I saw this cartoon online a few weeks ago, and I can’t shake it so I’m going to have to write about it. Just in case it doesn’t show up on your screen I’ll describe it. It’s Jesus schooling a group of religious leaders. “The difference between me and you,” he says, “is you use scripture to determine what love means and I use love to determine what scripture means.”
When I saw it online, it had all kinds of “amens” in the comment section. And I have to admit: it sounds good. What could sound more anti-bad-religion and pro-Jesus than the idea of letting love be our filter for understanding what the Bible says? The wording is so slick and catchy that it’s a shame it is such bad theology.
And it is.
In fact, this cartoon is the mirror opposite of what John would say about love. John (you remember him, right? The beloved disciple? The resident expert in the New Testament on what it means to love like Jesus?) would tell the creator of this cartoon that we can’t know love apart from divine revelation.* Which means that we can’t project our feelings or preferences onto God and his word and expect them to stick. Sure, it’s Jesus in this cartoon, but I get the implication. And even Jesus said, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my father’s commands and remain in his love” (John 15:9-10).
True love flows down. It begins with God and is expressed through Jesus. But it is never divorced from the commands of God found in scripture.
John was completely taken by Jesus’ command to love, and wants us to know that this is the essence of God. But he goes to great lengths to connect the love of God with the commands of God. We could pull a dozen examples from his writings. This one from 2 John 6 sums it up: “I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands.” Jesus absolutely wants us to walk in love, but love and truth are inextricably connected. In other words, Jesus and the Bible never disagree (and, by the way, Jesus also doesn’t prooftext).
I want to shake the creator of that cartoon. “The difference between me and you is you use scripture to determine what love means and I use love to determine what scripture means.” That’s crazy talk, friends. You don’t want me or anyone else deciding what love is. Can you imagine the chaos if love was independently defined by each of us, according to our own preferences? What if my idea of love includes actions that harm others? What if my idea of love and your idea of love completely disagree? And of course, that happens, and then we try to apply those random definitions to the Bible and now the Bible sounds like it disagrees with itself. Then, before we know it we’re dividing the Bible up into buckets — things we think are true and things we think were never true.
That’s chaos! It is relativism. And no one is safe in that world.
G. K. Chesterton wrote about that world a hundred years ago. In The Unseen Real, Steve Seamands quotes him:
“When the wind is blowing and the branches of the trees are waving, there are two kinds of people in the world. One group believes the wind moves the branches; the other group believes the motion of the trees creates the wind. For most of human history and in most parts of the world today, people adhere to the former view. The consensus has been that the invisible lies behind and is the source of the visible. Only recently, and particularly in the west, has the latter view emerged, that the motion of the trees creates the wind. Unfortunately, this recent view has had a profound and pervasive influence on Western culture… It has also profoundly influenced and shaped western Christianity, turning most of us into practical, functional deists…”
Friends, a decision to wrap ourselves around an American cultural ethic will exclude us from the timeless and world-altering gospel of Jesus. The question we all have to wrestle with is this: What leads? Does Jesus lead? Does love come from God? That’s the most important thing, not to the exclusion of everything else but as the influencer over all the cultural strangeness that is our world. Because Jesus and the scriptures (which, remember, never disagree) will consistently call us to self-giving (“take up your cross”) and holiness (“Be holy because I am holy”). To follow Jesus means laying down our fallen preferences in favor of his call to a holy life.
What leads? That’s the sanctifying question.
*Thanks, David Watson, for this line.