This is a sermon I preached at First Baptist Church, New Smyrna Beach, FL on July 17th, 2016.
Love. This is a word we use all the time, right? Sometimes you hear someone say, "I love pizza, my wife, and my dog," and you're hoping they don't mean that in all the same way, but what this leads to us realizing is that this word that we use a lot, sometimes I'm not sure people know what they mean with it, and it reminds me of that scene from the movie "The Princess Bride" where Inigo Montoya says, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
Sometimes someone will say that one action is loving and someone will say the exact opposite of that action is loving, so what we have to determine as Christians who have the Bible is our authority is, what is love?
Is it simply support?
Is it encouraging?
Is it giving someone what they want?
Is there even a right answer to this question? That would be an important question to answer.
Is love just the type of thing where I look inwardly and determine what I think it is, what I like, or what feels best, or is there another option?
Perhaps more pertinent for cultural situation today, can an action be loving if the person receiving the action doesn't think it's loving?
Is it loving to tell someone they're wrong? Is there a right or wrong way to do that, or is that always wrong?
These are the types of questions that we're confronted with as Christians living in America today, so I have two modest goals today. The first is to look at the theological: What is love? What is a biblically-based, God-grounded definition of love? The second is the practical: How can we apply that biblically-based definition that we come up with to our everyday life, to situations we often find ourselves in? We can't look inward to arrive at this answer.
If everyone were to look inward and say, "What do I think love is, and that's the actual right answer," there could be as many right answers as there are people here today, so what we must first acknowledge is there is a right and a wrong answer. Now we may disagree about what that is, but we at least have to establish that there is a right answer to this question.
When we're looking for right answers to hard questions we need to go to Scripture, so our passage for today, among many, is going to be Romans 5, and this is where we see Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit saying,
”When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good, but God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more will we be saved from God's wrath through him?"
This passage links God's love, his great love, not just his love, but his great love, to sending Christ to die on the cross, so when we want to understand love, it seems like a good option might be looking to the cross, but this isn’t the only passage that says something like that.
John 3:16 says, ”For this is the way God loved the world." You want to know how God loved the world? Look here. Well, he gave his one and only son. That's how he loved the world. He gave him on the cross.
Paul, writing in Galatians 2, says, "I have been crucified with Christ and it's no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me." How did he love me? He gave himself up on the cross, but this isn't just in three places.
In Ephesians, we see, "Walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave himself up for you," and a few verses later Paul links this loving example that Christ sacrificially gave on the cross to how husbands should actually love their wives.
So, we're starting to see the cross is a big deal in the Bible. Now, I don't think that should surprise us, but when we think about love, is the cross the first thing we think about?
Love is Best Understood Through the Cross
In 1 John, we see, "We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us," so a major point I'd like us to get today: love is best understood through the cross. Love is best understood through the cross. The cross and the resurrection are the center point of history. Now, you may not think that, but everything from a biblical perspective before the cross is leading up to the cross. Everything after the cross is in light of the cross, because the cross was an event worked out that God had planned from eternity past, so when we want to understand love, let's look at the cross and let's see if there are some attributes about the cross that we can distill down and apply to our situation today.
The cross was certainly the most visible act of God's love towards us. It was also planned. It wasn't an accident. I think sometimes people think that Jesus was this man on earth and he was kind of like a leaf on a river and got carried to and fro and somehow ended up on the cross, got lucky and paid for everyone's sin, or maybe unlucky, depending on how you look at that. That's not actually what it was. Yes, people made choices and decisions that resulted in Christ going to the cross, but the decision made before the world was created was that Christ would go to the cross to pay for sin, so what we see is this act of love on the cross was intentional. It was planned.
Also though, the cross was about God, primarily. We often think of the cross as being about us. Now, we are beneficiaries of the work that was done there, but the cross, first and foremost, was God glorifying himself in the creation of a people for himself, doing something only he could do. So, when we want to understand love let's understand that it's planned, it's about God, but it's also about people. It's about us. The cross is the way in which God shows his love for us, so love has a God-facing component, it often has a man- or woman-facing component, but the cross was also sacrificial. It was undeserved and costly.
The last point is that it was an objective good. God said the cross was good. God said the cross accomplished his plan, so love is something that has a right answer. It has a God-grounded right answer, so the things we can learn just briefly by looking at the cross: Love is planned, love is about God, love is about man, love is sacrificial, and there is a right answer to this question, but love is best understood through the cross.
