This Is Love
Prior to Grace, you could sum up my Christian life in this: my love for God. That doesn’t sound too bad, but our love for God is not the Good News. Our love for God is actually the summation of the Old Covenant.
“What is the greatest commandment?” When Jesus answered this question posed by the religious leaders of His day, He quickly summed the Old Covenant with, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40). Do you see all these “your” statements?
The Law’s message is clear: you should love God and love people. And yet, Corinthians indicts the Law “written and engraved on stones” as the “ministry of death” and “condemnation.” Romans says that the Law is just, holy, and good, but is powerless because of “sinful flesh” in helping us do what it demands. Its perfection is our problem.
Hey, ladies. You’re shopping for a new dress; a yellow, summer dress. Why not? Giddy with excitement, you try it on in the dressing room. You turn and look in the mirror. “Oh, no!” This dress does not agree with you. Just think of it this way: it can’t handle you—literally. What a rude, rude dress this is. Now, whose fault is this? More specifically: is this the mirror’s fault?
I know you want to punch the mirror, but really, the mirror is innocent. It’s simply showing you what’s going on with you. This mirror cannot bend in its absolute perfection of showing you, you! This mirror has no heart of love to offer you sweet nothings in your ear despite your yellow-dress-mess. That’s not the purpose of a mirror.
The Law is this mirror. It shows you what’s up with your flesh. In all of its full glory and perfection, it shines unbendingly upon your adherence to its commands! It cannot bend one millimeter, or it would forfeit its glorious perfection as LAW. Though it demands wonderful things, it offers no support and lends no aid. You are simply left with you and your ability to perform.
Perform for the Law, and you’ll stand condemned every-single-time. Live under Law, and you might as well tattoo: 1) guilty or 2) self-righteous on your forehead; which way you swing depends on how much pride you have. Preach the Law, and you’ll revive sin. “For apart from the Law, sin was dead. I was alive once without the Law, but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died” (Rom. 7:8b-9). This verse is memorized in hell for some good ole’ fashioned sin-revivals. Many good-intentioned believers are killing their listeners, and empowering sin, with zealous ignorance of the Law’s purpose. “The strength of sin is the Law” (1 Cor. 15:56). If sin were fire, the Law is gasoline.
This is why Romans pins the Law’s purpose to “make all men guilty before God” and the obvious conclusion that “no flesh will be justified in God’s sight by the Law.” This flesh-pointing mirror was a taskmaster—an inflexible tutor meant to exhaust our pride.
“All that you command of us, we can do!” This is the heart of what Israel said to God before the Law was given. The Hebrew language renders this as drenched in pride. For the first time in Israel’s history, God promoted distance; “Don’t come near the mountain lest you die.” We were not meant to relate to God according to righteousness that comes from the Law.
Paul always communicated this reality: “not having my own righteousness which is from the Law,” which is self-righteousness, but rather, “a righteousness from faith,” which is gifted righteousness from God (Phil. 3:9-10).
This is why Jesus elevated the holiness standard of the Law to the Pharisees who thought they were in right-standing with God, based on their adherence to the Law. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28). Imagine seeing peepy-Joe’s face when he heard Jesus say that. There goes his heavenly-pension. “Who can be made right with God if this is so?”
An inward coming-to-the-end-of-your-self-rope must happen before a total reliance on Christ for all things begins. The Law, in all its unbending glory, will snap any rope. When it does, it has tutored us well unto Christ. How sweet to taste the glad-tidings of restful Grace when we’ve hard-slogged to earn it by the sweat of our brow for so long.
The Ten Commandments, which Jesus summarized in two, are the foundation of the Law and are, in essence, “Do these good things and don’t do these evil things.” This is simply the knowledge of good and evil. Remind you of a tree?
God said, “you will surely die” if you eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This tree represents the Law for “the letter kills” (2 Cor. 3:6). It was when Adam ate the Law that his conscience awoke to sin because “by the Law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Which tree you eat from determines if you’ll have the knowledge of sin or the knowledge of Christ.
