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Love Defined by the Law

Our culture has a variety of ways to define what is or is not loving. Some say that love is only a feeling. Others teach that love is affirming people. Still, others view love as a vague sort of being nice to people in a way that doesn’t ruffle any feathers. The height of ambiguity is found in the explanation that “love is love.” Such ambiguity allows a person to define love however they want. It is important that we know what love is. Is there a standard to know what is or isn’t loving? Is there some objective metric to measure a person’s love?

Matthew 22:34-40 provides much-needed help in answering this question.

“But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law? 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. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

In this passage, we see that all the commands of the Law and the Prophets (a summary way of saying the Old Testament) depend on and hang from a love for God and a love for neighbor.

The commands God gives are rooted in his character. Since God is the source and definition of love, his commands reflect what love is. How do we objectively gauge how loving we are? The commands of God. Because of their timeless nature, the Ten Commandments are especially helpful in this regard. They summarize what a love of God and a love of neighbor looks like.

Loving God Defined

“You shall have no other gods before me” (Deut 5:6-7).

What does it look like to love God? It looks like having no other gods before him. It means that we worship God and God alone. If we worship something other than God, we are being hateful toward God.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them and serve them…” (Deut 5:8-9).

What does it look like to love God? It looks like not worshipping him through carved images or in any other way he hasn’t prescribed. Loving God looks like worshipping him for who he is according to what he has commanded in his Word.

“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Deut 5:11).

What does it look like to love God? It looks like not taking his name lightly. Connected to this, loving God means we take his Word, his works, and his worship seriously.

“Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God...” (Deut 5:12-14)

What does it look like to love God? It looks like keeping the Sabbath holy. Loving God means setting apart one day of seven to focus on him, to delight in him, and to worship him.

These commands give us a much clearer picture of what love means. Specifically, these four commands show us what it looks like to love God.

Notice that it is not primarily a feeling, though feelings often come with it, nor is it an ambiguous sort of love. These commands give us an objective definition of what it looks like to love God.

As we look at these commands, we should be struck with something.

We do not love God the way we should.

Very often, we worship things other than God. We do not give him the worship he deserves. We often take God and the things of God lightly, and we often disregard the Sabbath. We do not love God the way we should.

When our definition of love is vague, or when our definition of love boils down to a mere feeling, we make the love of God achievable. In turn, we lower the standard of what a love of God is.

When we see the clear-cut definition of what it looks like to love God as described in the first four commandments, we should see how far we fall short. We do not love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind.

This fact shows us that we have a great need for someone to save us and change us. We must have Christ to save us from the penalty of sin and the Spirit to save us from the power of sin.

Loving Neighbor Defined

The first four commandments give us a clear definition of what it means to love God. But what does it mean to love our neighbor?

“Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you…” (Deut 5:16).

Loving our neighbor means we honor those in positions of authority, parents being an example of the most fundamental position of authority that God has instituted.

“You shall not murder” (Deut 5:17).

Loving our neighbor means that we care about their life. We shouldn’t do that which would harm their life, but instead, we should seek to protect and promote life.

“And you shall not commit adultery” (Deut 5:18)

Loving our neighbor means we do not do that which would degrade their purity; instead, we should do that which protects their purity.

“And you shall not steal” (Deut 5:19)

Loving our neighbor means we shouldn’t take what is rightfully theirs; instead, we should do that which protects and promotes the possessions of others.

“And you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Deut 5:20).

Loving our neighbor means we do not lie to them; instead, we should tell them the truth for their good. We shouldn’t slander our neighbor; instead, we should use our words to honor our neighbor.

“And you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. And you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his male servant, or his female servant, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Deut 5:21).

Lastly, loving our neighbor means we do not covet our neighbor’s possessions. Instead, we should be grateful to God for giving them what is theirs and be content with what God has given us.

These six commandments show us what love looks like. They help us to form a definition of love that is biblical and objective. They provide a definition of love that reflects the love of God.

Again, we should see that we do not meet this standard of love. We do not love our neighbor the way that we should.

If we boil love down to simply being nice to people, doing what makes others happy, or affirming what others are doing – we again make the standard achievable. More than that we open the door for a form of hatred disguised in love's garb.

For instance, if we think loving our neighbor means affirming them, we will be led to some very hateful things. If I affirm someone else’s sinful lifestyle, is that truly loving? Is that speaking the truth to them? Is that doing that which would protect them from harm?

Furthermore, if we think love means doing things that people will like, will we be motivated to share hard truths with people? Will we tell them the truth that makes them uncomfortable or that may be painful to hear? To withhold the truth just because people don’t like it is not loving.

The Magnificent Love of God

Our standard for what defines love must come from Scripture. As we look at the Ten Commandments, we understand what it means to love God and neighbor.

Furthermore, as we develop a more correct view of love, we grow in our understanding of the magnificent love of God.

For all eternity, God has perfectly loved God and loved neighbor. God the Father has always loved God the Son and God the Spirit. God the Son has always loved God the Father and God the Spirit. God the Spirit has always loved God the Father and God the Son.

God shows us what his love looks like in these commandments. As we see what his love looks like, we see how far short we fall. We do not reflect the glory of God’s love the way image bearers of God ought to.

Here’s where the glorious news of the Gospel comes in. God the Father from eternity past has decided to set his glorious love upon such unloving sinners as us. God the Father sent God the Son to accomplish the salvation of those who have hated him. God the Son, out of his great love for us, perfectly lived a life of love; he perfectly loved God and loved neighbor. He then died in the place of such unloving people as us, taking the punishment we deserve for our hatred toward God and our neighbor. God the Spirit has lovingly applied the work of Christ upon us, and he is now conforming all those in Christ through faith to be more like Christ, to be more loving like he is.

We lose so much when we change the definition of love and buy into our culture’s view of love. We lose the glorious depths of God’s love if we make love just an emotion, we lose out on realizing just how unloving we are toward God and neighbor, and we lose out on the glorious truth of God’s love in the Gospel.

Love is not a mere emotion; love is not affirming everything someone does; love is not simply doing what people like. God is love, and we see what his love looks like in his commands.


Stephen Duarte (ME, National University; MTS, Reformed Baptist Seminary) is a pastor at Parkside Bible Fellowship in Fallon, NV. He is husband to Debbie and father of three.


Note: The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other contributors on this site.


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