First sentence: God is love, says Scripture. It’s one of weightiest and most precious truths imaginable for a Christian.
Would it be too bold to say upfront that this is one of the best books I've read in 2018? I'm going to do it anyway. This is the book I didn't know I needed...only to discover that I desperately needed such a book.
What is love? What is authority? How does the world define "love" and "authority"? How does God define love and authority? Why does the world's definitions clash with God's definitions? Is the church being overly influenced by the world? What are the dangers of letting the world's definitions impact how we live out our beliefs and doctrines? How can the church do a better job of reflecting God's definitions of love and authority?
The Rule of Love is engaging, compelling, thought-provoking. Perhaps because it is God-centered. Perhaps because it's practical and packed with applications for the church. Perhaps because it's packed with literature references.
Leeman first introduces us to the idea that God is love making sure to point out that "love" isn't all God is. He writes, "God’s own character gives us the definition and standards of love. Dictionary writers should observe God and then draft their definition of love on that basis. Anything called love that does not have its source in God is not love." Most people get "love" wrong. Because they're not looking to GOD to define it.
"We’re no longer interested in the God who is love. Rather, we’re interested in our own ideas of love, which become god. Love—or our notion of it—becomes the supreme justifier, boundary setter, and object of worship. That’s what a god is and does. So now we carry around something called love which possesses all the moral authority of God himself. The trouble is, it’s not God. It’s nothing more or less than our own desires—especially the desire to rule ourselves."Modern day notions of love make assumptions--big assumptions--that clash with historic (and biblical) definitions of love.
- Assumption 1. No moral boundaries or judgments can be placed on love. Rather, love establishes all the boundaries. You can justify anything by saying that it’s loving or motivated by love.
- Assumption 2. Love means unconditional acceptance and the end of judgment.
- Assumption 3. Love and authority have nothing to do with one another. Authority restrains. Love frees. Authority exploits. Love empowers. Authority steals life. Love saves life. This disassociation between love and authority is nothing new. They have been divided ever since the Serpent suggested to Adam and Eve that God’s love and God’s authority could not coexist.
- Assumption 4. It follows that love is anti-institutional. Institutions, after all, impose authority on relationships. They are rule structures. In our minds, the words love and institution just don’t fit together. Love helps relationships. Institutions hurt them.
Essentially, he argues that "The world presumes to understand love and authority, like it presumes to understand God. Yet it understands these things only in their fallen forms, not in their created or redeemed forms... The main goal of this book, then, is to refashion our views of God’s love and authority and their relationship together."
There are SEVEN chapters: "Love in the Culture," "Love among the Theologians," "God's Love for God, Part 1," "God's Love for God, Part 2," "God's Love for Sinners," "Love and Judgment," and "Love and Authority."
In the first chapter, he examines the idol we've made called LOVE. How does culture see and define love? How did our culture come to view love in this way? (It hasn't always.) How is this cultural definition of love infiltrate the church? In this chapter he mentions both individualism and tribalism.
- These days, our world seems to take this view of love—a love rooted in self-discovery and self-expression that justifies breaking every transgression—for granted.
- When we approach love and relationships as consumers, it’s the more superficial traits that draw our attention, since the decision-making processes of a consumer rely on externals rather than on deeper, unseen qualities.
- People today worship not just the god of love but the god of options.
- The love we idolize focuses on self-discovery, self-realization, self-expression. It focuses on externals. It looks for a bargain. It fixates on the present moment, divorcing the past and ignoring the future. It excuses itself when the going gets tough. It is, in all these ways and more, childish. It is also, in the final analysis, selfish.
- We won’t admit this to ourselves, but what we really want from the preacher and small group leader isn’t a God who asks us to make much of him, but a God who makes much of us. For that reason, short sermons are preferable in the main service, and dialogue is preferable in Sunday school or small group, centering on “what this passage means to me.”
- When love becomes a matter of self-expression among Christians, the gospel itself—the very heart of Christian love—becomes refashioned for therapeutic purposes.
- Imagine two universes. In the one universe, God is on the throne. In the other, we are or our group is on the throne. In the first, God is the source of all love, and his love comes with his requirements. In the second, we are the source of love, and love bows to our demands. The Bible points to the first. The Western tradition of capital-R Romanticism, which has dramatically shaped our culture since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, effectively adopted the second.
He first points out this vital truth, "God’s love simultaneously attracts and repels all of us. It’s a thing of beauty and a thing of gross offense to the fallen heart. Gaze upon the love of God from one angle, and it will appear as the most resplendent thing in all the universe. But walk a few yards and look up again, and you will find that your lip snarls, your fists clench, and your heart becomes morally offended."
Why is God's love offensive?
