What About Love? A Crucial Piece Missing From The Sanctification Debate

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.

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  1. Amen. Thank you for this word – the love of the gospel. Your conclusion drives it home!

    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.

    This reminded me of John Owen. After establishing that the law can only direct and guide (as well as condemn sin), offering no power to obey, Owen writes:

    But the gospel, or the grace of it, is the means and instrument of God for the communication of internal spiritual strength unto believers. By it do they receive supplies of the Spirit or aids of grace for the subduing of sin and the destruction of its dominion… (John Owen, A Treatise of the Dominion of Sin and Grace)


  2. Scott, thanks for publishing and Tom, thanks for writing. Beautiful in biblical balance.

  3. Great post!

    I might add that Paul, in Galatians contrasts the fruit of the Spirit with the deeds of the flesh.

    When I think about “fruit” vs. “deeds” what comes to my mind is that apple trees do not have to worry about producing apples – they are not apple trees because they produce apples, rather, they produce apples because they are apple trees.

    We don’t have to “be” a new creation, we “are” a new creation.

    There is no room for no fruit, but there is room for little fruit (Matt. 13:23) but there are a lot of Christians trying to dance with Jesus while looking at their feet rather than at Him.

  4. Tom (if I may),

    Thank you for this helpful post.

    You quoted John 14:15: “If you love me, keep my commandments.” That is how the NIV, KJV, and other translations render this verse (with minor differences, of course).

    Other translations add “you will” to the verse: If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (ESV, NASB, others).

    Which would you say is the better translation? Also, do you think the addition of “will” changes the meaning of the verse significantly?

    The former translation seems like it can be read as a threat of sorts, and can lead one down a trail that could end in one speculating the Lord might well say of him, “I see that you’re not keeping my commandments very well; you mustn’t really love me.”

    The latter translation seems to reflect what Walter is saying above about fruits vs. deeds, and might be considered in this fashion: “If you love me (which love flows from, and is a necessary consequence of, my first loving you with an infinite, eternal, self-giving, dying-on-the-cross-for-your-sins love for you) you WILL—as an apple tree bears apples—keep my commands, which are not burdensome.”

    Yeah, that second quote is cumbersome. And perhaps I’ve loaded the question by my contrasting examples, and maybe my second quote gets some things wrong, but I wanted to get your take on this.

    I’m no expert on these matters, but I appreciate that I am able to pick your brain and Scott’s and others’ here at the HB and other blogs regarding these issues. I find it very encouraging.


  5. It’s odd to me that such a perspective on the role of love in sanctification is part of a debate. Taking into account the entire law-gospel dynamic as Scott has laid it out via blog posts and relevant quotes from other writers, what other conclusion are you left with? Not to mention scriptural teaching… If obedience is not primarily driven by love for God from a transformed heart, then Christianity is no different than any other religious system out there.

    • Hi Keith,

      Get your point – well taken, but attend some church services in churches in certain Protestant (but not necessarily Reformed) denominations and you would be surprised at what is put forth from the pulpit as motivation for obeying. Don’t know if it is appropriate to mention the denominations here, so I will leave it at that.

  6. Marrow of Modern Divinity:

    Now (1.) the end of the commandment is charity, (2.) out of a pure heart, (3.) and of a good conscience, (4.) and of faith, (5.) unfeigned.””Wherein the apostle teacheth, that the obedience of the law must flow from love, and love from a pure heart, and a pure heart from a good conscience, and a good conscience from faith unfeigned; thus he maketh the only right channel of good works…”

    For a Christian man, says sweet Tindal, worketh only because it is the will of his Father; for after that he is overcome with love and kindness, he seeks to do the will of God, which is indeed a Christian man’s nature; and what he doth, he doth it freely after the example of Christ. As a natural son, ask him why he does such a thing. Why, says he, it is the will of my Father, and I do it that I may please him; for, indeed, love desireth no wages, it is wages enough to itself, it hath sweetness enough in itself, it desires no addition, it pays its own wages. And therefore it is the true child-like obedience, being begotten by faith, of Sarah the free-woman, by the force of God’s love. And so it is indeed the only true and sincere obedience: for, says Dr. Preston, “To do a thing in love, is to do it in sincerity; and, indeed, there is no other definition of sincerity; that is the best way to know it by.”

