1 John 5:3—“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”
In a recent post, Tullian Tchividjian addressed this verse, due to its seeming contradiction to other statements in Scripture which make it apparent that the Law is indeed burdensome (Acts 15:2, Gal. 3:10, James 2:10, Deut. 27:26). How can it be said that the Law is not burdensome when the Law requires perfect obedience, which no one can render? Tchividjian gave the following answer:
"The answer, though incredibly profound, is actually quite simple. Though the commandments are indeed burdensome, that burden has been laid on the shoulders of another. Jesus Christ, who demands that we be perfect, achieves perfection in our place. Jesus Christ, the culmination of the Old Testament story, fulfills the Old Testament laws. That same weight that threatens to break our backs actually did crush our savior. The weights that we bear every day are simply aftershocks of our human attempts to save ourselves. The weights we feel are a phantom; they’ve already been taken to the cross, carried up the Via Dolorosa on Christ’s back. We are free. We are, in Christ, unburdened."
According to Tchividjian, the commandments of God are not burdensome because Jesus bore their punishment on himself. On the Meet the Puritans blog, Danny Hyde responded to Tchividjian’s post, arguing that this though the theology in Tullian’s argument is valid, it is misapplied to this text. Hyde writes:
The right doctrine—Christ’s vicarious obedience and suffering justifies us from the burdensome curse of the law.
The wrong text—the newborn child of God’s has a newfound joy in sanctification.
Hyde purports that the text does not speak about Jesus’s fulfillment of the Law, or about his vicarious atonement, but about the joy and delight believers have in God’s commandments. He then cites Calvin who says regarding this text:
"the law is said to be easy, as far as we are endued with heavenly power, and overcome the lusts of the flesh. For however the flesh may resist, yet the faithful find that there is no real enjoyment except in following God. It must further be observed, that John does not speak of the law only, which contains nothing but commands, but connects with it the paternal indulgence of God, by which the rigor of the law is mitigated. As, then, we know that we are graciously forgiven by the Lord, when our works do not come up to the law, this renders us far more prompt to obey, according to what we find in Psalm 130:4, “With thee is propitiation, that thou mayest be feared."
Hyde then writes that Tchividjian completely misunderstands the text, and that his interpretation would render the text:
"Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and since Jesus loves the Father he loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that Jesus love[s] the children of God,when because we he love[d] God and obey[ed] his commandments. For this is the love of God, that he kept his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome to us because Jesus took their burden."
Hyde’s argument fails on a couple levels. First, he falsely argues that obedience to the Law does indeed become easy for the believer apart from the reality of Christ’s fulfillment of it. While it is indeed true that the Christian is being renewed day by day (2 Cor. 4:16), and that the Law begins to be fulfilled in us through love (Rom. 8:4), the Law continues to accuse the Christian (Rom. 7:14-25). If the Law requires perfect obedience, and the Christian remains a sinner, then the Law itself never becomes easy for the Christian to obey. Both the non-Christian and the Christian are unable to perfectly fulfill the Law of God. Only Christ has obeyed God perfectly. To argue otherwise is to pit this text against other Scriptural realities.
The second problem is that while Hyde contends that there is no basis contextually to assume that the atonement and righteousness of Christ are in the background here, John begins his entire argument with precisely this in mind. Before John gets into his argument about the necessity of the love of God, the love of neighbor, and right doctrine, he states: “If we say we have no sin (present tense), we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (John 1:8-9). Before expounding upon God’s commandments for the Christian, John makes it abundantly clear that perfectionism is an impossibility, and that continual forgiveness is an essential aspect of the Christian life. This forgiveness then is in the background of the rest of John’s argument. John does not have to explicitly state “Jesus fulfilled the Law perfectly on your behalf,” for that to be a reality which stands behind this text. It is the work of Christ which is the basis for the forgiveness propounded by John which serves as an important introduction to the rest of his argument.
To further expound upon this text, let us look at the rest of the context, which explains exactly what John is referring to here:
"Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?" (1 John 5:1-5)
John does argue that the Christian will love God and will begin to obey his commandments. The commandments, in context, consist in the love of God and “overcoming the world.” What is important to note is that John then points believers back to their faith. God’s commandments are not burdensome—why? Because we have overcome the world. How have we overcome the world? Faith. Believing the Jesus Christ is the Son of God. The commandments of God are not burdensome because we have faith in the Gospel. And what exactly is that Gospel that we have faith in? The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. Faith means that the commandments are not burdensome precisely because Jesus has satisfied God’s judgment upon the human race. Through faith, one is forgiven. If one is then forgiven, the Law no longer becomes a burden. The commandments are not burdensome, because the penalty has been paid and our failures and shortcomings are forgiven. We now can follow God’s commandments without any fear of condemnation. It is only because our imperfections and sins are covered by the blood of Christ that the Law then becomes the joy of the Christian.
Ultimately, the picture of obedience that this text paints is not one of continual beating of the flesh, constant struggle, rigorous discipline, etc. but of joyful obedience through faith in the Gospel. This really fits much better with Luther’s view of good works, wherein the believer joyfully serves one’s neighbor without fear of condemnation, than that of the Puritanical tradition with the like of John Owen and Jonathan Edwards. Having spent time under the preaching and teaching of those in the Puritan tradition, I can say with confidence that such preaching makes the commandments far more burdensome than John contends in this passage.