When one of the religious scribes asked Jesus which commandment is most important, He answered: “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:28–30). Christ essentially quoted Deuteronomy 6:4–5, thus showing that the requirement for God’s people has always been the same, and, indeed, always will be the same, even into eternity. What, then, does it mean to love God with all of one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength?
He who answered the scribe’s question also happened to be the One who, unlike any other person since the fall, knows what it is to love God perfectly with all of His being. Jesus had one duty on earth: to love His Father. He did not merely avoid sinning while on earth, but by recognizing the Father’s presence with Him, affirmed that He “always” did what was pleasing to God (John 8:29). In fact, Jesus kept God’s commandments in order to abide in His Father’s love (John 15:10), for if He had shrunk back even once, His Father would have had no pleasure in Him (Heb. 10:38). Just as Christ said to His disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15), the Father could have said the same to Christ. Jesus kept His Father’s commandments because He loved Him. The Shema was Christ’s great confession. His heart, soul, mind, and strength were in perfect unison as He loved His Father with a perfection that should humble us to the very core of our beings.
HEART, SOUL, MIND, AND STRENGTH
The Scriptures are clear that the heart is central in loving God; we are to “keep [our] heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23). Those who are good are those who have good stored up in their hearts (Luke 6:45). Purity of heart is required for those who love God and wish to worship Him (Ps. 24:4). Indeed, only those with pure hearts will see God (Matt. 5:8), whether in this life by faith or in the life to come by sight (1 John 3:2–3).
We are not only to love God with all our heart, but also with all our soul (synonymous with “spirit”). In our devotion to God, our soul is responsible for our highest spiritual exercises; it is the seat of our emotional activity. Christ’s obedience was nowhere more tested than in the garden of Gethsemane, where His soul was “very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). The soul expresses the sorrow and joy that inevitably accompany the life of faith (Ps. 42; 32:2). Thus, without wishing to press the distinction too far, it would seem that the “heart” relates to the will and the “soul” to the emotions.
To love God with our whole mind involves the seat of our intellectual life. However, to love God with our mind is also to love Him with the right dispositions and attitudes, those that place our intellect in strict subordination to God’s revelation of Himself, not only by thinking about Him, but by submitting our thinking to His revelation. Because of our finiteness, we will never get to a point where we have no need of learning more about God. We read in Isaiah 50:4 that God had given the “servant” (that is, Jesus) “the tongue of those who are taught,” and that “morning by morning” the servant was awakened by God to be taught. Christ’s love for God meant He applied not only His heart and soul, but also His mind. If it was necessary for Jesus to be taught so that He could love God with His mind, how much more is it necessary for His people?
To love God with all our “strength” brings together all the various elements that have been discussed so far. Our heart, soul, and mind are distinguished in the words of Christ, but they should not be thought of as three distinct and separable pieces of our natures. Just as God’s attributes cannot be divided, so these elements of our being cannot be divided. In other words, just as God’s power is His love is His wisdom is His eternality is His knowledge, and so on, our “heart” is our “soul” is our “mind” is our “strength.” To love God with all of our strength, then, is to love God with all our being, which involves the whole man, both body and soul. That explains why the word all is repeated four times by Christ (Mark 12:30). Moreover, all four commandments are prefaced by the Greek preposition ex, thus highlighting that we love God not only with our whole heart but from our whole heart.
POSSIBLE OR IMPOSSIBLE?
Certainly no one disputes that Christ loves His Father with all of His heart, soul, mind, and strength. But not all Christians are persuaded that they can approach such love. However, as Augustine famously prayed, “God give what You command and command whatever You will.” By the Holy Spirit, Christians can, in a real sense, love God. Psalm 119:34 says, “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.” Keeping the law with the “whole heart” may be understood legally or evangelically. Legally, only Christ loved God with His whole heart because the law requires perfect conformity, of which we are incapable. Nonetheless, in an “evangelical” sense (to quote the Puritans), God, out of His love and mercy in Christ, enables us to love Him truly but imperfectly. Evangelically, our love for God is always flawed and incomplete, and we must be ever repenting of our failure to love Him fully. Still, we have love for God, while unregenerate hearts know nothing of it. If our love for God arises from a heart regenerated by His Spirit, we may be said to love God with our “whole heart,” though such love remains imperfect until our glorification.
This should be a great source of encouragement to us. Why? Because our hope is in Jesus, who fulfilled this command perfectly in our place so that we do not have to stand before God with only an imperfect love as our hope for entering heaven. Second, because of our union with Jesus, what is true of Him becomes true of us. God enables us to obey this command and love Him, albeit imperfectly, with all that we are so that God is delighted in the love He receives from His people. After all, an intense desire to love God with all of our being is the only proper response to the One who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all (Rom. 8:32).