Why Should I Love God?

The first commandment of God’s holy moral law is unequivocal: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 2o:3). In the ground (‏כִּ֣י) of the second commandment Yahweh Elohim declares, “I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 205–6; ESV). In Deuteronomy 6:5 the Lord summarized the 1st table of the moral law this way: “You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” This commandment was repeated in Deuteronomy 10:5; 11:3; and Joshua 22:5 among other places. Our Lord Jesus summarized the first table of the law by saying, “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” (Matt 22:37; ESV). He called this “the first and great commandment.

That this is the moral law of God is really beyond doubt for those who believe the Bible. What is in question, however is this: to what end do we love God? Why? There are essentially two answers to this question. One answer is: in order that God might love me in return or in order that I might be saved and inherit eternal life. Our Lord Jesus had this discussion with a lawyer. Scripture says,

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying,

“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”

And the lawyer answered, “You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

And Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:25–28

Everyone who would present one’s self to God on the basis of law keeping is bound to keep the whole law perfectly. God’s holy law has no place for trying nor has it any place for good intentions. Deuteronomy 27:26, which Paul quotes in Galatians 3:10 says, “Cursed is everyone who does not do continually everything that is written in the book of the law.” Notice the common verb in both Deuteronomy 27 and in Luke 10: “do.” Under the law doing, performance is all that matters.

Consider the traffic cop. You zoom past him in a construction zone. In your heart you were doing 25 but on the speedometer and the radar gun you were doing 40. What does the law say? “The day you speed you shall receive a citation.” That is the nature of the law. You can try to convince the traffic cop that, in your heart, you intended to drive 25 but you know it’s futile even before you open your mouth.

This is the problem we sinners have with Deuteronomy 27:26. This is why Paul says that all who rely on “works of the law” are cursed (Gal 3:10). Nowhere does he indicate or even hint that “works of the law” refers only the ceremonials laws. Immediately after this, in the very same verse, he quotes Deuteronomy 27:26. That is not “ceremonial law.” That’s a summary of God’s holy, abiding, moral law. That is why Paul goes on to contrast the law and works with faith and grace. “But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them” (Gal 3:12). The quotation in vs. 12 is from Leviticus 18:5 “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am Yahweh” (ESV; emphasis added). The law demands, as we confess in WCF 7.2 “perfect and personal obedience.”

Adam was created able to so love God perfectly and personally. Mysteriously, he chose not to love Yahweh Elohim with all his faculties nor his neighbor (Eve) as himself. In so choosing and disobeying he plunged himself and all his posterity into death and judgment. As sinners, we are not only incapable of meeting this test, by inclination and nature we are unwilling. This is a great problem. It is bad news.

There is another answer, however, to the question: why should I love God? Between Galatians 3:10 and 3:12 there is verse 11, where Paul also says, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.'” Again Paul quotes the Hebrew scriptures. This time from the last part of Habakkuk 2:4, ““Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by faith.” There are justified people in the world, i.e., there are those in the world of whom God has said, “righteous.” Who are they? Are they who have kept all of God’s law perfectly and personally? That is a very short list of one: Jesus of Nazareth. He alone was able to say, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4). According to Paul, Adam’s act of disobedience brought condemnation and death but Jesus’ “one act of righteousness” leads to justification and life for his people (Rom 5:18, 19).

The law did not cease being the law. It continued to demand of us sinners, “do this and live” and “love the Yahweh your God with all your faculties.” The law is relentless this way. It was Christ who love God with all his faculties. It was Christ who “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal 3:13; Deut 21:23). We know that Jesus was cursed for us because he was crucified, hung on a tree. That was the mark of extreme public humiliation. We endured the curse for us. Not only did we not love God. He loved God for us who believe, in our place, as our substitute.

