What’s this? Well, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say that looks like an excessively long blog comprised of an essay-esk writing that talks about love, the Jesus, situational ethics, religion things and a lot more awesome that’ll blow your mind. Yeah, that’s most definitely what it is.
Don’t worry, I’m not nearly smart enough to come up with this thing on my own. I believe it was originally written by this “Randy A. Leedy” guy sometime in 1996 and is somehow affiliated with Bob Jones University. And to top it off, I didn’t even change anything in it. It originally came from this awesome website.
So, brace yourself for some ethical-flavored awesome.
THE ETHIC OF LOVE
“The one badge of Christian discipleship is not orthodoxy, but love.”1 So says Billy Graham, and this idea seems to be the fundamental tenet of the New Evangelical movement which he represents. “The ruling norm for Christian decision is love.”2 This statement, while similar in import, comes from a radically different source; it originates from Joseph Fletcher, an early popularizer of situation ethics. When such erroneous systems of thought and practice take love as their guiding principle and highest good, it is natural for Bible believers to look askance at anyone who would maintain that love is the foundation upon which Christian behavior must rest. This is precisely the proposition, however, that this article seeks to establish. Christian living involves daily decision making on ethical issues, and the Bible clearly declares that a proper understanding and exercise of genuine love is the only reliable basis for those decisions. In the process of establishing this position, we will also come to understand where the errors lie that cause some who begin from the same point to go astray.
The Biblical Teaching on Love
The Old Testament places love among the requirements of the law. The book of Deuteronomy in particular enjoins upon Israel the duty to love God. But the primacy of love as the foundational Christian responsibility becomes unmistakably clear only in the New Testament.
1William Martin, “Fifty Years with Billy,” Christianity Today, 13 November, 1995, 22. 2Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics: The New Morality (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), 69.
The Primacy of Love
Both Matthew and Mark record an exchange between Jesus and a
pharisaic lawyer in which Jesus gives a plain answer to the question of which of the Old Testament commandments is the greatest.3 “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,” said Jesus; “This is the first and great commandment.” And, unwilling to cite just one commandment as the greatest, He went on: “And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matt. 22:37-39).
If Jesus had stopped at that point, the reader may well wonder in what sense these commandments are considered to be the greatest. Is it that these must be obeyed at all costs, even if doing so requires disobedience to some other command? But Jesus’ words leave no doubt: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (v. 40). These commandments are the “first and great” ones in the sense that they are the basis for all the others. By keeping these, a person fulfills all the others as well.
This is certainly what Paul understood Jesus to have taught, for he wrote, “He that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfulling of the law” (Rom. 13:8-10). Paul in this context is dealing with relationships between men, and he maintains that the second table of the Law and any other commandment there may be that regulates human relationships are all fulfilled
3Luke contains similar teaching, although set in a different kind of context (Luke 10:25- 28).
in the single command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. He reiterates the same teaching in Galatians 5:13-14.
The Apostle John, in his first epistle, adds his voice to the chorus singing the praise of love. There he writes, “God is love, and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world” (4:16-17). John says that it is possible to have confidence in the day of judgment, and he bases that confidence upon the fact that our love has been brought to maturity by our dwelling in the God who is love. In other words, to the extent that we love, thereby reflecting God’s character, we are innocent before Him of all wrongdoing.
Numerous additional passages could be cited, but these are the clearest statements supporting the thesis at hand. It is clear that love is indeed the chief of all Christian virtues, and that to love both God and man perfectly would constitute a person sinless. That statement may seem unduly strong, but further investigation will bear it out.
The Meaning of Love
Part of the reason most believers balk at the idea that perfect love equals
sinlessness is that they intuitively think of love as an emotion. “How can it be that simply feeling a certain way equates with having behaved a certain way?” they reason. It is critically important, before proceeding, to look into the meaning of love in the New Testament.4 Most students of the New Testament are familiar with the two major families of Greek words for love, one derived from the root fil- and the other from the root ajgap-. The second of these families is the one that
4Leon Morris has produced an excellent study of the Greek and Hebrew words for love found throughout Scripture. Testaments of Love (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981).
especially concerns us, since it is the root used in all the passages in which love is singled out as the primary virtue.
