The Whole in Our Holiness


Editor’s note: This has been adapted from Ligon Duncan’s message at last week’s Together for the Gospel conference.

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The relationship between the law and grace is one of the perennial theological challenges facing the church. Even in our Bible-believing, gospel-preaching circles some preachers still unhelpfully confuse the relationship between the gospel and obedience. Of course, these topics aren’t easy, particularly in our post-Christian context. As Christian Smith has demonstrated, the religious convictions of many church attendees has little to do with the gospel and is instead little more than “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” Helping Christians work through issues surrounding law and gospel while also countering those presuppositions is enormously challenging.

On one hand, some preachers intimate that the law is a bad thing. Some have even asserted that preaching peppered with imperatives and commands misunderstands the grace of the gospel. Consequently, many people are confused about terms like legalism and antinomianism. We mistakenly assume that antinomians overvalue grace while legalists overvalue the law. But in reality, both Jesus and Paul condemn antinomians for failing to understand grace—and legalists for failing to understand the law.

Ultimately, neither understands the character of God as our loving and gracious heavenly Father.


As we consider what Scripture teaches about law, grace, and being distinct from the world, we need to root our understanding in a biblical theology of bearing God’s image. In fact, the first mentions of God’s law and blessing emerge, not after the fall, but in the creation narrative itself.

27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

According to Genesis 1–2, Adam and Eve were created to find supreme enjoyment in God and to image him in this world. We should notice two important points. First, the very first words God spoke to humanity were a blessing (“God blessed them”). Second, that blessing came in the form of a command (“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”). In the creation covenant, the blessing of God is a command, and the command itself is a blessing.

Often, Christians assume that obedience conditions God’s blessing: “If I obey, God will bless me.” This logic is not in Genesis 1. Obedience does not condition God’s love, but is the sphere in which we enjoy God’s love. Adam and Eve enjoy God by being fruitful, multiplying, and ruling over creation. They experience God’s blessing by being who God created them to be. Adam and Eve were made to find true freedom, fulfillment, and joy as they rightly imaged the Creator.

In Genesis 3, the Serpent attacks this idea. He challenges the truth that Adam and Eve experience God’s love as they image him in creation. In Genesis 3:5, the Serpent tempts Eve: “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Adam and Eve should have recognized the Serpent’s lie. They were already like God, made in his image and likeness. Adam should have rebutted, “Serpent, what do you mean we will be more like God if we disobey? We are already like him, made in his very image!” But Adam and Eve took and ate. In disobeying, Adam and Eve did not become more like God, but less like him. The image of God, while not lost, was marred (cf. Gen 9:6; Ps 8).

As a result, one of the primary effects of the Fall was the disintegration of our person. Our wholeness was corrupted. Our thinking, our willing, our desires, and our actions became corrupt. Our works and our words became inconsistent with our desires. We were no longer whole.

And yet, God in his grace intervened to reclaim humanity and restore the blessing of image-bearing. The promises of the Abrahamic covenant are the first major step in that enterprise. Genesis 17 restates that covenant: “I am God Almighty, walk before me and be blameless” (Gen 17:1). The word “blameless” could also be translated “whole.” At this point in this story, Abraham has hardly been “whole” in his dealing with God and others. Though Abraham believed God’s promise (Gen 15:6), he tried to produce the child of promise by his own ingenuity (Gen 17). He didn’t live in accordance with that faith.

In other words, Abraham lacked wholeness. We find this same reality in our churches. Week after week, pastors encourage their members to unite their faith to their actions, living as whole people trusting in the promises of God.

Moving forward along the storyline of Scripture, the Ten Commandments didn’t suddenly change God’s relationship with his people, as if he now rooted his love in the nation’s obedience and not on his own promise. Instead, the Ten Commandments themselves are a gracious gift, rooted in God’s saving acts. The Lord emphasizes this point just prior to giving the law in Exodus 19:4–6:

4 “‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”

God doesn’t bring Israel out of Egypt because they obeyed him but to obey him. He repeats the same logic in the preface to the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, you shall have no other gods before me” (Exo 20:2). The law is a means of grace only when you have already received redeeming grace. The law isn’t the Christian’s enemy, but his friend.

