the highest of vocations [callings] and the discharge of the most sacred functions.  The apostle reminds us: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing” [NASB].

This quote is found on page 178 of John Murray’s Collected Writings, page 178.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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Loving Other Saints Who Are Sinners (Watson)

 Christians mess up and make mistakes.  Followers of Jesus sin and don’t always act in a kind and loving way.  Sometimes Christians are even difficult to love!  However, we as God’s people are called to love each other with a fervent and forgiving love (Col. 3:12-14).  Whether in a marriage or between family and friends, Christians must love each other.  I like how Thomas Watson talked about this on page 82 of All Things for Good:

We love a saint, though he has many personal failings.  There is no perfection here.  In some, rash anger prevails; in some, inconstancy; in some, too much love of the world.  A saint in this life is like gold in the ore, much dross of infirmity cleaves to him, yet we love him for the grace that is in him.

A saint is like a fair face with a scar; we love the beautiful face of holiness, though there be a scar in it.  The best emerald has its blemishes, the brightest stars have their twinklings, and the best of the saints have their failings.  You that cannot love one another because of his infirmities, how would you have God love you?

Thomas Watson, All Things for Good, p. 82.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Origin of Brotherly Love (Vos)

The Collected Dictionary Articles of Geerhardus Vos I always appreciate the writings of Geerhardus Vos.  His biblical/theological dictionary articles are no exception.  Here’s an excerpt of his article on brotherly love from the late 19th-century publication called Dictionary of the Apostolic Church.

The Origin of Brotherly Love: Religious love in general is a supernatural product. It originates not spontaneously from a sinful soil, but in response to the sovereign love of God, and that under the influence of the Spirit (Rom. 5:5, 8, 8:28, 1 Cor. 8:3 [where “is known of him” = “has become the object of his love”], Gal. 4:9 [where “to be known by God” has the same pregnant sense], 1 John 4:10, 19).

Love for the brethren specifically is also a product of regeneration (1 Pet. 1:22, 23; cf. 1:2–3). Especially in St. Paul, the origin of brotherly love is connected with the supernatural experience of dying with Christ, in which the sinful love of self is destroyed, and love for God, Christ, and the brethren produced in its place (Rom. 6:10ff., 7:4, 8:1–4, 2 Cor. 5:14–16, Gal. 2:19–20). Accordingly, love for the brethren appears among other virtues and graces as a fruit of the Spirit, a charisma (Rom. 15:30, 1 Cor. 13, Gal. 5:22, 6:8–10).

 Vos, G. (2013). The Collected Dictionary Articles of Geerhardus Vos. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Preaching the Law with Love (Bridges)

A friend and I were recently discussing several parts of Charles Bridges’ The Christian Ministry. One section I have marked and underlined quite a bit has to do on how a preacher should rebuke with love.  This also has to do with preaching the law: it should be done with love.

“The spirit of love must deeply imbue the language of reproof.  We must ‘exhort,’ but ‘with all longsuffering’ (2 Tim. 4:2); bearing with the frowardness that will often resist the most affectionate pleading.  Meekness, gentleness, and patience must stamp our instruction of the opponents of the Gospel.  We must wound their consciences as sinners, not their feelings as men; carefully avoiding unnecessary excitement of enmity; and showing the faithfulness that lays open their sins, to be the ‘wounds of a friend’ (Prov. 27:6), the chastening to be that of a father (2 Cor. 2:4).”

“The recollection of our former state (not to speak of our present sympathy with them as their fellow-sinners) will give a considerate tenderness to our reproof, which without weakening its application, will powerfully soften the heart to receive it: so that it falls, ‘as a wise reprover upon an obedient ear’ (Prov 25:12).  Indeed it is when we most deeply feel our own sinfulness, that we speak most closely and powerfully to the consciences of our people.”

Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry, p. 335.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

The Whole Chain Holdeth (Sibbes)

The unbreakable, unchanging love of God for his children is one of the most comforting truths in Christianity.  God’s love for us in Christ is a free love.  This means it is not dependent upon something in us or something we have done or left undone.  He knew we were ungodly sinners, yet he loved us and gave his Son to die for us (cf. Rom. 5:8).  He loves his people with an everlasting love (Jer. 31:3).  When we stumble and fall, his grip of love does not waver. His love for us is firm and constant. Richard Sibbes explained the comforting aspect of God’s love very well in A Heavenly Conference.  Here’s an excerpt; notice how the love of the Lord is very much related to the perseverance of the saints:

Beloved, let us not lose the comfort of the constancy and immutability of Christ’s love. Let us conceive that all the sweet links of salvation are held on God’s part strong, not on ours; the firmness is on God’s part, not on ours. Election is firm on God’s part, not on ours. We choose indeed as he chooseth us, but the firmness is of his choosing; so he calleth us, we answer, but the firmness is of his action. He justifieth; we are made righteous, but the firmness is of his imputation. Will he forgive sins today, and bring us into court and damn us tomorrow? No. The firmness is of his action. We are ready to run into new debts every day, but whom he justifieth he will glorify. The whole chain so holdeth, that all the creatures in heaven and earth cannot break a link of it. Whom he calleth he will justify and glorify. Therefore never doubt of continuance, for it holds firm on God’s part, not thine.

