The Condemnation in God’s Love

This series was first published in June, 2016. –ed.

God’s love is a great comfort. But perhaps it’s not supposed to be as comforting as some people make it. As we said last time, God’s love is not a theological blanket that smothers everything else the Bible says about how He relates to us. That myopic, feel-good approach to God’s love often ignores its wider implications.

Specifically, it overlooks the fact that God’s love carries an inherent condemnation.

Love and Legalism

Many believers would tell you that the Christian life is as simple as “loving God and loving people.” It’s a popular slogan for influential megachurches, making those lofty priorities seem effortless. In fact, some erroneously boil the gospel down to that simple phrase.

But that misconception is nothing new—it was a pervasive belief among the Pharisees. Luke’s gospel recounts an incident related to this issue:

And a lawyer stood up and put [Jesus] to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” (Luke 10:25-28)

If you were to stop reading there, you might assume Christ had just opened a side door to heaven. But John MacArthur explains the true point the Lord was making:

Jesus, of course, was not saying that there were some people somewhere who could be saved by keeping the law. On the contrary, He was pointing out the absolute impossibility of doing so, since the law demands the impossible—perfect and complete obedience (James 2:10), and promises physical, spiritual, and eternal death to those who disobey it (Ezekiel 18:4,20Romans 6:23). [1]

Rather than affirming the lawyer’s legalistic approach to salvation, Christ was condemning his false piety and illustrating the impossibility of fulfilling the law.

But the scribe failed to understand that point. Instead he foolishly clung to his self-righteousness and asked the wrong question: “But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10:29). John MacArthur explains the foolishness and blindness that prompted the scribe’s reply:

At this point in the discussion, the scribe should have acknowledged his inability to love as God required and cried out for mercy like the tax collector in Luke 18:13 did. But backed into a corner from which there was no escape, his wretched pride and self-righteousness took over. . . . By “wishing to justify himself,” he failed to deny himself. He refused to confess the reality of his sinful heart, but disdaining the conviction of sin that he surely felt rising internally, he adamantly reaffirmed his external self-righteousness and worthiness. [2]

We see the lawyer’s self-assurance repeated often in the church today, as people assert their ability to adequately “love God and love people.”

But the careless familiarity of that slogan lessens the weight of Scripture’s repeated admonishments to emulate God’s love. Just as the lawyer should have felt the crushing weight of the law in the midst of his self-justification, any honest reflection on the Lord’s commandment should create an acute sense of conviction and guilt.

The Inability to Rightly Love Others

For example, Christ’s command for His disciples to “love one another, even as I have loved you” (John 13:34; cf. John 15:12) at first seems simple enough.

But when you consider the depth of Christ’s love for us—and the great lengths to which He went to express that love—it becomes a significantly greater challenge. Frankly, it’s impossible.

Christ’s love exemplifies the purest demonstrations of selflessness and sacrifice that this world has ever seen. The gospel accounts overflow with examples of His extraordinary love for the people He came to save. And if no sense of guilt arises out of our duty to love others in the same way that Christ loved us, then we know nothing of the price He paid to demonstrate that love.

Consider your own flawed capacity to love others. Every selfish impulse, every effort at self-preservation, and every choice of comfort over compassion contradicts the way Jesus loved. If we’re honest, we rarely love others like that—if ever.

The more we grow to understand the perfection of Christ’s love, the more it magnifies our sinful failure to follow His example.

The Inability to Rightly Love God

And the news is no better when it comes to loving God.

From the earliest days of His covenant with Israel, the Lord demanded supremacy in the hearts of His people. Deuteronomy 6:5 clearly states, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Christ Himself regarded that statement as the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:36-38).

But that passage demands a pause. Do we truly love God supremely above all else? Is His glory our greatest desire? Is our worship of Him free from worldly distractions? Is our most valuable treasure stored up in heaven? Have we fixed our affections on Him? Is the fulfillment of His will our primary motivation? Is obedience to Him our greatest joy? Do we spend—and are we spent—in service to Him? Is every aspect of our lives devoted to serving, worshipping, and glorifying Him?

That’s the nature of the relationship man was meant to have with God. But Adam’s sin severed us from that reality ever since. Only in Christ can we be restored, and only in eternity will we enjoy perfect, loving communion with the Father. For now, the command to love God hangs over us as a perpetual reminder of our guilt, condemning the inability and inadequacy of our fallen flesh.

So What Is the Point?

The condemnation in God’s love is not an end in itself. It’s a motivator—a catalyst for our spiritual growth and godliness.

For self-deceived unbelievers, the rich depth of God’s love ought to be a wake-up call to the severity of their true spiritual state. The simplified gospel of “loving God and loving others” is simply no gospel at all. Rather than finding pharisaical confidence in their ability to fulfill God’s law—even its simplest requirements—they need to understand the fatal flaw that is their flesh. They need to be crushed under the weight of their guilt, and broken of the pride that undergirds their self-righteousness.

They need to undergo the transformation Paul describes in his letter to the Galatian church:

But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:23–24)

In simple terms, they need to be humbled, and come to true repentance and faith.

Careless believers ought to likewise be humbled by the realities of God’s love. Salvation is not an excuse for shallow theology or shoddy living. God’s people must have a proper respect and understanding for His love, and His commands to reflect that love throughout our lives.

Understanding how far short we fall should spur us on to greater growth and godliness. We need to discipline ourselves to greater conformity to Christ, and live lives that exemplify His love to those around us.

Moreover, it ought to spur us on to greater love for Christ. All of these requirements ultimately point to Him, both as the prefect standard of love and the perfect expression of love. He is the One—the only One—who perfectly fulfills all the requirements love demands.

In Him, the character of God’s love finds its truest and fullest expression. And that’s where we’ll pick it up next time.

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