There are two ways to meet the demands of the 1st commandment: in ourselves or in another. We Christians confess that we cannot do it and have not done it. We say that Jesus did it for us. That is why Paul goes on to say in Galatians 3:14, it is “in Christ Jesus” that we receive the “blessing of Abraham,” i.e., that God has become our God and the God of our children. How? We receive the promised Holy Spirit “through faith.” Paul is adamant that we do not receive the Spirit (the sign of God’s approval) by works, i.e., by our law keeping but grace his favor alone, thorough faith alone in Christ our Mediator and substitute alone. As Paul says in Romans 11:6, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (ESV). Grace and works are two different principles. Grace says that Christ has performed the works, in our place, as our substitute. We receive grace because of his works.

There is no question that we must love God and the believers do love God but not in order that God might love nor in order to be saved but because we have been freely loved and freely saved by God’s love, in Christ. This is exactly what the Apostle John taught: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation (wrath turning) for our sins” (1 John 4:10). He says, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19; ESV).  God’s love comes first. We who love do so in return, in grace, in gratitude, in union with Christ but because we have been loved, because we are loved. Our love is fruit and evidence of God’s love for us and in us, in Christ (1 John 5:2).

Recently it is has been said that anyone who does not love God above everything else is not a Christian. This is not quite right. Christians are those who, despite the reality that they did not love have been lavishly loved by God and who, now, by God’s grace, are learning to love God with all their faculties. Christians are resting in Jesus, who has loved God in our place. Christians are those into whose hearts God has poured his love, “through his Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). In response, in his grace, we do love God but not perfectly, not yet and we do not approach God on the basis of our love for him but on the basis of his love for us in Christ. This gives us confidence to keep going, knowing that he will complete the good work he has begun in us at the day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6).

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  1. Hi Dr. Clark,

    Good post, thank you!

    I have a different understanding though concerning your last paragraph.

    Taking into account passages such as Mat 10:37-38 and Luke 14:25-35 it seems to me that Jesus is actually teaching that whoever doesn’t love Him more than anyone and anything else cannot be one of His disciples (i.e. a Christian). Isn’t this a valid conclusion?

    It’s not the case that people must love God so that they will make Him love them back. But rather I would think that those that have been born again are given a new heart that loves God more than anyone and anything else (the promise of the New Covenant in Jer ch 31, 32 and Ezek 36). Certainly in this age we do not love God perfectly, but still we do love Him more than anyone and anything else. Otherwise, we would be idolaters!

    What is your opinion on my thoughts? Have I missed the mark?

    • Theo,

      I think we disagree fundamentally on some important issues:

      1. The nature of the new covenant. You’re assuming a reading of Jer 31 that, in my view, is untenable in light of the way the NT interprets Jer 31. See this essay. Further, there is an approach to interpretation (a hermeneutic) implied in your reading of Jer 31 that is not tenable. We could not read Isa 52-53 the way you want to read Jer 31. Both passages (as well as many others) use hyperbole. If we fail to account for this feature, we risk misunderstanding these passages.

      2. Do you always love Jesus more than anything or anyone else? If you’re honest you must say no or else you must be a perfectionist who has reached entire perfection. I doubt the latter since I doubt that such a thing is possible. On this see this essay.

      3. Your post/question seeks to obliterate the fundamental distinction on which my argument rests: the distinction between law and gospel. Our Lord says:

      “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt 10:34–38)

      This is the law of God. This is the very same thing God the Son had said to the Israelites. It’s the same thing he said to Adam. It is true that whoever does not love him more than all is not worthy of him. Again, do you love him more than anything always? I guess not. Now what?

      What are the three uses of the law?

      1. To teach us the greatness of our sin and misery
      2. To norm civil life (in the 2nd table)
      3. To norm the Christian life (which again teaches us the greatness of our sin and misery).

      The Reformed Churches confess:

      2. How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?

      Three things: the first, how great my sin and misery is; the second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery;3 the third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.

      3. From where do you know your misery?

      From the Law of God.

