Americans are good at destroying perfectly good words with abuse and overuse. Hallmark Cards and Harlequin Romances have managed to make “love” sound like a single syllable cliche. Therefore, any discussion of true biblical love has to begin with a battle for a definition.
That battle is certainly worth fighting. LOVE – a critically important topic. It is the overwhelming command of Scripture. As Jesus said in Luke 10:27:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and, `Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
The Apostle John insists that without love one cannot claim to be a Christian: “Anyone who does not love remains in death” (I John 3:14).
So what does “love” mean? For the sake of brevity let’s wipe the slate clean of all that the current culture calls love. There are bits and pieces of truth in there, but those bits and pieces are so covered with romanticized, eroticized, and trivialized rot that we will just let them be.
Unfortunately, love remains a fuzzy notion even in the “christian” culture. I read of a proper English pastor trying to explain I Corinthians 13 to a room full of school boys. The preacher explained:
“One might go through this chapter of St. Paul and simply substitute the word ‘gentleman’ for ‘love’ wherever it occurs. A gentleman is patient, a gentleman is kind, a gentleman envieth not, dealeth not perversely, is not puffed up. He concluded: “The Apostles would have been rather surprised at the concept that Christ had been scourged and beaten by soldiers, cursed and crowned with thorns, and nailed to the cross in order that we might all become gentleman!”
This sentimentalizing of modern Christianity has lead many to assume that the “greatest of these” means “being nice.”
I have also noticed a conservative Reformed misconception of love. Of this we also need to be aware. In our laudable zeal to forsake the romanticized notions of the world and the sentimentalized notions of evangelicalism, we are in danger of slipping into a “legalized” notion of love, that is, “love equals obedience”. For instance, Dr. Jay Adams in his classic “Competent to Counsel” writes:
“A simple biblical definition of love is: The fulfillment of God’s commands….Love is a relationship conditioned upon responsibility, that is, responsible observance of the commandments of God” (pg 55).
There is so much that is good and right in this definition! Jesus Himself said “if you love me you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Dr. Adams has done the church a great service in reminding us that love must be defined in relationship to God and the commands of God. Nonetheless, while love must involve obedience, we must be careful not to reduce it to obedience, duty, or responsibility.
True loving actions, as with any good work, are directly tied to the motivations behind those actions. This is easy enough to illustrate. Imagine a young man going up to a plain, timid, young lady and complimenting her. He told her that he loved the outfit she was wearing, he thought her hair was pure art, and that she had the most stunning eyes he had ever seen. On the outside we could argue that this is a kind, loving sort of thing to do. But if we knew that he was doing this on a bet with his buddies and that they were all at a distance laughing out loud we immediately see the act for what it was. In the very act of complimenting her he was actually condemning her for her plainness! If the motive is evil the action is evil.
But what if the motive is a good motive, such as a sense of duty? If God says “give generously to the poor” and we dutifully do that, is that a loving action? Maybe, maybe not! Martin Luther ran himself ragged trying to do all the things he believed God wanted him to do. And yet he confessed that he did not love God, instead, he hated him! Even actions accompanied by good motives cannot equal love. The fact is, they may mock it.
Consider an illustration John Piper uses regarding roses. Suppose a husband presents his wife with a lovely bouquet on their anniversary. She rejoices at the sight and begins to thank him profusely. Then he raises his hand and says “No need to thank me, dear, it’s my duty.” Who among us would be surprised to find this “dutiful” husband eating his roses?
Now, let’s rewind the tape to find out what went wrong. As we replay the scene we see that everything was going fine right up until the infamous “duty” line. For some reason the wife would not accept duty as love. Why not? Because duty claims all the honor for itself. When a man gives his wife flowers out of duty, he is paying honor to his sense of responsibility but he is most certainly not paying honor to his wife’s desirability!
God insists that we love Him in a way that honors Him and not us. He will not accept duty in place of delight. The only love which can be called truly biblical love is that love motivated by a sincere desire to honor God. This is what motivates God Himself to love.
Eph 1:4–6 “In love, He predestined us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will to the praise of his glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the One He loves.”
God’s love is motivated by a fierce desire to honor the glory of His grace. And since it is God’s love that is poured into our hearts (Romans 5:5), our love must be motivated by this same desire – a delighting in God and a passion to glorify and exalt His holy Name. The first petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Hallowed be Thy Name”, corresponds perfectly to the “first” commandment – “love the Lord Thy God.” And so we have our definition. Love for God is having a delight in God and a deep desire to magnify His Name that yields the fruit of glad obedience. Let us so love.
Rev. Dale Van Dyke