Love the Sinner as You Love Your Sinful Self?
September 6, 2017
Over the past week, I've seen more appeals to the second half of Matthew 22:39 than I've seen artist postcards in a hipster coffee shop. "Love your neighbor as yourself" (which is the second greatest command, according to Jesus) is now apparently the favorite verse of atheists, agnostics and liberal Christians alike. Without doubt, it should be one of the most greatly beloved truths for anyone who calls himself or herself a disciple of Christ. However, this command can only be properly understood in light of the previous two verses, its own textual qualification and the teaching of Scripture regarding the person and work of Christ.
Recently, while reading through Augustine's "On Christian Doctrine," I stumbled across an enlightening section on self-love, loving other and loving God. Augustine wrote:
"He is a man of just and holy life who forms an unprejudiced estimate of things, and keeps his affections also under strict control, so that he neither loves what he ought not to love, nor fails to love what he ought to love, nor loves that more which ought to be loved less, nor loves that equally which ought to be loved either less or more, nor loves that less or more which ought to be loved equally. No sinner is to be loved as a sinner; and every man is to be loved as a man for God's sake; but God is to be loved for His own sake. And if God is to be loved more than any man, each man ought to love God more than himself. Likewise we ought to love another man better than our own body, because all things are to be loved in reference to God, and another man can have fellowship with us in the enjoyment of God, whereas our body cannot; for the body only lives through the soul, and it is by the soul that we enjoy God."
If we endure the enigmatic language of Augustine's opening sentence, we come to what is one of the most profound thoughts on the relationship between the first and second greatest commandments. "No sinner is to be loved as a sinner," he wrote, "and every man is to be loved as a man for God's sake; but God is to be loved for His own sake. And if God is to be loved more than any man, each man ought to love God more than himself." Augustine is walking back from the second great commandment to the first great commandment; and, in that way, is showing that we cannot properly understand the second great commandment if we do not rightly understand the first.
We will surely find ourselves at a loss to properly explain what Scripture means when it says "Love your neighbor as yourself" if we do not have an adequate understanding of what it means when it says "Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, mind, soul and strength." To love the Lord with all of our being is to live as a creature in dependence on our Creator, to humble ourselves under His word, to acknowledge His infinite, eternal and unchangeable being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth, to seek to do those things that are pleasing in His sight and to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness. It is the first and great commandment because we are, in all that we do, to seek to please God rather than men (Gal. 1:10). In short, man's chief end is "to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever."
Without doubt, a vital constituent of loving the living and true God is loving those made in His image. If we don't love our fellow image bearers, then, the Apostle says, "he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen?" (1 John 4:20). It is impossible for someone to prove that he is living for and loving God if he is not seeking to love his neighbor as himself.
When, however, someone bandies about Matthew 22:39--irrespective of its subordination in the taxonomy of Matthew 22:37-39--he or she often goes on to misconstrue its theological and ethical meaning. The second great command is not, "You shall love the sinner as you love your sinful self." As Augustine succinctly put it: "No sinner is to be loved as a sinner." Rather, we are to love our neighbor "as a man for God's sake." This involves first realize that "God is to be loved for His own sake. And if God is to be loved more than any man, each man ought to love God more than himself." When we fail to place these truths in their proper order there is no end to the sorts of evil that we will readily tolerate in ourselves and promote in others.
Of course, none of us has loved the Lord with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength. None of us has loved our neighbor as ourselves as we ought. In fact, we are all pervasively depraved by nature (Eph. 2:1-4). A Christian is necessarily someone who confesses that he or she has fallen short--so very short--of the glory of God (Rom. 6:23). A Christian is one who flees to the only One who ever perfectly loved the Lord with all of His heart, mind, soul and strength--to the only One who ever perfectly loved His neighbor as Himself. Jesus fulfilled the first and second great commandments. Jesus took the punishment, in His own body at the cross (1 Pet. 2:24), for our failure to keep these two commandments. Jesus bore the wrath of God that we deserve for our failure to love the Lord and our neighbor as we ought. Jesus did not "love the sinner as His sinful self." The sinless Son of God incarnate loved sinners "for God's sake, God for His own sake, and God more than any man." It is only as we keep the Jesus of the Scriptures before our eyes that we too will learn to love the Lord and our neighbor in a way that brings glory to God and good to our neighbors.