The Moral Meaning of Loving One’s Neighbor

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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.

Few biblical phrases are as ubiquitous or have greater cultural standing than the biblical teaching to “love your neighbor” (see e.g., Matt. 19:19; 22:39). For the non-Christian, it may be the only moral truism he or she could identify as stemming from a cultural heritage informed by the Bible. No one to my awareness expresses disagreement with the principle. It is almost a stock phrase repeatedly cited by figures of historical and political influence. For example, in 2008, the Commonwealth of Kentucky passed what it ceremoniously called “The Golden Rule Act,” a law which calls for greater protections around the safety and well-being of students in schools. This recent legislation drew on Jesus’s summary of the Law and the Prophets in the Golden Rule. Likewise, President Abraham Lincoln, drawing on a principle of natural law, wrote, “As I would not be a slave, so I cannot be a master.”[1] Further examples could be multiplied ad infinitum. We should be thankful for a culture and civil society where biblical principles are welcomed, even if they are not always properly understood or applied. For even in their misuse, opportunity avails the Christian to speak correctively of what this passage means and its impact for leavening our society with the fruits of the gospel.

1. Quote by Abraham Lincoln in his personal notes from 1858. For more on this note, see Christian McWhirter, “Lincoln Draws the Line on Slavery,” Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, February 23, 2021.

The Logic of Loving Your Neighbor

What loving one’s neighbor foregrounds is the most basic principle necessary to sustain life in society: A reciprocal assurance that decency and kindness will be faithfully returned if given. Indeed, that America, along with so many other countries, has enjoyed this kind of civil arrangement and civic compact reflects the abundance of God’s common grace in our fallen world. This grace, perceived through general revelation, is multiplied when the light of the gospel shines into the world. Yet, even where such light is fading, there is a moral trust inhering within the imago Dei that undergirds the principle to love one’s neighbor.

With this light in the world, there exists an unstated truth of social cooperation. If we have no assurance that our cooperation in society—not simply our niceties—will be returned, that would be the end of society itself. Consider a society where no one lets you merge into their lane ahead of them, no one’s personal property is respected, contracts between laborers and employers are unenforced, everybody cuts in line, and everyone interrupts whoever speaks. Reciprocity means that cooperation toward moral goods prevails. Study any dystopic novel and one will quickly see that society breaks down when trust in moral interaction collapses. Trust in moral reciprocity, then, makes life in society not only manageable but potentially promising, as the mutual exchange of moral goods is realized between agents.

The love of neighbor assumes, of course, that people intuit the inherent good that one’s own self should be treated fairly. The call to love your neighbor as yourself has principles of the natural law built into it; principles that we recognize as “written on the heart” (Rom. 2:14-15). Why we possess any moral knowledge at all can only be seen as a grace issuing from creation order in general. That we can accurately perceive, sense, and communicate our well-being has presuppositions about the type of universe God has brought into existence—God’s moral order is intelligible, operational, and reliable.

Built into the principle is a moral “ought” that persons just should act in this way if they are in their right mind. The teaching’s principle is as simple as it is profound, which is why it is common for parents to teach this to their children as among the first bits of moral instruction. We teach this principle because it easily captures the most intuitive of principles: People innately understand what it means to prosper and feel respected as persons. Achieving a state of affairs where this is realized is hindered or even vitiated if we are unwilling to grant this state of affairs to others. The moral order requires the reciprocal execution of its norms in order for the individual and society’s good to be realized. The possibility of obtaining our good is enhanced in proportion to our willing the good of our neighbor.

When we think of such ideas as the just society, we understand that the common good is loving one’s neighbor in the aggregate. My safety on the road depends on another’s safety on the road. As I want to be protected from wanton endangerment, so I should avoid wantonly endangering others. I do this not out of any pleasure-seeking utilitarian contract where pleasure is whatever society deems as desirable, but out of a belief in the concrete existence of goods that are valuable for their own sake.

But before criticizing the misuse of loving one’s neighbor, as Christians, we should be willing to grant with thanksgiving to God that if moral laws are what they are—existent and intelligible, not to mention a gift of common grace—then basic moral laws should not be difficult to grasp. The relative ease in grasping a moral truth does not at all mean that a moral truth will be perfectly or consistently obeyed; only that it exists. Since the dawning of sin in Genesis 3, the reality of sin assures that human beings will create an unending cascade of rival conceptions of personal thriving.

The Biblical Grounds of Loving Your Neighbor

The biblical references to loving one’s neighbor can be found in the Old and New Testaments. In Leviticus 19:18, the LORD tells Israel, “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.” The fact that evidence of this principle predates Jesus is significant and will be further discussed. In Matthew 7:12, Jesus declares “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” In Mark 12:29-31 (par. Luke 10:27), when Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, he replies,

The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.