Now, I think a lot of the confusion about love in our culture and even in the church comes from not understanding the cross. Sometimes people think the cross was an accident, sometimes people don't understand exactly what happened there, so we need to understand the cross better to understand God's love better, and the cross is a lens we can use to refocus all of the New Testament.
If you read through your New Testament, in some books you won't even find the word "love." That doesn't mean it's not necessarily talked about, but it's definitely not at the forefront, but the cross is always talked about. The cross is present in every single New Testament work or letter, and it's a theme that's important.
We need to value not just what Jesus did at the cross, but what what God showed at the cross. As Christians we understand the cross better than the non-Christian world, hopefully, but for the non-Christian world I think one of the reasons they can't understand godly, biblically centered love is because they don't understand the cross, so Christians, in a way, have been shown a love, the greatest love, that no one else has yet to know, but this also comes with an obligation. We've been let in on what this greatest love looks like and we've been told to act in light of it towards other people, so there's a greater responsibility in terms of how we love also.
A Biblical Definition of Love
We've looked at some attributes of the cross, and what I think would be helpful is to look at a definition. When we think of love, yes, let's think of the cross, but let's use a definition like this.
”Love is God-honoring action taken in response to God's grace for God's glory and/or a man's good,"
Yeah, that's a mouthful, but I think it captures what scripture says and defends against some of the errors in thinking about love today. This fits very well with what Christ did at the cross, because what he did at the cross was for God's (his) glory. It was also for the good of mankind.
This definition also fits well for areas of life like parenting. Now I'm not a parent yet, but in a parenting situation, oftentimes a parent will have the occasion to discipline a child, and let's just stipulate that there are two ways you could do this. You could do this out of anger and frustration, or you could take it out of love to train your child up to respect authority, to be more disciplined, to understand what a God-man authority structure looks like. So the same action with two different intents, one can be not loving and the other, loving. Our intent matters. Even how we parent, even how we treat our siblings or our parents, can display love, and you can't just look at the action itself to determine that. The intent really matters.
Giving is perhaps a more clear example of that, like Steve just talked about when we gave the offering: Giving can be an act of love to God. If two people put $100 in the offering plate, we can't know which one of those was loving or not. If one person is doing it out of some type of obligation where they feel like they're “paying” their tithe and the other is doing it in response to the grace they've been shown, well the second one is certainly more loving than the first. You know what's interesting, is we often think about giving us something we do to God, and it is, but it's also for our good. It trains us in the way of righteousness. It trains us to not hold onto things, so even in giving there is a response to God's grace that's for God's glory and for our good.
Evangelism. I don't think there could be a clearer example of God-centered love than evangelism. We are responding to the grace of God. We are doing it for the glory of God and we are sharing something that is for man's good. Bible study is the same way. We study our Bibles to learn more about God. That certainly shows that we prioritize him, but it's also for our good to learn more about what the God of the universe has said and revealed to us, and the list goes on and on, from feeding the homeless to inviting someone who doesn't look like you over to your house for dinner to befriending someone of a different religion. All of these things, like being sacrificial to your spouse with correct intent, all of these things are opportunities to show biblical love.
A passage I believe you looked at last week is in Matthew when Jesus says we should
”love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment, and the second is like it. Love your neighbor as yourself,"
so we see that there is a God-facing component to what we're told to do in love, and there is a “loving our neighbor” component. Oftentimes loving God sounds a little abstract. What does that look like? Well, he makes it somewhat clear in John 14 when he says, "If you love me, you will keep my commands," so we see that loving God is at least keeping his commands. It's not just legalism by any means but it does involve doing the things he's told us to do. So an action can't be loving, by definition, if it does not follow what God has laid out. This takes off the table, "Well, I feel like this is loving." The question is, has God said it's loving? Has God said it's right?
He also says this a little later in John 14: "The person who has my commands and obeys them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my father, and I will love him," so what we actually see is that loving God fulfills this command, but we're actually loving God when we love other people, and this is what Jesus is getting at in John 13 when he says, "Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
Sometimes we think, "I'm doing great in the loving God department," and if we're honest with ourselves maybe we'd say, "Well, I'm not doing so well in the loving my neighbor, loving my fellow Christian department." Well, based on Scripture, if you're not doing well in the loving your neighbor department, you're not doing well in the loving God department either, and I think this passage right here should be one of the most convicting for us as a church today.