"Once again, picture two universes, but now with a slight twist. This time God is at the center of both, at least in name. What distinguishes these universes is what God most loves. In the first, he most loves humanity. In the second, God most loves God, as that love is shared between the three members of the Trinity—Father with Son with Spirit. Salvation in the first universe depends wholly upon God’s love for humanity. “For God so loved the world” is the rallying cry. Salvation in the second depends upon God graciously including a people into his love for his Son, as when Jesus asks the Father to love his people with the same love he gives to Jesus (John 17:26). One group of theologians will talk about God’s love as universal, undiscriminating, and unconditional, but at the core we find man-centeredness. Another group will talk about God’s love as God-centered, and that’s where the offense lies."Another truth he points out--just as vital, in my opinion--is that God's love makes discriminations and judgments. He writes,
"For these purposes, a God-centered love draws lines between whoever loves God and whoever does not. It makes discriminations. It makes judgments. And it does so for the sake of loving God and the good of people. God marked off his people at every stage of redemptive history so that his love might be put on display. He drew a line between inside and outside of Eden, inside and outside the ark, inside and outside his people in Egypt through the plagues, inside and outside the camp, inside and outside the land of Canaan. And this same line should run around every church, marking off its members from the world. The line of exclusion means to provoke the desire for inclusion. It’s a closed door, but it’s a glass door that people can see through and open with the mere push of repentance and faith. Yet these very lines, this display, and these doors are what offend the world about God’s love. His love calls the world to love him, a call that by nature goes against the love of self. The lip snarls and the fists clench because self-love makes its own judgments, draws its own lines, cultivates its own hates. So Cain opposes Abel. Esau opposes Jacob. Pharaoh opposes Israel. And so the story goes, until the divine Son himself is destroyed by Herod and Pontus Pilate, fulfilling the rage of the nations (Acts 4:26–28)."This chapter is good and meaty. The ideas are complex. In fact, it wouldn't be a bad idea for me to reread this chapter a few times to let all the ideas soak in. But what you need to know essentially is that the church hasn't always had a well-balanced, fully biblical idea of love. The church has a tendency to go from one extreme to another. The extreme he is talking about in detail is agape only love. He writes, "In the final analysis, an agapēonly love yields doctrinal liberalism and ecclesial pragmatism. It envisions a universe where God loves man more than anything else, and therefore defers to man’s terms."
Chapters three and four focus on God's love for God. These chapters are admittedly the most complex and perhaps the most intense. It gets abstract, but he does use an analogy or two to help us out. One of his analogies is a boomerang.
How does God love? Leeman quotes D.A. Carson who traces out five ways the Bible reveals God's love.
- The peculiar love shared between the divine Father and Son: “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand” (John 3:35); “I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father” (John 14:31).
- God’s providential love over creation: the word love is not used in this connection, but he pronounces everything he has made as “good” (Gen. 1:4–31) and promises to send rain on the just and unjust alike (Matt. 5:45).
- God’s salvific love toward the fallen world: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
- God’s particular and elective love toward a chosen people: “As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’” (Rom. 9:13).
- God’s conditional love toward his people based on obedience: “Keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21). “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (John 15:10).
Leeman argues that we can learn from the love the Father has for the Son.
- First, we learn that love involves affirming and having affection for another—like eros. The Father loves the Son by affirming and delighting in the Son.
- Second, the Father’s love for Christ teaches us that love involves giving. The Father loves the Son by giving all he has to the Son. It almost sounds like agapē love as we thought about it in the last chapter—love as a gift for another’s good. The apostle Paul explains that in Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:19). Jesus himself testified that “the Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand” (John 3:35); and “the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing” (John 5:20). Even the fact that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” and “the exact imprint of his nature” tells us that the Father has given him all (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3).
- This brings us to a third lesson: we learn that love involves exalting another. The Father loved the Son by exalting the Son. “God has put all things in subjection under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:27). He established the Son as the head of a new creation so that “in everything he might be preeminent” (Col. 1:18). He gave him a “more excellent” name than he gave to the angels (Heb. 1:4). To none of the angels did the Father say, “You are my Son, / today I have begotten you” (v. 5), and “Let all God’s angels worship him” (v. 6). Only to the Son did the divine Father say: Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions. (vv. 8–9).
- Fourth, the relationship between God the Father and the incarnate Son teaches us about the relationship between love and obedience. And this is a lesson contemporary folk don’t expect. Authority and obedience are the vehicle through which love is demonstrated. There is no separation of love and obedience.
We are to be Image-Bearers. We are to imitate Christ. He writes,
"Loving God, then, means internalizing God’s law: “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:3). It means internalizing Christ’s teaching: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word” (John 14:23). Apart from God’s Spirit, of course, God’s law does not have the power to change us. Yet, by God’s Spirit, loving God means loving his law, since it expresses his character. And such love, by the power of God’s Spirit, becomes generative in our lives. We grow and expand and become larger as we begin to mimic God. We internalize God’s way of being, God’s nature, God’s rule, his character. As such, we then become like that fruitful tree, blessing those around us."
Other favorite quotes:
What’s the relationship between holiness and love? For starters, we might say that God’s love is directed by God’s holiness. It’s constrained by his holiness, as water is constrained by the pipe through which it flows. God’s love always and only moves toward holy ends.
