The Mailbag: Did Jesus Really Teach Karen Ehman’s 3 Step Life Plan?


Have you read Karen Ehman’s new book? She takes Matthew 22:36-40 and says this:

Jesus asserts that the entire teaching of God-all the law and the prophets – hinge upon these commands which can be summed up in this 3 step life plan:
1. Love God
2. Love others
3. Love yourself

Is this a biblical way of looking at this passage?

It’s great that you’re being a good Berean and examining this teaching (as we should with all teaching) “to see if these things [are] so.”

I’ve never heard of Karen Ehman before and haven’t read any of her books. The quote above is a very brief excerpt and – in the same way we don’t rip Bible verses out of context and try to interpret them – I’m hesitant to try to extract deep meaning from it without a broader grasp of what she’s trying to teach (i.e. more context), so I’ll be limiting myself to the quote you’ve sent and not trying to speculate on her theology in general.

However, there are a few problems with the quote itself that could be as minor as sloppy wording that needs cleaning up or as major as false doctrine. Without more context I just can’t tell.

1. To say that “the entire teaching of God” equals “all the law and the prophets” isn’t too problematic if you’re a first century Jew, but it’s going to be confusing to the 21st century reader. At the moment in history when Jesus spoke this passage, all the law and the prophets was the entire written teaching of God. But remember, Jesus, at this point in Matthew, is nearing the end of His earthly ministry. He has been teaching for about three years, so that’s three years’ worth of God’s teaching that hasn’t been written down yet- the gospels.

And what was Jesus teaching during those three years- keep the commandments? No. He was introducing the new covenant: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15) If you’re going to use a phrase like “the entire teaching of God” for New Testament Christians, you really need to be talking about Christ and the gospel, which will include all of the New Testament as well as the Old. Jesus did not teach a three step life plan of commandment-keeping, He taught that all of the Old Testament points to, and is fulfilled in, Christ and the gospel.

2. As I mentioned, context is indispensible when it comes to understanding Scripture. I don’t know if this quote was lifted out of a chapter in which Karen is exegeting the entirety of Matthew 22 (in which case the quote wouldn’t be completely inaccurate) or if she is making her own point about Christians following this “three step life plan” and flying in verses 36-40 to try to support it. If it’s the latter, she has taken these verses out of context and incorrectly interpreted and applied them.

If you back up and read 21:45-22:46, looking particularly at 21:45, 22:15, 18, 23, 34-35, 41, 46, it’s easy to see that most of the things Jesus is saying here are in direct response to (or at least within earshot of) the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees, who are asking Him questions- not because they’re genuinely trying to learn and looking for a life plan to follow, but because they’re trying to trap Him and find some grounds for discrediting or arresting Him. If Karen had at least included verses 34-35 in her quote (and she may have addressed these verses outside of this quote, I just don’t know), this would have been much clearer.

Jesus is not saying – either to the Pharisees He was talking to then or to us now – “Here are the three guidelines by which I want you to live your life.” They’re asking Him a question on a point of Old Testament law and He’s answering them according to Old Testament law. They weren’t sincerely asking Jesus how He wanted them to live, and He knew that. And that’s probably the reason He answered briefly and didn’t continue teaching them. He knew they weren’t interested in believing in and following Him- they were out to get Him. Why give what is holy to dogs or cast His pearls before swine, right?

3. We need to understand that the commands Jesus refers to in this passage are just that: commands. Old Testament law. Christians are neither saved nor do we grow in Christ (sanctification) by striving to keep Old Testament law. Galatians 3 is very clear about this:

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

As Christians our singular focus is to love Christ. That’s the engine that pulls the train. Obedience to commands, growth in holiness, evangelism, fruit, faith, knowledge of God’s word, all of those things are the train cars that follow, and are propelled by, the engine. When we make obeying commands (especially Old Testament commands) our primary focus, we’ve got things backwards. The caboose is trying to pull the engine. Christians are led by the gospel, not Old Testament commands.

4. The most glaring problem with this quote, and one that no additional context can justify, is number 3: “Love yourself.” You will search long and hard, and you will not find a single verse of Scripture that tells us to love ourselves. This passage of Matthew doesn’t teach that, nor does any other book of the Bible.

Want to know why?

Because man’s entire problem – the essence of what separates us from God – is that we already love ourselves too much. And the solution to that problem is to stop loving ourselves, die to self, kick self off the throne, and love Jesus supremely instead.

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. 6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, 7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. 8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith.
2 Timothy 3:1-8

Lots of people look at “love your neighbor as yourself” and think it means, “You can’t love your neighbor unless you first know how to love yourself.” Uh uh. That’s not what that verse means, and it’s a very self-centered, rather than Christ-centered, way to read it. Jesus – who knows the hearts of men, who said that those hearts are wicked and deceitful – would never tell us we need to love ourselves more. His point was that we are by nature already so self-centered, self-focused, and selfish that we need to put self aside and love and prioritize others that much instead.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Philippians 2:3-4

And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
Luke 9:23

“Love yourself” is the antithesis of the gospel.


As I said, this is a very brief quote, and I haven’t read the book, so I’m hoping what Karen is saying here is just an innocent vocabulary fumble or that, perhaps, I’ve misunderstood her point due to lack of context.

However, once I finished writing my answer, I did a quick Google search in hopes of finding out more about Karen and gaining some insight as to where she’s coming from. Unfortunately, I found out that Karen works for Proverbs 31 Ministries as a speaker, “the Speaker Track Director of the Proverbs 31 She Speaks Conference and a teaching staff member of their writers’ training site COMPEL.”

As you may already know, Proverbs 31 is the ministry of Lysa TerKeurst who is a false teacher¹. Because Scripture tells us that we’re not to partner with false teachers, because partnering with a false teacher demonstrates a lack of discernment and either disobedience to, or a failure to understand, Scripture, and because of what, at best, seems to be a misunderstanding of Scripture in the quote cited here, I would recommend that you not follow or receive teaching from Karen Ehman.

¹If you are considering commenting or sending me an e-mail objecting to the fact that I warn against false teachers, please click here and read this article first. Your objection is most likely answered here. I won’t be publishing comments or answering emails that are answered by this article.

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