  7. Here is more from John Owen on mortification. An interesting use of the gospel to convict, no?

    “Bring thy lust to the gospel, — not for relief, but for farther conviction of its guilt; look on Him whom thou hast pierced, and be in bitterness. Say to thy soul, “What have I done? What love, what mercy, what blood, what grace have I despised and trampled on! Is this the return I make to the Father for his love, to the Son for his blood, to the Holy Ghost for his grace? Do I thus requite the Lord? Have I defiled the heart that Christ died to wash, that the blessed Spirit hath chosen to dwell in? And can I keep myself out of the dust? What can I say to the dear Lord Jesus? How shall I hold up my head with any boldness before him? Do I account communion with him of so little value, that for this vile lust’s sake I have scarce left him any room in my heart? How shall I escape if I neglect so great salvation?”

  8. Great quote Jack, and thanks for the kind words! Be careful quoting from The Marrow though. You’d hate to get lumped together with some of “reformed theology’s unwelcomed guests.” 🙂

    • Tom, I’d rather defend myself regarding the quotes that, indisputably, I agree with than those that can be “nuanced” to the aid of any partisan. But thank you for the advice! I’ll keep a “heads up” for the expected “incoming.”

  9. Paul,

    It seems like we can count on you to show up whenever people are celebrating how free the confessionally reformed gospel is in the blogosphere, and attempt to rain on the parade with some “zinger” which is often lacking in contextual fidelity and/or nuance.

    Clearly here, Owen is highlighting an aspect of the finished work of Christ which changes our affections so that its preciousness causes our love for sin to wane and our love for Christ to wax. This is most certainly not an exhibit proving that Owen believes the Gospel motivates Christians to grow by condemning them.

    You only need to look back a few posts here at the Heidelblog to see a very helpful quote provided by Jack for a clearer understanding of Owen’s view of the law and the gospel in Christian obedience:

    “This is one principal difference between the law and the gospel, and was ever so esteemed in the church of God, until all communication of efficacious grace began to be called in question: The law guides, directs, commands, all things that are against the interest and rule of sin. It judgeth and condemneth both the things that promote it and the persons that do them; it frightens and terrifies the consciences of those who are under its dominion. But if you shall say unto it, ‘What then shall we do? this tyrant, this enemy, is too hard for us. What aid and assistance against it will you afford unto us? what power will you communicate unto its destruction?’ Here the law is utterly silent, or says that nothing of this nature is committed unto it of God; nay, the strength it hath it gives unto sin for the condemnation of the sinner: ‘The strength of sin is the law.’”

    “But the gospel, or the grace of it, is the means and instrument of God for the communication of internal spiritual strength unto believers. By it do they receive supplies of the Spirit or aids of grace for the subduing of sin and the destruction of its dominion. By it they may say they can do all things, through Him that enables them. Hereon then depends, in the first place, the assurance of the apostle’s assertion, that ‘sin shall not have dominion over us,’ because we are ‘under grace.’ We are in such a state as wherein we have supplies in readiness to defeat all the attempts of sin for rule and dominion in us.” (Owen, A Treatise of the Dominion of Sin and Grace)

  10. The only parade I’m trying to rain on is one that says “one must never say X about the gospel” or some such, when we can find examples of worthies like Owen doing so.

    Sure, I agree with what else you quote from Owen. Of course, since Owen includes *in the gospel* what I have quoted as part of that which can be used to aid us in mortification. But few feel comfortable with taking the direction of Owen to use the gospel this way: frankly *I’m* uncomfortable with it: it sounds like its confusing law and gospel.

  11. There are two parts to love in sanctification. One was mentioned here, we are to love God. But we should not allow the other to be swallowed up by the first. We are also called to love our neighbor. To not mention this can make a decent blogpost like this into a gateway for showing disrespect and even hatred for others.

    Why? Because in our love-driven zeal to defend God, our apologetics and actions often show a eagerness to self-righteously lash out at others. As I joked with a friend from seminary not too long ago when I said, “Good theology covers a multitude of sins.” That is love-driven concern for theology often gives us permission to treat others with disrespect if not horribly.