God continually sets these two trees before us today. Will you eat from the Law or from Life? When I ate from the Old Tree: I wallowed in death and knew nothing of intimacy. (Adam used to walk with God but hid after he ate). “Who told you that you were naked?” Adam’s conscience, freshly seared by the Law, said, “Guilty!” Just like Adam, my Christian-normal was a repetitive cycle of failing, guilt for it, fig-leaf distancing, and finally shame. Shame is identifying with sin instead of Christ.
Add up all these indictments, and it is obvious why God found fault with the first Covenant (Heb. 8:7). The will of the Father that Jesus completed was to "Set aside the first [Covenant] to establish the second" (Heb. 10:9). Much of my confusion came from prominent Western voices that taught (and sang) as if Jesus didn't change or accomplish anything. Old-Tree-Syndrome.
Perhaps you don’t have peace with God because you’ve been hearing a weak mixture of these Covenants your whole life. “God’s love is unconditional. Except it has lots of conditions.” Jesus said when you patch an old wineskin with new skins, both break, and both lose their power. He’d prefer Covenants be hot or cold—not mixed at lukewarm. Mixing Law with Grace, which some call balance, spoils both. Castrate the Law by bending its perfection, and it will never snap a self-righteous rope. Add a little leaven of the Law to Grace and dim the glory of Christ. You could say it this way: If God wants all the glory, let Him do all the work.
Jesus changed everything, including our Covenant with God, and it's a far superior Covenant, built on better promises (Heb. 8:6). Prophesied by Jeremiah, and repeated by the author of Hebrews, God says, “For this is the [new] Covenant that I will make with the house of Israel says the LORD: I will put My desires on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Heb. 8:10).
Do you see all these “I” statements from God? This New Covenant is focused solely on God’s behavior towards us. It doesn’t look like we have much of a role to play here. How do we enter this New Covenant? “For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more” (Heb. 8:12). The Greek in this verse communicates: “I promise with all that I am, I will absolutely never count your wrongs against you. May it never be!”
This is a double-clad guarantee. Our entry into this much-better Covenant is through God’s actions, not ours. Our role is simply to believe the glad tidings of God’s love for us. Whereas the Old Covenant could be summed up by our love for God, the New Covenant is summed up by God's love for us.
Scene: A motley crew of Jewish-Seminary rejects have been kicking it with their rogue Rabbi for three years. They’ve seen, time after time, this Jesus, “anointed with the Holy Ghost and with power doing good and healing all that were oppressed of the devil” (Acts 10:38). Jesus, always overcoming death everywhere He goes, has mentioned His own death quite a few times over the years. His disciples, unlearned fishermen, let it go in one ear and out the other. “Stop talking crazy, Jesus.”
Before Jesus’ death, He calls for one last supper, telling Peter and John, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat” (Luke 22:8). Our two boys, Peter and John, are about to provide a fitting contrast at this dinner party. Jesus drops the bomb again. “My blood will be shed for you.” Peter, whose name renders stone, responds in true strong-willed fashion, “Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death” (Luke 22:33). John, whose name renders grace, makes no boast and rests his head on Jesus’ chest. The disciple boasting in his love for God ends up denying Him three times. The disciple resting on Jesus’ heart of love ends up at the foot of the Cross during His crucifixion.
John’s affectionate title, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” only appears in John’s own writings. This disciple, who had no special access to Jesus compared to his peers, simply leaned all of his weight on the love of Christ for him. Believing and living this way, as opposed to leaning all your weight on your love for God, will produce in you a beautiful intimacy with God. Peter, who felt distant from Jesus and most likely unsure of himself, had to ask John the Beloved for inside information at the Last Supper. “John, can you ask Jesus for me, who will betray Him?”
Our capacity to love God and love people is only as potent as our consent to receive His love for us. “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Jesus put it simply and profoundly, "As you have freely received, freely give." Strap your receivers on, folks. God is constantly surveying the earth for a heart open to receive His inexhaustible affection. “This is love: not that we love God, but that He loves us” (1 John 4:10). You are the beloved, after all. Perhaps it’s time to start posturing yourself as the be-loved.