If we're supposed to show the non-Christian world that we are disciples of Christ by our love for one another, how are we doing? Loving God has a love for God component, obviously, but also a love for people component, and it's hard to say we're loving God as we should be if we aren't loving his people. Our treatment of each other should be like a beacon that draws the attention of the non-Christian world, so when we get hurt and we are quick to forgive, and not “forgive but not talk to the person,” but “forgive and welcome back into fellowship,” that looks weird to the world today, where when someone hurts you you're supposed to get back at them, and when you actually practice biblical love and turn the other cheek, that stands out. That shows people that we are Christ's disciples.
When we give of our time and our money to people who can't help us, who can't give anything to us in return, and don't post it on Instagram like, "Look at me, I'm over here on this missions project," when we do that type of thing and someone actually finds out but not because we blasted it on social media, that stands out as something countercultural that shows we are Christ's disciples.
I think of Peter asking Jesus how many times he should forgive a brother in Christ. Getting in Peter's mind, when he says, "Should it be seven?" he probably thinks he's shooting really high, like, not three. "I'm going to forgive seven times. How's that, Jesus?" Jesus says, "How about 70 times seven?" and he's not saying, "Peter, you need to get a longer scroll so you can keep track of this." What he's saying is, there's no limit.
Biblically-based, God-centered love forgives every time. It welcomes back into fellowship, if there's been repentance, every time, because love will cause us to forgive, to cover a multitude of sins (going back to the cross) just like Christ's love covered a multitude of our sins. So if the cross is the best example of God's great love for us and it's supposed to be how we're supposed to love, then we should love as much as we're able, like Christ loved on the cross, in a sacrificial way, in a costly way. It should make us quick to forgive, quick to say we were wrong, and quick to say we're sorry and mean it. But along with this, love trumps personal preference.
Often we think, "My personal preference is what everyone else should go with." Even if we don't say it, oftentimes that's how we act. But if how we love each other in the church is supposed to communicate to the world that we're Christ's disciples, then we shouldn't divide over things that aren't essential, like the age of the earth. In some pockets of America, that is a very contentious issue. Is it 6,000 years old? Is it 4.54 billion years old? That's not something we need to divide over. If we agree that God created everything, we're good to go. That doesn't mean we can't talk about it. It doesn't mean we just turn our brains off and don't think, but what it does mean is we should not divide fellowship. We should not be arguing with each other over this type of thing.
It's the same with what Bible translation you use. Some churches mandate you use a certain Bible translation. Why are we causing division when it's not necessary? Some other personal preferences that sometimes cause division: what the pastor wears. Do we divide over the dress code on a Sunday morning or the layout of the stage or what time the service is or "this small group did this and this …" If the cross displays the greatest form of love and Jesus laid down the independent exercise of his deity when he came to earth, and in Philippians 2 Paul says, "The fullness of God was pleased to dwell in bodily form, and he added humanity to himself and humbled himself," well then, gosh, what should love look like for me? Should it look like humbling myself? Should it look like putting my personal preferences second? Certainly.
Also, when we think of how we treat each other and what that looks like, how do we talk about each other on Facebook? How do we talk about someone on staff at our church or another church or a previous church or our current church or whatever? How do we talk about each other? Does it try to build up, or does it tear down? The better question, the easier question, is, does this tell the world I'm a disciple of Christ?
So in this #FollowJesus series, does the way we love each other show people that we're following Jesus? It's a question we all have to ask ourselves, and I would say constantly.
How can Jesus say that our love for each other will announce to others that we're his disciples? Because Christian love is different. It's not the "I love pizza" sort of love. It's a love of the cross, and no one can fully understand love without understanding the cross, so when we live in such a way and we love in such a way that draws the attention of the world and they say, "This is weird," why is it weird? Because they don't understand the cross. Because they don't understand the motivation for our love. They don't understand that we're responding to the grace of God that's been poured out in such a magnificent, powerful way. So love is best understood through the cross.
That's the theological point. When we want to understand love, we look to the cross. Love is a God-centered action taken in response to God's grace for God's glory and man's good, and I've had to repeat that many times because it's kind of a tongue twister, but it's important. It really captures what the Bible teaches on love.
You may be thinking, "That's pretty abstract. And it's long. What does that mean for me? What's my takeaway today?" so I want us to look at some practical examples of cultural situations where we can take this biblically-based concept of love and apply it to something that we're all in the middle of in America, and I want to give you a test. Not where you have to answer, but a test you can use for yourself when you're in a situation.
The Two Commandments Test
We're going to call it the two commandments test, so when we have a decision to make and we're confronted with something and we want to know, "Is this action loving? Should I take this action?" ask yourselves, how does this fare against the loving God commandment? Does this show my love for God? And how does it fare against the love my neighbor commandment? Does it pass those tests?
