Love, law, and the gospel

1 John 5:1-6

John 15:9-17


From the earliest days of the Church, and indeed from before the foundation of the Church, there has been a conflict between two world views.  That conflict can be summed up as being between Love and Law or, if you prefer, between salvation by faith and salvation by works.  Evidence both of this dispute and of attempts to reconcile the differing positions can be found in a number of places in the Old Testament, and in the New Testament it is particularly obvious in the Book of Acts.  There the conflict between the group in the Church, based in Jerusalem and led by James the brother of Jesus, who believed that in order to be a Christian one must first be or become a Jew, and the group led by Paul, who saw salvation in Christ as being available to all without the need to accept Jewish Law, is made very clear.


What is perhaps less clear is that while there were very clearly strong views held on both sides of the argument, there were also people in the Church who tried to mediate between the two positions, and who saw the dangers attached to too rigid an adherence to either.  The passages from John and John’s first letter are arguably attempts to address this very question, and throughout the history of the Church there have been people and groups who have tried to do the same thing.  While Paul and the gentile church conclusively defeated the argument for Christians having to adopt Judaism, the question of how far Christians are required to follow the commandments contained in the Old Testament, and indeed in the New, has never gone away.  Most recently it has surfaced in the debates held in every church about human sexuality, and whether same-sex relationships are permissible,  but a less emotionally charged attempt to discuss this question is to be found in a book with the splendid title, Why Bible-believing Methodists shouldn’t eat black pudding.  Stephen Dawes, the author, discusses the issues around the attitude of the Church to the commandments.  In an earlier era the authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith drew a distinction between the ceremonial law and the moral law and then, while quite clearly stating that the ceremonial law has been abrogated, dithered over the question of the moral law.  In succeeding paragraphs they say both that the Moral Law applies to all, and that believers are not under the Law.  As somebody once said about Calvinist preachers, “they start their sermons by saying there are no rules and then spend twenty minutes saying what the rules are”.


And this brings us back to John’s Gospel and the attempt found there to reconcile the two positions.  Verses nine and ten of our Gospel passage read, “as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love”.  John here is attempting to square the circle and to reconcile two apparently irreconcilable views.  However, what is clear is that somehow or other the irreconcilable must be reconciled, because history is full of examples of what happens when they are not.  In 1495 under the influence of Girolamo Savanarola, a Dominican friar, the City of Florence adopted a rigid and harsh form of government which forbad art, music, and anything that could be construed as immoral or immodest.  In 1536 the City of Münster in Germany was taken over by a group of so called Radical Anabaptists, who claimed that neither the commandments contained in scripture, nor the laws passed by human legislators, were seen as applying to them.  In both cases the end result was tragic.  Savanarola, together with several of his followers, was executed by hanging and his body burnt, with the ashes thrown into the river.  John of Leiden, the leader of the Münster Anabaptists, who had married sixteen wives and publicly beheaded at least one of these, was imprisoned and then tortured to death after the Anabaptist government of Münster was overthrown.  In the first case, love and grace had been forgotten in favour of law and a rigid adherence to the commandments, while in the second any concept of law had been abandoned in favour of the idea that so long as you love God anything and everything can be permitted.


An often quoted saying of St Augustine of Hippo concerning the Christian life is “love God and do what you like”.  It appears that Augustine is defending the position that love is all you need, but for that position you need to turn to the Beatles.  What Augustine actually said was “love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is beloved”, and this is the solution to the dilemma that faces the Church. This is what John is saying in his gospel, and it is what both Savanarola and John of Leiden, in different directions, got wrong. It is what he authors of the Westminster Confession were trying to say, although they said it rather badly. There is a moral and ethical code contained in scripture, and in the understanding of the Church down through the ages. To cling too rigidly to a set of rules designed for an earlier era, or to abandon all such rules as belonging to an earlier era or to a different world view and as no longer relevant is equally wrong. It is easy to see how people in the past got it wrong; how they failed to love, or how they fell into the trap of mistaking their own lusts for the love of God, but it is less easy to see such failings in our own lives.


The solution lies in our passage from John’s first letter, although to understand it properly it is necessary to begin one verse before our passage today began.  Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.


Humanity needs rules.  Something deep in our nature demands patterns by which we can live, but it needs these rules to be interpreted sensibly.  Thus it is possible to say that the first rule must be the rule of love.  Using Love as our yardstick we can interpret and understand the commandments of scripture, the requirements of statute and common law as laid down by Parliament and the Law Courts, and, we trust, serve God by so doing.  I began by describing the conflict between law and love, and I end by suggesting that this should be a false conflict, because only in law can love be fully realised, and only in love can law be properly interpreted.  Jesus Christ came to us to set us free, but freedom is never absolute.  My freedom is limited if you too are to be free.  Such limits are set out in the commandments of God, commandments which the first letter of John reminds us are to be interpreted through the Holy Spirit and of which Christ himself has said, “a new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you”.

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