This posting is going to be a toughie given it raises emotions and requires careful thought. It is aimed at Christians who are serious about implementing their faith in today’s culture but hopefully there will be food for thought for anyone else who cares to read it. I am finding there is an increasing tendency among good Christian folk to want to boil down the Christian message to one of love. The reason I believe they do this is because the culture is becoming increasingly antagonistic toward Christianity and are skeptical as to whether Christians do practice what we preach and are as loving as we ought and are expected to be. Some argue by insisting we are all about love (whatever that is) we may win folk round to our way of thinking. It also scores brownie points with the powers that be, intent as they are on promoting their own version of the inclusive agenda.
All this sounds perfectly creditable such that by suggesting love may not be enough I may well be upsetting the proverbial apple cart. Yet providing we get our definitions right, we have to conclude love is incredibly important and many passages from scripture can be cited to back up this point. After all, was it not Jesus who said: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” Matthew 22:37-40? While these verses may take some unraveling, there is no escaping the fact that loving both God and our neighbor (which is in effect everyone) is incredibly important.
As I survey the history of the church, I am convinced that when the church flourished it was when they loved abundantly. Ever since those early days, even when Christians were being martyred for their faith on a regular basis, they were taking care of the poor and needy who society had cast off and few others were prepared to touch. This bears out two of Jesus’ sayings: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” John 13:34-35 and “I pray … that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me”. The message here is clear – not only will people know we are Christians by our love, but they will also come to realize Jesus is the real deal, not by words but because of the love we demonstrate.
When I say to people we live in interesting times, they often look at me with bemusement. On one hand the opportunity to do good and to make a difference is as great as it ever has been and so is the opportunity to share the good news of the life transforming Christian message. On the other hand, the tide seems to be turning in a society no longer going along with an authentic version (according to my understanding based upon the Bible) of Christianity that refuses to bow to the status quo or absorb popular ideas willy nilly. To some extent Christians only have themselves to blame and but for the grace of God it might be reckoned that they have blown it. After all, one of the many hard sayings of the Bible is that judgment must begin at the house of God (i.e. among real Christians) (1Peter 4:17), and a main reason for this is they have not got its act together by obeying the two great commands of love. Sadly, what the world sees is often not something they consider to be desirable and they are then turned off or if they are interested give up in dismay. Really interesting times will come when they do see something that is pukka (and, refreshingly, sometimes they do), for then there are no excuses as they really will be forced into making a choice between following God’s way or not God’s way.
It would be appear that rather than arguing that love is not enough, I am making the point that love is everything. One of the words our Bible translates as love, and which is often used, is the Greek word: “agape”. Agape is selfless, sacrificial, unconditional, abiding, intensive love, the highest of the four types of love in the Bible and describes the kind of love Jesus Christ has for his Father and for his followers, which as his disciples we also need to exercise. The fact of the matter is that while many words are spoken about love, what truly matters is love in action. For those who are keen to espouse this ideal, it is needful that they reflect on what real love is and see that loving the agape way is the way to go if serious about God. Before moving on, I would reflect that there are those Christians, often of a more conservative ilk, that react against the love trumps all message of their more liberal brethren, given the ungodly goings on that our culture that some elements of the church now endorse, As always, balance is the key and so is knowing the heart of God and is why I have agonized while preparing this post.
But here I need to start being controversial and I am liable to upset some Christians. When I posted on my website about the gospel, something very close to my heart given that I am called to preach it, and I see this is even more important than being a community activist, I felt my starting point needed to be righteousness rather than love. As I have already argued, love is important because God says it is. After all: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” John 3:16. But we are sinners who have incurred the wrath and judgment of God, and we need to repent of our sins and put our trust in the Lord Jesus Christ to save us.
Let me quote a lengthier than normal (for me) Bible passage: “And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: Of sin, because they believe not on me; Of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and ye see me no more; Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged. I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you.” John 16:8-14. The passage is about the all important work of the Holy Spirit in the world today, and mentions four things that are not popular in many circles, yet we need to take seriously if we love God: sin, righteousness, judgment and truth.
It is easier for me to make these comments than some. I have spent most of my church life in fundamentalist leaning settings and those that espouse conservative, traditional views, and despite having my horizons broadened in recent years am still sympathetic to many of these. Many have been appalled at the liberal leanings of the wider church and even go as far as branding these as apostate, and doing something the Bible warns us of. Having the scars from expressing a position that wants to reach out to my errant brother and a world that does not accept the gospel and understand their perspectives, and being prepared to be challenged as to what I believe, something some who see things in black and white terms find as objectionable, and knowing others who have been scarred, I write thus. I do have a word of warning that I hope I can express lovingly. It is so easy to do the thing Jesus warns us against – to see the speck in our brother’s eye and ignore the log in our own, to focus on things that are of lesser importance, to create our own sin ranking list, to read things in the Bible that aren’t there, to fail to see helping the poor and loving the brethren as priorities, to become sanctimonious bigots. We need to resist these tendencies and be true to the Gospel.
If we are to talk about love, we dare not neglect these matters for we would be derelict in our obligation to speak the truth in love and act righteously. Of course we need to do what the church at its best has always done: serve the poor and needy, include the outcast, challenge oppression, seek justice etc. (and thereby earn to right to pronounce on matters that may cause offense), but we would not be loving if we turned a blind eye to sin and unrighteousness and allowed people to perish unwarned. As the people of God, we must come to terms with the reality that those who are not followers of the Way will not accept the imperative of obeying God and will not understand the distinctions being made here, but we must love nevertheless and be good examples of a life lived that is full of love, just as the famous love passage of the Bible (1Corinthians 13) says we must. Yet I must conclude that love as the world perceives it is not enough; but as God defines it, it may well cover nigh everything.