      4. What does the Law of God require of us?

      Christ teaches us in sum, Matt 22: “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. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (22:38, 39,40)

      5. Can you keep all this perfectly?

      No, for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor.

      114. Can those who are converted to God keep these commandments perfectly?

      No, but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with earnest purpose they begin to live not only according to some, but according to all the Commandments of God.

      115. Why then does God so strictly enjoin the ten Commandments upon us, since in this life no one can keep them?

      First, that as long as we live we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and so the more earnestly seek forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ; secondly, that without ceasing we diligently ask God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we be renewed more and more after the image of God, until we attain the goal of perfection after this life.

      Yes, believers, by the grace of God do learn to love God above all but but they never fulfill God’s holy law perfectly. It’s no fair cheating by lowering the standard (to intent) nor is it possible to say that we reach perfection in this life.

      If you do away with this distinction then you are left only with law: do this and live. That’s bad news for sinners. It was such an approach that drove Martin Luther to the Reformation. Why would we voluntarily return to the system that Luther left behind?

  2. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 For. 5:21). Praise God! Thank you for this post!

  3. this: to what end do we love God? Why?

    for the praise of the glory of His grace (Eph 1:6, 12,14; Phil 1:11; 1Pet 1:7)

    Ephesians 2 4 God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

    thank you and more please –time (as always has been) to magnify the Lord… with belief

  4. Dr Clark, thank you for your response.

    I too am in strong agreement with the Law / Gospel distinction. And thus I agree with the three uses of the law.

    Maybe I failed to express clearly my point. I am not saying that someone must be perfect for God to accept him, or that anyone can be perfect in this life.
    What I am saying is that I believe these passages from the Gospels describe true believers / disciples (also John 8:30-32 etc).

    The Lord Jesus said to the crowd:

    25 Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:25-26)

    What was His intention? To lay down the Law? Jesus didn’t say in this passage : ‘anyone who does not love me with all his heart and soul and mind and strength cannot be my disciple.’
    I don’t think Jesus refers to perfection. I believe that He was describing the attitude of those that truly come to Him in faith.

    I think an accurate summary of His words is: “if you do not love me more than anyone and anything else you cannot be my disciple – a Christian”.

    That’s what the crowds should have understood, I believe.

    Why does the conclusion that true disciples / Christians characteristically love the Lord more than anyone and anything else go against the Law / Gospel distinction? Again, I am not saying that this is the ground for which God accepts them. I am saying that this is one of the characteristics of true Christians that the Bible gives us.

    • Theo,

      Let me press you because I think You are putting words in Jesus’ mouth and I don’t think your approach really reckons with the distinction between law and gospel. You are softening his teaching. We disagree. He is teaching the law. He is re-stating the law. You’re reading is still law but it’s a softened law. He is referring to perfection. “Anyone who does not” cannot be softened. It should not be softened.

      What’s the difference between your “if you do not love me more than anyone and anything else” and the law?

      Yes, believers ought to be characterized by love for God but that isn’t in question, that isn’t what Jesus said.

      I understand that people are trying to answer “easy believism.” This approach isn’t the answer. The answer is to recognize the law of God for what it is, to flee to Christ, and to strive, in grace, in union with Christ, toward true and constant love of God. The “easy believism” model ignores both the 1st use and the 3rd use of the law. The “lordship” response ignores the true nature of the law.

      The question is not whether believers ought to be or are characterized by love for God. The question is how we get to that point and the path toward love for God goes through the cross.

      How is it good news to say “a believer ought to be characterized by love for God”? It’s true that we should. How much? Who determines? To ask those questions is to answer them: God determines and the standard is not “intent” or “sometimes” but always and perfection. The 3rd use of the law is not a lower standard. It’s the same standard. We’re not antinomians. The law is the law.

      Where is simul iustus et peccator in your approach?

