If you search Google for “love God and do what you want” (or some variant thereof) you will instantly get a slew of pages telling you that this is a quote from St. Augustine of Hippo, an early church theologian and pillar of the Christian faith. Supposedly the whole quote goes like this:
Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.
I’m not sure Augustine actually said that last part. I’m always wary about internet quotations as these are often either erroneous or are falsely attributed to an individual. So I did a little digging to make sure Augustine really did say this. It turns out that he did more or less say the first bit about loving and doing what we please. It’s found in his Seventh Homily on 1 John 4:4-12 (#8) where he says,
Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what thou wilt: whether thou hold thy peace, through love hold thy peace; whether thou cry out, through love cry out; whether thou correct, through love correct; whether thou spare, through love do thou spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.
There is some debate about what exactly Augustine meant by this. Notice he doesn’t say “Love God,” but just “Love”; and he doesn’t say “and do whatever you please,” but “and do what you will.” In any case, since he is commenting on 1 John 4:8, it’s clear that the love God seeks from us is love that comes from God and would love God and others.
Now, I believe this little epigram has much truth to it. As Jesus said when summing up the Law, the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (Mt. 22:37). Love is a priority for Christians as it should characterize all we do. It is much too easy to get caught up in doing (obedience) before loving. But Jesus made it explicitly clear that love comes before obedience, even as obedience must necessarily follow from love (John 14:15, 21, 24):
If you love me, you will keep my commandments…whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me…whoever does not love me does not keep my words.
In one sense, Augustine is correct: if we truly love God and have been transformed by his unconditional and abundant love for us, then we will obey him through the filling of the Holy Spirit and live a life pleasing to God. Of course, this is a general description of the transformation of believers that manifests itself in both belief and behavior. It is not an absolute promise since we continue to live with and struggle with our sin nature.
But notice that Augustine did not say, “Because God loves you, you can do whatever you please: for love covers a multitude of sins,” or something similar. It’s not true that God’s love is a license to sin or confers a blessing upon whatever we do (see Rom. 5-6). Unfortunately, many people of my generation (millennials) have adopted this latter approach and attributed it as somehow being biblical. This is tragic. Yes, God loves us unconditionally, but that doesn’t mean he is indifferent toward what we believe and how we act (beliefs and behavior are inextricably linked since the former dictates the latter). Let us not be deceived into thinking that just because God loves us or because we have a gospel of grace and mercy, therefore our behavior doesn’t have to conform to a biblical ethic.
Ben is a graduate of Denver Seminary, having completed a double MA in New Testament Biblical Studies and Christian Apologetics and Ethics. He will be pursuing a PhD in Politics at the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College starting in fall 2019. He loves reading, drinking coffee, and hiking in the Colorado Rockies. His academic interests include biblical languages and exegesis, theology, philosophy, politics, and economics.