Paul was no less clear about the priority of love: “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love” (Gal 5:13). Unleashed from the law, Christians were to bind themselves to each other all the more, but with a different cord.
What is really telling about Paul’s teaching is the manner in which he anticipates its abuse. His needed corrective to the freedom principle only demonstrates that what Paul had in mind was the end of law as a rule of life. Paul’s ethic was fraught with risk, so he mitigates that risk.
The same “gamble” is seen elsewhere: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” (Rom 6:1). Grace cannot help but invite abuse by those who serve themselves. Indeed, the potential for abuse may be the test of whether we have really gotten to know what grace is. Love is wide open for exploitation by those who only give it lip service.
Further down Paul writes, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). The way to know that we’re on the straight and narrow is to care for one another. There is a checklist for moral rectitude, to be sure, but the list contains just one box. Pastor-theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer checked this box when he conspired against Hitler to save helpless Jews.
The best of Paul on this subject still awaits: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Rom 13:8-9).
Paul does not say that to have kept the law is to have loved; he says that to have loved is to have kept the law. To read that is to know it’s true. To have kept oneself from murder is yet to have hated. An absence of blood on one’s hands does not signal the presence of love in one’s heart, any more than a signed truce signals real peace. But the real “ah hah” moment comes at a point where Jesus (Paul, too) throws everything in reverse: Hatred in the heart is tantamount to blood on the hands (Matt 5:21-22).
Given what Jesus and Paul have left us, it becomes difficult to resist a more “situational” approach to ethics. Law has no bearing on a believer as a rule of life. Grace is ruler now. When it comes to heart and hand, the heart leads, so that accidental theologian John Lennon was more than a little right: All you need is love, and love is all you need.
(To be continued…)
Charles J. Colton lectures in Systematic Theology at Davis College in Johnson City, New York, where he also chairs the Organizational Leadership Program. He is a member of the Main Street Baptist Church in Binghamton, New York, and is the author of Core Christianity: The Tie That Binds.