  5. RSC: uses of the law? 3. To norm the Christian life (which again teaches us the greatness of our sin and misery).

    To ‘norm’ the Christian life? Could you explain what you mean by that and why you would say it that way?

    RSC: “The answer is to recognize the law of God for what it is, to flee to Christ, and to strive, in grace, in union with Christ, toward true and constant love of God.”

    Isn’t the answer to recognize that by returning over and over again to our First Love, we recognize reality -that the ‘law of God’, the law of the Spirit of life, is love, is the law of liberty, is not burdensome?

    • Hi Ali,

      See the catechism answers I gave above.

      On the three uses of the law see:

      The Three Uses of the Law.

      Traditionally confessional Protestant theology (Reformed & Lutheran) has spoken of three uses. As the Heidelberg says, the first teaches us our sin and need for the Savior. In its third use (tertius usus legis) we recognize the abiding validity of the law as the standard of our Christian life. God’s law still says: No other gods etc. By his grace, in union with Christ, the Spirit helping us, we do seek, as we say, to keep not only some of his commandments but all of them.

      It was the antinomians who denied the normative (abiding validity) power of the moral law. The 3rd use has been Christian teaching since the early church (and it was apostolic teaching in the NT).

      We keep it gratefully, impelled and empowered by the Spirit but, in the traditional Reformed reading of Romans 7, imperfectly.

  6. Thank you again. Hopefully we can continue in unity about this in our day since as you say “it has been Christian teaching since the early church’

    Chapter XIX VII. : Neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but do sweetly comply with it; the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely, and cheerfully, which the will of God, revealed in the law, requires to be done.

    ….. so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter….. in order that we might bear fruit for God…. Romans 7: 6,4

    And as Theo K was discussing, we can’t live a divided life with multiple Masters – we must choose – we will only love and serve one.

    “Everything the Bible says about the old nature is negative: “no good thing” (Ro 7:18- note); “the flesh profiteth nothing” (John 6:63); “no confidence in the flesh” (Php 3:3-note). If we depend on the energy of the flesh, we cannot serve God, please God, or do any good thing. But if we yield to the Holy Spirit, then we have the power needed to obey His will. The flesh will never serve the Law of God because the flesh is at war with God. But the Spirit can only obey the Law of God! Therefore, the secret of doing good is to yield to the Holy Spirit ” W.W. Wiersbe

  7. Dr Clark,

    I believe it is good news to learn that a believer IS (not just ‘ought’) characterized by love for God. What God demands, He grants by His Spirit.

    Concerning Luke 14:24-36, I don’t see something in the context that would make me think that we are faced with the first use of the law.
    I also don’t think the first use of the law is found in passages such as John 8:30-32, 13:35, 14:15.
    I believe these passages give us descriptions of what is characteristic of all true disciples.

    And what about 1 John? e.g. 1 John 2:3, 3:14.

    These two passages from 1 John are used as proof texts for ch 18:1 & 2 of the WCF.

    Would you please have a look at Pastor DeYoung’s article:

    (I don’t know what is the policy concerning links. This article can easily be found by googling for: thegospelcoalition ASSURANCE IN THE REFORMED CONFESSIONS (2) )

    Isn’t his point similar to mine?

    Concerning your question “Where is simul iustus et peccator in your approach?”

    I would use the example of Paul. He was a man who loved the Lord more than anything and anyone else. Certainly not every single moment, but this love was what characterized his life. Who could spend a few days with Paul and not see it? (And really, everyone has something/someone that he loves more than anything else. And it is easy to find out what is the object of this love. All one has to do is to have a good look at his usage of time and money). Well, even Paul at his best moment fell short of the absolute perfection the Law requires. Even at his best moment, he didn’t love the Lord perfectly, even though he did love Him more than anything and anyone else. So, at his best, Paul was worthy of hell. His only ground for acceptance before God was the perfect righteousness of Christ that was imputed to him.

    • Theo,

      Just when I thought we might agree it seems we do not.

