In our attempts to rid ourselves of a legalism that is inherent to the sinful human condition, we have actually gone from one system of behavior modification to another over the last few decades within the Seventh-day Adventist church. We have, in short, embraced the legalism of love.
Let me explain.
Within contemporary Seventh-day Adventist rhetoric, I hear a ton about the need to love people – no matter their background, hang-ups, or behavior. We are told, it seems ad nauseum, in sermons and books and articles about this. Such a message, I guess, is apparently the antithesis to the legalism that characterized the church for most of its existence when the bulk of rhetoric focused on outward behaviors – like dress, diet, and entertainment.
But here’s the problem: the “we need to love people” message is often itself legalistic since it’s also simply urging a change in behavior – i.e., trying to get people to discontinue one behavior (being unkind and unloving) and start doing another (being kind and loving).
Of course, what do I mean by “legalism”? Probably something different than what most people think. By “legalism” I essentially mean man-powered actions detached from the compelling love of Christ. Ellen White echoes this when she describes legalism as a “loveless, Christless religion” (The Desire of Ages, p. 280 – by “loveless,” she is speaking of Christ’s love and not ours).
So, you see, simply urging people – via sermon, song, or article – to be more loving is no less inherently legalistic than urging people to stop eating cheese. If such a message is divorced from the compelling love of Christ, we are simply urging a more love-oriented legalism.
In fact, what we are really doing is presenting a Christianized humanism where Christ is merely our example when it comes to love rather than a Savior who alone is the Producer of that love in and through us.
The reality is, there is not a single sinful human being on earth who is capable of being more loving or kind simply because he or she is told to do so. Thus, Job wonders, “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?” answering resoundingly: “No one!” (Job 14:4). Relating specifically to love, Ellen White reminds us rather soberingly that “the human heart cannot originate or produce it” (Steps to Christ, p. 59).
So urging it upon a person – who is incapable of producing it in the first place – is less effective than trying to teach a cow how to do astrophysics.
Thus, Ellen White goes on to say in the next sentence: “It [love] is found only in the heart where Jesus reigns.”
Simply put, a person can only love others as he or she understands the love Christ has for him or her. Indeed, “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
So if we see unkindness going on in the church, the solution is not to sermonize people on how they need to be more loving, but to lift up the self-sacrificing love of Jesus – which alone can melt hearts and produce the love that is otherwise absent but so desperately desired.
Notice this important dynamic highlighted in the next few paragraphs of Steps to Christ – noting, in particular, how humans can only participate in acts of love as Christ abides in the heart (essentially a distinction between the root – i.e., Christ’s love – and the fruit – i.e., our love response):
In the heart renewed by divine grace, love is the principle of action. It modifies the character, governs the impulses, controls the passions, subdues enmity, and ennobles the affections. This love, cherished in the soul, sweetens the life and sheds a refining influence on all around. . . .
“He who is trying to become holy [read: more loving] by his own works in keeping the law, is attempting an impossibility. All that man can do without Christ is polluted with selfishness and sin. It is the grace of Christ alone, through faith, that can make us holy. . . .
“If our hearts are renewed in the likeness of God, if the divine love is implanted in the soul, will not the law of God be carried out in the life? When the principle of love is implanted in the heart, when man is renewed after the image of Him that created him, the new-covenant promise is fulfilled, ‘I will put My laws into their hearts and in their minds will I write them.’ Hebrews 10:16. And if the law is written in the heart, will it not shape the life?”
So, please, no more sermons on how we need to love people more. Doing so is only focusing on the fruit and not the root – and won’t ultimately solve the problem! Instead, let’s herald more sermons on Christ’s love and what it looks like when it has been implanted in our hearts!