Love Perfected in Us
Those who say, “I know Him,” but do not keep His commandments
are liars, and the truth is not in them.
But whoever keeps His word,
the love of God is truly perfected in him.
He who says he abides in Him ought to walk
in the same way in which He walked.
First John 1: 5-6
In this text John is speaking to those whom Irenaeus and scholars after him would call gnostics or knowers, or as we might say, ‘intellectuals,’ Christian-like folk who believed in a ‘spiritual’ religion in which Christ had come not in the flesh but as a spirit, who denied that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ, and who did not believe in Christ’s return, His ‘spiritual’ presence being the fulfillment of His every promise. The difference between this pseudo-Christianity and the faith of Matthew and John, Ignatius and Irenaeus, was subtle but definitive. The Church Catholic, as Ignatius calls it, believed that Christians were made by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirt given at Baptism. What John engages in the knowledgeable folk who existed in his Churches is the belief that enlightenment, understanding the world-system, a certain illumination of intellect, renders sin, as belonging to an evil and fallen world, irrelevant. So those of this opinion would say, “I know Him,” while ignoring His commandments.
The first and second commandments will always be love for God and for neighbor, and John himself says that to love fulfills the commandments. But the early Church has left a record of Christians’ understanding of just how love works in the world by construing a list of Christian ways. Sometimes the list takes the form of a description of the two ways, the way of death and the way of life. In this literature of Christian behavior, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7 with its injunctions, with its assumption that Christians can act out of the goodness of the renewed heart, is always prominent, but the list as its appears in Christian literature of the first century after Pentecost is expanded in detailed, reiterated precepts. The prohibition of abortion is always there, and there is the warning against the detestable Greek practice of corrupting boys. In its negative aspects, these precepts list things that are prohibited absolutely, so that there is no degree of theft, adultery or fornication that can in some circumstances be considered right and blameless. There is a new note of tenderness to the poor and a recognition, reflecting the influence of John 13:3–11, that we are all servants of Christ, that those we serve and those who serve us are our brothers. These early texts, summarized here, may be cited to show that love for Christ was expressed in the pattern of Christian behavior. In this literature the question of legalism or rigorism did not come up, for these ways were taken to be expressions of both love and obedience. They fulfilled what John meant when he said that the love of God is perfected in us as by the power of His grace we keep His word, His ways, His commandments. If we say we abide in Him, we should walk in His ways.
Now notice that this fulfilling is not obedience to an extrinsic law, but is love of God fulfilled, made perfect, in human life and thought and action by the mystery of our incorporation in Christ. Christ does not command us to be good but to repent; He asks us to allow the love of God the Holy Spirit to shape in us those new hearts from which will flow the kind of life that is pleasing to Him, giving us indeed the very mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5). Thus it is that when we sin we do not so much break the law, athough there is always that as well, as we do violate the relation of sonship into which baptism has brought us. And this is worse than an infraction of the law, itself rebellion against the divine will, it is the breaking of the bond of charity, a rejection of the love of Christ for the love of self or something worse
Such rejections, which are rightly called sins, or mark-missings, ought not occur. Every baptized soul wants to please God. Who cannot understand Paul’s disappointed anxiety that he was at some level displeasing to God because sin lingered in his body? In Romans 7:13 the great apostle says: “I do not understand my own actions. I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,” while my very hating of it testifies that the law of which I am so painfully aware is good. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my innermost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.”
Paul is probably not here speaking of the allure of those higher sins of the spirit, rebellion, spiritual pride, or of the tiny tinge of emulation evident in his observation that other apostles have wives and enjoy generous support (I Corinthians 9:1–13). He is thinking of those sins the human race associates with the pull of bodiliness. Speculations about the particularities of Paul’s moral life invariably disappoint curiosity. We know that he had a persistent failing or temptation that he called a thorn in his flesh, not in his mind but in his flesh. Perhaps a persistent bodily weakness. But in Romans Paul seems to be contending with sins of the flesh that troubled his soul. We do not know that it was not something as tawdry as the sins of the flesh he warned against so persistently, convinced as he was that the body is the very temple of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 3:16-19). It is not impossible that Paul was sometimes afflicted with the very distorted attraction he denounced so dramatically in the early part of the Letter to the Romans (1:18–27), which would make him, and the victory he won, the very saint for the twenty-first century, when again, as in the days of Tiberius and Nero, the very forms of nature are under attack by skewed passions. We do not know.
We do know that he was always zealous to warn his Churches that every Christian is always in a battle until the end which did not always feature settled peace in the will of the Father. Paul does seem to have tasted victory; we know that at the end of his life, when he was handing on his ministry to others, he said, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge will award me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who love His appearing” (II Timothy 4:9). But along the way there had been nothing but hardship and struggle, imprisonment, beatings, shipwreck, fighting with the beasts in the arena for the lunch-time sport of the bystanders.
John surely had in mind the gnostics or spirituals when he wrote his first letter, but his advice that knowledge of God, whether by gnostic illumination or through baptism and catechesis, is not enough, is part of the patrimony of Christendom. One would have thought that Paul, who was approaching old age when he wrote his letter to the Romans, would have already won the victory, that Satan would have given up, that the itches that souls endure while living in the body would have been cured. But alas, it was not so; the business of allowing the love that God has poured into our hearts to inform our lives perfectly, may be, most usually is, the fruit of a life-long battle. And even then, we may have fought so imperfectly that much will be burned away, as Paul says in First Corinthians. Even those who will be saved in the Day may have built on imperfect foundations of wood, hay, or stubble, so that these false foundations must be burned away so that they can be perfected (I Corinthians: 3:10–15).
Where, one might ask, is the joy in all this, combat perhaps extending beyond this life. The joy is in the fact that although the Christian life may be made difficult for many by the situation of the soul in a world infested with Satan’s rebellious angels, by our own willfulness, the God who claims us in baptism will let us go only reluctantly and upon reiterated evidence that we are not willing to allow His love to form in us His own image. The mark of salvation is the knowledge that there is nothing in us despite our immersion in a sinful world, despite our failures along the way, that we more deeply desire than to know Him. He that is in us, the sovereign Spirit of God, is greater than he who is in the world (I John 4:4). Distress and tribulation cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus Our Lord (Romans 8:35–39).