by J. Oliver Jones
Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying,
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”
Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul, and with all your mind.
This is the first and great commandment…”
Matthew 22:35-37 NKJV
In Matthew 22 we have the story of Jesus being approached by a “lawyer” who, with the intent of trapping Jesus, asked Him which is the greatest commandment. Without any hesitation Jesus answered as above. We have all read and heard this story many times in our Christian lives. It is poetic, it is pointed, and it is powerful. But the question we often fail to ask is simply this, “Is it possible?”
First let us understand that Jesus did not pull this out of the air. He is quoting from the Law as found in Deuteronomy 6. It is the primary purpose of man to love his Creator, and it is the expressed desire of the Creator to love and to be loved by His creation. Due to mankind’s rebellion and sin, originating with the head of our race, Adam, it became impossible for man to love God to the capacity for which he was created. God intervened with grace into the destiny of fallen man in order to restore in him that Divine image so marred as a result of the Fall. By God’s grace, through Christ’s atonement, God made it possible for man to be restored to his former glory – that of Adam before his sin. However, the question that always arises is “when does this occur?” To what capacity is man restored in this life, and does he have to wait until the resurrection, until he sees Christ “face to face,” to be like Him?
Likely most of us are aware to some extent of the great debate among Wesleyans on the subjects of total sanctification, the second work of grace, Christian perfection, and perfect love. Wesley’s teachings on these subjects have been greatly misunderstood and misapplied by many in the past three centuries. We will certainly not attempt to conclude these arguments in this one short article. Still, we must deal with God’s command in the Old Testament and the confirmation of that command by Jesus in the New. If words mean anything it would certainly appear that God not only is worthy of our complete love and devotion, but He expects – even commands – that we love Him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. So we must ask and answer the question, “Can we love God in such a way as He has commanded?” I have to admit that in my life I have met only a few men and women that I would even entertain the idea that they so loved God. I certainly cannot boast of my personal success in this endeavor. So does our experience and failure to live up to this Godly expectation nullify the command? I think not! Personally, I have a hard time believing that God commands us to do something we are not able to do. So I guess my answer to this question is, “Yes, it is possible!”
The next logical question then must be, “How is it possible?” And not only must we answer this question of how, but the questions that follow which most of us do not want to consider. If it is possible to love God in such a way as to fulfill the great commandment, is it my desire to do so and am I willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve such a love?
One of the debates among Wesleyans in the area of sanctification has to do with sin and holiness. Sincere, God fearing, Word honoring believers differ on these issues. I will very briefly give you my belief and understanding and hope not to receive too many emails explaining where I have missed it! First, I do not believe in sinless perfection, and I do not believe the Bible or Wesley taught this as a possibility. If room allowed I would list ample scripture and quotes to support this conclusion. What I mean, simply, is that I do not believe any of us will reach the place in this mortal life where we cannot sin or where we are exempt from what John Wesley called human frailties such as ignorance, mistakes, or temptations. I do not believe that you or I will ever be sinlessly perfect in this life.
That being said, I will hasten to say that I do believe in something called “perfect love.” Again, without going into great detail, to me the doctrine of perfect love teaches that there is the possibility of living in a state of love toward God where we have victory over willful sin, are able to overcome temptations, and can choose to walk in the Spirit to the degree that we have no more desire to sin against God. This does not mean that we cannot sin, but it does mean that we can choose not to. Living in this perfect love toward God allows one to be constantly fulfilling the great commandment.
So how is it possible for sinful man to grow to a place of perfect love toward God? Again, I will hasten to say that it is not just through willpower, not by gritting our teeth and being determined, nor is it by any “power or might” of our own. As with all good and perfect gifts from above it is by God’s grace administered through His Spirit. “By grace through faith”is a recurring theme in the Bible. What has God’s grace provided that would allow one to love God with his or her entire heart, soul, mind, and strength?
Let us recall what God provides through the experience of the new birth. We immediately receive the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity who raised Jesus from the dead. We receive a new nature, the nature of the second Person of the Trinity who lived and died without sin. And we receive the Word of the Father written in our minds and on our hearts. This constitutes the New Covenant we have with God. We are a new creation in Christ. Old things pass away and all things become new. We are delivered from the penalty of sin, the power of sin is broken, and until we are finally delivered from the very presence of sin we are able to walk in the Spirit and not fulfill the desires of the flesh. These are not my words, but the words of Scripture! If you would like to you can look them up for yourself. This is what God has promised for His children, not just in eternity, but now in this life.
All these things the believer already possesses. We do not need to ask for the indwelling of the Spirit; He is already in us. We do not need to seek the new nature; we already have it. We do not need to knock on the doors of heaven to find God’s Word; it is written in our minds and on our hearts. What we need is to understand the means of gracewhereby God empowers us to walk in what He has already provided.
Do you recall the questions I mentioned earlier? “If it is possible to love God in such a way as to fulfill the great commandment, is it my desire to do so? And if so, am I willing to do what is necessary to achieve such a love?” This is where our problem lies. It is in our lack of desiring the things of God more than our desire for the things of the world, not necessarily bad or wicked things, but the “good” things that can so easily distract us from our purpose. It is in our unwillingness to do what is necessary to walk in the Spirit. It is in our lack of surrender and our choice not to die to self daily. How do I know this? I know it because I can see it in myself. Perfect love toward God is within our reach. God can do no more than what He has already done. He can give no more than what He has already given. As the saying goes, the ball is in our court. We must ask the question, “What will it cost us” to walk in perfect love toward God? This is a valid question, and a question we are encouraged by Jesus to ask (Luke 14:28-33). We should evaluate the cost! But an equally valid question we must ask is this, “What will it cost us not to?”
“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it – lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’?. . . . So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.” Luke 14:28-30, 33