      1. We disagree about how to interpret our Lord’s words. His intent is to teach them and us the greatness of our sin and misery.

      2. As BJ notes, the fundamental problem with saying that the Christ is characterized by x is that whenever x is not present what then? This is why I asked about simul iustus et peccator? I worry about a creeping perfectionism which always either lowers the standard (most often) or which ignores both the teaching of Romans 7 and the reality of the Christian life. Did you read the article on perfectionism to which I linked above?

      3. As I think I asked before, who judges whether one’s life is “characterized” by x? That seems untenable.

      4. I worry that you’ve reduced the law/gospel distinction to a mere theory that has no practical application. If if doesn’t apply here, it doesn’t apply anywhere.

      5. Please don’t misunderstand. Christians must be characterized by something and according to the Heidelberg Catechism it is by penitence (NB: I did not write penance). In Heidelberg 60 we say, in part:

      …that is, although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them….

      This is the testimony of the Christian, not the unbeliever.

      In Heidelberg 114 we positively reject the doctrine of Christian perfection before glory:

      114. Can those who are converted to God keep these commandments perfectly?

      No, but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with earnest purpose they begin to live not only according to some, but according to all the Commandments of God.

      We confess that we have only a “small beginning” of the obedience that we ought to have. Does this meet your test or are you dissatisfied with the Heidelberg Catechism?

      In Heidelberg 115 we say:

      115. Why then does God so strictly enjoin the ten Commandments upon us, since in this life no one can keep them?

      First, that as long as we live we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and so the more earnestly seek forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ; secondly, that without ceasing we diligently ask God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we be renewed more and more after the image of God, until we attain the goal of perfection after this life.

      The law continues to teach believers the greatness of their sin and misery. We confess our sin, we repent, we turn to Christ, and by grace and in grace we resolve to obey. We plead for the Holy Spirit, we seek to be renewed but we only attain perfection after this life. Notice that the question itself says, “since no one can keep them.” It is speaking of believers.

      This is why I say that what characterizes believers is a penitent life. Heidelberg 81 says, in part, that those are to come to the table “who are displeased with themselves for their sins, yet trust that these are forgiven them….” We don’t come because our lives are characterized by obedience. We come because we are sorry for our sins. In 87 we say:

      87. Can they then not be saved who do not turn to God from their unthankful, impenitent life?

      By no means, for, as the Scripture says, no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or the like shall inherit the Kingdom of God.

      I’ve explained this question at length here so I’ll be brief. The great disqualifier is not our sin but impenitence. The believer is marked by penitent heart, a confession of sin and a trusting in Christ. A believer seeks to die to self and to live to Christ not because his life is characterized by obedience but because Christ’s life was characterized by obedience. That’s the good news! Yes, Christ is at work in us by his Spirit graciously, gradually transforming us into the image of Christ but I fear that your formulation has unintentionally turned the covenant of grace into a covenant of works and is tinged by an over-realized eschatology and the Wesleyan doctrine of perfectionism.

  8. TK,

    If it is not done perfectly (therefore constantly and unwaveringly), how can it be shown that we, even Paul, love Him more than all else? Sure, in the pinch, when lions and flames and head loppings are threatened, the Christian says ‘go ahead and do it, I will not reject my Savior’. But that’s the easy part, ‘ to die is gain’ and all that. But what about the daily grind, where we often elevate the foolish things of this world, to which we must repent and turn again to elevating Him above all else? You say we do not love Him perfectly, but a true disciple does love Him above all else. I say I do not love Him above all else perfectly, something I must repent of daily. On your reasoning, doesn’t that mean I am not a true disciple?

    • BJ,

      A husband doesn’t love (and cannot love) his wife perfectly. Should we then conclude that it cannot be shown that this man loves his wife more than he loves other women?

      I think it is rather straightforward to find out what/who someone loves the most. Just examine over an extended period of time what he does with his time and money.