God’s love itself is God-centered. It is holy. And this holiness is the “condition” or “law” of all God’s love. Yet don’t misunderstand. Because God is triune, God’s love of self, mysteriously, involves love of other. One God, three persons. The Father beholds his own image in the Son, and so loving the glory and righteousness of the Son is loving himself. God’s love goes out and comes back, goes out and comes back, like a boomerang.
All our loves, too, must be God-centered. This is the “condition” or “law” for all our loves. God’s love, like every form of love, both healthy and unhealthy, comes with a set of requirements. This is why Jesus so often referred to love and obedience in the same breath. Love leads to obedience, and obedience is an act of love.
The fifth chapter is "God's Love For Sinners." How did sin impact love? How has our fallenness shaped or distorted our view of love? If God loves sinners, why does he love them? how does he love them? Does he love conditionally or unconditionally? He makes a good argument here:
So is God’s love for sinners unconditional? I think the better phrase is contra-conditional. I understand why Christians often refer to God’s unconditional love. Salvation through Christ is God’s pure gift of love to undeserving sinners. We cannot earn it. We receive it apart from anything in us but in shocking contradiction to what we are. And from time to time, for expediency’s sake, I refer to God’s unconditional love. Still, we need to keep three things in mind when we do use that term. First, someone had to pay a price in order for God to carry through on his love for sinners, a tab which the bridegroom gratefully picked up. Second, the Bridegroom and his Father require the bride to turn away from other lovers and devote herself entirely to him, apart from which she remains under God’s wrath: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). Third, those who truly love Jesus will obey his commandments: “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (John 14:21). Why is it important to keep these three things in mind if we use the language of unconditionality? Emphasizing only the “pure gift” nature of God’s love tempts us toward theological liberalism and ecclesiological pragmatism. Theologically, universalism will make more and more sense. Ecclesiologically, church membership and discipline, which signify the line between the church and world, will make less and less sense. Better than “unconditional love,” I think, is the phrase coined by David Powlison: contra-conditional love. God loves us contrary to what we deserve. After all, there are always conditions on God’s love, like the three just mentioned. Most fundamentally, his love is always conditioned by his holiness. Loving us for Christ’s sake means that God loves us with a purpose—to conform us to the image of Christ, that the glory of Christ might shine all the more through us.
The sixth chapter is "Love and Judgment." In this chapter he looks at judgment--and the undeniable connection between love and judgment. You might be surprised--I know I was at first--that these two are so closely related. But he convinced me.
To love something, by definition, is to place a value on it, as we have seen. And that’s a measurement or a judgment. It is an assessment or an evaluation regarding the beloved. Even the contraconditional love of God for sinners depends upon God’s judgment of Jesus—Jesus is assessed as worthy of a bride, whatever she might look like at the moment. Loving is a judging activity. It is inherently discriminatory. It always includes and excludes simultaneously. It makes a distinction between that which is loved and that which is not. “I love her, not her.” “I’ll take the chocolate, not the vanilla.” “I chose death, not life.” You cannot love and not judge. In one sense, it’s never quite true to say someone is unloving. What we’re really saying is that the person loves the wrong thing. We are disagreeing with that person’s judgment about what to love, because everyone loves something.
All of God’s judgments are good and right. Our fallen selves don’t recognize the good because our fallen loves demand different judgments. It’s as if humanity, hired as a store manager, entered God’s store, called creation, and changed all his price tags, stamping on every item a price sticker out of sync with the value and price assigned by God at the store’s grand opening. The cheap becomes costly and the costly becomes cheap.
The seventh and final chapter is, "Love and Authority." This is a dramatic chapter. Our ideas of authority aren't always all that biblical. By nature, by our fallen nature, we tend to not like authority...ever. What is the connection between love and authority? Can the two ever be separated? Why do we want them to be when God has designed them to go together perfectly? How can the church illustrate biblical authority?
What does it take to exercise leadership and authority as a follower of Christ? We need to focus on at least three words in answer to that question: love, submission, and faith.
Recall, first, what love is. It’s affectionately affirming that which is from God in the beloved, and giving oneself to seeing God exalted in the beloved. So Jesus came into the world and loved his disciples “to the end” (John 13:1). He gave himself to God and to his people, that God might be exalted in their lives. He taught with authority, commanded wind and seas, subjected the demons and bound Satan, claimed authority to forgive sins, accepted the worship of his disciples, and professed to possess all authority in heaven and on earth. No one else has ever held such authority. And yet he did all this for love’s sake—love of God and love of neighbor.
Consider, second, the role of submission or obedience. In fact, this point might be the most overlooked of these three, so I’ll spend more time on it. Godly leadership always begins with submission, or obedience, or conformity, or following. To rule on his behalf, we must first conform ourselves to his image. We must mirror the Almighty. And as we mirror him, we do as he does: we rule.
Finally, consider the role of faith. Everything I’ve said about love and submission was present in seed form at creation and blossomed in Jesus. Though God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden, our loving rule now works by faith in an unseen God we love and obey. The fruit of our leadership is not always immediate, but often deferred.
© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible