In the church, one hears a lot about the topic of love, and with good reason. In the Old Testament, one reads, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy, 6:4-5). This verse is repeated with slight variations by Matthew (22:37), Mark (12:30), and Luke (10:27). In John’s gospel, Jesus gives his disciples a “new commandment” that they love one another not just as they love themselves but as Jesus loved them (13:34). In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul famously says, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love”( I Corinthians 13:13). In that light, it would seem that love is the be all and end all, or is it?

In his lectures on Galatians in 1535, Martin Luther rather surprisingly writes,

“Thus there are many others today who want to be counted as evangelical [i.e. Protestant] theologians and who, so far as their words are concerned, do teach that men are delivered from their sins by the death of Christ. Meanwhile, however, they insult Christ most grievously by distorting and overthrowing His Word in a villainous and wicked manner. In addition, they teach faith in a way that attributes more to love than to faith; for they imagine that God regards and accepts us on account of the love with which we love God and our neighbor after we have already been reconciled. If this is true, then we have no need whatever of Christ. In this way they serve, not the true God but an idol of their own heart—an idol which they have made up for themselves. For the true God does not regard or accept us on account of our love, virtue, or newness of life (Rom. 6:4); He does so on account of Christ. But they raise the objection: “Yet He commands that we love Him with all our heart.” All right, but it does not follow: “God has commanded; therefore we do so.” If we loved God with all our heart, etc., then, of course, we would be justified and would live on account of that obedience, according to the statement (Lev. 18:5): “By doing this a man shall live.” But the Gospel says: “You are not doing this; therefore you shall not live on account of it.” For the statement, “You shall love the Lord,” requires perfect obedience, perfect fear, trust, and love toward God. In the corruption of their nature men neither do nor can produce this. Therefore the Law, “You shall love the Lord,” does not justify but accuses and damns all men, in accordance with the statement (Rom. 4:15): “The Law brings wrath.” But “Christ is the end of the Law, that everyone who has faith may be justified” (Rom. 10:4)” (LW 26:398).

You may need to read that through a second time. After being reconciled to God it is “villainous and wicked” to teach that our love for God makes us acceptable to God. In fact, to teach and to do so serves “not the true God but an idol of [one’s] own heart,” an idol made up by oneself for oneself. But, but, but … On second thought, who does Luther think that he is to contradict the Bible?

All appearances aside, Luther does not contradict Scripture. He merely does what few before and few after him seem insightful enough to do on a regular basis. He views Scripture as the word of God given in both law and gospel. The law tells sinful human beings what they must do to avoid sin and tells that they have sinned after the fact. In the end, the law convicts and condemns guilty sinners before God, declaring them unredeemably unrighteous. As Romans, 3:23 says, “… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, …” The gospel, however, promises the forgiveness of sins by faith alone in the crucified and resurrected Christ, the son of God. The proclamation of that promise creates faith in the hearers. That faith is the restoration of the broken relationship with God, which brings this discussion to the nature of relationships.

Love, as either an emotion or an action, is not the basis for or foundation of a relationship. It may be the driving force and manifest expression thereof, but love is only the materials and energy, so to speak, to build the bridge. The bridge itself is trust or faith. It is possible to love someone deeply, but not trust him or her. Without trust, a relationship is at best impaired. The bridge is weak and wobbly, unable to hold or support those wishing to traverse it. Although it is true that “God is love” (I John 4:8), when Adam and Eve stopped trusting God and his word as much as they trusted the serpent, their relationship with God was not only impaired. It was broken. Theologians call this condition “Sin” followed by ungodly deeds called “sins.”

In contrast to Luther’s day, it is increasingly the case today that “evangelical [i.e. Protestant] theologians” cite “love” as the reason to excuse or to justify or even to celebrate just about any or every human sin imaginable, despite being contrary to God’s will as clearly given in the Bible. If “love” is the reason, some argue, then whatever sinners do must be not only acceptable but right, right? What, however, do sinners love to do more than sin? In the end, the vague, carnal notion of “love” propounded by sinners is just another idol of the human heart, better known as lust in all its expressions.

So, commanding sinners in a broken relationship with God to love God with their whole being, or commanding them to love one another as Jesus loved them simply does not make it happen. It expresses wishful thinking and wastes breath. In reality, such commands only show how much we sinners love neither God nor one another either as we love ourselves or as Jesus loves us.

“When God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, …” (John 3:16), he entrusted the love of his life (and the life of his love) into the hands of sinners unable and unwilling to love him in return. It was, thus, a gift of love unto certain death. At his incarnation, Jesus stepped into the breach, and that he was broken on the cross, to be laid in a tomb forever.

Nonetheless, God the Father’s faithfulness to God the Son remained whole and thus holy. By entering into the depths of death in humanity’s broken relationship with God, Jesus filled the void with an eternal life-giving power and promise able to create anew the light of life in the darkness of sinful human hearts. The word of this promise creates the faith needed to heal humanity’s broken relationship with God. Believing (trusting) that we sinners are accepted and forgiven by God for Christ’s sake becomes our new relationship with God because God so loved the world, and “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).