While the debate rages (or rambles) on in Reformed circles about the Christian’s motivation for obedience, a piece that seems to be missing from much of the discussion is the crucial role that love plays in our obedience to our Heavenly Father.
It seems that one of the major bones of contention between the two sides is that some want to preserve a place where it is legitimate to motivate the Christian to general growth and obedience by preaching threats of punishment to induce fear in the believer.
It is crucial to note here that I am not discussing the role of the law in confronting unrepentant sin. It ought to go without questioning that pastors must confront sin in the life of their congregants with the law of God. Should pastors meet with resistance and/or rejection of God’s law in their people, then reminding them of the possible judgment that awaits such open rebellion is a very necessary and very pastoral means of caring for their sheep.
In the general exhortation of God’s people from the pulpit, however, the sheep need to be instructed in the holiness that God demands of His children, to give them a clearer picture of the beautiful standards to which they have been called. Any honesty on their part then demands that they repent of any and every way that the Holy Spirit convicts them of having fallen short of these standards. What should the pastor then do at this point? Threaten them that they must to do better or else? Such would not be a Christian sermon.
Rather, the sheep need to hear what God has done about such failures. The pastor must remind them that these transgressions have been paid for once and for all, and that such sins cannot ever cause their Father to turn away from them because He has pledged to love them forever as much as He loves Christ, having credited to them Christ’s perfect obedience to the very commands that they have been convicted of breaking.
So what happens next? A celebration of failure? Of course not. Rather, the sheep need to be exhorted that the gratitude they feel for the love that the Father has lavished on them through Christ must find expression in their lives by seeking to obey the very commands that they have confessed to breaking. The preaching of the law and the Gospel should produce in Christians a desire to love God by obeying His beautiful commands, as Christ said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.”
Now here is the most crucial point in this discussion: obedience to God’s commands does not and cannot take place apart from loving God. Mere outward conformity to the commands not to steal or murder do not count as obedience at all if not born out of a heart that is actively loving God.
Fear and threats do not and cannot produce this love; the Gospel alone does this. Why? Because God has chosen not to imbue his commands and threats with this power; rather He has chosen to empower the Gospel to work this love in us through the Spirit so that we seek to obey His commands without the focus on self-preservation that fear produces.
The Apostle John could not be clearer when he says: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:18-19)
And as would be expected, Calvin exposits the apostle’s words here powerfully:
The meaning is, that as there is nothing more miserable than to be harassed by continual inquietude, we obtain by knowing God’s love towards us the benefit of a peaceful calmness beyond the reach of fear. It hence appears what a singular gift of God it is to be favored with his love…. [T]hough fear is not wholly shaken off, yet when we flee to God as to a quiet harbor, safe and free from all danger of shipwreck and of tempests, fear is really expelled, for it gives way to faith….[John] reminds us, that it is owing to unbelief when any one fears, that is, has a disturbed mind; for the love of God, really known, tranquilizes the heart.