This same theology is restated in Leviticus 19. In this chapter, Moses elaborates on each of the Ten Commandments in four spheres: personal obedience, familial obedience, congregational obedience, and social obedience. Moses applies the commandments to these spheres of life to make it clear that God wants us to be whole in how we obey his law. He wants us to image him in our private lives as well as our public lives through our families, our churches, and our societies.

The Lord himself emphasizes that obedience images him rightly at the beginning of the chapter: “be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:1–2). The logic of this short statement is clear. One reason we obey God’s commands is so that we can be what we were created to be, image bearers of God.

The Lord continues:

Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and you shall keep my Sabbaths: I am the Lord your God. Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves any gods of cast metal: I am the Lord your God.

“When you offer a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord, you shall offer it so that you may be accepted. It shall be eaten the same day you offer it or on the day after, and anything left over until the third day shall be burned up with fire. If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is tainted; it will not be accepted, and everyone who eats it shall bear his iniquity, because he has profaned what is holy to the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from his people. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.” (Lev 19:3–10).

God is telling Israel that they must manifest to the world that they belong to Yahweh and image him by honoring their parents, keeping the Sabbath, caring for the poor, and worshipping the one true God In other words, Israel’s holiness was manifested by observable obedience to the two tables of the law. Obeying the law was how Israel imaged God.

11 “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. 12 You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. 13 “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. 14 You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord.17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Lev 19:11–18)

This text is the only one in the Old Testament that commands Israel to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The context of the passage clearly explains what that means. Israel must image God and love their neighbor by refraining from theft, lies, oppression, mistreatment of the handicapped, legal injustice, partiality, slander, harm, hatred, and vengeance. These commands dictate our whole persons—individual, familial, congregational, and social. In other words, neighbor love is not a vacuous, airy notion defying definition. Instead, Moses clearly shows we cannot love our neighbor and slander their reputation. We cannot love our neighbor, while showing partiality against them. We cannot love our neighbor and defraud them. Loving our neighbor is how we express the image of God. When we love our neighbor as God prescribes we proclaim to the world, “God is like this.”

The command “love your neighbor as yourself” is alluded to or quoted up to a dozen times in the New Testament. Jesus, in particular, employs this verse to attack the legalism of the religious leaders of Israel.

One of the most notable instances of Jesus’ use of this verse is in his conversation with the rich young ruler in Matthew 19. In this passage, Jesus exposes the rich young ruler’s self-righteousness. He thought he we keeping the commandments. But in reality, the rich young ruler was failing to love his neighbor by valuing his personal possessions and wealth more than his neighbor’s good.

A similar story occurs in Luke 10, where a lawyer asked Jesus: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:25).

25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

As the following context makes clear, Jesus isn’t teaching justification by works. He’s exposing the self-righteousness of the lawyer. In fact, the lawyer’s response demonstrates just how well Jesus has exposed his heart. As Luke records, the lawyer, “wishing to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”

This question reveals a great deal about the lawyer in particular and about legalists in general. While legalists are fastidious about keeping the law, they’re also always looking for loopholes to avoid Scripture’s intrusion into their life (cf. Mark 7:1–13). In response to the lawyer’s evasive and self-justifying question, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan.

30 Jesus replied and said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. 31 And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, 34 and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’ 36 Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” 37 And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.” (Luke 10: 30–37, NASB)

The priest and the Levite are afraid to become ceremonially unclean by treating the beaten man. To keep the ceremonial law, they disobey the moral law—“love your neighbor.” As Martin Luther King famously said, the Levite and the priest were concerned about themselves, asking the question, “What will happen to me if I help this man?” The Good Samaritan, however, was concerned about his relationship with God, asking “What will happen to me if I don’t help this man?”

At the end of the parable, Jesus turns the question “who is my neighbor?” back on the lawyer, but with a slight twist. Jesus instead asks “which of these [men] . . . proved to be a neighbor?” The lawyer was looking for loopholes, trying to limit the application of Leviticus 19 in his life. But Jesus exposes the self-justification of his original question by re-enforcing the law of love. The question is not “who is my neighbor?” but whether or not we choose to be a neighbor. Fundamentally, the lawyer isn’t whole. He’s trying to look pious on the outside, while he lacks true devotion to God in his heart. Jesus, however, was always whole and his heart beat with tenderness and care for others.