The first example we're going to look at is that of abortion. Many people have said in our culture today that it's not loving to oppose a woman's ability to get an abortion. “It's her body, it's her choice, it's her life she has to live.” Tt certainly is her life she has to live, and I can't understand what it's like to be in that situation, but let's just say that society is right. Let's say it is unloving to the woman to oppose her ability to get an abortion, so that fails the love your neighbor test. We have one more test left. How does it fare against the love your God test?
Does promoting something God is against show our love for God? No, and actually, this is interesting because today we're in a national conversation on black lives matter and all lives matter. People are saying life matters, but if all life matters it matters in the womb, and if black lives matter they matter in the womb. If life matters, it matters at every stage of development, and why does it matter?
This is something that the atheists on the street corner protesting cannot tell you. They have a God-given knowledge that life is valuable but they can't tell you why, because the reason life is valuable is because God created us in his image, so it can never be loving to God to be for the killing of an innocent person who's created in his image. Being for abortion fails the love your God test.
Now, you may noticed that I actually accepted that it was unloving to the woman, and I think this is wrong. It is actually loving to the woman to oppose abortion, and here's why. One of the often-hidden aspects of abortion today is the emotional and physical turmoil that the post-abortive woman undergoes. No one talks about that. They don't tell you that when you go in, but more than that it's not loving to let our neighbor, who happens to be a pregnant mother, become guilty of killing her unborn child. And where is the unborn child in this love equation? Is it loving to the unborn child to let them be killed? No.
So what we see is, contrary to what culture has said where our opposition to abortion is unloving, It's actually the most God-centered, loving action we could take towards this issue. And we arrived at this by running it through the two commands test and by applying our definition of love.
It says, first and foremost, there is a right answer. It needs to be glorifying to God. We can't be doing something that's loving that God is against, and it needs to be for the good of our neighbor, and in doing this, someone might not say it's good. They might disagree, but that doesn't mean it's not good and not loving. Remember, since love is grounded in what is God honoring, the mark of true love is not how it's received.
Now, we can be gracious in how we talk about things, and we certainly should be. Our speech should be kind and seasoned with salt, but there's still a truth component to share.
If you want to say that the true mark of love is how it's received, then what we do with Jesus? He came to earth, he is love incarnate. He loved his own people, the Jews, and they liked him so much they killed him. So what we can't say is that love and its correctness is based on the response.
What about the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage? This is another cultural conversation we're in the middle of today, and many people have said it isn't loving to deny homosexuals the ability to get married. What's been said is heterosexuals have had a right no one else has had. That's actually not true.
Before the Supreme Court decision last summer, everyone had the same right: the right to marry someone of the opposite sex. What homosexuals have wanted is a new right, a right to marry people of the same sex. That's a right no one had had before, but more than that, let's just say it is unloving to oppose same-sex marriage, so this fails the love your neighbor test. How does it fare against the love your God test? Is it loving to God to be for something he is against? No. You may think, "Has God really spoken on this issue?"
In Genesis 1, like we already looked at when we said life mattered, God did create us and he created us male and female, to leave our parents and cleave together, so God's design for marriage looks like one man, one woman, for one lifetime. Everything outside of that, it doesn't matter if it's homosexuality or if it's heterosexual adultery or premarital sex or whatever, everything outside of that is by definition unloving to God because it goes against his design decree.
More than that, we actually have some specific passages that speak about homosexuality. Leviticus 18: "A man should not lie with a man as he lies with a woman." In Romans 1, when Paul is talking about denying the truth in ungodliness and suppressing what we should know, he gives the example of homosexuality and lesbianism, and in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 Paul again speaks about this, so the Bible is clear, and if there is a right answer, which, if the Bible says there's a right answer, there's a right answer, then we must be clear too, but we must be kind and convictional in how we say this. Our goal should not be to say, "Your sin is worse than mine," because it's not.
What the cross does is show all of us that our sin has grave consequences. Jesus didn't just die for certain types of sin or certain types of sinners. He died for everyone's sins who would come and place their trust in him, so that's the message we have. That is the loving message we have, but our culture has basically redefined love to mean agreement and support, so if you don't agree with me, well, you're not being loving. If you don't support me, why aren't you being loving? It's interesting, because you could have two people who both say, "I'm being loving," and they're taking the same action, and one person thinks it's supportive, hence it's loving, and another person thinks it's not supportive, hence it's not loving, and how could that ever make any sense? So we can't look into ourselves and how we feel to determine the right answer on this. We must look to Scripture.
