Free in Christ – Chapter 4, Why is Love the Great Commandment?

by Cecil Hook


It is refreshing that so much emphasis is now being given to Jesus’ teaching about love. We all know that Jesus spoke of love for God as the great commandment and love for man as the second greatest (Matt. 22:34-40). But why is love the great commandment?

Love is the great commandment because (1) it is the only effective motivation for our actions, (2) it fulfills the intent of all other laws, (3) it lifts us above efforts of legal justification, and (4) it transcends any sense of duty. Let us consider each of these reasons.

1. Love is the only effective motivation for our actions.
Although love is commanded, it can hardly be instilled by command. A husband cannot gain or hold the love of his wife or children by command. If love is an action of the will in response to an authentic command, then it is a forced love. Compelled love is contrary to the nature of love. And if the greatest of commands cannot be fulfilled by demand, we may expect the same to be true of lesser commands.

Love must be instilled. It comes in response to love rather than lawful demands. God “so loved the world” in order to create love in us. “But God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8). Jesus took the form of man and died for us to gain our loving response (Phil. 2:5-7; John 15:14). It is striking that John did not say, “We love because he first commanded us.” He simply stated, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Likewise, Paul recognized the true motivating force in our lives as undeserved love, explaining that “the love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor. 5:14).

There is a place for fear, but “There is no fear in love: but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). The motivation of fear will make us ineffective, for “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3). No one will be scared into heaven. The fearful will have their place in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone (Rev. 21:8). Love is the great commandment because it is the only effective motivation for our discipleship.

2. Love fulfills the intent of all other laws.
God has always given directives to guide our spiritual relationship with him and our moral relationship with our fellowman. We would not know how to relate to God or how to serve Him if it were not revealed. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). God’s directions tell us how to serve Him but do not define the extent of service. Our worship and service are expressions of love. One should not attend, pray, sing, give, etc. because he is commanded to do so. He should do these as an expression of loving relationship. The instructions only tell us how to express our love. Most of these directives are exhortations rather than lawful demands; hence, we are exhorted to attend, pray, sing, and give. We have been inclined to bind amounts required in our giving and assembling, expecting God to enforce our specifications. But love’s expression fulfills God’s requirement because we continue to express our devotion as long as we have love.

The person who has never read the Bible can fulfill the moral law in its general meaning. Nothing is required of us in our man-to-man relationship that is not motivated by love. Paul is emphatic on this: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:8-10).

If a person loves his neighbor he will not steal his money or his wife; he will not murder him or lie to him. This is the negative expression. In a positive expression, Jesus said, “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12).

“This is the law and the prophets.” “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” Through the centuries, God has been trying to get us to love Him and one another. That was the intent of the Law of Moses and the message of the prophets. Love fulfills the purpose of God’s laws.

3. Love lifts us above efforts of legal justification.
A legal code specifies, defines, and enumerates. When one meets the specifications, he is legally righteous and free from further demands of the law. How often must I assemble, and how much time must I spend there? How often and how long must I pray? How much must I give? What is the minimum in meeting the law’s demands? Love is not concerned with minimums. What is the minimum that a righteous man may do for his wife and children? He is not concerned about minimums. What is the maximum that God accepts? I can give you a more definite answer to this question. God will accept all you are and all you have. He accepted the last two coins of a widow. They were not required legally, but they were accepted as a love offering. God accepted the life of Stephen but did not require it of him.

One man will sell his possessions, uproot his family, wear himself out raising support, take his children from their grandparents, and go into a land of poverty and filth among people of strange language and customs and expend himself and his family in an effort to save the lost. Another man will not become involved in his own congregation. What makes the difference in these two men? Does law demand more of one than the other? No, but love motivates one more than the other.

Suppose that I am driving down a highway that crosses a body of water. I see a car plunge off the bridge into the water. There are six persons in it who cannot swim. I stop and hurriedly jump in and pull one person out. Then I go and rescue another. I am doing a marvelous thing. A third person is pulled out. I am becoming a hero. They will have me on the six o’clock news on Channel 4. Again I plunge in and rescue a fourth person.

Then I say to myself, “I think I have done my part now. I have saved more people than most do in a lifetime. Now I think it is time for somebody else to do his part.” Then I let the other two drown. Now, am I a hero? — or a criminal? Love does not ask, “What is required?” It asks, “How may I serve?” The same concern will be shown for all as long as there is love, need, and ability.

Love seeks the good of others instead of seeking to comply with regulations. This is righteousness in the heart rather than legal justification.

4. Love transcends any sense of duty.
I was brought up on the “Christian duty” concept. All facets of discipleship became one’s duty. And when a person forsook the Lord, he was “out of duty.” Such a concept is foreign to the New Testament. The “do your duty” approach is an effort to pay an obligation to God by meeting His legal demands.

A hired hand performs duties. The employer specifies, “You do these four things, and then I will pay you so much.” When the employee does the four specified things, he has fulfilled his duty and earned his pay. Nothing more can be demanded of his time or effort. He is free from the employer. And he can do all this with no love for the employer. So it is with us when we try to fulfill our discipleship through specified tithes, hours, and quotas instead of a full expression of love.

Jesus spoke of duty only once, and it was not to recommend a “command-duty” concept. He said in Luke 17:10, “So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” A person might become convinced that a tithe, or higher percentage, is required. He could pay that out of a sense of lawful duty with little or no love. But then whose would the remainder of his income be? Would he be free from the constraining influence of love in the use of it?

While improperly motivated people may speak of duty, responsibility, and obligation, love speaks of opportunity. Love seeks opportunity to express itself. “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). Thus, love transcends any sense of duty.

After amplifying these four reasons why love is the great commandment, it is easy to understand why Jesus would choose love to be the identifying characteristic of his disciples.

(This, my favorite and most used lesson, was inspired by Edward J. Craddock in 1945 in Beaumont, Texas.)

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