I’ll never forget it. It was a Sunday morning during the autumn of 2014. My wife and I were worshipping with a church associated with the Acts 29 Network. As an aside in his sermon, the pastor noted that he does not understand evangelicals in the southern United States. So many of them, he argued, think that all they have to do to be saved is believe in Jesus, when, in fact, what the Bible demands is that they love Jesus. After all, he pointed out, James 2:19 tells us that even demons believe—and they have the good sense to be afraid.
If anyone was shocked by what the pastor said, they didn’t show it. No one jumped up with screams of “Heretic!” No one moved to throw the pastor out on his ear. Perhaps that is because what he said had the ring of truth, whether or not his assertion can be found in the great creeds and confessions of church history.
Two Important Questions
This issue of loving God was an important one for the writers of the Old Testament. It was important to Jesus, too. Matthew (22:34-40) and Mark (12:28-31) tell us that Jesus was asked which commandment in the Law was most important, and, in response, he quoted Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (the Shema). The way that Jesus responded to the question is significant, especially since, in Matthew’s version, he claims that the entirety of the Law and prophets depend upon the commands (notice the plural) that he quoted.
Nevertheless, Luke’s version of this story (10:25-37) is of particular interest for our purposes. That’s because, in Luke, the question on the table is precisely the question that we are exploring. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
So, what are we to make of our Lord’s words on this occasion? Have we gotten it wrong all these centuries? Is it really not about faith after all? There are three hermeneutical observations the we need to keep in mind if we are going to properly understand the significance of Jesus’ words for our soteriology.
- We must remember who is speaking. Jesus—the Son of God and the Lord of all who claim the name “Christian”—is the one who spoke these words, and he is quoting them as divine speech. They are, in a very literal sense, the words of God, and we ignore them at our own peril.
- We must remember when these words were spoken. Jesus spoke these words before the resurrection. This means that they were not spoken from the same point in salvation history that we now occupy. Why does this matter? Much of the church’s teaching is retrospective in character. We reflect not only on what Jesus said but also on what Jesus did in order to understand all that he wants us to be and to do. This does not mean that we reject Jesus’ teachings as relics of the old age (as some have done). It simply means that we see certain things more clearly because we are looking at them from the other side of the cross and resurrection.
- We must remember that these are not the only words that Scripture has to say about this topic. Sometimes, we fail to consider Jesus’ own words when we construct our soteriology. We need to avoid that error, but we also should avoid going to the opposite extreme. We should not treat this one statement as if it is the only thing that the Bible (or even Jesus himself) has to say about the topic.
Broadening Our Horizons
With these hermeneutical observations in mind, there are at least four ways that I think Jesus’ comments can help us have a more accurate and robust soteriology.
- Love for God is the manifest object of God’s self-revelation. God reveals himself in order to evoke love for the people that He created. Moreover, love for God—and for one’s neighbor (see #4 below)—is the unifying theme of the biblical story. Without it, God’s character, actions, and expectations are unintelligible and unattainable.
- Love for God is the thread that unifies the soteriologies of the Old and New Testaments. By quoting the Shema, Jesus places himself and his perspectives on soteriological matters squarely within the framework of God’s self-revelation to Israel. The advent of Christ changed a lot of things, but this basic expectation remained unchanged.
- Love for God is intimately and inextricably related to faith in Christ. When Peter presents his first sermon in Acts 2 or Phillip shares the gospel with the African government official in Acts 8, they do so with the understanding that love for God is foundational for the life to which they are calling their hearers. Anyone who had read the Torah would know that. As the gospel moved out into territory that was less acquainted with Israel’s traditions, however, it could not always be assumed that people would love God. Nevertheless, the need to do so was still an indispensable part of the Christian message, as is witnessed by the fact that all three gospels preserve (in different forms) this story.
- The obligation to love one’s neighbor (defined as anyone whom God has placed in a person’s life) is inseparable from the obligation to love God. Up to this point, we have been focusing on Jesus’ quotation of the Shema, but he also quotes another text from the Torah—Leviticus 19:18b. This is a particularly uncomfortable point for most Protestants. It is one thing to say that love for God is necessary for salvation. It makes sense to us that it would be hard to believe in someone that we do not love. But love for one’s neighbor is another matter, for it raises the fearsome spectre of works righteousness. Throughout Scripture, however, it is assumed that being in right standing with God (whether that right standing is obtained by repentance, by faith, or by love) has real-world consequences. The careful student of Scripture will undoubtedly notice the conceptual affinities (without any linguistic connections) between the demand for love of one’s neighbor and the call to “justice” and “faithfulness/mercy” in Micah 6:8. And there is one other point that ought to be made. As the writer of 1 John points out (4:20), it is one thing to claim that you love God, but it is quite another to demonstrate that love by loving the people with whom you live, work, and worship. Indeed, one’s claim to love God can actually be falsified by the way that he or she treats other people (especially within the community of faith).
There is more that we need to say about Jesus’ commands to love. We need to talk in more detail about what it is that Jesus actually tells his followers to do, and we need to propose a way of relating these commands to the rest of our soteriological framework. That is what we will at least begin to do next week. In the meantime, share your reflections on the soteriological implications of the greatest commandments in the “Comments” section below.