Love & Obedience in John’s Writings

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The relationship between love and obedience has a checkered history in the life of God’s people. On one side are those curmudgeons who furrow their brow and yell “Obedience.” On the other side are those soft men who whimper, “All we need is love.” In between are most Christians who spend their days bouncing between love and obedience. They ask questions like, am I really loving God? Am I obeying enough? Am I being a legalist? In this post I want to show how John weaves together love and obedience. This post will not answer all questions, but I hope it will clarify the relationship between love and obedience. At the end I will draw some conclusions from these texts.

This post is focused on passages in John’s gospel and his three letters where he uses the word “command/commandments,” which is ἐντολή in the Greek.

We begin with the obedience of our Lord. Jesus obeyed the commands of the Father because he loved the Father.  In John 10:17-18 Jesus says that he lays down his life according to the Father’s command (charge in the ESV). Because he lays down his life the Father loves him.  In John 12:44-50 Jesus says he speaks whatever the Father commands him to speak. He also says that the Father’s command is “everlasting life.” Finally in John 15:10, Jesus says that he has kept the commandments of the Father and therefore he abides in the Father’s love.

There is much more that could be said. But we see the link between the love of the Father and the Son and the obedience of the Son, in his earthly state,  to the Father. In the relationship between the Father and Jesus there is both love and obedience. There is a love between Father and Son that fuels obedience and an obedience from Son to Father which fuels love. Therefore we should not be surprised that John emphasizes these same ideas in our relationship to the Father and Son and in our relationships with each other.

Jesus tells us that if we love him we will keep his commandments. If we love Jesus and keep his commandments we will also be loved by the Father (John 14:15, 21).  He goes on to say in John 15:9-10 that if we keep his (Jesus’) commandments we will abide in his love, just as He abides in the love of the Father. (See also I John 3:24).  If we keep the commandments of God we abide in the Father.  I John 2:3-4 adds another layer by equating knowing God with keeping his commandments.  We see here that loving God and Jesus means keeping the commands that they have given to us. By keeping his commands we abide in them and in their love. By keeping his commands we know that we know God. Three of John’s favorite words, loving, abiding, and knowing, are linked here with keeping the commandments of God.

Here are some other verses which show the interplay between love and obedience in John’s writings.

Several verses tell us exactly what it means to obey the commands of God. 

  1. To obey God means we love one another (John 13:34, 15:12, I John 3:23, I John 4:21, II John 5).
  2. To obey God means we love God (I John 4:21).
  3. To obey God means we believe on the name of Jesus Christ (I John 3:23).
  4. To obey God means we walk in the truth (II John 1:4, implied).

 We can also see that love is consistently defined as keeping the commandments.

  1. How do we know we love the children of God? We love God and keep his commandments (I John 5:2).
  2. The love of God is that we keep his commandments (I John 5:3).
  3. Love is walking according to His commandments. (II John 1:6).

Here are a few other verses that expand on the nature of the commandments we have been given. 

  1. Just like Jesus we have received commands from the Father. This is everywhere implied, but explicitly stated in I John 3:23, 4:21 and II John 1:4.
  2. The commands of God are not burdensome (I John 5:3).
  3. The commandments of God are linked to what pleases him (I John 3:22).

The upshot of all this is that loving the Father, the Son, and our neighbor is linked with obedience to the commands of both of the Father and Son.  Love and obedience are virtual synonyms in John’s world. Paul says something similar in Galatians 5:14 where he says the law is fulfilled by loving our neighbor.

Here are some points to draw from these texts.

First, love for and obedience to Jesus go together. In the life of Jesus love for the Father led to the obedience of the Son. So as imitators of Christ our love leads to obedience as well.  I would add that there is a false obedience, which does not flow from love. There is also a false love, which never leads to obedience. 

Second, the love God has for us implants in us a love for Jesus, which ultimately leads to a desire for and growth in obedience to God’s commands. God’s love for us precedes our love for God (I John 4:7-10). Our obedience is a gift of love given by God. We do not earn God’s love in any ultimate sense by obeying Him. We love because we are born of God. We obey because we are born of God. We do not obey to be born of God. 

Third, obedience to God includes believing in him, loving one another, and walking in the truth. Obedience includes doctrine, relationships, and ethics. 

Fourth, we cannot love our neighbor without first loving God. We cannot claim to love God without also loving one another. Jesus’ love for God led to his sacrificial love for us. In the same way, our love for Jesus leads us to sacrificial love for one another. If there is no love for our brothers then there is no love for God. If there is no love for our brothers there is no obedience to God.

Finally, love begins in the heart, mind, will, and affections, but does not remain there. Love for God and neighbor will lead to a life that is shaped more and more in concrete, practical ways by the Word of God.