You and I live in a time where real love is under assault every single second of every single day. At first, that sentence may seem alarming or even shocking especially if you were to walk into a grocery store or a flower shop this time of year. And yet the fact remains real love is under assault in our culture. Love our culture says is a feeling. So if I feel like being loving, then I am loving. Or, if I feel like speaking my truth then no one can contradict me because it’s mine. Not only does our culture get love wrong but some Christians struggle with the concepts of love and obedience together which results in thinking that we may act either in love or according to the law but not both.
Among theological liberals who are willing to dismiss the Bible’s teaching, it is often said that what matters is not law but only love. On this basis, recent generations have been taught a new morality in which the only guideline is love. Anything is permissible so long as it does not seem to hurt anyone. This has been the driving idea behind the situation ethics approach that now dominates contemporary society. It’s originator Joseph Fletcher said, “Only love is a constant; everything else is a variable.” As a result of this thinking marriages may be casually dissolved, adultery may be celebrated, contracts may be broken, parents may be disregarded, and worldly things may be coveted, and all may be justified on the grounds that no one is being hurt and that love is the motive.
There are two major problems with this view. The first is that we must ask how to define love. In the new morality, love is generally defined according to the 1960s philosophy of Jerry Rubin, “If it feels good, do it.” As the drug culture of the ‘’60s proved, there are things that feel good that are not loving but that destroy the person who does them and others. The Bible says that the heart in Jeremiah 17:9 is “Deceitful above all things” so in reality, we cannot trust our feelings as a guide to love. Thus, a young man who seduces a woman into sexual sin is not loving her, however good it may feel at the time. Likewise, a young woman who tempts men into lust by her immodest way of dressing is not loving her neighbor, however good the attention might feel to her at the time. This raises a question, “Has God provided us with an objective guide to love?” The answer is yes God has done this very thing in his law.
Jesus summarized God’s law in terms of love. The first great commandment he said in Matthew 22:37-39, “37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This division corresponds to the two halves of the Ten Commandments, the first half of which pertains to love for God and the second half to love for our neighbor. The way to love one another is to observe the commandments not only in their prohibitions but also in terms of their positive agenda.
Not only do we not murder, but we protect; not only do we not steal, but we provide. Compared to God’s law of love the new morality is revealed as justifying a self-love that does indeed hurt other people. This leads to a second problem with the new morality of love, namely, that it utterly excludes the value and love for God. According to Jesus this is the very first priority so we must not have a view of love that conflicts with God’s definition and standards of love. Our society asks for instance, what is wrong with telling a few harmless lies.
The first answer is that the practice shows no love for God who is a God of truth and hates lying lips. Proverbs 6:16-17, “There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,”
The second answer is that we are not loving our neighbor when we speak falsely and deceive. For these reasons, the antinomianism of liberal theology and antinomianism combines the words against, and law meaning against the law is not, in fact, an ethics of love, and its prevalence in our society in recent decades has brought misery and ruin to millions of people.
Loving and Obeying Jesus
John 14:15 makes a number of important points about Christian obedience. The first is that our obedience to Christ’s command is personal obedience. That is we do not obey a cold legal code, but we offer obedience to Jesus himself. He calls us to obey “my commandments.” This shows the divine lordship of Jesus Christ.
Moses never called Israel to obey “my commandments,” but Jesus unreservedly calls us to personal obedience out of love for him. Charles Spurgeon wrote, “There are some men for whom you would do anything: you will to yield to their will. If such a person were to say to you, ‘Do this,’ you would do it without question. Perhaps he stands to you in the relation of a master, and you are his willing servant. Perhaps he is a venerated friend, and because you esteem and love him, his word is law to you. The Savior may much more safely than any other be installed in such a position.” Both in his person as the perfect Son of God and in his work, having shown us the highest love by dying for our sins, Jesus has earned the right to call us to personal obedience, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
Second, we note in Jesus’ words the intimate connection between love for and obedience to him. The only kind of true obedience to the Lord is loving obedience. That is why we must obey Christ’s commands willingly, gladly, and freely as an intentional expression of our thanks and love to him. Spurgeon comments, “the essence of obedience lies in the hearty love which prompts the feed rather than in the deed itself. Love is the chief jewel in the bracelet of obedience.”
How dead and useless is obedience to the letter of God’s law without love to Christ. 1 Corinthians 13:3, “3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” We see this in those who obey the letter of Sabbath observance but never rest their hearts in Jesus on the Lord’s Day. We see it again in those who are careful to tithe but take no delight in giving to the gospel work of Christ’s church. We could say the same about sexual purity, obedience to marital duties and church membership vows and many other matters. Obedience to the Bible is obedience to Christ only when given out of love for him.