Quite simply, loving one’s neighbor can never be severed from telling one’s neighbor the truth. Scripture is quite clear that love and truth are a conjoined reality (1 Cor. 13:6; Eph. 4:15). This produces a conflict in what the application of loving one’s neighbor practically results in for our culture. Graciously telling a homosexual that their same-sex “marriage” is not an ontological marriage will doubtlessly be interpreted as anything but loving. Loving one’s neighbor must mean, then, that love is not boundless, but circumscribed by the moral goods and moral laws that Scripture deems as good. Love is biblical insofar as love is biblically ordered to what God defines as good. Loving one’s neighbor does not mean being nice and accommodating to whatever your neighbor believes is in their best interest. Loving one’s neighbor, in other words, is not an invitation to moral relativism.

As philosopher Francis Beckwith writes, “The Golden Rule is not about merely protecting your neighbor’s preferences, but rather, advancing your neighbor’s good.” The language of “good” is pregnant with moral meaning. To say that we are to love our neighbor according to their good is to assume that “goodness” as a moral property has objective meaning to it; that it is not simply a product of one’s will, desires, or autonomy.

When Christians love their neighbor, we do not do this only with generic commitment to the natural law (as valuable as that is), but out of a commitment to the ultimate finality of revelation given in Scripture. In Scripture is deposited the fullness of our neighbor’s good, which is not merely temporal and penultimate, but eternal and ultimate. Loving our neighbor, then, requires us to operate on two horizons: We honor and strive for their earthly good but as Augustine writes in the City of God in 19.17, Christians should make use of civil compacts to order persons to their ultimate good.

Of course, the eternal, ultimate good of the new heavens and earth is not in conflict with the temporal, penultimate good; rather, all instances of the temporal good are opportunities for us to use them as signposts for the ultimate good. Whatever is the neighborly good comports with God’s order of creation and produces temporal joy while that which comports with God’s order of redemption produces eternal and ultimate joy. Our neighbor’s good is not only their neighborly safety, but their eternal destiny secured in Jesus Christ, who is goodness incarnated (Mark 10:18). For Christians, the love of neighbor means we insist that people are made to know God. He is their ultimate good and happiness.

To address moral goodness from another angle, we are to genuinely seek after the fulfillment of our neighbor’s good, which has both positive and negative dimensions. As a positive reality, I should treat my neighbor with the dignity and respect befitting their existence. As a negative reality, I should work to restrain—by either my own agency or the political agency of the community—privations from raining down on my neighbor. I should neither personally hinder their good nor seek after policies that will result in their privation. Writ large, this describes the role of government in securing the common good (see 1 Pet. 2:14).

In between individuals and the state, however, we see the principle of loving one’s neighbor taken in the aggregate. The shared beneficence common to humanity can only be achieved by family formation and a respect for coordination among the institutions of creation order. Jeremiah 29:4–7 also furnishes an understanding of the common good by YHWH’s call for exilic Israel to engage in communal participation for the benefit of all.

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Notice that the logic of the text is explicit: If you seek the welfare of where you are (if you seek its good), your welfare will be obtained as well. This principle of reciprocity shows how the moral good is often born of a mutual commitment between agents.

Loving Your Neighbor and the Natural Law

Even if misapplied by sinful persons, it should come as no surprise that the natural law tradition has considered the command to love one’s neighbor as a principle of the natural law. To cite the famous maxim of Immanuel Kant, we should “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” What Kant meant as a rule is that we should consider something to be a moral law universally binding if it is a law that we believe all should follow. It is a judgment born of practical reason about moral duties that we have to love others and ourselves. Kant’s analysis has much to commend, even if it is lacking in fuller analysis, as I think is the case.

As I mentioned above, loving one’s neighbor has the appearance of an indemonstrable truth. An indemonstrable truth is a truth whose premises we cannot prove. It just is. Secular moral philosophers might refer to this as a “brute fact,” in the sense that it is inexplicable apart from the duty to obey it. There may be no explanation for where the moral law came from, but one is obligated to obey it, nonetheless. While secular philosophy cannot give an adequate account for an indemonstrable truth of this kind, the Christian can. We are not left with empty speculation. The doctrine of revelation foregrounds the foundation for why moral truth is at all universal, intelligible, and objective.

Natural law theory helps give better explanation to the underlying moral tenets of the command. Loving one’s neighbor assumes that there is a state of affairs where one’s neighbor can reach the fulfillment of their being. This we can call “flourishing.” For agents to flourish, we believe there must be goods constitutive of their being that comprise their nature. What Kant saw as a principle, I would suggest is better categorized as a teleological reality, a reality that is concerned with the final outcome of flourishing. As Christians, we believe that God—not pure reason or “brute facts”—ordered the existence of moral goods, and that people will have the end result of flourishing to the degree that they are living in accordance with how God created them to live.[2]

2. Editor’s Note: For more on the relationship between natural law, brute facts, and the God who is there, check out the forthcoming podcast with Andrew Walker, Stephen Wellum, and David Schrock.

