The Fork in the Road: Moral vs. Positive Law: Love Fulfills the Law

I contend that Benjamin Franklin has it exactly backwards: moral law is higher than positive law. Indeed, I question whether God even makes positive law any more.

Argument 1.

(Rom 13:8) Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.

This and the several parallel passages from the Sermon on the Mount, Galatians, and James all point to the conclusion that if it’s not subsumed in “love one another,” it’s not law.

Moral law is whatever law is subsumed within “love your neighbor,” and by and large, positive law is any other command.

But don’t jump to conclusions yet. You see, most of the scriptures deal with things other than law. Don’t try to fit everything in scripture into law, much less either positive law or moral law. Thinking that way is to start with a legalistic assumption — which, of course, leads to legalism.

Also, you have to realize that the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant are different covenants. The Law of Moses is chock full of positive commands. They are truly the words of God. But we are no longer under Mosaic positive commands. That’s why, for example, we no longer honor the Sabbath.

Now, those brought up in the Churches of Christ don’t study Galatians much, because it doesn’t fit our theology. We therefore ignore it. But Galatians is the epistle that most directly speaks to our situation. (I offer a detailed explanation in Do We Teach Another Gospel?) Here’s just one critically important lesson from that little book.

The issue at hand was whether Gentiles must be circumcised to be saved. It would have been simplicity for Paul to recite the Five Step Plan of Salvation and point out that it’s not one of the five steps. But Paul chose an entirely different argument.

(Gal 5:2-6)  Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

Paul begins with faith in Jesus. He plainly draws a contrast between seeking salvation by law or by faith. Seeking justification by law damns because it’s either all law or no law. You can’t demand obedience to any one part of the law unless you demand obedience to it all.

Equivalently, it’s either faith in Jesus or it’s salvation by law. Take your pick.

Paul then adds love. In v. 6 he declares the reason that circumcision (or not) has no value because it’s neither faith nor love — and only faith expressing itself in love “counts.” “Counts” is better translated “avails” (as in the KJV), because “avails” means to accomplish the intended purpose — and salvation is the topic at hand. Faith and love avail. Nothing else avails. Therefore, circumcision does not avail.

Now, try that syllogism with such positive commands as instrumental music or congregational autonomy. If Paul’s logic holds, those positive laws cannot be salvation issues. Cannot.

Paul then expands on love.

(Gal 5:14)  The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“Summed up” is better translated “fulfilled.” The same thought and word shows up in —

(Rom 13:8-10)  Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9 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.” 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Paul’s point in Galatians is that, because love fulfills the law, there is no need to circumcised. For a believer, God has accomplished all that the Law was meant to accomplish through love. This is, of course, a change from the Mosaic covenant — but not because the Law had been repealed but because it had been fulfilled.

(Mat 5:17)  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount covers more than love, but it’s centered on love.

(Mat 7:12)  So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

“Sums up” is “is” in the Greek. The Golden Rule — love in action — is the Law. Jesus said so.

Paul knew Jesus’ teachings. Jesus said he came to fulfill the Law, that love is the Law and the Prophets, and Paul tells us that love fulfills the Law. Makes sense.

We want to presume that Jesus replaced the Law with a new law, except that Jesus hid the new law in silences, whereas Moses wrote a lengthy, detailed Law. The New Law, therefore, is only for those with the knowledge of how to read the silences — a knowledge that we, the keepers of the Regulative Principle — can’t agree on.

That’s not how it works. Law is replaced by what fulfilled law: love.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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20 Responses to The Fork in the Road: Moral vs. Positive Law: Love Fulfills the Law

  1. Rich says:

    Jay,

    This is a question/comment for clarification purposes. I think your definition of 'law' is significantly different in scope and precision than the general populace. This is quite typical of any mainstream vocabulary within a profession.

    It seems you believe law is something that must be followed, interpreted and written with very precise detail. If there are loop holes in the wording, then the judge must follow it. If the wording just doesn't work for the situation, it still must be followed with penalty if not.

    With that definition, the concept of law and grace do seem to be opposites.

    When I think of the concept of law within the Bible I think of anything I must obey. Jesus said, "If you love me, keep my commandments." I equate the generic term 'law' with 'commandments' whatever they may be. Therefore, Paul isn't contrasting generic law. He is contrasting 'the law' (old law) with new law (faith based obedience).

    So, when you say there is no law today, only love, I understand that as opposite to the words of Jesus.

    Please elaborate.

  2. Bob Harry says:

    Rich

    What are the commandments that Jesus is talking about?

    There are basically two that I know of…love God and love all mankind. I hope our every action stems from those two.

    The average church attendee in all Christian churches should understand that every action stems from an understanding of these two.

    Bob

  3. Even more basically, based upon a review of 1 John 4, which explains that loving God equates to loving people, logically, one can conclude that the only commandment is from Jesus in John 13:34 & John 15:12 — Love one another as Jesus loved us.

    Whatever you label it, law, fundamental principle, command — it is the one thing Jesus wanted his children to do. In my view, all the rest is interpretation and point-of-view.

