When Jesus’s Command Seems Impossible: How to Love Wholly

illustration showing a Bible and crown to represent Jesus's commands

Jesus’s words frequently shock me. They bring me up short. Honestly, sometimes when I read them, I think, I wonder if he knew to whom he was speaking. Of course he knew, I mean no disrespect. But still. Really? Telling Nicodemus he must be born again or the disciples they needed to satisfy the hunger of thousands of people should shock us the way it shocked them.

How were they supposed to do that?

Here’s another example. When Jesus told his followers, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48), it bewilders me. Perfect? I wonder.

And then, to make matters even worse, he spoke these baffling words in the context of loving one’s neighbor, even (especially?) if your neighbor is an enemy. Wait! What? Make no mistake that what Jesus is commanding here is that we love others wholly, perfectly, the way the Father loves.1

This command (and others like it) comes to us in the form of imperatives, commands about our obligation to live the way that God has required. The imperative, “Be perfect,” should feel overwhelming. How are we supposed to do that? Of course, on our own, we can’t. But then, we’re not alone.

The ministry of the Spirit

All Christians, all who belong to Jesus and have believed that he is who he said he is and have trusted in him, are indwelled by the Spirit. The Spirit’s ministry makes Jesus precious in our hearts and minds. He supernaturally opens our understanding to know him and what he has done for us. He opens our eyes to see the life-transforming glory of the Lord (cf. 2 Cor 3:17–18), and enlightens our hearts to behold, “the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). The Spirit proclaims, “Jesus is beautiful!”

After revealing the splendor of the Son to us, he shows us what he has generously bestowed upon us. As the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, we have received “the Spirit who comes from God, so that we may understand what has been freely given to us by God” (1 Cor 2:12). The Spirit proclaims that Jesus is generous and his generosity has been lavished on us! These proclamations come to us in the form of indicatives—statements declaring the truth about who we are because of what he has done. The Spirit declares, “Jesus is beautiful, and he’s made you beautiful, too!”

The indicatives (declarations about who we are in Christ) offer us hope when we feel overwhelmed by the imperatives (obligations required of us by the Lord).

For instance, the command to love perfectly will only overwhelm us until we hang onto the hope that no matter how we fail, we continue to be loved. The indicative tells us we are loved and because of that, we can begin to obey the imperative to love. We are loved therefore we can love.

We love because he loved

Let’s think about this a little more. The Holy Spirit’s ministry is particularly meaningful when we find ourselves face-to-face with daunting commands like the one above.

Honestly, there have been times in my life that I felt that I was so parched for love, so devoid of knowing that I was cherished, there was no way I would even think about loving someone else. After all, when you’re dying of thirst it’s impossible to want to give others a drink. And that’s when the Spirit’s work is so crucial. He tells me what I need to know: He tells me who I am because of what Jesus has done, the indicatives, and then that truth frees me to begin to even want to obey his commands, the imperatives.

This command to love is absolutely impossible to even begin to fulfill unless the Spirit reminds us what Jesus has already done for us. He declares the truth we need to hear: he loved perfectly; he loved his enemies; yes, he even loves us. But his love isn’t some abstract fact detached from our daily struggle to try to obey God’s commands. No, in fact, knowledge of his love is the only way for us to even begin to fulfill them. We will love because we know we are loved. We will seek to obey the imperatives out of hearts that have been assured of the indicatives.

Remember that it’s the Spirit’s job to “remind us what has been freely given to us” (1 Cor 2:12). As he reveals to us the “things God has prepared” for us (1 Cor 2:9), we will find ourselves becoming more and more free and able to love others. We have been freely given love. We can now love freely. Or as our Lord told his disciples, “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matt 10:8).

Growing in holiness

This is how the Holy Spirit makes us holy.

  • He uses God’s commands (the imperatives) to show us our need for help, for salvation.
  • Next, he shows us who Jesus is and all he’s done to save us by his love.
  • Finally, he reminds us who we are (the indicatives) because of the help, love, and salvation he’s brought. He gives us hope.

And so we rejoice in the “hope of the glory of God” because the Holy Spirit has poured out God’s love in our hearts (cf. Rom 5:2, 5), making us believe that we are his and that we can give ourselves away in a life of love.

It’s in that context that we are enabled to believe we already have everything we need. We’re not dying of thirst any longer. As Paul reminded the Corinthians, “everything is yours—whether … the world or life or death or things present or things to come—everything is yours, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (1 Cor 3:21–23). Think of that! Everything is already ours! All that we need has already been given to us!

We’re swimming in oceans of love so we can freely share what we have with others. We don’t have to fight for our rights or fight to get love. We are free from keeping score about who is getting ahead or who owes us.

Everything is ours. We belong to Christ. The Spirit will never tire of reminding us about that truth. Glorious indicative! The only response required of us then is to believe: to believe that our habits of selfishness, self-promotion, and self-protection are no longer necessary. We’ve been given “everything required for life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:3). The imperative, love your neighbor, is only possible because we have been loved.