Third, Jesus teaches the certainty of obedience when there is love for him. It is important to note that John 14:15 does not express a command as rendered by the King James Version, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” Jesus uses the future tense, rather than the imperative, pointing out that “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.” A desire to walk in his way and embrace his teaching is the inevitable result of loving Christ. Indeed, it is only love that will motivate us to keep Christ’s commands, since to do so we must, like him, take up the cross, crucifying our love of self so as to love the Lord and love one another as he has loved us. This means that the key to obeying Christ is to cultivate a love for him, which comes from reflecting on his love for us. 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.” This love for Christ will necessarily and inevitably result in a desire to obey his commands.
How We Know That We Love Jesus
Jesus’ teaching plainly shows how essential it is that believers love him. Spurgeon writes, “He that believes in the Lord Jesus Christ for his salvation produces as the first fruit of his faith love to Christ; this must be in us and abound or nothing is right.” This priority is confirmed in the New Testament. What was it that Jesus asked Peter when he restored him to discipleship?
Since Peter fell away before the cross, did Jesus ask, “Peter do you now understand the doctrine of atonement?” Understanding doctrine is essential especially when it comes to the meaning of Christ’s death, but that is not what Jesus asked Peter. Nor did Jesus ask about his plans for spiritual improvement. John 21:16, “16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” This raises an important question, “How do we know that we love Jesus?” The answer is found in John 14:15, which we may reverse to say, “We know that we love Jesus if we keep his commandments.” This is how Jesus puts it in John 14:21, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.”
To what then is Jesus specifically referring when he speaks of his commandments? To answer, we should understand Jesus touches on this same matter throughout John 14. In John 14:21, Jesus speaks again of his commandments, but in John 14:23-24 he expands this meaning to include his whole teaching. “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.” Thus we must understand Jesus’ commands to embrace all his teaching, whether it is doctrinal or ethical. Indeed, when we realize that the New Testament apostles spoke for Jesus and that the Old Testaments prophets were servants of Christ’s covenant, we rightly expand Jesus’ commands to embrace the whole of the Bible.
A.W. Pink explains, “The whole revelation of the Divine will, respecting what I am to believe and feel and do and suffer, contained in the Holy Scriptures is the law of Christ. The commandments of Christ includes whatever is good and whatever God hath required of us.” There is no division between the will of Christ and the will of God so that the Word of God is the Word of Christ.
This does not mean that we do not love Jesus unless we are perfectly obeying every line in the Bible. Rather, a love for Christ will instill in us a loving, obedient, and willing attitude toward all that is taught in God’s Word. The Bible will then become God’s Word for us, and we will love it as that which both leads us to Christ and teaches us how to obey the commands of our dearly loved Lord. Does this mean therefore that if we find ourselves struggling with sin or if we find it difficult to obey God’s Word, we, therefore, must have no love for Jesus? The answer is no, a struggle to obey does not rule out love for Jesus Christ.
We all struggle with sin as John emphasized in his first epistle in 1 John 1:8 because we are still sinners and must contend with our sinful nature. But if we love Jesus, we will struggle and not give ourselves over to sin. This means that if you are a teenager, you might sometimes think your parents are hopelessly ignorant but because you love Jesus, you will nonetheless seek to obey and respect your father and mother. If you are a husband, your sinful flesh might desire to neglect your wife in favor of your hobbies or career ambitions. But in loving Jesus, you will turn your heart to your wife and children so as to be a faithful servant of the Lord.
Christian wives might sometimes resent the Bible’s teaching to submit to their husbands and will grow weary of expending themselves in ceaseless service to their families. They might look out the window at other women who are living for themselves, to the detriment of their husbands and children, and feel a twinge of envy. But because they love Jesus, Christian women will turn back to their husbands with respect and to their families with devotion, doing it all as unto the Lord as Ephesians 5:22 says. Struggling with sin does not mean that we do not love Jesus; if we love Jesus, we will struggle, and we will seek Christ’s power in prayer that we might obey his commands.
The good news is that those who love Jesus will be helped by the mighty Holy Spirit whom Jesus sends. John 14:16, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper to be with you forever.” Loving Jesus, we are not left to obey him in our own small strength, for he gives us his strength from heaven through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, so that our love for him is enabled to express itself in obedience to His commands. Having noted that Jesus’ commands must be seen as encompassing the whole Bible, we should still note his special emphasis on our love for one another. John 13:34, “34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”
Later, Jesus repeated this special command in John 15:12-13, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this that someone lay down his life for his friends.” With this in mind, we realize that love for Jesus is certain to yield obedience to him in the form of service to others. We remember how Jesus began his teaching at this last gathering of his disciples before the cross by taking up the servant’s towel and washing the disciple’s feet. John 13:13-14, “13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” James Montgomery Boice comments, “This is the picture Jesus gave of true Christianity. It is this attitude that divests itself of its own prerogatives in order to serve others.”