  4. Rich says:

    Bob,

    I agree that love should be the motivation for everything we do. That is the foundational principle.

    When it comes to commandments to follow out of a motivation of love for God, I understand we need to worship, pray and study to name a few.

    These fit within my understanding of positive law required of God.

    Perhaps the differences of understanding have to do with vocabulary. That's what I'm trying to learn here.

  5. Rich,
    To me, the value of worship, prayer and study comes not from any "command", but rather from the benefit that results.

    Does the Text tell us to pray because it's a command, or because it's so good for us?

    This is one way of seeing the essential difference between a legalistic view and gracious view.

  6. pilgrim says:

    The problem is that a disconnected "law of love" leaves interpretation to us and that creates dilemmas

    For example, how do I love…
    -the street person
    -the AIDS patients
    -my ADHD child
    -my quiet and timid child
    -my unbelieving mother
    -my religious but foul co-worker
    -my brother in Christ who is teetering on rebellion
    -my sister in Christ who dresses immodestly
    -how does one determine what modesty is: neckilne, exposed cleavage, how short is too short, how tight is too tight?

    The truth is there are no list of principles that can answer these questions to anyone's satisfaction? But FATHER KNOWS the answer to each of those questions. HE REALLY DOES. And what MAY be an appropriate way to love in ONE SITUATION may be destructive and harmful in another.

    That is WHY a LIVING LORD is the GOOD NEWS… not so we can have ANSWERS apart from Him, but so that we can walk IN STEP WITH HIM. Relationship WITH His Children is what He has always wanted from the garden of eden on. Does everyone see that and agree with that? The Spirit of TRUTH lives inside us and we can walk together with each other and WITH HIM to work these things out, real time. THAT is what He died to give us. LOVE ***LEAD*** by His Spirit in us…. Christ IN You, the hope of glory.

  7. pilgrim,
    Great point — your questions also explain why God judges our hearts more than our actions. Our intent may be right, but we may choose the wrong action. And also why our judgments, which are almost always based upon observable things, are so often out of place, if not down right wrong.

    There is no set of rules or commands or laws which can address all those points.

  8. Bob Harry says:

    pilgrim

    You are so right. we love all those you listed and even more. Even, Sadam Hussain, when he fell through the scaffold and was hung, I'm sure God wept.

    We are sinners, sanctified continuosly by the blood of Jesus, but we are no better in God's loving Grace than those you listed. You hit the nail on the head. I fit several of those people in the list.

    I count myself so fortunate to have lived so long and have extended the Grace of God to me. I fit the saying that…the good die young but the wicked live long to be able to repent.

    Bob

  9. pilgrim says:

    I agree with you in principle David, but must add that though we may not always KNOW FOR SURE what the appropriate action is, it is knowable by His Spirit.

    Romans 12:1,2
    Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to TEST and APPROVE what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will.

    We can KNOW His will. And we can help others know His Will as well. If a brother is walking in lack of love, I can try to discern it, not judging by the seeing of the eye or the hearing of the ear, but a righteous judgment, to help him walk in obedience.

    John 7:24 Jesus says, "Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.”

    If a sister is dressed inappropriately, the "inappropriateness" measure is knowable, the heart issues involved are knowable. And a wise sister will help the unwise sister walk through those issues.

  10. pilgrim says:

    As a side note… as believers, we really need to see that the verses Jay is mentioning above are not JUST about salvation… they are also about life after salvation… day to day living…

    Galatians 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

    Galatians 5:24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.

    Galatians 6:14 May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

    Galatians 5:6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

    These are all verses relating to how we function post salvation… By faith, through love, dead to the world…

  11. pilgrim says:

    Bob and others, I'm not sure you got the point of my list… I wasn't saying we just love all those people the same way… I was saying wisdom is needed to know how to apply love SPECIFICALLY in each scenario. The timid child needs some compassionate embracing warmth. The foul co-worker who claims to be a believer may need a finger in his chest saying, "How dare you wear the name of Christ and tell that dirty joke." When Jesus cleared the temple with a whip, yelling at the top of His lungs, what verse was he using to authorize that? He had no verse. He knew God and God felt angry about that scene so Jesus responded like an angry maniac. He responded with Father's feelings and emotions. We can to. That same Jesus that says, "He who has never sinned, cast the first stone" is the same Jesus that said, "Let the dead bury their own dead. You follow me." And He lives IN US.

    There are too many unique scenarios to live based on principles, even the principle of Love. Love is a much better principle to start with, but man shall not live by bread alone but by EVERY WORD THAT CONTINUALLY PROCEEDS (that's the greek) from the mouth of God. He is still speaking and His will can be known. And ignoring that will is a dangerous place to be, whether conservative or liberal or progressive.

    Hebrews 12:25
    See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him WHO WARNS US FROM HEAVEN?

    Hebrews 3:15 As has just been said: “Today, if you HEAR his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.”

    Our upbringing has taught us that God stopped speaking in the first century. The ironic thing is, those words that were written down say loud and clear: GOD STILL SPEAKS

    And we have a responsibility to hear and obey. And why wouldn't we want to? We love Him… And if you love Him, you will keep His commands, the ones He can speak to your heart right now… not verses (though verses HELP A TON) but His Voice, leading you through the basics of daily living.