As B. B. Warfield noted in his essay, “The Emotional Life of our Lord,” when the evangelists discuss the emotional contours of Jesus’ life, they primarily highlight his compassion. Will the same be said of us? Those who observe us will likely note our love for pure doctrine, our passion for the doctrines of grace, and our commitment to our confessional heritage. But will we also be known for compassion? Will we be known by love for our neighbor? If we’re anything like Jesus, we must be known for our compassion and our unwillingness to limit the law of love in our lives.


Finally, consider two applications. First, Racial tensions in our churches and our nation would be in a significantly better state if the Reformed community in America in the 19th and 20th centuries had rightly applied the second great commandment. But tragically, the Reformed community—my community, our community—devised ways to delimit the second great commandment. On the other hand, our British brothers and sisters condemn our blindness. Charles Spurgeon refused to commune with slaveholders. The Scottish Presbyterians refused to tolerate slave-holding or racist theology. Moreover, our Reformed community would have recognized its serious errors if it had simply listened to the voices of brave and brilliant Reformed African American theologians like Francis Grimke.

And yet, in America, Baptists and Presbyterians decided that slavery was too divisive an issue and therefore shouldn’t be addressed in the church—for the sake of “unity.” For the sake of preserving the “Spirituality of the Church,” matters of “politics” and “social life” were ignored. In reality, however, these church leaders and pastors were evading the second great commandment. Their logic was like the lawyer’s: “Let’s not divide the church over this. After all, who is my neighbor?”

Regrettably, this theological legacy lived on. Brothers, if you get antsy when you hear preachers applying the second great commandment to the issue of race in the church and in America then these theologians have taught you well. In my shame, I admit they taught me well—and it’s taken more than three decades for God to break through the blindness of my own heart on this issue.

This isn’t about some social gospel. Of all the things that may concern you, don’t be concerned that Ligon Duncan grooves with cultural Marxism. Racial reconciliation in the church is fundamentally about the dadgum second great commandment.

Second, the world is arguing that we cannot genuinely love our LGBT neighbors without affirming their sexuality. But this logic is the same as the Serpent’s, asserting we must reject God’s Word in order to be more like God himself. Since God is welcoming and affirming, then we must do the same if we are going to be like him.

This lie is the same one spoken by the serpent in the garden—and unlike Adam, we must respond with truth. If we want to image God we must tenaciously cling to his truth while doubling down on gentleness, compassion, and the second great commandment. We must love our neighbors without denying God’s Word, disobeying God’s Word, or changing God’s Word.


Loving our neighbor is hard. In fact, we can’t do it. If the gospel were “love your neighbor and live” it would be profoundly bad news. None of us loves our neighbor purely or perfectly. None of us loves our neighbor in the way Jesus taught in John 15: “Greater love has no man than that he lay down his life for his friends.”

But the good news of the gospel is that we have a neighbor who loved us and laid down his life for us. And this neighbor didn’t lay down his life for his friends, but for his enemies. We can enjoy God’s blessing and know his grace because our Savior obeyed the first and second great commandments for us. This good news releases us from condemnation and sets us free to love our neighbor as ourselves.

This truth is gloriously manifested every Lord’s Day around the communion table. As we gather in Jesus’ name, we hear Jesus say the words “take and eat.” It’s as if Jesus, recalling the words from Genesis 3 about Eve “taking and eating” of the serpent’s fruit, says, “watch this, Satan!” Then he repeats the words by offering himself as a sacrifice: “take and eat. This is my body, given for you.” What were once words leading to condemnation are now, on the lips of Jesus, words of salvation. This is what enables us to love our neighbor. We’ve been set free from the bondage of sin to finally be who God made us to be. In Christ, we now image God again by loving him and our neighbors as ourselves. Brothers, let no one say that anyone can outdo us in love.

Ligon Duncan

Ligon Duncan is the chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary. You can find him on Twitter at @LigonDuncan.

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