Since love originates in the character of God (I John 4:7-19), our investigation of its meaning must begin with the Bible’s teaching about God’s love. The most familiar verse in the Bible provides the best starting point: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Here it is evident that love is a disposition to sacrifices oneself in order to secure the benefit of the loved one. This disposition may involve emotion, but certainly emotion is not its primary feature, especially not the kind of emotion that people most readily associate with love. Most people think of love as something of an overpowering attraction, but to a holy God sinners are utterly repulsive. We find John’s thought echoed in Paul’s writings as well, for he says in Romans 5:8 that “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
Several important passages on human love reinforce this understanding that love is a disposition to secure at any cost the highest interests of its object. Paul says to the Corinthian believers, “And I will very gladly spend and be spent for you [literally, ‘for your souls’]; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved” (II Cor. 12:15). Paul equates loving these people with spending all his resources in order to secure their best interests and, should all his resources prove insufficient, spending his very self. He says essentially the same thing to the Thessalonians when he writes, “We were willing to have imparted unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were dear [literally, ‘beloved,’ ajgaphtov”] unto us” (I Thess. 2:8). Agape love, then, is more than an emotion; it is a disposition of the will, a self-sacrificing commitment to
secure the highest interests of its object, independent of the object’s attractiveness or the prospect of repayment.
The Relationship between Love and Sin
Once the biblical meaning of love is understood, it becomes easier to understand how its presence can be equated with the absence of sin, as it is in the
teachings of Jesus, of Paul, and of John. After all, what is the essence of sin? Is it not selfishness? Did not Satan fall when he set out to get something for himself at someone else’s expense? Was not the disobedience of Adam and Eve an act of selfishness? Is not every act which the Bible forbids simply a manifestation of selfish desires? If a person never acted selfishly, what sin would he ever commit? Since the essence of sin is selfishness and the essence of love is selflessness, the two are mutually exclusive. To the extent that a man loves, he does not sin, and to the extent that a man sins, he does not love. It is as simple as that.
The Highest Interests of Love’s Objects
We have established that love is the highest virtue and that it consists of a
selfless pursuit of its object’s highest interests. Now we must ask what those interests are. Biblically speaking, the ultimate purpose of everything is the glory of God. Each created entity will one day join the Persons of the eternal Trinity in reflecting the majesty of God Almighty. Each kind of creature will play a unique role in glorifying God: the heavenly bodies will circle and shine, the angels will sing and serve, and even fallen creatures will “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11). Redeemed mankind will play a special role in glorifying God by being brought to a state of perfect conformity to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29).
To seek the highest interest5 of God, then, is to seek His glory; that is, to do everything in our power to cause His character to be accurately displayed to the world so that men hold a proper opinion of Him. To seek the highest interest of men is to do what we can to help them toward conformity to the image of Christ, beginning with evangelism and continuing through Christian discipleship.6 The conformity of men to the image of Christ is not an end in itself, however; it contributes in turn to that ultimate goal of glorifying God.
Summary of the Biblical Teaching on Love
By now it should be abundantly clear that everything that God requires of
His people is bound up in these commandments to love. Every Godward responsibility we have is summarized in our duty to seek His glory regardless of personal cost. Every manward responsibility we have is likewise summarized in the duty to seek our neighbor’s conformity to the image of Christ, again regardless of personal cost. Sin is impossible without a lapse in one of these areas. In fact, it seems appropriate to claim that it is impossible to lapse in one of these areas without lapsing in both. If we fail to promote the glory of God we do our neighbor a disservice, and if we fail to seek our neighbor’s good we fail to promote the glory of God. It is now clear why Jesus refused to cite a single
5The precise sense of the word interest as used in this article may be confusing. The word can mean, among other things, “a feeling of intentness, concern, or curiosity” or “welfare or benefit.” When we speak of seving man’s interests, we are speaking of the second sense almost entirely, since people’s interests in the first sense tend to be harmful to them. But it is difficult to see how a creature can provide benefit for his Creator (Ps. 50:12); when we speak of serving God’s interests, then, we mean giving ourselves in pursuit of the things about which He is concerned and upon which He is intent.
6This is not to say, of course, that love ignores physical needs. Love will do what it can to minister to physical needs, but it is never content to view the physical as an end in itself. Rather, love ministers to the body only to the extent that such ministry makes it possible to benefit the soul.
commandment as the greatest: love for God and love for man are two Siamese twins that cannot be separated.
Although these commands cannot be separated, they can—indeed they must—be ranked in proper sequence. Jesus clearly said that love for God comes first and love for man comes second. This is not to say that sometimes the love of neighbor must be neglected in favor of the love of God. The point is rather that the second is impossible without the first. Without having settled that the ultimate good we seek is the glory of God, one will surely go astray in attempting to serve his fellow man. This fact will receive further attention below.
The Relationship Between Holiness and Love
A good Fundamentalist, while he may be reluctant to object to the foregoing arguments, will find himself uneasy over the fact that the note of holiness seems to be missing. All kinds of sin have been justified from time to time under the rubric of love, as indicated in this article’s introduction. Does this prioritizing of love over all other virtues lessen the need for holiness? Properly understood, it certainly does not. The Christian is never faced with the dilemma of having to choose between the holy course of action and the loving one. The truly loving course of action always promotes holiness, because the character of God that true love wishes to glorify is holy.
John’s first epistle lays down two far-reaching statements about the character of God: “God is light” (1:5) and “God is love” (4:8, 16).7 The first seems to be a figurative expression for God’s holiness; the second is a direct declaration of love as an essential attribute of God. It is noteworthy that John does not say
7Alfred Plummer sees in these two statements such foundational truths that he organizes the teaching of the whole epistle around them. The Epistles of S. John (Cambridge: University Press, 1886), lv–lvi.
that God loves; He declares that God is love. To say that God does something is not to make a statement about His character. But to say that God is something makes a statement about the essence of His being. The only other statement of Scripture at all comparable to these two is also found in John’s writings, “God is spirit” (John 4:24, Greek text; the KJV translates, “God is a Spirit”). But this statement is in a different category: it makes an assertion about the corporeality of God, not His character. To say that He is spirit is to say “what He is made of,” but to say that He is light and love is to describe His moral character.
John does not rank these two attributes in order of importance, but overall the Scripture seems to indicate that God’s holiness is more fundamental than His love. The angels around the throne cry, “Holy, holy, holy,” not “Love, love, love.” The tripling of this ascription and its appearance in both Testaments (Isa. 6:4 and Rev. 4:8) seem certainly to set holiness above love in order of importance. And yet Jesus did not name as the first commandment “Be ye holy, for I am holy.” In fact, it seems that the error of the Pharisees could be summarized as having attempted to keep the command to be holy without building it on the proper foundation of love (Luke 11:42).
How can it be that holiness is the foundation upon which love rests in the character of God while at the same time love is the foundation upon which holiness rests in the life of the believer? A moment’s reflection will clear up this difficulty. Holiness is essentially separation or uniqueness. God’s absolute holiness means that He is entirely apart from all His creation, especially that part which has fallen into sin. But while holiness is what God is in Himself, love is what God is in relation to others, even sinners. God’s self-sacrificing disposition to serve the highest interests of His creatures is what moves Him to reach out to man with the offer of salvation, renewed fellowship with Him, and participation in His holiness. So in a sense holiness may indeed come first in the character of
God, and love second. But in the case of mankind, the order must be reversed. Man can have no appreciation or desire for God’s holiness without first responding in kind to His love. “Be ye holy, for I am holy” presupposes that the hearer already has some measure of love for God; the rebel against God has no desire to imitate Him, by the very nature of the case. But once the foundation of love for God is laid in the heart of man through the work of the Holy Spirit, the call to holiness is inevitable and irresistible. The proper relationship between holiness and love in the life of a Christian, then, is that holiness is motivated by love, not vice versa, and therefore love is the starting point.8
Errors to Avoid in the Practice of Love
The Error of New Evangelicalism
Billy Graham and New Evangelicalism with him would agree heartily
with the proposition that a Christian’s first duty is to love God and man. Apparently, though, their concept of love is faulty. Their practice suggests that they understand love as an undiscerning acceptance of anything that looks even remotely Christian. They seem not to understand that to serve God’s and their neighbor’s highest interest demands that they be willing to rebuke and to separate when the need arises, according to Scriptural teaching.
This misunderstanding of the true meaning of love leads them to set up false disjunctions such as the statement quoted at the opening of this article. A Scriptural point of view never says “Not [some virtue] but love”; it always says “[The virtue] because of love.” It is not necessary to choose between orthodoxy
8I maintain this position dogmatically, based on Jesus’ response to the question about the great commandment. While some fundamentalists seem to think that Jesus should have answered, “Be ye holy, for I am holy,” the fact is that He unequivocally advocated love as the fundamental duty of man.
and love, as though there is some tension between those two virtues. Rather, genuine love requires orthodoxy, since false doctrine sullies the reputation of God and brings harm upon people.9
Similarly, we Fundamentalists must not accept the New Evangelicals’ false disjunction between separation and love. If a New Evangelical suggests that love is more important than separation, we ought not respond by saying that separation is more important than love. This reponse accepts his underlying premise that those two requirements are in tension with one another. Biblical separation is never in tension with genuine love for God and man; it is a necessary practice for all who truly love. The proper response to such a charge is to point out the New Evangelical’s false understanding of love that allows him to set up this either/or proposition. The true proposition is both/and, or better yet, separation because of love. “If ye love me, keep my commandments,” Jesus said (John 14:15). Those who love God with their whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, will not refuse to keep His command to separate, as painful as obedience may be. And those who love their neighbor as themselves will recognize that they do not serve another’s highest interest by acting as though serious disobedience to Scripture is no great problem. Sometimes the only way to accurately convey the severity of the problem is to effect a separation, however painful it may be. Genuine love compels one to do, not the most pleasant thing, but the most beneficial thing.
9It is interesting to note that among the seven churches in the book of Revelation, one was chided for losing its love while being praised for maintaining its orthodoxy (Ephesus), and one was chided for tolerating false doctrine while being praised for maintaining its love (Thyatira). God is no less displeased with a lack in one of these areas than in the other. Both are essential.
The Error of Situation Ethics
Situation ethics also falls into error because it fails to understand love
properly. This faulty understanding is evident in one of Fletcher’s better known illustrations of how love is a more important principle than law. He tells the story of a Mrs. Bergmeier, a German held prisoner by the Russians during World War II. Her husband had also been held prisoner, and she received news that he had been released and was reunited with their three children. She had no way to communicate her whereabouts to him, but she lit upon a plan to secure her release. The policy of the prison camps was to return pregnant women to their homes. So she asked a sympathetic guard to have sex with her, and she became pregnant. She was indeed released, and the child became the family favorite, since he had brought about his mother’s restoration to the family.
Although Fletcher recounts this story without comment, the whole tenor of his book indicates that he believed Mrs. Bergmeier’s action was right, because the loving nature of the end justified the means used to attain it. But the action fails to pass the test of Scriptural love. Did the woman’s act lead people to recognize the glory of God? Hardly; God’s glory is far more apparent in how He sustains His people through suffering or works a miraculous deliverance than in the cleverness of a humanly engineered escape. Fletcher would apparently have advised Daniel not to pray so openly in defiance of the king’s command! There are worse things than separation from family and even death; sinning against the clearly stated commands of God is one of them.
If Mrs. Bergmeier’s act failed to glorify God, it equally failed to serve the highest interests of her family, not to mention the guard whom she led into sin (might she have justified her act toward the guard as “loving her enemy”?!). Her family needed to learn to trust God to sustain them far more than they needed the presence of their mother. Her example taught them precisely the wrong
lesson. Instead of exemplifying simple confidence in God to provide on His own timetable, she taught them to get what they want, when they want it, no matter what it costs. And we are to accept this as love? Apparently Fletcher would have advised Jesus to worship Satan in the wilderness in order to take immediate possession of this world’s kingdoms. After all, He was entitled to them, and the people would certainly have fared much better under His kingship than under Satan’s.
The Root Problem of Both Errors
Both New Evangelicalism and situation ethics seem to fail to understand
love properly. But there is an even more basic problem at the root of both errors: they reverse the order of the great commandments. By failing to love God first and foremost, they misdefine the interests of men, or else ignore them entirely. In calling attention to love as the chief of Christain virtues, we must never give the impression that love for man is the chief virtue.10 Love for God must always be first, or love for man will be misguided at best.
The world that surrounds the Christian forces upon him one ethical choice after another. Will the Christian lie under certain circumstances? Drink alcohol? Have an abortion? Seek a divorce? Make common cause with disobedient believers and enemies of the gospel? The list could get quite long! What guidance do we have, particularly in cases where the Scripture says little or nothing that directly applies to the situation at hand? The right thing to do in any situation is
10On the other hand, we must not allow obvious errors commited under a misguided pretense of love to turn us away from the fact that love properly understood and practiced is foundational. The proper response to error on this point is not to reject the point entirely, but simply to correct the error.
always the thing that demonstrates a self-sacrificing disposition to glorify God by keeping His commandments and to assist our fellow man in his progress toward Christ-likeness. This is love, and “Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10).
Randy A. Leedy © 1996 Bob Jones University