  12. This is wonderful, especially because I have been thinking a lot about this of late. Especially in the light of the critiques of Horton for saying “the fear of punishment and hope for rewards as a motivation for Christian holiness is a disastrous pattern of thinking.” In context, I think he more saying fear of punishment and hope for rewards as THE motivation for holiness, as opposed to John Wesley who despised election since it seemed to mitigate these two things which he considered the pillars of holiness. As Bavinck says “In a word: not law but gospel is the one and mighty motive for a holy walk of life.” And lets not call him Lutheran for that.
    I would like someone however to talk of about the place of the fear of God in the believer and maybe its distinction from fear of condemnation and punishment. Or maybe how the fear of God fits in with the Spirit of adoption and so on. Also there seems to be an unspoken distinction between two ways to speak about rewards. One could think of the reward of salvation or obtaining the right to life (perhaps we can it legal rewards), and on the other hand the rewards offered to believers that they will see Christ more clearly or have a better enjoyment of His glory and a closer communion in their walk with Him (maybe we can call these evangelical rewards). So maybe there is a proper way to speak about the fear of God in the believer and the hope of a closer communion with Him, as a (not the) motive for obedience.

    • Thanks for highlighting Horton on this – can you possibly supply a link?

      Fear of punishment must indeed be a disastrous pattern of thinking for the believer, since it amounts to lack of faith of the serious proportion set out in Hebrews.

      Yet it is dreadfully commonplace in what I call Gollum Theology, after the little critter who was at times frighteningly fierce, and at other times, obsequiously timid. Some preach as if we might lose our salvation, only to back off when challenged (until the next time). This is brilliantly addressed in C S Lewis’ Pilgrim’s Regress chapter 1.

      Rewards are trickier. The definition of faith includes ‘..that He rewards [with Himself?] those who earnestly seek Him’ though even Future Grace’s presentation of this still seemed to me rather selfish. Of course our ‘only’ reward (as if that might be inadequate!) is Jesus, but even scripture seems to talk to believers about the value of building up treasures in heaven, which might, as you say, mean greater capacity for enjoying Him.

      My main concern however is that fear (of punishment) and desire (for rewards) have too much of the Old, fallen Adam in them. We should not be providing motives, or power, for the ‘peccator’ to ‘do’ the ‘right’ thing for the wrong reason; we are preaching to each other to bring forth the New man who is not only ‘iustus’ but also ‘sanctus’ and ‘vivus’. It is just that we don’t really know what this means so we inevitably fall back on Gollum Theology, often most obvious in interpretations of Phil 2. v12-13.

  13. Tom,

    I’m wondering if my questions to you got buried in my first post:

    Which would you say is the better translation? Also, do you think the addition of “will” changes the meaning of the verse significantly?

    Frankly, I find little comfort in “If you love me, keep my commandments.”


  14. “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.”

    But more than this, the sheep must be assured that their obedience as an expression of their gratitude for Christ’s love is not only something they must seek, but something that is guaranteed by Christ’s love itself. He will produce fruit in them! That assurance fosters increased faith unto actual new obedience.

    For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
    All of Romans 6 is to this very point.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Greg (Baus). Btw, we have Baltimore, Escondido and Trout Run in common ( crazy, huh?). Paul’s prayer for the saints in Eph 3:14-21 is not merely an empty wish in his part but obviously a statement about what the Trinity does in the sanctification of every saint. While that trajectory looks different in every Christian the promise you quote is indeed a guarantee.

    • Greg

      You seem to touch on three questions here

      1. how to call forth right obedience
      2. how to call forth gratitude
      3. what to do with gratitude when we have it (answer – obey)

      You then comment further on 1.

      1a. We command believers that they must seek it
      1b. We reassure believers that God will provide it
      1c. The reassurance in 1b increases ‘faith’ (introduced at this point)
      1d. Increased faith leads to obedience

      You therefore touch on various elements (though, to be honest, I am not too clear where the circularity starts, ie which are ‘grounds’ and which are ‘instruments’)

      a. We seek to obey?
      b. We seek to be grateful?
      c. We seek to have more faith?

      Surely the latter one comes closest to a ‘First’ Cause, with obedience and gratitude being fruit and secondary causes. (In heaven, there will however be no need for faith, or hope)
      b. We seek to be grateful

    • mine of moments ago

      please ignore final line (“b. We seek to be grateful”)


    • Dear Richard UK,

      I’m not sure if this gets at your questions, but here are some thoughts:

      ‘Bare’ or discrete exhortations/commands to seek more faith and/or gratitude are as problematic as any imperatives without still containing the indicatives (ie, as problematic as bare/discrete exhortations to obedience).