    • Does he love her above all when he cheats on her? When he spends more on his own felt needs than he does hers? Who gets to say, him or her?
      The ‘over time’ criteria can be dangerous, especially if interpreted as the ‘overall sum of a life well-lived’.
      You may think of yourself as standing before the Lord on that final day saying, ‘I know I failed to love you above all perfectly, but if you look at my life as a whole I think it will show that I did love you more than anything.’ I find that idea frightening.

    • I will not have to say anything that day. My Saviour will do all the talking (if any is needed).

      Until then, I insist that assurance of salvation can be biblically enjoyed only by those that see themselves described in Ch 18 of the WCF.

      I mentioned a few scriptures, (even an entire letter, 1 John), if you could point me to reformed resources that disagree with my understanding of these passages I would be much obliged!

  9. Dr Clark,

    I certainly don’t want to have anything to do with perfectionism (yes, I read the article) or to turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works.
    I did say that I believe Paul’s best moment of obedience is worthy of hell…

    I am surprised to see that my ‘formulation’ that the Bible does say that Christians are indeed characterized by ‘x’ is rejected.
    I thought that this way of thinking is implicit (if not explicit) in ch 18 of the WCF, this is why I linked Kevin DeYoung’s article.

    Shouldn’t your question “who judges whether one’s life is “characterized” by x? That seems untenable.” be addressed also to this part of the WCF?

    DeYoung says: “Notice again the language of “endeavoring” (Dort speaks of “a serious and holy pursuit”).”
    Who can judge if someone is endeavoring or displays indeed “a serious and holy pursuit”?

    I am willing to be taught, can you point me to reformed expositions of verses such as Luke 14:24-36, John 8:30-32, 13:35, 14:15 that treat them as instances of the first use of the law? A quick look to Calvin’s commentaries didn’t give me this impression.

    If my ‘formulation’ is incorrect, how are we to deal with the WCF Ch 18 prooftexts? (1 John 2:3, 3:14). In fact, with the entire letter of 1 John?

    “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.” 1 John 2:3
    “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brothers. He that loves not his brother stays in death.” 1 John 3:14

    How much obedience is enough? How much love for the brothers is enough? And yet, here is a letter that (in my understanding) gives us tests in order to make sure that we are true Christians, that our faith is genuine (I believe that the way WCF ch 18 uses these verses as prooftexts supports my understanding).

    This must be a both / and case, not an either / or. Yes we still have our sinful nature, and yet at the same time our life is characterized by certain things.

    Calvin’s commentary on 1 John 2:3 :

    “John then takes this principle as granted, that the knowledge of God is efficacious. He hence concludes, that they by no means know God who keep not his precepts or commandments. Plato, though groping in darkness, yet denied that “the beautiful” which he imagined, could be known, without filling man with the admiration of itself; so he says in his Phaedrus and in other places. How then is it possible for thee to know God, and to be moved by no feeling? Nor does it indeed proceed only from God’s nature, that to know him is immediately to love him; but the Spirit also, who illuminates our minds, inspires our hearts with a feeling conformable to our knowledge. At the same time the knowledge of God leads us to fear him and to love him. For we cannot know him as Lord and Father, as he shews himself, without being dutiful children and obedient servants. In short, the doctrine of the gospel is a lively mirror in which we contemplate the image of God, and are transformed into the same, as Paul teaches us in 2 Corinthians 3:18. Where, therefore, there is no pure conscience, nothing can be there but an empty phantom of knowledge.

    We must notice the order when he says, We do know that we know him; for he intimates that obedience is so connected with knowledge, that the last is yet in order the first, as the cause is necessarily before its effect.

