“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
- John 14:15 (ESV)
Two buddies went on a road trip to Florida. Someone told them that they would get there without any issue, as long as they paid very close attention to the road signs along the way.
After driving for a little while, they saw a sign saying, "Clean Restrooms Ahead."
A couple months later, they finally arrived in Florida. They were completely exhausted, and used up 90 bottles of Windex, 300 rolls of paper towels, and fourteen cases of toilet-bowl cleaner on 46 different restrooms.
Instead of reading the words as a description, they read them as a directive, and in so doing not only missed the point entirely; they set themselves up for exhaustion. The same can be true of our Bible reading, if we're not careful. Let me give you an example.
Read these two English translations of the same New Testament verse, the first from the English Standard Version (ESV) and the second from the New International Version (NIV).
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments." (ESV)
"If you love me, keep my commandments." (NIV)
In one sense, there isn't much difference, right? Only two little words: "you will."
Yet, in another sense, those two little words make a big difference. The latter is a directive, something we must do.
The former sounds more like a description. It is an indicative statement, describing something we will do.
So, which one is right? In John 14:15, is Jesus primarily directing or describing the behavior of those who truly love him?
Well, let's start by saying that Jesus repeatedly directs us to keep God's commandments. As one, albeit preeminent example, consider his so-called Great Commission:
18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[b] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Belief in salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone doesn't minimize the importance of our obedience, or make obedience unnecessary. God rightly commands and expects us to obey. In that way, there is nothing wrong, theologically speaking, with the NIV's translation. In fact, there are many significant linguistic arguments in its favor, based on the ancient textual evidence.
Even so, I think the ESV translation is bit better here, especially when viewed in context. I think it highlights that God's grace, far from minimizing or precluding, actually propels our obedience. Let's look at that context for a second.
In the preceding verses, Jesus first promises that, going to the Father, he will empower the disciples to do even greater works than he. Secondly, he promises that he will do anything they ask in his name (14:12-14). What an amazing promise, as well as an amazing provision! Note that there is no directive in these verses per se, only descriptions of God's future work through the disciples and his ongoing work for them.
Likewise, in the verses following, Jesus promises the future indwelling and empowering ministry of the Holy Spirit (14:16ff). Like those immediately preceding, these verses are not so much directives as they are descriptions. In them, Jesus describes what he will do for his followers, and what they will do as a result.
Why is this important? Well, out of context, it's easy to read John 14:15 as a simple directive, maybe even a guilt trip of sorts - Jesus pressuring people to prove their love for him by doing what he wants. That would misrepresent Jesus, and miss the beauty and point of this beautiful verse. Here, Jesus isn't simply directing what we should do; he's describing what we will do as a result of what he's done. He's not pressuring us to earn or prove our salvation. He's promising and describing the nature of our sanctification.
We are not saved by our good works, but we are saved unto good works. The Bible makes this exceedingly clear in Ephesians 2:8-10:
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
This is what Jesus promises in John 14:15, that the love that saves also and invariably sanctifies.
Child of God: Our obedience is not the condition of our acceptance; it is the consequence of our acceptance. Loved by God, we love him in return (1 John 4:19). As we grow in our love of God, we invariably and naturally grow to love what he loves more and more - something that we express in growing obedience. And so, if we would grow to loathe our sin, let us first grow in our love of Christ!
D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 498.
Gerald L. Borchert, John 12–21, vol. 25B, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2002), 121.
“Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”