      In preaching (and pastoral counseling, etc) the Person and accomplished salvation work of Christ must be proclaimed. The law is declared to show both sinners’ need and the Savior’s accomplished provision. The exhortation to faith (and repentance) follows, and is directed to, the proclamation of Christ and His guarantee of full and free salvation (sanctification included). So, there is a ‘historio’ indicative, and an application through faith ‘ordo’ indicative.

      The imperatives must be (and shown to be) rooted in the ‘double’ indicative/s of redemption accomplished/applied, such that as we are directed to Christ and His work, united to Him in faith (an exhortation here to faith), we are also exhorted to exercise the new life wrought in us –exercised in (the guaranteed, Christ/Spirit-through-faith-produced) gratitude, love, obedience.

      As soon as exhortations to gratitude, love, or obedience become detached from faith (as the sole instrument) and/or those fruits and/or the instrument detached from Christ and His accomplishment/guarantee, then there is error.

      The dynamic starts with Christ and then moves to union with him through faith, then to the guaranteed fruits. When we move into imperatives we never leave the actual indicatives, or else the fruit is severed from the root. There is a kind of ‘circularity’ insofar as the instrument of faith is perpetually abiding in Christ to increase faith, (which in turn is) the only instrument to increase gratitude, love and obedience.

      Again, I think this way of understanding and speaking is clearly borne out in Romans 6 (among other places).

  15. Great questions, Rich (Keener). And sorry that I missed them.

    Yeah this is a tough one because it is tied up more with textual variants than translation, and I am not qualified in the textual variant department. Both are well-attested, but it seems that the bulk of contemporary scholarship sides with the this being ultimately an indicative statement rather than an imperative.

    So the meaning definitely shifts greatly depending on which variant we side with; however neither is problematic.

    Option A (indicative) would then attest to the guarantees that the rest of the NT give concerning the Spirit’s work producing fruit in the life of the believer.

    Option B (imperative) would simply echo the concerns (i.e. 2nd. commandment) that love of God needs to conform to His standards and is not something that we are free to define any way that we wish. Calvin (who sided with imperative) explained it this way:

    “This is undoubtedly a useful doctrine, for of those who think that they love Christ, there are very few who honor him as they ought to do; but, on the contrary, after having performed small and trivial services, they give themselves no farther concern. The true love of Christ, on the other hand, is regulated by the observation of his doctrine as the only rule. But we are likewise reminded how sinful our affections are, since even the love which we bear to Christ is not without fault, if it be not directed to a pure obedience.” (Calvin, Commentary on John 14:15)

    So if indeed, this is an imperative, you are right not to find comfort, per se, in it, but rather instruction. We allow it to inspect the works we pursue, root out what things would be self-serving and impure, and confess such things to our Father.

    If, on the other hand, it is an indicative then we find in it the same sort of comfort that we find from guarantees like Phi 1:6: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (ESV)

    I f you have a copy of Metzger’s “Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament” he deals with these variant aspects on p. 245. And Raymond Brown in his “Gospel According to John,” whose ultimate translation of this verse is NOT good, nevertheless references a few of the variant issues in vol 2, p. 638.

    Hope this helps!

    • Tom, thank you for your response.

      Yes, this helps.

      I tend toward morbid introspection, so I appreciate these discussions where I can work out some of these issues and return to the comfort of the gospel.

      Thanks again.

  16. Curt, I think that anyone with meager acquaintance with the NT epistles and the gospel accounts would have to recognize the fact that, as Luther is to have said, “God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbors do.” So obedience cannot be obedience without coming from a heart that seeks to love God, but God, in almost every instance of NT imperatives, points our gaze in a horizontal direction and instructs us to love Him by loving others.

    Thus the way around this monastically-minded error is to preach the law and the gospel. Since nearly every law we are given in the NT is directed towards how we treat others, this should properly orient our action when we are responding in gratitude to the Gospel. As Paul says in Rom 13:8-10: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 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.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (ESV)

  17. The wrath from which my sins evoked, 
    is ended by His blood.
    The love of God that meets me now, 
    is known by good and grace.

    So now two lovers often meet, 
    One pure, the other flawed; 
    for He is holy, and I am not;
    I am loved, though I love Him not.

    And thus I will forever be, 
    the one who loves – Undone;
    For what I never merited,
    is given by the Son.

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