Justice and Natural Law

Loving one’s neighbor is both a requirement and fulfillment of justice. For our purposes, we will define justice as “giving to each what is owed to them.” Martin Luther argued that Matthew 7:12 teaches a natural law principle of basic justice:

3. Martin Luther, Sermons for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany: Romans 13:8-10, in Luther’s Epistle Sermons: Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost, ed. John Nicholas (Minneapolis: Lutheran Press, 1909), 73.

Not an individual is there who does not realize, and who is not forced to confess, the justice and truth of the natural law outlined in the command, ‘All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them.’ The light of this law shines in the inborn reason of all men. Did they but regard it, what need have they of books, teachers or laws? They carry with them in the depths of their hearts a living book, fitted to teach them fully what to do and what to omit, what to accept and what to reject, and what decision to make.[3]

It would seem, then, that the love of God and the love for neighbor are ratifications of the first and second table of the Decalogue, which many in the Reformed tradition consider a distilled and codified expression of the natural law woven into the creation order. C. S. Lewis similarly argued that the Golden Rule has parallels around the world in different cultures and religions, including some predating Jesus, evidence of humanity’s ability to grasp the principle of reciprocal justice without special revelation or regeneration.[4]

4. C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 83ff.

Markus Bockmuehl comments similarly on how “the uncomplicated assumption of a kind of natural reciprocity and commonality of human needs suggests the acceptance of a moral category that is general and self-evident, rather than positively revealed in the Torah.”[5] David Haines and Andrew Fulford also observe natural law reciprocity behind our Lord’s words:

5. Markus Bockmuehl, Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 118–19.

6. Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, 82.

Jesus teaches his disciples to take their own basic desires as ones that every human being has. Secondly, by telling them to satisfy those basic desires of others, he affirms those desiderata as good. The implication of these two premises is that Jesus teaches all people actually know what is good for them, on some level, since they have desires that ought to be met.[6]

Misuse of the Love of Neighbor

Virtually everyone in our society would praise the concept of loving one’s neighbor, but this does not mean that appealing to the principle necessarily results in a correct application of it. If someone wants their pet political project accomplished, all one must do is invoke how the law helps further the love of neighbor. For example, love of neighbor has been invoked to justify nearly any immigration policy one wants under the guise that loving the immigrant is inherently good. It is doubtlessly good to love immigrants because the immigrant is a person made in God’s image. But it is also possible to use a good moral principle with imprudence. Appealing to the love of neighbor to justify large-scale amnesty programs should cause us to question whether a blanketed appeal to “love” can be used to the neglect of better policy that someone may consider less “loving” but has better practical benefit. To love one’s neighbor does not in itself provide specific data to deduce specific policy outcomes.

Unfortunately, the phrase has become warped and malformed left to the desires of the unregenerate. In common vernacular, the love of neighbor takes defaced expression when secondary goods such as human emotion are elevated as ultimate goods. Thus, when our neighbor insists that affirmation of one’s desires or emotional states is what constitutes his good, we must dissent. “Live your truth” and “You do you” are taken as moral entailments from secularized accounts of loving one’s neighbor. “If you affirm me, I’ll affirm you” or “If you do not object to my preference, I won’t object to your preference” is at irreconcilable odds with a biblical vision for the love of neighbor. We do not love our neighbor by omitting the truth to them. Furthering someone’s delusion or debauchery under a false account of loving them is actually to hate them. So, I cannot affirm someone’s desired pronouns precisely because that is not his good—and thus it is not loving to him. As Francis Beckwith states in the same article from above, the love of neighbor “is not a quid pro quo for preference satisfaction reciprocity.”

Conclusion

As providence would have it, this essay was written on January 22, 2023. That date represents the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade. That date also represents the apotheosis of America’s high watermark in failing to instill the love for one’s neighbor in law. Though Roe is overturned, the work to love our pre-born neighbor continues across every legislature and courtroom in this nation. And so the love of neighbor calls us to wage a war not only for political conquest, but for heavenly adornment.

Over sixty million Americans have had their lives unjustly taken under the false rubric that prioritizing “bodily autonomy” or economic opportunity as a condition of love that can justify murder. As the love of neighbor is the most basic condition of the flourishing society, so a basic instantiation of the just society is a respect for the human person. Our laws have failed to do that from the very beginning of our nation even into today. But the resilience of our nation is the ability for moral reformation under the promises that we can “form a more perfect union.” This in turn fosters an environment to better love our neighbor as they deserve, in the realization of their earthly good and ultimately in the fulfillment of their ultimate good.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Andrew T. Walker

    Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as an Associate Dean in the School of Theology. He is a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center and Managing Editor of WORLD Opinions. He and his family are members of Highview Baptist Church where he leads a Sunday community group and men’s Bible study.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as an Associate Dean in the School of Theology. He is a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center and Managing Editor of WORLD Opinions. He and his family are members of Highview Baptist Church where he leads a Sunday community group and men’s Bible study.