The Work of Christ
Every new Christian faces this important question: "now that I am 'in Christ,' how do I please God in my daily living?" This question, whether consciously or unconsciously, leads to the relationship of gospel and law. This issue soon arose in the early church (Acts 15:1-6). What is the standard of my conduct as a Christian? With what perspective am I to approach the demands on my life and determine what is pleasing to God? We need to examine a number of Scriptures with a view toward seeing the New Testament structure of Christian ethics. As I have studied the matter of Christian obedience, one thing has become increasingly apparent: we must be content with the clear structure which emerges in the New Testament and not expect to construct an exhaustive, detailed system of Christian ethics. As Helmut Thielicke puts it, "in theological reflection the distinction between law and gospel does not admit of any conceptual perfection and completeness."24
It is the Lord Jesus Christ who stands as the focus of our obedience. Our union with him - the One who spoke words of life and finished a redemptive work - is the basis from which our obedience flows. "The imitation [of Christ] was rooted in the fellowship and union with Christ and sprang forth from it . . . The 'ought' arises from what their Lord has done for them."25
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35)
Because of its foundational character, the beginning point in Christian ethics must be John 13:34-35. In this passage we are confronted with the one commandment that flows out of the redemptive work of Christ at Calvary. All other commandments are related to this "new" demand, a demand which is intimately connected to his "obedience unto death" (Phil. 2:8).
There is a certain "special importance" attached to the final discourses of our Lord in John 13-17. They are his last words on earth. It is apparent that just before his "hour" came (13:1), Jesus confronted his inner circle with matters of critical importance. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to pay close attention to Jesus' words.
The Lord Jesus was Lord of all (13:3). At this point in time, he could have rightly commanded these men to fall down before him in fearful worship. But, no, the King of Kings "took a towel and girded himself . . . and began to wash the disciples' feet" (13:4-5). Wonder of wonders! The King takes the position of a lowly servant! Does not this action highlight the lesson our Lord intends to communicate? He wants them - more than anything else - to see that loving servanthood is foundational in his kingdom. Our Lord does not act here as an aloof King who is ministered unto, but does not minister. Rather, he calls his disciples to emulate what he has just done before their very eyes (13:14-16). This action of Christ stands as a constant "example" which is to serve as a model for Christian behavior until the end of the age.
Would we be "happy"? Then we must be captured by this "singular" action of Christ and live in light of its demand among our brothers and sisters (13:7). The only way to Christian blessedness is to become a servant (Matt. 20:26).
"As I Have Loved You"
This important "example" of Christ, however, was not done in a vacuum. The humbling of God's incarnate Son is symbolic of the imminent baptism of suffering to occur at Golgoltha.26 This is brought out in John 15:12-13. After repeating the "New Commandment," Christ connects the "as I have loved you" with the laying down of his life for his friends.
Christ's supreme act of love on the cross clearly becomes the starting point, the reference point, and the touchstone of all Christian obedience. Our love to one another is not just a reaction to the general love of God. It is a love specifically related to the act of God in giving Christ for us (I John 4:9-11). The multifaceted commandments which inform the Christian of his duties (John 14:15) are to be approached through the singular commandment to "love one another, as I have loved you."
If we miss this point, we miss everything. If we come to any duty, any commandment, apart from the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Spirit (Rom. 5:5), we have either landed on or are approaching dangerously close to the troubled shores of legalism. Jesus reveals that the most important perspective to grasp is that the pervasive demand that the gospel places on the believer's life must be carried out in love - a love that is a voluntary response to God's love for us in Christ. It is this kind of love alone which provides the impetus for Christian duty. It is this display of love on the cross that is "sufficient incentive" to restrain Christians from sin and to move them toward holy living.27
"By this shall all men know you are my disciples"
The importance of this love perspective is further reinforced by Christ's words in 13:35. The one characteristic that he isolates as bearing testimony to the world about the reality of the Christian faith is brotherly love. Not right doctrine, nor denominational creeds, nor persuasive preaching, nor impressive sanctuaries, nor elaborate social programs, nor vast numbers, but genuine and discernible love between believers.
In the Reformed tradition the historical "marks" of a "true church" are identified as: (1) the Word preached, (2) the ordinances properly administered, and (3) discipline practiced. But we can have all these "marks" and yet miss the one identifying "mark" that Christ says is the only one that matters. Without love, all else is in vain (1 Cor. 13:1-3). As his followers, we need the love of our Lord as described in John 13:34 more than anything else.
24. Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics, Vol. 1, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979, p. 118.
25. Willis P. DeBoer, The Imitation of Paul, Kampen: J.H. Kok: Kampen, 1962, pp. 55-57.
26. DeBoer, p. 55.
27. Dennis Winter, "Motivation in Christian Behaviour," Law, Morality and the Bible, Downers Grove: IVP, 1978, eds. Bruce Kay and Gordon Wenham, p. 212.
This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him. Jon Zens. Searching Together. Summer-Winter 1997, Vol. 25:1,2,3. Pages 11-13.