Our lesson this week could be titled, "Law and Love: Inseparable or Incompatible?" There are two ideas that have become provoking to many Adventists: legalism and love. Love is often invoked as a cloak to cover illicit passion, the kind that flouts the holy law of God. And for some Christians, the word love also has become a synonym for sentimentalism, a brand of theology that is soft on sin. Sometimes righteous people say they have heard enough about love; they want more stern calling sin by its right name. More law. More judgment.
There are also earnest Christians who are fed up with legalism masquerading as the gospel. Legalism was promoted for decades as "the third angel's message," the basic problem in the 1888 history. Ellen White said that our ministers of that era had "preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa that had neither dew nor rain."Yet earnest Seventh-day Adventist leaders were demanding more of the same, saying, "'You should not be reaching for the righteousness of Christ, and making so much of that. You should preach the law.'"  That was legalism, pure and simple! But do we have a problem with it today? Yes!
The problem now is that Lucifer has discovered a "sugar-coated" brand of legalism to confuse us while we vainly imagine that we have outgrown the old kind. The new form is more deadly than ever. Let us ask several simple questions: (1) What is, and what is not, legalism? (2) What is, and what is not, genuine love? (3) How can law and love be inseparable? They appear (on the surface) to be incompatible.
Obedience to God's law is never legalism. The perpetuity of the law is not legalism, nor is preaching the importance of obedience. Legalism is not overemphasis of the law, as though there were some secret line of balance between legalism and grace--fifty-fifty. "Balance" is not the issue; 99% gospel and 1% legalism nullifies the gospel, or "frustrates" it, to use Paul's expression (Gal. 2:21, KJV). The 1% of legalism will poison the whole like a small dose of arsenic ruins bread.
What is, and what is not, genuine love? There are some 200 references to love (all positive) in the New Testament. One says, "God is love" (1 John 4:8). If that is true, we should be preaching love a thousand times more than we do!
The problem is that the Enemy has kidnapped the New Testament idea of love (agape) from Christianity and substituted the Hellenistic, pagan idea instead (eros). Most Christians do not understand the difference. The New Testament idea of love is not soft on sin--it is the only effective antidote to it. There is nothing mushy about agape; the same God who is agape is also "a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:29). Long before the flames of the last days are let loose, that holy fire will have burned highly refined self-centeredness out of every Laodicean heart where genuine faith in Christ will let it do so.
To talk about the law without understanding agape "brings about wrath" and actually contributes to sin. That was the 1888 problem. Brethren did not understand what true obedience is. Only "agape is the fulfillment of the law" (Rom. 4:15; 13:10). It follows that the remnant church who "keep the commandments of God" will be a people virtually obsessed with agape. "The last rays of merciful light, the last message of mercy to be given to the world, is a revelation of His character of love. The children of God are to manifest His glory"  This message is not soft on sin.
Our human love is dependent on the value of its object. Our lesson asks how we can "learn to express [selfless] love for those whom we deem undeserving or who don't love us back" (Tuesday).Not one of us on our own has what the New Testament says is the real thing.What we have in common with everybody is the natural endowment of eros--the love that loves others because they are nice to us, or because they are beautiful, or valuable to us.
It's natural for us to invite people to lunch who we think will invite us back. But agape is a love that creates value in its object: "I will make a mortal more rare than fine gold" (Isa. 13:12). God delights in transforming hopeless people into infinitely precious people equivalent in value to His own Son whom He gave for them!
When the Bible says that "God is love," it says "God is agape." This kind of love loves the unlovable, even enemies. Eros, on the other hand, is a love that rests on a sense of need. But agape is so rich that it has no need, and loves with no thought or desire for reward of any kind. What a treasure! It makes life worth living!
Thus we return to our question: How can law and love be inseparable? When New Testament love is seen to be agape, law and love are blended into one. This is why Paul could say that "agape is the fulfilling of the law." The secret is the cross. When self is "crucified with Christ," "the body of sin" as its root is "done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin" (Rom 6:6). The Ten Commandments suddenly shine with new splendor: they become ten promises of the glorious power involved "under grace."
It comes as a shock to many people to realize that the famous Ten Commandments are primarily ten promises, not ten rigorous, burdensome prohibitions. The secret is realizing what the Prologue means: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (Ex. 20:1, 2). God is telling us, I have already redeemed you; I have already delivered you out of slavery to "self" and thus to Satan's principles of self-governance; I have already brought light to you, new hope, new joy; now, believe that I am your prayer-hearing, prayer-answering God, your Friend, your Savior; and then, says God, I guarantee you will never come under the bondage of breaking this perfect "law of liberty" (see James 2:12). You will sing with David, "I will walk at liberty, for I seek Your precepts" (Psalm 119:45).
This is why we are urged over and over to glory in the cross, to make it central in our preaching, to know and experience the contrition that comes from kneeling at its foot. Why is that preaching of the cross so unpopular and so rare today? Is it because of the widely prevalent love of self and upward mobility that pervades many even in the ministry? Many valleys of dry bones may witness miracles of new life when agape comes into its own.
How can we learn to love with agape? Not by trying, not by working at it, not even by vainly praying for it (though prayer is good, of course). We learn by looking, and looking again: "In this is agape, not that we loved God, but that He loved us. ... And we have known and believed the agape that God has for us" (1 John 4:10, 16).
--From the writings of Robert J. Wieland
 Ellen G. White, "Christ Prayed for Unity Among His Disciples," Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, March 11, 1890.
 Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons, pp. 415, 416.