[Here we continue our series that has the goal of increasing our love for God and the things of God, while decreasing our love for the world and the things of the world. This article resumes a multi-part study by Samuel Annesley, in which he examines, in detail, the greatest commandment. ]—Ed.

How May We Attain to Love God

by Samuel Annesley (1620 –1696)

"Jesus said unto him, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment’" (Matt. 22:37–38, AV).

It is Our Indispensable Duty Thus to Love God

II. The second thing I undertake is, demonstratively to prove, that it is our indispensable duty thus to love God.—To love God is our great natural duty. Man would more naturally love God than himself, were it not for sin. Neither angels nor men were at first commanded to love God; nature wanted no spur to this duty. The law of love was implanted in nature. "Thou hast made me, O Lord," saith Augustine, "and my heart is unquiet till it come to thee."

I shall at present urge no other demonstration than Christ’s reason in the following verse: "This is the first and the great commandment."— Not that any command of God is small. The commands in scripture are like the stars in the firmament, which, though to ignorant persons they are but like twinkling candles, yet are greater than the whole earth. So those commands that careless persons overlook as inconsiderable are such as without respect unto them there is no salvation. I grant there is a difference in the commands. For example: the command about "paring the nails" is of lesser moment than that of having "no other God" (Deut. 21:12; and Deut. 5:7); nay, in the same kind Christ threatens the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy, that they were so exact in titheing their gardens, and so remiss in looking to their hearts (see Matt. 23:23). But among the commands and the diversity of them, Christ tells us this is the greatest. The Jews (some of them) counted the command about sacrifice to be the greatest, as is hinted in the scribe’s saying that this command of loving God is "more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices" (Mark 12:33). Others counted that of circumcision to be the greatest; others, that of the Sabbath. Origen observes: "It is well that Christ decides the controversy; though the truth is, he that willingly breaks the least commandment will not stick to break the greatest." Upon a manifold account, is "the great command", such as:

1. Ratione objecti, "In respect of the object."—It is God, the Chiefest Being, the First and Chiefest Good: "What am I, Lord," saith Augustine, "that thou commandest me to love Thee, and threatenest me with misery if I do not love Thee?" This is no small aggravation of the devil’s torments,that he cannot love God. God may require many things of us, but nothing compares to the requirement of our love, because this is the only thing wherein we can answer God. In other things we cannot, or we may not, render God like for like. God created us, and gave us our being; but we can do nothing like this for God. God preserves us in safety, and daily confers innumerable benefits upon us; God delivers from innumerable dangers both of soul and body. There is none of all this to be done for God. God is infinitely above all such returns. And there are other things wherein we may not render God like for like. If God be angry with us, we may not be angry with him; if He reprove us, we must not quarrel with him; if God judge us, we must not censure him. But now God loves us, and through grace we are able to love Him again; and He loves us, and God commands us to love Him again. It is true, there is no equality between God’s loving of us, and our loving of God. God’s love does infinitely overcome ours. But yet our love to God speaks interest and union; the thing loved gives the name to the love. Love is but an indifferent passion, till it be united to the thing loved, and then it gets a denomination. For example: If the object be earthly, it is an earthly love; if sensual, it is a brutish love; if it be man, it is a human love; if God, it is a divine love: so that by our love we are changed and transformed into a thing more noble, or more vile. We therefore debase ourselves in loving anything but God: there is nothing else worthy of our love. Whatsoever we love, we give it a kind of dominion over us, so that the will loseth its dignity and excellency when it loves inferior things. We are, as it were, married to that we love. "Suppose," saith Raymundus, "a poor man, of mean stock and no reputation, have six daughters: they are all equal by birth as to reputation and esteem, but they are all differenced by their marriage. The eldest marries a farmer, the next a citizen, the third a knight, the fourth a duke, the fifth a king, the sixth an emperor: by these marriages there is a very great inequality. So here, by the object of your love you are dignified or debased." But there is more yet in God’s being the object of our love: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God"; thy God, and therefore thou must love Him.

Give me leave to enlarge a little on this, and I will be the briefer in the other considerations, How this is the great command: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God." Those things that are ours, though they are not always lovely, yet we love them; our own children, whether of our bodies or our minds, our own estates. We are more troubled at the loss of anything wherein our own property is concerned, than in all the world besides. A small thing of our own is a thousand times more to us than a thousand times as much of another’s. We are more concerned for the cutting off our own finger, than the cutting off another man’s head. Proprietorship doth exceedingly heighten love. But then, when there is a speciality upon the propriety, that it is impossible to have the want repaired: for example, "my child, and mine only child." Whatever you say of God, you may put an only to it. God so loves every gracious soul, as if He had no other person to bestow His love upon; therefore thou must so love God, as if there were nothing else in the world to bestow thy love upon. Alas! what is yours today, as to outward things, may be none of yours tomorrow. You cannot say so of God: God once yours, and forever yours.

But perhaps you will say, "Were God mine, you should need to say no more to inflame my heart to love Him. Propriety in God: could I attain this, I had enough. This is it I wait for, I pray for. I think nothing too much for it. I only fear I shall never attain it. The very comforts of my life are embittered for want of it." To this I answer: We cannot shake off God’s sovereignty over us, nor propriety in us. This you will grant. God is, and will be, thy God, thy Lord, thy Sovereign, thy Commander, let thy carriage be what it will. The vilest wretches in the world cannot sin themselves from under God’s dominion. "But there is no comfort in this." Well, then, I will therefore add: Thou that mournest after propriety in God, God is thy God; thy gracious God, and Father; thy God in covenant; thy God in mercy and loving-kindness. Dost thou unfeignedly desire to love God? Then thou mayest be sure God loves thee; for God loves first (see I John 4:l9). Dost thou not out of choice prefer the service of God before all other service? Then you shall abide in the love of God (see John 15:10). Brethren, love God as if He were peculiarly yours, and you will thereby have an evidence that He is peculiarly yours. It is reported of one that he continued a whole night in prayer, and said nothing but this: "My God, and my all," or, "God is mine, and all is mine", repeating this a thousand times over. Let this be the constant breathing of thy soul to God: "My God, my all."