Our love for Jesus will produce an obedience that involves sacrifice. This means that we are not called to serve only when we can do so conveniently and at no costs to ourselves. It means that we are called to serve at our cost when we would much rather do something else. In other words, our love for one another in Christ’s name is modeled on his sacrificial love for us. John 15:12, “Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus said, and he loved us by offering his life for our sake on the cross. Love for others reflects Christ’s love and involves sharing the love of Christ with others.
We are to share ourselves with others, freely giving of our time, talents, and spiritual gifts. We are to share the provision that God has given to us so that others might have their needs provided for. Most importantly the love of Jesus calls us to share the good news of salvation through faith in him so that others may know and love Jesus Christ and find eternal life in him. Here the command to love merges with the last of Jesus’ commandments given just before he ascended into heaven. Mark 16:15, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” How can we claim to love Christ if we neglect this great command to share his love with others?
Love, Obedience, and Assurance
We should conclude our study of John 14:15 by considering the relationship between love, obedience, and our assurance of salvation. This is important because love for Christ is integral to our faith in Christ, for it is only through faith in Christ that we are saved. Because this is so important in his first epistle, John made explicit the link between our love for Jesus, our obedience to Jesus’ commands and our assurance of salvation.1 John 2:3, 5, “3 And by this we know that we have come to know him if we keep his commandments. 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him”.
John does not say that we are saved by obeying Christ’s commands since salvation is by faith alone, but rather that we know we are saved only through a love for Christ that obeys his word. This teaching makes two vital statements concerning our assurance of salvation.
First, if we have no motivation to obey Jesus Christ and thus are not living a life of increasing obedience to his Word, we should have serious concerns about our salvation. To trust Christ is always to love Christ, and he adds in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will obey my commandments.” Merely professing faith in Jesus, without bearing the fruit of that faith in obedience provides no ground for the assurance of salvation. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus spoke to those who practiced religion but did not obey him in love. Matthew 7:23, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” Matthew 7:21, “21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
This was not to establish a works basis for salvation but rather to point out that a saving love for Jesus will always yield the fruit of a life of obedience to his commands. Therefore if you have professed faith in Christ, but have neither made progress in biblical obedience nor have gained a desire to do so, you should reconsider what you mean by faith in Christ. Biblical faith is never a bare assent to beliefs, but always includes a trust in Christ that yields a personal commitment and surrender to his holy will. If you have not offered yourself wholeheartedly to Christ then you are not saved and he calls you to true faith, trusting in his love, that will yield salvation.
Second, if you love Christ and sincerely desire to honor him through obedience to his Word, this can only be because you are born again to a new and eternal life in Jesus. This is the point of John’s teaching in his first epistle not to cause true believers to doubt their salvation but to encourage weak and faltering believers to have assurance through the evidence of their faith. Even if your obedience is flawed and incomplete do you find yourself desiring to change in a Christlike direction? How can this be if you are not a real Christian? Do you not realize that it is mankind’s nature, apart from Christ, to rebel against God and resent his commands?
Romans 8:7, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” How is it then that you are not hostile to God’s law but that you desire to show your love to Christ by obeying him, that you are frustrated by your failure to obey God’s law and that you are in fact increasingly finding that you do keep God’s law and find great joy in doing so? The only reasonable answer is that you must be a Christian. James Montgomery Boice explains, “When a man or woman begins to obey God, first in responding to his offer of salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ and then in a growing desire to live a Christlike life, this is evidence of a divine and supernatural working in his or her life. It is proof that God is present and that he has already begun a regenerative work within the individual.”
Be greatly encouraged then if you desire to show your love to Jesus by obeying his commands. Take heart and be assured of God’s saving work in your life. Now enter into the joy of yielding yourself more and more fully in the loving embrace of Christ’s commands, knowing that in this way you not only prove your love of Christ to yourself but show your love to Him who has first loved you and laid down his life for your sins.
Dave Jenkins is happily married to his wife, Sarah. He is a writer, editor, and speaker living in beautiful Southern Oregon. Dave is a lover of Christ, His people, the Church, and sound theology. He serves as the Executive Director of Servants of Grace Ministries, the Executive Editor of Theology for Life Magazine, the Host and Producer of Equipping You in Grace Podcast, and is a contributor to and producer of Contending for the Word. He is the author of The Word Explored: The Problem of Biblical Illiteracy and What To Do About It (House to House, 2021), The Word Matters: Defending Biblical Authority Against the Spirit of the Age (G3 Press, 2022), and Contentment: The Journey of a Lifetime (Theology for Life, 2024). You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, or read his newsletter. Dave loves to spend time with his wife, going to movies, eating at a nice restaurant, or going out for a round of golf with a good friend. He is also a voracious reader, in particular of Reformed theology, and the Puritans. You will often find him when he’s not busy with ministry reading a pile of the latest books from a wide variety of Christian publishers. Dave received his M.A.R. and M.Div through Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.