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How would you define love? If you listen to our society and the entertainment industry, you would find a lot of answers. Love is this, love is that. Love is in the air; it is everywhere. Love is all and in all. It is to all, and for all. Love is love. Love is god. Love is everything in between. And even though you cannot pin down a definition, if you threaten the idea of love in any way, it appears that you will incur the “just” condemnation that is your due.
Now, I don’t think the world is all that keen to redeﬁne love. I think it has more to do with an attempt to keep anyone at all from deﬁning it. We would rather be a certain way or do a certain thing, and call it ‘love’ after the fact. We want this to be the pattern because we want to keep ourselves as the centrepiece of all life, even—and especially—when it comes to love. We think this way because we are inclined to believe that love is one of those things we can work out ourselves. We do not want to be told how to love. Even in our churches.
Except, that is just the script the Bible ﬂips. It gets to the heart of the matter: deﬁnitions. Love is not god, it says. God is love (1 John 4:8). Love does not deﬁne God; rather, it derives its deﬁnition from God. It is a personal quality of God—Father, Son, and Spirit. This is a textbook role reversal. A plot twist. God, who is light (1 John 1:5), is also love. In other words, it is when we are drawn into the true knowledge of God, we get to enjoy the perfect love that exists in the Godhead. So, really, the only folks who can get their heads around love are the ones who have tasted it as from God.
The apex of the display of this quality of God is the cross of Jesus Christ. “No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Consider also Ephesians 5:25-27, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word. He did this to present the church to Himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless” (italics added).
We see, here, that God’s love is portrayed as sacriﬁcially self-giving. These texts imply that such love is the crown of all displays of love. Scripture consistently depicts God’s love to us as a giving of Himself that is beyond conditional (see Romans 5:8 or John 3:16). Not unconditional; God paid a price for our sins, requires us to abandon all else for Him, and empowers us to do so. Clearly, there are conditional elements in play. And yet, it goes beyond the conditions, contrary to what we deserve. These passages also make it clear that God loves us with a purpose: namely, to transform us into the image of His Son (see also 2 Corinthians 3:18).
Love, then, is emphatically God-centered. It is His personal quality; it exists perfectly within the Trinity; it ﬂows out to us in the giving of Himself; it is contrary to what we deserve; and it transforms us into His likeness. That is the basis which should guide our notions about loving one another. Biblical loving of one another—in the words of Jonathan Leeman—means that we affirm that which is from God and give one’s self to seeing God exalted in one another.
This is pivotal. And it affects us in the pews. Love, as from the self, as understood according to the world, is destructive for the Church. Love, as from God, as understood according to His Word, is fruitful for the Church. It cannot be any other way, even—and especially—as we think about the fruit of the Spirit in the life of the Church.
Consider one application with me. When we affirm one another’s faith, we are making note of the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in each other’s lives. We do this intentionally, sometimes, and instinctively most of the time. And it is encouraging either way.
But mere affirmations are not love; at least not as we have seen from the Bible. We say, “I affirm you… because you are from God because I see His work in you.” But this is not yet love; it is merely affirmational. If all we do to the brother or sister who struggles—say, with lust—is to affirm their past victories; if all we do to the brother or sister who is naïve—say, in their decision-making—is to affirm their present maturity; if all we do to the visitor who has not believed in the gospel is to affirm the image of God in him or her… If this is all we do with one another, we are not loving anyone. We are coddling everyone… in the name of “love”. It seems nice; it just isn’t love. Persuading one another to repentance, to grow in wisdom, and to faith is vital. To persist with one another, bearing each other’s weaknesses, is how we give ourselves to see God exalted in one another.
I remember the months and years of indulging in sexual sin. And every single time I am reminded of those days, I am overcome with hatred for what I did. But then, when I remember my brother—the one who persevered through the ugliness time and again… and again—I smile. And oh, am I thankful he did not merely offer soothing reminders of God’s abundant love but, with it, gave the odd shove regarding God’s holiness! Isn’t that what biblical love is? A relentless pursuit of each other to see Christ being formed in one another.
Yes, true affirmations are a necessary aspect of biblical love; so are exhortations, warnings, counsel—persuasions. That is how God loves. If His Spirit is at work in us, the fruit we bear will resemble the likeness of His love. To that end, may we strive.