(Deuteronomy 33:2b-3a NKJV).
It is surprising how many people visualize the God of the Old Testament as an essentially stern God dispensing laws and their strict penalties. This God is seen by many as a God of law and commandments. By contrast, some think the God of the New Testament and his son, Jesus, are typified by love and not law. It is believed that somehow God changed in his approach to humans.
But what the Bible clearly shows, when we look at it closely, is that the God of the Old Testament is no different from the God of the New. Theologically, of course, it seems clear that in many instances the pre-incarnate Jesus was actually the one called God in the Hebrew Scriptures (John 1:1-10, 1 Corinthians 10:4), but the point is that the character of God does not change (Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 6:17, Hebrews 13:8). God has always been a God of law and love.
We can see this dual aspect of the character of God in many examples throughout the Old Testament. Take the words of Moses, for example, in the Book of Deuteronomy (which means “second law”) as it recounts the re-giving of the law of God to ancient Israel. Deuteronomy focuses on the law of God as much as any book of the Hebrew Scriptures, yet we find frequent expressions of God’s love as well as his commands and laws: “Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments” (Deuteronomy 7:9). Repeatedly, God’s love is stressed just as much as his law, as we see also in the quotation from Deuteronomy 33 above.
And that is not just an Old Testament perspective. When we look closely at the life and teachings of Jesus, love and law are never separated. Not surprisingly, after the Book of Psalms, the Book of Deuteronomy was the book most frequently quoted by Jesus. When asked which was the greatest law, Christ replied that the law is that we love God and our neighbor (Matthew 22:35-39). When he showed love by not condemning the woman taken in adultery, Jesus nevertheless still told her “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:11).
God’s law did not somehow disappear after the death of Christ because he paid the penalty for our breaking the law – any more than a speeding law disappears if someone pays our speeding fine. And even though we are not saved by our keeping of the law (Galatians 2:16), Paul stresses that the law is a guide to us (Galatians 3:23) and that “The law is holy, and the commandment holy, and righteous, and good” (Romans 7:12). Paul continues to show us why the law is good:
“…for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:8-10).
So the principle of God’s use of law as well as love is still alive and functioning throughout the New Testament, as the writer of the Book of Hebrews reminds us: “… the Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Hebrews 12:6). We would not think a human parent did not love his or her children because the parent gave them rules or disciplined them, and we must realize that God works with us in exactly the same way.
As we grow in understanding of God, we come to see that law and love are actually not opposites, but complementary aspects of his character. His commands are given out of love to protect our relationship with him and with others. God’s love does not somehow negate the purpose of his laws, and the purpose of his laws does not somehow cancel out his love.
God is indeed a God of law and love.