Christians can love each other in a way that is never perfect in this life but which nevertheless pleases God and fulfills the law, even though the law demands perfection. How can this be?
First, let me defend the claim that we only love imperfectly in this life. I base this on two things. The first is the common biblical teaching that there are no sinless or righteous people. For example:
- 1 Kings 8:46, “There is no one who does not sin.”
- Psalm 143:2, “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.”
- Ecclesiastes 7:20, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.”
- 1 John 1:8, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
- Psalm 19:12, “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults.”
I admit that logically one might find a tiny place for a sinlessly perfect act of love in that bleak description of our condition. Saying that no one does not sin is not strictly the same as saying no one can do a perfect act of love now and then. But I am not encouraged to think it will happen, especially in view of the second consideration.
The second reason I think our love is never perfect in this life is that love involves not coveting. Paul quotes some of the ten commandments, including “You shall not covet,” and then says they are all “summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ . . . love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:9-10). So loving our neighbor perfectly would mean that the act of love would not have a whiff of coveting in it.
What is coveting? Coveting is desire for things (good or bad) that is stronger than it should be—a kind of desire that reflects a lack of satisfaction in God. So for an act of love to be perfect it would have to be free from covetousness, that is, free from any hint of desire that reflects a satisfaction in God that is less than perfect. As I ponder the human heart and the battle we face to put to death the old nature (Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5), the claim to have, at any time, a heart with perfect satisfaction in God is not believable. Thus I take Paul’s words in Philippians 3:12 with utter seriousness, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect. . . .”
Nevertheless, our always-imperfect love can please God and fulfill the law, though not perfectly. The demand of the law for perfect love (love with no whiff of covetousness) is fulfilled by Christ alone. Therefore the ground of our acceptance with the perfect Giver of the perfect law is that we are in Christ and have his perfection counted as ours (2 Corinthians 5:21). But even though that is the ground of our acceptance with God, the Bible also teaches that, on the basis of this acceptance, we will and must now live in a way that imperfectly fulfills the law.
Romans 8:3-4 brings Christ’s work and our work together in this way:
“God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin,he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
This is not a hypothetical law-fulfilling. It is not something done outside of us. It is, Paul says, that “the law might be fulfilled in us.”
So as a foundation for all our imperfect law-fulfilling—that is, our imperfect walking by the Spirit in love—there is the sacrifice and righteousness of Christ. He has borne the punishment for all our failures, and he has provided all our perfection.
This means that the Bible is willing to call us “righteous” even though “None is righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10). And it means not merely that we are justified, but that we really do have a life of lived-out, but imperfect righteousness. You can see this paradoxical use of language clearly in several texts. For example, Ecclesiastes 7:20 says that “there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” But five verses earlier it says, “There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing.” And in Psalm 41:4 the psalmist says, “O Lord, be gracious to me; heal me,for I have sinned against you!” But then he says to the Lord in verse 12, “You have upheld me because of [or in] my integrity.” So there are non-righteous righteous. And there are sinners with integrity.
The same thing can be shown from Paul’s use of the word “blameless.” Even though Paul speaks in Philippians 3:12 of his best efforts as imperfect, he still describes the believers as “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.” So there is an imperfect blamelessness just like there is a non-righteous righteousness and a sin-committing integrity.
So back to my main point: Christians can love each other in a way that is never perfect in this life but which nevertheless pleases God and fulfills the law, even though the law demands perfection. How does this imperfect love actually fulfill the law (imperfectly)?
First, our imperfect love is the first fruits of a final perfection that Christ will complete in us at his appearing. Second, our imperfect love is the fruit of our faith in Jesus who is our justifying perfection before God. The only law-keeping we depend on as the basis of our justification is Jesus’ law-keeping. His was perfect; ours is imperfect. Our imperfect love now, and our perfect love later, will always be the fruit of faith that looks to Jesus our only perfection. The law is fulfilled in us imperfectly because it was fulfilled in him perfectly. And our imperfection is a pointer to his perfection, and that pointing is the aim of the law. So even our imperfect love is a real fulfillment of the law, though not perfect fulfillment.