Is love defined by obedience? In other words, does an action of obedience define my love for God? After all, Jesus did say, “If you love Me, keep My commands” (John 14:15).
Imagine a person suffering from a high temperature as a result of the flu. You take that person’s temperature and with a fever of 104 degrees immediately dunk them in an ice bath and rush them off to the hospital. Clearly this person is very sick and in need of medical help! Now imagine taking the temperature of a second person who has just emerged from a Russian Banya after lying in a tanning bed preceded by a prolonged dip in some nearby volcanic hotsprings. You get the point; that person’s temperature may also register around 104! But this person does not have the same condition as the fever-strickened.
In John 3:16 we first note that God is the source of all love and that secondly love is fleshed out in the action of giving (“God so loved that He gave…”). We might conclude that God’s love is defined by the gift of His Son to us. Perhaps a better observation, however, is that love precedes the action. While an action flows out of that love, the love that precedes it is primary and deeper than the action. We might say that the following deed of giving is an act that illuminates the former.
Consider the nursing staff at a hospital. Medical workers are required to help and care for a variety of patients regardless of their genuine concern or love for the afflicted. They simply provide various actions of medical welfare without any obligation to love.
1 Corinthians 13:1-3 clearly states that one can do all types of actions that might resemble love yet clang like a cymbal or resounding gong. A volunteer at the local food pantry might minister all day long to the down and out and then upon returning home yell at his wife and slap his child. A supposed follower of Christ may do all the right things, wear all the right clothes, and go to all the right places, yet remain outside the love of God. Shallow activism and legalism can be the result when one attempts to define love by action, and more to the point—obedience.
Back to our first example. Anyone can display a “high temperature” but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s symptomatic of one’s true condition. We’re thus faced with perhaps a deeper and more profound question: Have our hearts truly been renewed in the love of God? Do our actions and signs of obedience truly flow from a love that originates with the Father?
Furthermore, what is meant by obeying the commands of Jesus? Considering the importance of context we might wish to take a deeper look at John 13:34-35. Truly loving our brother and sister may in fact be the obedience required of us, the “commands” of Christ. Romans 13:8-10 would certainly support this: “love is the fulfillment of the law” (10b). But how can I love another without the love of Christ first saturating my soul? Precisely the point! If I’m not truly immersed in the love of God…if I’m not consistently and constantly basking in the unconditional love of the Father…then I truly cannot love my brothers and sisters redemptively and nor will religious rituals and outward manifestations prove my love for God.