In response to my previous post What do you Think? Nick, concerned with the church’s apparent disregard for theology, asked the question “Why is the church starting to preach the love of God without his wrath?” Now, I think my response would have been slightly different several weeks ago. However, studying I John in my Greek class has given me a slightly different, and hopefully more insightful, perspective on this subject.
I think love often gets a bad rap, not because there is something inherently wrong with it, but because it is presented in such superficial and trite ways. However, the love of God is not superficial or trite; it is not a foolish infatuation. God, being both infinite and unchanging, possesses a love that is likewise both infinite and unchanging. God’s love knows no bounds; it never fades, and never changes over time. God’s love is constant, unlike the fickle affections of men.
Listen to the words of Paul; “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing (I Corinthians 13:1-4).”
And the words of Christ, “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.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these (Mark 12:29-31).”
“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.” . . . “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:32, 36).
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15).”
Clearly, love should have a prominent position in the lives of those who follow Christ and in the life of His church. To answer Nick’s question; the problem is not that they are preaching love absent of God’s wrath; the problem is that they are teaching neither.
It was love that provoked Paul’s spirit, in Acts 17, when he saw Athens filled with idols. It was love that cause Christ to have compassion on the crowds when He saw that they were like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36). God’s abounding love and mercy caused Him to give His only Son so that we might have eternal life. Honestly, I think God’s love, and the effect it has on your lives, should scare you. What drives the martyr to be burned at the stake in hopes that God’s kingdom might be advance through his faithful witness? What is it that drives the missionary to forsake everything and place his family in certain danger if not love? What could have driven Paul to wish himself accursed, and cut off from Christ, that his kinsmen might be redeemed, if not love? When you love Christ, His glory, His holiness, His justice, His mercy, His cross, His mission, and His people your life will look drastically different. This is clearly not the love being preached in most churches; this is a dangerous, a demanding love, and a self-sacrificing love.
If, as Paul says, apart from love we have nothing, are nothing, and gain nothing, then how does the church properly balance love and theology? First, love cannot be abstracted from theology. If theology is the study of God and one of God’s attributes is love, then our theology should drive our love. The Scriptures clearly state that God is love (I John 4:8) and when churches abandon sound doctrine, they are also forsaking their ability to love.
Secondly, throughout I John the Scriptures present a picture of the church as having three essential components, Truth, love, and obedience.
The church is relevant not because it has a popular message, a captivating speaker, or an innovative program; the church is relevant because it has the Truth, namely Christ. When the church ceases to proclaim the Truth, it becomes irrelevant and useless; such churches are merely pagan places of worship engaged in idolatry.
The churches fellowship and witness is proven genuine because of its love. We are not known as Christ’s disciples because of a title we bestow upon ourselves, but because of our love, the love of Christ in us. The Great Commission finds its fulfillment not merely in our proclamation of the Gospel of Christ, to the nations, but in our bearing out of the sufferings of Christ, to the nations. We literally share the fellowship of His sufferings (Philippians 3:10) and through this the world sees God’s longsuffering and abundant love.
All of this culminates in obedience, “4 Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked (I John 2:4-6).” You must not merely know the Truth; you must submit yourself to it (v.4). And by obeying the Truth, the love of God is perfected in you (v.5). That is how Christ’s disciples should live; in submission to the Truth, which perfects their love, so that their life mirrors the life of Christ.