"A New Commandment"

Michael S. Horton
Thursday, September 1st 2011
Sep/Oct 2011

"Distinction without separation" will be the formula in this article. The law and the gospel, the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, the church as Christ's institution entrusted with his ministry and the church as the people brought into being by this ministry: these are to be distinguished and simultaneously affirmed. God's moral vision for his world has not changed. The substance of the moral law is inscribed on the conscience in creation itself. The gospel does not obliterate the law, but is the only means by which love of God and neighbor can be truly realized in a sinful world. As we have seen, Jesus' summary of the law is the same as Moses'. The commandment itself does not change. What has changed is the transition from "this present age" (under sin and death) to "the age to come" (bringing righteousness and life), and that makes all the difference. This transition is recognized in 1 John 2, where the apostle calls the saints to love one another: "Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining" (vv. 7-8, emphasis added). Hearing this commandment "in Adam," under the reign of sin and condemnation, leaves us without any hope. It only tells us what we haven't done. But hearing this commandment "in Christ," under the reign of justification and eternal life, we are summoned to a new way of existence.

In our culture especially, we often pit law against love, but in the Bible law is simply the stipulation of love's duties. The command to love is just as damning’more damning, in fact’than the command simply to refrain from acts of violence. Jesus demonstrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan and elsewhere that the genuine fulfillment of the law (viz., love) is far more demanding than outward conformity to a system of rules.

The point in 1 John 2, then, is that the promised era of the new covenant has dawned, when the Spirit would give us new hearts to love God and neighbor’on the basis of the forgiveness of sins (Jer. 31:31-34). With his resurrection as the firstfruits, the age to come broke into this present evil age, and even those who are only outwardly members of the covenant community participate in these previews of coming attractions through the Word and Sacraments (Heb. 6:4-8).

For believers, the command to love deepens in its summons and intensity. That is why the Sermon on the Mount is even more demanding than the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. Love our enemies? Pray for those who persecute us for our faith? Share our worldly goods with our less prosperous brothers and sisters, as if our belongings were God's gifts rather than our own possessions? Show hospitality to strangers, with no expectation of anything in return’even if we too might be carried off by the authorities? Freely share our material resources with our brothers and sisters as God's gifts rather than our own treasure? Yes, this is not only the pattern for super-saints and monks, but for every believer. But it is not a burden, because the threat of judgment for failing to execute this calling is no longer hanging over us. We love and serve our neighbors now as those who have been justified and are being renewed day by day, conformed to the image of our Savior. So the Great Commandment is an old commandment, but in another sense it is new. It comes to us now as those who share in Christ's resurrection life.

Although the command to love remains, for believers who find their justification in Christ's righteousness, it no longer comes with a threat. It is not the precepts of the law that are cancelled, according to Colossians 2, but "the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands" (v. 14). Freed from the guilt of sin and bondage to this fading age, we are finally free also to love our neighbors. Through the Great Commission we are liberated after all not from the demand of love's law, but for the just summons of our neighbor through whom God makes his own rightful claim on our lives.

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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Thursday, September 1st 2011

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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