by Cynthia Wilbur
by Cynthia Wilbur
The famed 20th-centurty Scottish preacher, professor, and theologian William Barclay once lamented that, “So much Christianity is good but unkind.”
As believers, when we encounter such a statement our first instinct is to bristle at the idea. We might become defensive, arguing, “But on balance, look at all the good we do!” And certainly, that may be true. Our next instinct may be to fall back on what C.S. Lewis coined “chronological snobbery,” and so rationalize, “Dr. Barclay wrote those words a generation ago. We in the 21st century are much too enlightened and compassionate to be guilty of that!” Certainly, that sentiment is in (all likelihood), not true. Before we pass judgment on someone else’s critique, we should take a long, honest look at ourselves (Matthew 7:3-5). Why do we do what we do? What are the actual, inner, hidden and deep motivations of our hearts? After all, Scripture reminds us, “the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7b). Some of us unknowingly fall into the trap of legalism, dogmatically following the letter of God’s law but along the way forgetting the true intentions behind God’s word. If left unchecked, Christ warns us that legalism ultimately leads to spiritual blindness and separation from God’s own heart (John 9:40-41). On the other hand, out of fear of legalism, many of us may instead err on the side of unfettered freedom. However, the Apostle Paul confronts this overcorrection by rhetorically asking, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (Romans 6:1-2). The life of a true Christian is spent neither blindly checking boxes off of a spiritual “To-Do List,” nor turning a blind eye to the sin and brokenness of the world. The call of a Christian is to “believe in the name of [God’s] Son Jesus Christ and love one another just as he commanded us” (1 John 3:23). Thus, the call of every Christian is to love.
The idea of love can be vague, encompassing so many different emotions, states of being, actions, and reactions. It very often means different things to each of us. The English language is particularly ill-equipped to describe these varieties, and often tries to lump everything from a fondness for a certain snack, (“I love popcorn!”), to a friendly, offhand compliment (“I love that sweater you’re wearing!”), to even a binding promise, (“Yes—I love you and I want to marry you!”) together into a single word. While the biblical languages are arguably better at conveying the varying degrees of affection and adoration, still, God’s Word gives us clear insight into the ultimate definition of love.
The Apostle John tells us that “God is love” (1 John 4:16). It is significant that John does not then immediately say, “Love is God,” for our human conception of love is finite and falls far short of the divine definition. Instead, since God is love, we must expand our human definition to understand love as God does. “In this is love,” John tells us, “Not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). God’s love finds us first—he creates us in his image, he pursues us in spite of our sin, he continually continues to love us. In fact, God’s love is so great, so profound, so incomprehensible in its scope and breadth, that he himself, Christ the Son, demonstrates the ultimate form of love in his self-sacrificial death (John 15:13; Romans 5:8). Jesus’ love on the cross is the only thing loving enough to cover our sins.
Paul further clarifies God’s definition of love in his famous “love hymn” of 1 Corinthians. He tells us, “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irascible or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a). As believers, we must affirm that the true love of God does not—in fact, cannot—be swayed, turned, broken, or lost. Before coming to salvation, our human love is corrupted by our sin and is fallible and sometimes fleeting. However, as Dr. Raymond Brown notes, divine love “will never come to an end because it is grounded in God, and God is love. Love will last as long as God lasts, forever.” Jesus explained why this God-love is essential to our new lives: “A new commandment that I give to you, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). True Christian love is the ultimate evangelistic tool. Nothing can overcome God’s love for his people, and God’s people who spread his love are an unstoppable force of witness to both the goodness and the kindness of the Gospel.
By Cynthia Wilbur