36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”
37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
38 This is the great and first commandment.” Matthew 22:36-38
I want to take some time to focus on this fundamental commandment, according to Jesus, the first and greatest commandment. It is not to obey, but to love. I would submit that obedience is easy – it involves doing things that we may or may not like. The trick is not to love only in deed with pretense, but with the heart and soul and mind. Jesus asserts that this is the GREATEST COMMAND. All the others hang on this one. Notice that it is considered a single command, so it is not enough to love God with the soul but on the other hand to harbor doubts in the mind. You have to love Him with your heart AND your mind. Notice also that it must not be a partial love or a half-hearted love. The command is to love God completely, with ALL the heart and ALL the soul and ALL the mind.
We must emphasize that the command is to LOVE. It is not to obey. It is to love. Love is greater than obedience, because grudging embittered slavish obedience falls short of the command, while love engenders true obedience. People try to water righteous living down to the importance of obedience, because obedience actually sounds doable. Perhaps you can go through the motions of obeying and your heart might kick in and love it. This is not the command though – the command is to love. Only obedience from the heart is real obedience. The final zinger in the big 10 is coveting, which means you can’t just avoid committing adultery, you can’t even WANT to commit adultery. The heart and the mind and the soul must have 100% true devotion and affection for God. You have to love Him and you have to like Him.
It is the greatest commandment. It seems to be the one commandment that there is no argument that it is a necessary part of a believer’s sanctification. Who is going to stand up and tell people that they are off the hook when it comes to loving God? It is indisputable that this is the greatest command. When Paul says that we are no longer justified by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20), he can’t possibly be talking about this command can he? How can there be any relationship with God if we don’t have to love Him? Who could think such a thing?
I’ll tell you who thinks such a thing: no less than John the apostle! Look at this:
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 1 John 4:10
This first and greatest commandment is hugely difficult. We really can’t do it, it serves only to show us the great power and depth of our sin. It involves control of the affections, of the theater of the mind. It involves minding and controlling what you love, and loving first and foremost the invisible God. You can’t just debate whether He exists, you can’t simply “believe” in Him, you must love Him. The heart, the mind, the soul, all must carry perfect affection for Him. Our problem is that we can’t even make ourselves like broccoli, much less can we say no to all the passing pleasures and screaming promises of the world and the flesh in order to love God passionately and exclusively. Brad Pitt was married to Jennifer Aniston, and he couldn’t bring himself to faithfully love her. I’m not looking, but that is one heck of a beautiful woman. Yet, he still could not control his affections in order to remain true an exquisite woman that he could actually see. We are asked to love God whom we cannot see, with our whole being, perfectly. Perfectly? Yes – with ALL of our heart, ALL of our soul, ALL of our mind. ALL means time, past present and future, and to the degree that our whole attention and hope and longing are wrapped up in God. If you do not love Him perfectly, then it is not your whole mind and heart which loves, and there is some other thing that part of you harbors idolatry and affection for.
Someone might object that I am ignoring the context of 1 John 4. It says, if we say we love God, and yet don’t love our brethren, we are all a sham (1 John 4:20). You have to love your neighbor or it proves you don’t love God! Here’s what I’m saying – yes that is all true! We love so poorly. We say we love God, we try to love others, and yet we love no one but ourselves. Your solution is start pretending to love people better, so it looks like we love God? How is that working for you? Do you enjoy living all from pretense? You actually believe that by marginalizing the verses like 1 John 4:10 and 1 John 4:16 and 1 John 4:19 about God loving us and that love is not found in us but in Him, and by emphasizing our responsibility to love, that you are going to get there somehow? This is not the narrow gate! Any fool can press the case for our responsibility to love our neighbor and then not do it! This is your sermon? This is your powerful Christian life? I call bull manure. Clearly if you do not grapple with 1 John 4:10, if your way of loving makes you want to ignore 1 John 4:16, you are not going to get there. It is His love for us that is the door to a universe in which love is possible. You cannot press old covenant (law and retribution) onto these passages and have them make any sense.
You cannot grasp the crucial truths of Romans 3:24-25 if you are going to water down Romans 3:20 to the point of meaningless irrelevance. When Paul says that no one is justified by the law, he means this great commandment. If you look at Paul’s assertion that no flesh will be justified through the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin, and you hold out on this main command, you make a grave error. Paul does not mean specific piddly laws cannot save you, while the big important ones can save you. He means this big one cannot save you, nor can all the others that it summarizes. You cannot love the Lord, you don’t know how. The great command only shows you how deeply you sin. The greatest commandment is the Red Sea of the soul, and if there is not a miracle to lead you to safety on the other side, you are going to perish in your slavery. If you balk at this one, you effectively make this difficult and undoable commandment the touchstone of salvation, and nullify the public suffering and precious atoning blood of Jesus.
It is this great commandment that lays the axe to the root of our self-justification. It is this great command that most thoroughly kills us. All of the other commandments hang on it, but this great one is the true killer. It does not merely say, don’t steal. It says, you love the wrong things, and you can’t stop. If you want to steal something, and stop yourself, it belies the fact that your heart is set awry. You have made an idol of the thing you wanted but forced yourself to not steal. You are colored by your desire for the thing you cannot have, and your guilt and lack of gratification for it. What a mess you are! The commandment says to you, you really cannot pull this off, you cannot control what you love and what you are passionate about all the time with perfection of heart and mind. Your obedience is a complete sham, you hate it all. The great commandment says, you don’t love God, you are just afraid that others might guess that you don’t love God, and so you “obey”. Your “obedience” is a putrid stench, made more so because you trust that it approves you to God. The great commandment says, up front and close, that God is not impressed with your heroic acts of will. It is love, not willpower, that fulfills this greatest commandment.
So, it is of grace that we come into relationship with God. It must be. This greatest commandment is also the most immensely undoable commandment. It is the very apex of Paul’s assertion that no flesh will be justified through the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. If we are to love God, it must be that He first loves us, because if it depends on us, we are lost. However, the amazing hope that scripture gives us is that God really does first love us, that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. This great commandment is the great flashlight that shows us our desperate need for grace, but it is His one-way love for us that rescues us from our lovelessness and moves us straight into the kingdom of grace and gift and affection.
If you are going to come to love Him, you are going to have to forget about the command altogether, and come on the basis of grace alone. You have nothing to present, especially not your obedience to this great and central commandment. I cannot believe how people will press this command on people as if it is obvious and easy, and then immediately turn around and talk in a way that belies their lack of pure love for God! What a sham! I don’t mind that you don’t love God, but don’t pretend to, and then press others into a similar pretense! We can’t do this, we can only acknowledge that the command is good and confess that we cannot obey it. Fall on your knees and cry tears of shame for all of the worthless crap you have set your heart on. Cry tears of shame for your ridiculous pretense and fake righteousness. You are genuinely and thoroughly evil. Your heart is an endless river of false love and idolatrous affections. Everything you do is a lie. You have not loved Him! You stray constantly! Even your highest worship is full of distractedness and mental wandering and secret idolatries. Oh the rottenness and pretense and false piety we put forward! Cry out that He might release you from the pressure to live under all of this hell! It is not your love that is the bridge to God, you can’t trust that! Trust His love, He does actually love perfectly. He will by grace write love on your heart when you come to see that it is not of your own efforts nor your own flesh that does it, but it is all of gift, and give thanks to Him as the source. Our love only comes as a response to the free gift of grace.
10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
11 And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more”