    If we keep his commandments But there is no one who in everything keeps them; there would thus be no knowledge of God in the world. To this I answer, that the Apostle is by no means inconsistent with himself; since he has before shewed that all are guilty before God, he does not understand that those who keep his commandments wholly satisfy the law (no such example can be found in the world;) but that they are such as strive, according to the capacity of human infirmity, to form their life in conformity to the will of God. For whenever Scripture speaks of the righteousness of the faithful, it does not exclude the remission of sins, but on the contrary, begins with it.

    But we are not hence to conclude that faith recumbs on works; for though every one receives a testimony to his faith from his works, yet it does not follow that it is founded on them, since they are added as an evidence. Then the certainty of faith depends on the grace of Christ alone; but piety and holiness of life distinguish true faith from that knowledge of God which is fictitious and dead; for the truth is, that those who are in Christ, as Paul says, have put off the old man. (Colossians 3:9.)”

    • Theo,

      Yes, Calvin is exactly right. Good works are evidence. That’s what I’m arguing.

      “Characterized by” is slippery and necessarily subjective.

      We don’t confess Calvin. We confess God’s Word in the Reformed confessions and they don’t use the language you’re using.

      Confessional proof texts change. A given set of proof texts aren’t necessarily original.

      There’s no question whether we are new creatures in Christ. Indeed we are. God’s Word says. I want to be careful, however, not to put believers, especially those with tender consciences, who’ve been burdened by relentlessly legal preaching, with a new law: “characterized by…”

      On legal preaching:


      To be clear, I have taught, preached, and written in defense of the third use of the law. Anyone who denies it is an antinomian but I doubt that your formulation is helpful.

  10. Dr Clark,

    How about the Belgic Confession?

    Article 29b.
    “As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians:
    namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ.
    They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works.
    Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him.”

    Isn’t a ‘distinguishing mark’ synonymous to a ‘characteristic’?

    Even though you may find it hard to believe, I do hate legal preaching and I don’t want to see believers come under the covenant of works.
    At the same time, I hate it even more to see people consider themselves Christians and end up in hell. And I believe that this is why 1 John was written. And thus I would expect that an exposition of this letter would insist in explaining and applying the marks of a true child of God that John mentions:


    I will reword my plea, could you point me to reformed sermons/articles/resources that deal with the scriptures I mentioned (and Rom 8:13 as well) in a way that you think agrees with the law / gospel distinction?

    • Theo,

      I agree entirely with Belgic 29 and have defended it vigorously against the Antinomians.

      Why not simply use the language on which the Reformed churches have already agreed? We confess marks of a true church and marks of believer. Amen.

      Yes, John gives marks of a believer. Amen.

      Belgic 24 also says that we are justified even before we do good works. Amen to that too.

      I don’t have time to do your research. I barely have time to do my own. Calvin’s exposition of Luke 14:25ff is not ideal. I think he’s missed the point a bit. I fear there is a general tendency to water down our Lord’s words, to take the sting out of them, to make them a little less biting or painful than they were intended to be. Calvin recognizes the bit but then proceeds to explain why they really aren’t as shocking as they were meant to be. Further. Calvin didn’t really account for the allusion Jesus was making to Elijah and Elisha.

      If all you meant to say is what we confess in Belgic 29 it might have saved us a lot of time if you had simply said so. This is one function of confessions, to give us agreed language and to avoid useless wrangling over words. Your original claim, however, did not sound much like Belgic 29. I’m glad that we agree.

  11. Dr Clark,

    Thank you for your time.

    We certainly agree on the law / gospel distinction when it comes to justification.
    To be honest, I hadn’t thought that this distinction should or could be applied to every single verse and to matters other than justification.
    I will keep on investigating, thank you for pressing me on this.

    One suggestion for some future posts, maybe. I think it would be really beneficial to see in action how this distinction is applied to passages that people don’t usually see in this light.
    It would be really helpful to see examples of legal preaching on, say, Luke 14, Rom 8:13, 1 John, etc and to contrast them with expositions that stay faithful to the text and to the law / gospel hermeneutic principle.

    Every blessing in Christ.

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