Sometimes you hear people say that the gospel message is “Love God, love others.” It sounds nice, but it’s all backward. “Love God and love others” is not a summary of the gospel—it’s a summary of the law.
God revealed his ethical requirements to his people in the Old Testament law, which contains over 600 commands. These are summed up in the Ten Commandments, which God revealed through Moses to his people after the Exodus from Egypt. They are found in Exodus 20:2–17 and Deuteronomy 5:6–21:
1. Do not have any other gods.
2. Do not make for yourself idols.
3. Do not take the name of the Lord in vain.
4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
5. Honor your father and mother.
6. Do not kill.
7. Do not commit adultery.
8. Do not steal.
9. Do not bear false witness.
10. Do not covet.
The first four commands (or the “first tablet” of the Law) are about how we are to relate to God. The next six (the “second tablet”) are about how we are to act toward each other. Jesus summarized the Ten Commandments in this way in Matthew 22:37–40: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind [Deut. 6:5]. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself[Lev. 19:18]. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
As Paul Zahl writes,
The law is a true thing, an accurate summary or description of what it means to be happy and fulfilled, especially in relation to one’s neighbors. If we were able and willing to follow it, the law would be the answer to humanity’s problems. . . . The Bible declares the law to be good and right (1 Tim. 1:8; Rom. 3:31; Rom. 7:12–16) but then with one great persuasive insight deprives the law of any lasting capacity to do us any good (Rom. 7:24–25).
We Are Unable to Fulfill the Law
God’s law is good. The problem is us: our sinful hearts don’t love God or others as we should. Even worse, the law only points out the problems with us; it doesn’t and can’t generate within us the ability to obey.
The law condemns us; it points out our failure. When we hear “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,” we rightly despair of being able to fulfill what is required of us. Because of our sin, God’s standard of perfect love is our problem.
Jesus Loved Perfectly, So We Can Love Too
But God also provided the solution. Jesus obeyed perfectly and completely on our behalf, died in our place for our sins, and rose from the dead to conquer sin and death.
Through Jesus Christ’s righteous life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection, God fulfilled the law’s requirements on us, conquered the power of sin that held us in slavery by its accusations, and gave us new life by the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is not a new law for us to follow. Love is the fruit of the Spirit—it’s what God does in us, not what we try to muster up in our own strength, as if we could pay God back.
Jesus’ work has freed us from the curse of not obeying the law to love God and others perfectly. We are free to acknowledge our failure, because Christ, who loved perfectly, is our righteousness.
But God doesn’t just leave us to our failure—he gives the Holy Spirit to those who trust in Christ. God’s Spirit gives us new hearts through regeneration, and God himself enables us to start fulfilling the law through love.
Love Is the Fruit
Love for God and others is the fruit of the miracle of regeneration and the Holy Spirit’s work within us. The Holy Spirit begins empowering us to want to love, giving us the ability to love, and causing us to know the love of God.
This is not a new law for us to follow. Love is the fruit of the Spirit—it’s what God does in us, not what we try to muster up in our own strength, as if we could pay God back. As Philippians 2:13 teaches us, it is God who works in us to will and do his good pleasure, which is summarized in the law.
As God produces love for him and others in our hearts, we get to join him in his mission of announcing reconciliation to the world. God works in our hearts to cause us to delight in what he delights in. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Because God has loved us so well in Christ, we are freed to love him and love others.