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The Supremacy of Righteousness by Love

As long as we believe in righteousness by faith (with faith meaning "what we believe") over the righteousness by love taught and lived by Jesus, Paul, John, Peter, and James, the Seventh-day Adventist church community will be deeply flawed.

Those flaws are currently manifest in many areas, including proposed creedal coercion, mistreatment of people on the margins, celebration of correctness above kindness, exclusionary checklists for doctrinal purity, reactions founded in fear, and spacious gaps between stated beliefs and actual behavior—what Jesus frankly termed hypocrisy.

Books such as Seventh-day Adventists Believe and official Adventist church websites—both local and worldwide—almost invariably begin with the headline “What We Believe.” Yet when our beliefs become more important than how we love, something is amiss. It’s like preferring a list of ingredients to the meal itself.

The story is told of a group touring an oil refinery. After the tour guide had brought the crowd past chemical processing units, miles of pipes, soaring chimneys, storage tanks, voluminous plumes, and ear-rattling machines administered by hundreds of animated workers, a visitor raised a hand.

“Where is the shipping department?” she inquired.

“Oh, we don’t have a shipping department,” the guide replied. “All of the energy generated by this factory is used to keep the factory running.”

Even a well-organized church can become inwardly focused and self-serving. In truth, if one asks a typical outsider on the street, “Which is more important, what you say you believe or how you act?” most people would choose the latter. So would I. More significantly, so would John, Peter, James, Paul, and Jesus.

“We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:14, 18).1

“So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16).

“Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).

“You must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love” (2 Peter 1:5-7).

“You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:8, 9).

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:14-17).

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

“Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14).

“‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is greatest?’ He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).

“‘Those who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’…‘Whoever does not love me does not keep my words’” (John 14:21, 24).

Defining

To briefly explicate the phrase righteousness by faith,righteousness can mean “doing what’s right” or “the quality of being morally right or justifiable” or “the condition of being acceptable to God as made possible by God.” Self-righteousness is the opposite of God’s condition for grace-filled acceptance.

“Faith” is essentially trust. Surely faith/trust is a crucial component of grace and love.The NRSV translates Romans 4:13; 5:1, “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith….Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Read the identical texts in the Jewish New Testament, translated by David H. Stern: “For the promise of Avraham and his seed that he would inherit the world did not come through legalism but through the righteousness that trust produces….So, since we have come to be considered righteous by God because of our trust, let us continue to have shalom with God through our Lord, Yeshua the Messiah.”

Though invoked rarely apart from wedding ceremonies, the best definition of love is found in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

Who among us can thoughtfully read those words and not be smitten with remorse? What friendship—within a family or outside—would not be enhanced by embracing those ideals? Where is the church body, in seeking to follow this philosophy, that would not be lanced to the heart with teachable humility? How could a heartless edict ever flow from such noble thoughts? God, be merciful toward us. Help us to be loving toward others.

Matthew 5:48 commands, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The context for the verse is our extending unconditional, gracious love to everyone, including our enemies. A parallel passage in Luke 6:36 frames the lesson perfectly: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Paul uses his famous phrase “righteousness by faith” in the context of two options: faith or works. Given the choice between the two, he posits that faith is better. Yet as he notes in 1 Corinthians 12:31 there is “a still more excellent way”—the way of love.

In his paean of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul uplifts love’s primacy, efficacy, and supremacy. “If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing….And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (2, 13). Righteousness by love can never devolve into creeping creedalism because love “keeps no record of wrongs” (5, NIV). In addition, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:18, 19). By the saving grace of God’s love we can fearlessly love God and God’s creation.

Besides not keeping record of wrongs, love also doesn’t do a good job keeping close track of selfless acts. Within another framework of two options, at the end of time the righteous sheep (lauded by Jesus in Matthew 25:31-40) inquire, “’Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’” Jesus here proclaims, Such is the righteous quality of self-forgetful love.

Yet because Paul and Jesus didn’t employ the precise phrase “righteousness by love” we fixate on figuring out to the nth degree what we ought to believe and how to exclude anybody who doesn’t fit our box. That fixation is not biblical and is not healthy—also it’s simply not good enough for Jesus-inspired righteousness. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

In the beginning, through the middle, and at the end God is love. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7, 8). With all our flaws and self-serving tendencies, “As it is written,

‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,

nor the human heart conceived,

what God has prepared for those who love him’” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

Beyond faith, love supplies our motive and application, our source and purpose, the why and how to trust God.

More than righteousness by faith, I believe in unrivaled righteousness by love.

 

Notes & References:
1. Unless stated otherwise, all Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version.

 

Chris Blake is professor emeritus of Union College and a former editor of Insight. He is the author of many books and hundreds of published articles.

Photo by Emmanuel Phaeton on Unsplash

 

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