    Seriously, if this sounds heretical, I would really appreciate the conversation to continue… are we to live by principles or by a Living Lord?

  12. pilgrim says:

    In my mind, Christianity is pretty simple:

    God is my God. He loves me and died for me. How can I not love Him in return? Because I love him and because I KNOW that He loves me, I do what He is saying, real time.

    Is it once saved always saved? Don't know, don't care. I love and obey Him either way.
    Is it faith or works? Does it really matter? I'm going to live by faith and work as hard as I can.
    What about election? I feel called, how about you? Either way, I know I have a choice and I choose to love and obey by His Spirit.
    What about heaven and hell? I love Jesus and I'm going to heaven. Whoever doesn't love Jesus, well life is hell for them already.

    The key to the simplicity is that HE IS ALIVE and amazingly wants to have a relationship with me and His People. Where is my tambourine? I need to dance…

  13. pilgrim says:

    By simple, I don't mean easy. It isn't easy, it is a daily cross. It really is and if you don't feel that cross, you may be missing something. But His Yoke is easy and His burden is light.

    And I don't mean to imply that He is simple. He isn't. HE is a mystery and His ways beyond finding out.

    And I don't mean to imply that I have all this figured out. I don't. But simple childlike obedience is pretty straightforward for even a knucklehead like me.

  14. rey says:

    The better way to put this is that ceremony is meaningless and God only cares about morality. Look at the answer to the rich young ruler. He asks: "What must I do to have eternal life?" Jesus' answer is keep the moral commandments. But the man isn't satisfied because what he really wants is not eternal life but perfection. So he says "What do I lack?" Jesus says "if you want to be PERFECT, sell what you have and give to the poor……" Everyone pounces on the lacking part and tries to spin it to mean faith-onylism or ceremonialism one or the other. Both are wrong. The answer on how to have eternal life was keep the moral commandments. The rest was about perfection. Nuff said.

  15. rey says:

    Read Matthew's version, Matthew 19 for the fullest account before saying "nu uh!"

  16. pilgrim says:

    The dynamic of what is happening there is that the young man was a keeper of religious rules but MONEY had his heart. Paul refers to greed as idolatry. Money, wealth and possessions were the young man's idol's (idolatry is one of the main issues in the old covenant that kept people from serving God with ALL their heart, and still today) Jesus says man cannot serve both God and money. The man felt an emptiness, "What do I still lack?" Jesus, able to discern that MONEY ruled the man's heart and not God, gave him the answer he really needed. The passage goes on to talk about how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. That love of money is still the root of all kinds of evil today and THAT is the cancer that Jesus was trying to get at. And we too can have that same discernment to know "THE issue" that is blocking someone from the kingdom. God has enabled us by His Spirit to help in SPECIFIC ways and not just general principle ways.

  17. Jay Guin says:

    Rich wrote,

    I understand we need to worship, pray and study to name a few.

    These fit within my understanding of positive law required of God.

    If we worship, pray, and study out of compulsion rather than as an outpouring of our love for God and our neighbors, then we've obeyed nothing at all.

    Worship cannot be a burden and a duty. If it's not seen a privilege and a delight, you need to get your relationship with God in order.

    Praying to the Maker of the universe is a privilege and an honor. If we pray out of duty, well, we shouldn't bother.

    Study is a blessing. It's an opportunity to grow closer to God, enrich our lives by understanding him better, to find guidance for how to live in him. If we study because it's a command, well, we've turned a gift on its head.

    We've so long preached duty and command that we've taken God's gifts and turned them into burdens and obligations, rather than sources of delight and comfort.

    It's like telling your 3-year old daughter — "Go hug daddy or I'll spank you." That'd ruin it for both father and daughter, wouldn't it? What would be the point of such an exercise? Would daddy feel loved? Would the daughter love her daddy more because she wants to avoid a spanking?

    There are things that can be taught but can't be commanded.

    "Sally, you love daddy so much. Why don't you give him a hug?"

  18. Jay Guin says:

    Pilgrim,

    Exactly.

  19. nick gill says:

    We want to presume that Jesus replaced the Law with a new law, except that Jesus hid the new law in silences, whereas Moses wrote a lengthy, detailed Law. The New Law, therefore, is only for those with the knowledge of how to read the silences — a knowledge that we, the keepers of the Regulative Principle — can’t agree on.

    Pure Gnosticism — no wonder there were ascetic Gnostics and uninhibited Gnostics who hated each other. They couldn't agree on what their secret knowledge meant either.

  20. Jack Exum Jr says:

    I’m a bit late with this…. but good point Jay. Seems brethren struggle with grace more than law. Perhaps we feel more comfortable with law than we do grace. But we need grace so much. Of course love should be the souce for obedeince, and grace helps with the imperfection of obedience. Paul’s admonition that without love, we can give everything, speak with tongues of angels, prophecy, etc…but have not love… it profits nothing. Why would this not stand when considering what is done in worship? Of course it stands.

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