Lawful Love: How the Law Preserves and Propels Our Love


Editor’s Note: Our friends at Crossway have generously allowed our readers this month to download a free copy of D.A. Carson’s important work The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. We hope this resource will help you understand the manifold love of God.

For the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
 – Romans 13:8 –

What is love?

In our day, love is often defined by some sentimental feeling. Some emotional experience. Some pitter-patter in your chest. Or some dance-beat, à la A Night at the Roxbury. (Blessed is the man who has no idea what I’m talking about). But rarely is love associated with law-keeping, rules, or righteousness. Which is to say, rarely is love defined according to the Bible.

In our “if it feels right, do it” sort of society, love does not shack up with legal requirements. But in the Bible where love is defined by God (1 John 4:8) and demonstrated on the cross (1 John 3:16), love is regularly related to the God’s law. In fact, Romans 13 says, “Love is the keeping of the law” (v. 8) and “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” Likewise, Galatians 5:14 reads, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”

In those places Paul reiterates Jesus’s own view of the law. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). And later in the same Gospel (22:36–40), Jesus explained that the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments: to love God (Deut. 6:4) and to love neighbor (Lev. 19:18). Indeed, against popular opinion, the Law was not given to merely enforce rules. It was given so that the people of Israel might love one another with absolute righteousness. To say it differently, God’s love is defined and delimited by covenantal laws.

The Third Use of the Law: Love

Against modern versions of uber-autonomous selfish “love,” the Scriptures portray a kind of love that commits itself to the other person even at the expense of personal freedom and comfort (see Ps. 15:4). This is why Paul quotes from the Decalogue in Romans 13:9: For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” To love your neighbor implies rejecting all actions that might steal, hurt, or take advantage of others.

But more than that, lawful love is modeled after God’s faithfulness to Israel. Just as Yahweh commands his people to be holy as he is holy (Lev. 19:2), he also commanded them to love one another as he loves them. Leviticus 19:18, the verse cited by Paul (and quoted by Jesus in Matt. 22:40), says “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” Importantly, this command is not an exception to the rest of the Mosaic commands. Rather, as Jesus said, it synthesizes the message of the Law and Prophets (Matt. 5:17; 22:40).

When striving to love one another, we must go to the Law to see what love looks like. But first we must recall that before the Law directs us how to love, it reveals the holy character of God and the misshapen character of man. In other words, the first use of the law proclaims the loveliness of God and the lovelessness of man. Therefore, the Law must first persuade sinners of the dark deformity of their hearts, before it can help us work out our love to others.

Stressing this judicial use of the Law, Paul says in Romans 3:20, “through the law comes knowledge of sin” (cf. Rom. 5:20; 7:7). In this way, the first purpose of the law is to show us how unloving we are. Only when we are convinced of this, can it lead us to the cross of Christ where our loveless, law-breaking lives are executed and exhumed in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

We can only approach the Law with hearts of faith to “do what the law requires” if we have been established in Jesus’s imputed righteousness and filled with his love. This is the third use of the law, where followers of Christ express their love to God and others by obeying the commandments of God. Or as Jesus puts it in John 14:15, 21:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. . . . Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.

To be sure, no one obeys their way into God’s love. But those who know his redeeming love, cannot fail to love. Love is the fruit of a heart that truly believes (see Gal. 5:6). And when God’s people love, they will always be directed by the Law of God.

To Love Lawfully, We Must Love the Law

Loving one another, therefore, is not simply a commitment to do for others what others want. It’s not a passion to do good to others as we would want left to ourselves. Loving one another is ultimately defined by what God wants. The Golden Rule is not a make-it-up-as-you-go compassion strategy; it is the outworking of the Law: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). Notice the emphasis on the Law and the Prophets.

As other “One Another’s” demonstrate, the call to love may include the call to make peace with sinners (Rom. 12:16; 14:19), to shut our mouths (Gal. 5:15), to welcome strangers (Rom. 15:7; 1 Pet. 4:9), and to patiently uphold the repentant sinner whose sin has brought painful consequences (Gal. 6:2). In short, loving others doesn’t always feel lovely. In fact, it may feel awful. But it is not our feelings that define what love is; it is God’s holy, righteous, and good law.

Accordingly, the only way we will effectively persist in loving others is if we love the law of God and meditate on it day and night. Psalm 119 reflects the heart of someone enraptured by God’s commandments. It is a good study for us to consider how and why the Psalmist is so smitten with the Word of God. Surely, his love for the Word of God is not merely academic.

Feeding on the Word of God is necessary for fulfilling the law. We can only obey the commandments, proverbs, and instructions of God that we know. And only as we grow in love with the Word of God will we have the power to do what it commands, over against our personal reservations that war against God’s law.

In truth, only as the Word of God grows within us to become larger than ourselves will we have the power to love one another according to God’s law. Many are the Christians and non-Christians alike who would say they are loving. But such a statement can only be made in the light of God’s Law.

To circle back around, what is love? Love for others is treating them as God would have us treat them. It is law-keeping, with a glad and believing heart, that seeks the good of others in the goodness of God. Indeed, we may see glimpses of “love” in fallen humanity—as in the way a father loves his children (Luke 11:11–13)—but ultimately, true love stems from a heart cleansed from godless selfishness. Such love is demonstrated on the cross of Calvary, and has been “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5).

This is love. And praise be to God, this love is not something that we must begin, earn, or keep by way of monthly subscription. Instead, it is a love that God has promised, purchased, and perfected in us. And thus, from his gift of grace, we find life within us to obey God’s law as we labor to do good to others, and especially those in the household of faith (Gal. 6:10).

Therefore, as we consider the theme of “(How to) Love Thy Neighbor” this month, may we continue to abide in his love, so that we love one another in keeping with his Law.



  • David Schrock

    David Schrock is the pastor for preaching and theology at Occoquan Bible Church in Woodbridge, Virginia. David is a two-time graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a founding faculty member and professor of theology at Indianapolis Theology Seminary. And he is the author of Royal Priesthood and Glory of God along with many journal articles and online essays.

David Schrock

David Schrock

David Schrock is the pastor for preaching and theology at Occoquan Bible Church in Woodbridge, Virginia. David is a two-time graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a founding faculty member and professor of theology at Indianapolis Theology Seminary. And he is the author of Royal Priesthood and Glory of God along with many journal articles and online essays.