We are forgiven

But this good news doesn’t end there. We are not only loved, we are also completely forgiven, forgiven for all the times we’ve failed. Remembering his “very great and precious promises” (2 Pet 1:4), remembering our “cleansing” from “past sins” (2 Pet 1:9), will enable us to grow in holiness, to walk in love for others.

Think of that! We are forgiven for all our lovelessness. For every time that we have struggled to love, for the moments when we didn’t even want to, forgiveness has been granted to us. That’s because, in his love, Jesus bore our lovelessness in his body on the cross (cf. 1 Pet 2:24). Jesus, the only one who ever perfectly and wholly loved others suffered and died for every time we’ve snubbed others, gossiped about them, lashed out in anger, or just ignored their need.

We are completely, utterly, fully forgiven. Think of that!

Belief in this complete forgiveness is integral to our growth in holiness. That’s because feeling guilty for our lack of love never eventuates in love for others. In fact, it works in just the opposite way. It depletes our desire and ability to love. Feeling guilty never engenders true love.

In reality, it frequently makes us resent or even hate the person we’ve mistreated. But when we know we’ve been forgiven for all our sin and have been loved even though we’re so undeserving, we will be motivated from the inside out to love our neighbor.

This forgiveness we’ve been given is the only power that can enable us to forgive others. Which is why the Spirit continually reminds us through the indicatives of Christ’s work. And it’s why the commands to forgive are always couched in the remembrance of our own forgiveness (cf. Matt 6:12, 14–15; Col 3:13). The imperative, you must forgive, is only possible because the Spirit reminds us you are forgiven.

You are counted righteous now

This good news just never ends. Not only are we beloved of God and forgiven for all our sin, we have also been given Christ’s perfect record. Jesus lived a full human life as a child, a teen, a young man working in his father’s carpentry shop, a single man providing for his mother and siblings. Every day of his life he was focused on pleasing his Father and loving all those around him. There was never even one hour of his life when he failed to live for the sake of others. He loved perfectly. And that immaculate record of love has been transferred to us!

We have been justified which means just as if we’d never sinned, just as if we’d always obeyed (cf. Isa 53:11; Rom 3:26, 4:2). We have been “declared righteous by faith” (Rom 5:1). The imperative, love your neighbor, is now possible because your record of love is perfect. You don’t have to strive to prove anything anymore.

It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to understand and believe these truths. And when I remember that I have been so loved by God, completely forgiven, and already have the record of always having loved my neighbor, then I begin to understand that I don’t need anything that my neighbor might give me, like respect. I can love the neighbors who fail to love me because I have already been perfectly loved and have everything I need. As I am more and more convinced of this truth, I will find within myself an actual desire to love. The apostle John put it this way: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

The ongoing work of the Spirit

Only the Holy Spirit, as he applies the grace of the gospel to our hearts, motivates true obedience. The imperatives are unable to. They can only produce in us pride (when we think we’re nailing it) or despair (as we recognize our failure).

The indicatives alone are the obedience-producing antidote to the death engendering commands (cf. 2 Cor 3:7). Only the declarations can motivate true obedience. Our inability and resistance to the imperatives are overcome by knowing that they no longer have any claim on us.

The commands no longer have any power to condemn us. We have been freed from their demands by the life and work of Jesus.

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” because you have been set “free from the law of sin and death.” God “condemned sin in the flesh by sending his own Son … in order that the law’s requirement would be fulfilled in us” (Rom 8:3–4). The imperatives were all fulfilled by Jesus. The indicatives about his perfection have been spoken over us.

We have been wholly loved, completely forgiven, counted righteous, and freed from the law’s ability to condemn us. We have been embraced by the God who really knows us—knows who we are, knows our struggles, knows the ways we have stepped on others and fought for ascendancy—and yet, says we are completely his.

As the Holy Spirit infuses us with this glorious good news, we’ll find within ourselves a desire to love, to forgive, to believe the best about others. We’ll find that the love that has been poured into our heart by the Spirit pushes us out, toward the unlovely, the needy, the lost, fulfilling Jesus’s command to “lay down our lives” in love.

Perfect love has been given to us. Therefore, let us seek to love perfectly, the way our Father has.

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  1. The perfect love that Jesus is requiring of his followers (τέλειος) can be translated “complete,” “perfect,” or “whole.”
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Written by
Elyse Fitzpatrick

Elyse holds a certificate in biblical counseling from CCEF (San Diego) and an M.A. in Biblical Counseling from Trinity Theological Seminary. She has authored 25+ books on daily living and the Christian life. Elyse loves to proclaim the good news of the gospel: That Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, perfectly obeyed all the Law in our place, suffered in isolation and agony as punishment for our sin, died, and then rose again, all for our justification.

A frequent speaker at national conferences, she has been married for nearly 50 years and has three adult children and six really adorable grandchildren. Along with her husband, Phil, Elyse attends Grace Bible Church in Escondido, California.

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Written by Elyse Fitzpatrick
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