2. This is the "first and great command," ratione ordinis et dignitatis, "in respect of order and dignity."—This is the great command, because we must place this before all others in the very yolk of the heart, as the only foundation of piety. Whatsoever is taught in the law and in the prophets flows from this as from a fountain, grows upon this as upon a root. If I forget not, this is somewhere Augustine’s metaphor: "This is to the other commands as the needle to the thread: it draws all after it."

3. This is the "first and great command," ratione debiti, "in respect of obligation."—To love God is so indispensable, that, let me with reverence say, God cannot dispense with it. As God first bestows His love upon us before any other gift, and then, whatever He gives afterwards, He gives it in love; so God requires that we first give Him our hearts, our love, and then do all we do out of love to God. Sometimes God will have mercy, and not sacrifice: divine duties shall give place to human. Nay, sometimes duties to God must give way to duties to a beast (see Luke 14:5). But, however duties to God and men may be jostled to and fro, yet there is not any duty can warrant the intermitting of any love to God so much as one moment.

4. This is the "first and great command," ratione materiae, "in respect of the matter of it."—Love to God is the most excellent of all graces (see I Cor. 13:13). Love among the graces is like the sun among the stars, which not only enlightens the lower world, but communicates light to all the stars in the firmament: so love to God does not only its own office, but the offices of all other graces. The apostle names four graces that are necessary to government, which love doth all their offices:—for example: "Beareth all things", that is, love parteth with something of its right, beareth the weaknesses of friends to preserve concord: "Believeth all things", that is, candidly makes the best interpretation of all things, is not distrustful or suspicious upon light and frivolous occasions; "Hopeth all things", that is, gently waits for the amendment of that which is faulty; "Endureth all things", that is, patiently bears injuries, etc. (see I Cor. 13:7). If you take exception to this, saying, "This is spoken of love to men," I readily answer, that surely love to God, for whose image in men, and command concerning men, we love them, will do greater things.

5. This is "the first and great command," ratione amplitudinis, "in respect of the largeness of it."—This requires the whole man, the whole heart, the whole soul, the whole mind, the whole strength. Whatever else we entertain, some other room may be good enough for it: let the heart be kept for God’s peculiar presence-chamber. God requires the whole soul: all the inferior powers of the soul, our whole life, must be spent in the love of God. This command reaches the whole mind; God expects that we should in judgment reason down everything into contempt that should pretend a loveliness to jostle out God.

6. This is the "first and great command," ratione capacitatis, "in respect of its capacity," because it contains all commands.—No man can love his neighbour, unless he love God; and no man can love God, but he must observe all His commandments. Origen makes the inquiry of how the commands about legal purification may be reduced to the love of God. Every command of God hath its peculiar obligation, but this law of love hath a super-engagement over them all. For instance: men may accept and commend several duties to them that have not one drop of love in them. For example: if I give bread to one that is ready to famish, or physic to one that is dangerously sick, these things do good according to their own natures, and not according to the good-will of the giver. Alas! man needs relief, and catcheth at it, and never examines the heart, or end, whence it comes. But now God is infinitely above needing anything from us. It is His gracious condescension to receive anything from us, and therefore God never accepts of anything we do but what is done out of love to Him.

7. This is the "first and great command," ratione difficultatis, "in respect of the difficulties" of it, because through our infirmities (not to mention worse) we cannot presently love God.—The prime difficulty is the spirituality of it. This "wisdom is too high for foolish sinners" (Prov. 24:7). Though it is most rational, yet it is the most spiritual, and consequently, the most difficult part of religion. Some commands may be observed without special grace, as all the outside of religion. Yea, some commands may be observed without so much as common grace; as duties merely moral. But this must have a great measure of the Spirit. It speaks much acquaintance with God through experience of His ways, and much conformity to Christ in a well-composed conversation. In short, it includes the highest perfection possibly attainable in this life. Yet let not this difficulty fright you; for through Christ, our sincere love, though weak, is accepted, and our imperfect love, because growing, shall not be despised.

8. This is the "first and great command," ratione finis, "in respect of the end."—All the commands of God are referred to this as their end and last scope, which was first in the mind of the Lawgiver.

9. This is the "first and great command," ratione perpetuitatis, "in respect of the lastingness" of it.—"Thou shalt love the Lord thy God": it is not only spoken after the Hebrew way of commanding, but it notes singular perseverance. Most of the other commands expire with the world, as all or most of the commands of the second table, but this remains and flourishes more than ever. When repentance and mortification, which now take up half our life; when faith, which is now, as it were, mother and nurse to most of our graces; when hope, which now upholds weak faith in its languors; when all these shall, as it were, die in travail, perfection of grace being then in the birth; love to God shall then be more lively than ever. That love which, as it were, passed between God and the soul in letters and tokens, shall then be perfected in a full enjoyment. Our love was divided among several objects that cut the banks and weakened the stream; henceforth it shall have but one current. Our love is now mixed with fear, fear of missing or losing what we love; but that fear shall be banished. There shall never be any distance, never anything to provoke jealousy, never anything to procure cloying, never anything more to be desired than is actually enjoyed. Is not this, then, the "first and great commandment"? Is it not our privilege and happiness to be swallowed up in it?

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