The irony here is that the world condemns Christian families who disagree with their children's homosexuality. So you could have a parent who would take a bullet for their child, donate a kidney or any other organ they could, but they're seen to be hateful and bigoted because they disagree with the actions of their child, and as a part of this, I think a reason for this is because our culture has bought the lie that "I am my desires, I am my actions, I am my orientations."
If you are your actions and someone disagrees with your actions, well, in your mind they're disagreeing with you, but as Christians we understand that we are not our actions, we are not our desires. We are people created in the image of God and that is what gives us our worth, not any actions or inactions or desires we have.
Pastor Tim Keller has said that "Love without truth is sentimentality. It supports and affirms, but it keeps us in denial about our flaws," so love should come out of a place of compassion and care for other people, but it also includes telling the truth. Our compassion for others should lead us to be clear that sexual activity outside of marriage is not loving. It's not loving for us to tell people that it is and it's not loving for them to do it.
What we've heard in recent years is that "love is love is love," and a friend of mine who's a youth pastor has noticed with the students he works with on public school campuses that they don't understand why the church is against homosexuality or whatever. They say, "Well, it's about love, right, and you all have been saying Christianity is about love," and what they don't understand is just because someone says something is loving doesn't mean it's loving, and when we speak carelessly about love it reminds me of that first slide I put up: "You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means," so we have to be clear about grounding love in what Scripture says, not just our feelings.
So when society uses the word love we need to say, "Well, what do you mean by love? Can you spell that out for me, because I think we're using the same word but we might mean different things, and so we're talking past each other," and I think in large part that's why we've lost some of this cultural conversation.
Is it loving to oppose adultery? Yes. Is it loving to oppose pornography? Yes, it is. It's not glorifying to God. It's not loving to women or the person doing it. Is it loving to oppose homosexuality and same-sex marriage? Yes, for the same reason. Not because it's some special category, but because God has spoken about what God-honoring, actually-loving sexual expression looks like, and everything outside of that is excluded.
You might come up with a situation that we didn't cover, which would not be hard. We looked at two, abortion and homosexuality, but come back to the test we looked at. How does this choice I'm confronted with fair against the two commandments test? Does it show my love for God? Does it show my love for people? An action can never be loving that does not show our love to God. An action can't be loving that's just taken out of a legalistic, a non-grace-filled response, so how we approach our actions matter. How we think about them - our intents - matter.
Cultural Issues Are Not The Biggest Issues
We focused and spent a lot of time on two cultural issues, but the truth is that cultural issues are not the biggest issues. We talk like they are today. The media certainly behaves like they are, but cultural issues are not the biggest issues, because the biggest issues are not people's individual sins. It's not their pattern of sin or their orientation. The biggest issues today that people have are their separation from God, so a loving response, yes, it talks about cultural issues, it talks about God-centered morality, but more than that, it cannot stop there. If we just always speak out on moral issues, what does that gain people? It makes them a more moral sinner going to hell. That doesn't ultimately achieve the end that we as Christians are placed here at this time, in this place, to accomplish.
An actually-loving approach tells people about the gospel. It shares the hope that is found in Christ as an exclusive and effective Savior, so we don't just talk about homosexuality and abortion or greed or whatever, because what we're trying to do there is patch up this boat that's filled with holes that we will never patch up and no one can ever patch on their own. Ultimately that boat, apart from Christ, is going to sink, so the most God-loving action we can ever do is sharing about God's self-glorifying act of dying and rising for sin, but, conveniently enough, the most people-loving action we can ever do is telling people about God's action of dying and rising for sin. So if you want to know what a loving response to culture looks like today, it looks like preaching the cross.
It's where love is most visible, love is most clearly understood, but it also confronts our sensibilities, right? No one likes being told someone had to die for them, they couldn't accomplish it on their own, so we need to understand that we might get pushback there.
The cross is the greatest act of love, and our greatest act of love is telling people about God's greatest act of love. The greatest loving act that we can ever take, that we ever have the opportunity of taking, is telling a lost and dying world about God's greatest act of love, where he poured out on the cross his blood for the forgiveness of sins that everyone who will turn to him will find him to be a perfect Savior.
There is no sin too big, no pattern of sin too wrong, for Christ to cover, and the opportunity for that is not different for the post-abortive woman. It's not different for the person who struggles with a certain orientation or attraction, whether society finds it acceptable or not. Christ is always big enough to accept all who come to him, bow the knee, and trust in him for forgiveness.