The Old but New Commandment

Michael S. Horton
Friday, September 1st 2023
Black and white pattern alternating acorns and oak trees.
Sep/Oct 2023

The focus of this issue of MR is eschatology, living in what the Bible calls “these last days” between the already and the not yet. When it comes to our own lives or the global challenges the church faces, it’s easy to slide too far toward either pole. At one end is an exaggerated sense of the “already,” which leads to utopian dreams. This error leads to an overzealous activism, to be sure, but ultimately to either self-righteousness or despair. At the other end is a one-sided emphasis on the “not yet” that excuses passivity. It’s clear from the New Testament that we are in a cosmic spiritual battle (Eph. 6:10–17). Its victory has been secured, and we are enjoying even now the spoils of Jesus’ conquest—yet we await Christ’s bodily return to raise our bodies and cleanse his creation of everything that defiles.

A passage that helps us to integrate the two poles of the already and not yet is 1 John 2:7–14, where the apostle gives us a command that, paradoxically, is both “old” and “new” (vv. 7–8). The command itself—to love God and neighbor—is as ancient as creation. Yet under the dominion of sin and corruption, the command itself has no power to make us love. The history not only of the nations but also of Israel attests to the failure of humanity to live in harmony.

But then something completely new enters the world: God the Son incarnate, the faithful Son in whom the great commandment is fulfilled. It is “true in him”—and, John adds, also “in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.” In the dark, we fumble around, knocking things over, focusing on our own survival. But the light has already come into the world. Although the darkness has not yet been completely extinguished, the light even now fills every nook and cranny with warmth and color.

This commandment to love is fulfilled in Christ and in us because we are “in him.” The light is chasing away the darkness. Therefore, “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling” (vv. 9–10). We deceive ourselves if we imagine that we’re in the light while deliberately choosing to continue lurking in the dark. That belongs to the old age of sin and death. A new age has dawned with Christ’s resurrection and the sending of his Spirit.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we should slide too far toward the other pole. Perfectionist and utopian schemes forget the “not yet.” John upbraids those who say they don’t still sin (1 John 1:8). That’s why we continually confess our sins, knowing that through Christ’s mediation, God forgives us (v. 9). Yet the light of the new creation is dawning with Christ as its sun. Love is a new commandment, not in its content but in its context. The new creation is so new that the command to love is, in a sense, heard for the first time as we recognize not only the face of our Lord but the faces of our brothers and sisters in him. In the light, we see them and they see us.

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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.
Friday, September 1st 2023

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

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