God embraceth us in the arms of his everlasting love, not that we embraced him first. When the child falleth not, it is from the mother’s holding the child, and not from the child’s holding the mother. So it is God’s holding of us, knowing of us, embracing of us, and justifying of us that maketh the state firm, and not ours; for ours is but a reflection and result of his, which is unvariable. The sight of the sun varieth, but the sun in the firmament keepeth always his constant course. So God’s love is as the sun, invariable, and forever the same.

Richard Sibbes, A Heavenly Conference, p. 53-54.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

God’s Saving Love: Personal or Impersonal?

Greg Forster makes a great point about the Calvinist view of God’s love in contrast to other views of God’s love.  Either God’s love is a personal, intimate love that embraces some sinners, as the Calvinist says, or it is an impersonal, abstract love that embraces none.  Here’s how Forster says it:

Every tradition besides Calvinism claims that God’s saving love is aimed not at particular individuals but at humanity in the mass. [They say] God may well love individuals, personally.  But that aspect of his love is not what saves people.  Jesus did not die on the cross and rise again because he loved you personally – loving you, the individual whom he knows completely and intimately.  He did it because he loves people in general, in the abstract.

In short, Jesus died on the cross and rose again because he ‘loves humanity.’

It is important to clearly grasp the difference between saying God loves all people – loves each of them personally, as individuals – and saying ‘God loves humanity’ in the abstract.  It is one thing to say God loves you personally, and also loves me personally, and also loves this person, and that person…and so on until we have included every individual in the human race from Adam to the last person born at the end of history.  It is a very different thing to say God ‘loves’ the theoretical concept of ‘humanity’ – that he loves the abstraction, the mass as mass, impersonally.

…All theological traditions besides Calvinism claim the saving ‘love’ for ‘humanity’ that led Jesus up to the cross and down to the grave, and then back up out of it, is a love that does not embrace any specific individuals at all.  If it did, that would put us right back where we started with our problem.  If the love that led Jesus to the cross is a love for any individual people, it is either a love for all individual people or only for some.  We don’t want it to be only for some, because that thought is horrible.  But if it’s for all people then either they’re all saved (which we know is not true) or God’s work fails in its purpose (which we also know is not true).  So God’s saving love is either a personal love that embraces some and not others, or it is not a personal love at all; it embraces no individuals.  It is entirely abstract.

Greg Forster, The Joy of Calvinism, p. 52-3.

Shane Lems

Augustine and Love (Oberman)

The Reformation: Roots and Ramifications This is an excellent resource: The Reformation: Roots and Ramifications” by Heiko Oberman.  I just finished reading the chapter that covered mysticism in the medieval church; it was quite helpful.  It’s too detailed to summarize in one blog post, so for now I’ll just quote a section where Oberman summarized Augustine’s view of love.  This is worth thinking about – especially the two different “orbits”.

[Augustine was] a theologian of love. Not only is his great survey of history in ‘De civitate Dei’ (The City of God) shot through with the theme of love, but his ‘Confessiones’ (Confessions) take from the love of God and from God’s love a new definition of the person. Reason and intellect do not place us in the cosmic hierarchy, contrary to what Augustine had learned while studying philosophy, but love. Love is ‘pondus’ (weight), and ‘pondus’ is not a burden but rather gravity, and therefore determines the orbit into which a human being gravitates.

Augustine assumes that there are only two sorts of people, who move in two different orbits. One sort rotates around themselves, the other sort, around God. Both orbits are determined by the love that seeks the center, either by amor sui, self-love, or by amor Dei, the love of God. In order to make the jump from the ‘self-centered’ orbit to the other one, human beings need the help of a sovereign act of God. God alone makes this jump from the old to the new orbit happen—by his grace alone, ‘sola gratia.’

Heiko Augustinus Oberman, The Reformation : Roots and Ramifications (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 82–83.

(A paperback copy of this book is available on Amazon.)

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI