Tuesday, December 5, 2023


In addition to faith and hope, Paul speaks of "the love that you have for all the saints," your "labor of love," and "the breastplate of faith and love" (Col. 1:3-5, 1 Thess. 1:3, 5:8). Love is one of the virtues that we are to practice and exercise as we grow to reflect the character and excellency of our God.

The Importance of Love

Consider first the importance of love. Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 1:5, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” In context, he was warning against teaching that was unprofitable and speculative. He reminded Timothy that this love was the aim of their charge as ministers of the gospel.

When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, he answered in terms of love, quoting two passages from the Old Testament. 
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:37–40)
Not only are these the greatest commandments, but they are foundational for the rest, a summary of the law. 

Another place where Paul uses the triad of faith, hope, and love is in 1 Corinthians 13:13. Here he writes, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Love is greater than faith and hope. We might say that faith is the most foundational virtue. It is usually listed first because by it we receive Christ. Yet love is the most important as the highest virtue and the most enduring. Certainly faith and hope abide, but they also culminate in the age to come in such a way that faith gives way to sight and our hopes are realized. But love will continue as love in glory as we dwell with God and one another. 

In 1 Corinthians 16:22, Paul says, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come!” Not only is love for one another important, but so is love for the Lord. It is essential. Paul anathematizes those who do not have it.

The apostle Peter also spoke highly of love. “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Do not stop, but keep on loving one another, and do so earnestly!

What Is Love? 

If love is so important, we should figure out what it is. The New Testament primarily uses two Greek words for love, agape and phileo. Sometimes when people teach about love, they overemphasize the contrast between different Greek words for love. In the Bible, these two words often overlap without a strong contrast. Sometimes they are used interchangeably within a passage. Phileo can emphasize the aspect of friendship a bit more than agape. In fact, a form of phileo is used as the word for friend, as when Lazarus is described as Jesus' friend. Agape is used more commonly, but phileo is more common in compound words (love of money, love of God, love of husband, brotherly love).

The Greek lexicon defines agapao (the verb form of agape) as “(1) to have a warm regard for and interest in another, cherish, have affection for, love; (2) to have high esteem for or satisfaction with something, take pleasure in” (BDAG). It defines phileo as “(1) to have a special interest in someone or something, frequently with focus on close association, have affection for, like, consider someone a friend; (2) to kiss as a special indication of affection, kiss” (BDAG).

Both of these Greek words can be used for bad loves. Not every exercise of love is good. The love of money, for example, is strongly condemned in Scripture. Both Greek words are used for it. There are also good loves, like the love of Jesus. Both Greek words are used for that too. So the object of love and its proportion is important. That is also true of faith. Is all faith saving faith? Are some faiths bad? If you put the faith in a false god, that would be a bad faith. Faith is a virtue when it is exercised in the true God and his gospel. The same with hope. You could have vain hopes. You could have hope in the wrong thing. You could hope for bad things. But there is a Christian hope. The same is true with love. Properly ordered love is a virtue. In fact, it is the highest virtue.

Can you think of what would just be the opposite of love? Hatred is an opposite of love. Think of how John commonly contrasts love and hatred (1 John 3:11-15). Related to hatred is envy. Other alternatives contrary to love include neglect, contempt, and apathy. A person who loves another will care about that person. 

One Reformed writer says, “Spiritual love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. We show this type of love by loving God for His sake and our neighbors for God’s sake” (Godefridus Udemans). It is very common to define the virtue of love in this way, and with good reason. Love for God is preeminent. The love of neighbor ought to flow from it. 

Love for God

Thomas Watson (1620–1686) has a section on love in his book on the Ten Commandments. He says, “What is love? It is a holy fire kindled in the affections, whereby a Christian is carried out strongly after God as the supreme good.” I think that is a good description. Love is an inner affection, a holy fire kindled in the affections. It has an object, God. It also carries you out after the object, that you might participate in him. It fixes on God as the supreme good. And it is a vigorous affection. 

Watson goes on to say, “Wherein doth the formal nature of love consist? The nature of love consists in delighting in an object … This is loving God, to take delight in him.” Watson also points out that our love for God ought to be with a whole and undivided heart, that we ought to love him for himself, not just because he might do something for you, but because he himself is the supreme good. We should seek to enjoy him, to love him above all else, to love him as much as we can, with all our ability, to love him constantly, and to exercise this love in every sphere. “Love to God must be active in its sphere. Love is an industrious affection; it sets the the head studying for God, hands working, feet running in the ways of his commandments. It is called the labour of love. 1 Thess. 1:3.” 

Love for Your Fellow Man

If we love God, we will also love those who are made in his image, for his image in them. That is why we should not kill them, because they are made in the image of God (Gen. 9:6). But more than that, we ought to love them, as fellow image bearers of our Creator. 

We have all the more reason to love those who have been born of God, those who have been adopted and regenerated and are being renewed after his image. As Jesus said, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another" (John 13:34). In view here is love for your fellow disciples. This is plain from the following verse, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). Among fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, we are able to mutually participate in this Christ-like love and Christ-motivated love. 

There is also a love for family that Scripture exhorts us to as an aspect of this virtue. They are some of your closest neighbors. In Ephesians 5, Paul says that husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church. In Titus 2, he says that older women should train younger women to love their husbands and their children. The Song of Songs describes the mutual love of its groom and bride as something strong and enduring, as "strong as death" (8:6). 

The love of neighbor also extends beyond fellow saints and family members to the person in front of you, even the stranger (Lev. 19:34). Jesus taught this in the parable of the good Samaritan. The Samaritan was good because he acted as a neighbor to the wounded Jew that he found on the side of the road. 

Love is even to be extended to your enemy, as Jesus taught in Matthew 5:43-48. Why should you love your enemy? Because God is benevolent and merciful toward his enemies and you should imitate your Father. "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust ... You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:44–45, 48). Not only did God love us when we were his enemies, choosing us and bringing us to salvation, but he even shows kindness to the reprobate in this life, giving them good things that they do not deserve. He is long-suffering and patient. He shows kindness not only to those who love him, but also to the wicked and ungrateful (Luke 6:35). Therefore, you who are his children should imitate him and love your enemies. 

Characteristics of Love 

In describing love, one cannot forget Paul's description of love in 1 Corinthians 13. It was written in the context of a church that needed love, having been divided by rivalries and party spirit. It had been divided and disordered in its practice of the Lord's Supper as well as in its practice of certain spiritual gifts. Paul not only insists on love's necessity, but also describes its true nature. 
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 irritable 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)
These are characteristics, qualities of love, the love that Christians ought to exercise toward one another, resembling their Savior. Paul also says in 1 Corinthians 8:1 that while knowledge can puff up, love builds up. That is a characteristic of love as well. It is edifying. It builds up other people. 

There are also related virtues to love, such as generosity, kindness, and mercy. Mercy is love exercised towards those who are in misery or danger. When you see the distress of those whom you love, love turns into mercy as you lay their misery to your own heart and desire to help them. Another related virtue is hospitality (Heb. 13:2, 1 Peter 4:9). Scripture also speaks of natural affection in Romans 1, or to be more precise, the lack of natural affection (translated by the ESV as "heartless"). Fallen mankind usually continues to exercise a basic natural affection, but sometimes even this is corrupted. While the Gentiles usually love those who love them and greet their brothers (Matt. 5:46-47), sometimes they do not. While unbelieving mothers and fathers will often have natural affection for their children, there are times when even this love fails and parents turn cruel to their own flesh and blood. So even natural affections can be undermined by sin and should be purposefully maintained by the believer. 

God's Love for Us

God's love is primary in several ways. Not only should we love God more than anything, but his love is the original love, the model of love, and a motive for our love. God's love was the first love that ever existed. The Father loved the Son in eternity past before creation (John 17:24), and even his love for us existed in eternity (Eph. 1:4-5). God has a general mercy towards all. He has a love for his elect in Christ. The Triune God loves us. Not only did the Father love us by sending the Son (John 3:16), but the Son himself also loved us and so gave himself for us (Eph. 5:1-2). He laid down his life for his friends. There is no greater love than that. 

So in this redemptive work, the love of God was expressed. As 1 John 4:8-9 says, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.” This is how we know love and it is also our motive for love. We learn from his demonstration of love that someone who loves another will seek the good of that person, delight in fellowship with that person, and be willing to sacrifice for that person. And we love because he first loved us. We love him who has loved us. We love him for himself and we love others because of him.

The Source of Love

This virtue of love comes from God. He produces it in his children. It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22). It is founded upon knowledge and faith. When a person perceives the goodness of God and God's grace toward him, he seeks God and delights in him as his supreme good. If you did not know anything about God, why would you love him? It is by knowing God, by knowing his goodness, by knowing that he has loved you, that we love him. We know him by reading Scripture and by receiving him in faith. Therefore we love. Remember, our aim is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. As Paul says, what matters is "faith working through love" (Gal. 5:6). 

Love in Action

Love expresses itself in good works, acts of charity to others and obedience to God's commandments (1 John 3:16-18, 5:3). Like the woman at Jesus' feet, we love much because we are forgiven much, and therefore we show that love by acts of devotion to him (Luke 7:44-50). In fact, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 16:14 that we should do all things in love. Do everything out of a motive of love and therefore in a loving manner. Love is the inner affection that produces loving deeds. 

Love should not be primarily defined as the behavior it produces. Primarily, love is the motive that produces good deeds for others. It is the motivation of loving behavior. But the deeds of love can be called love. You can see love in the form of loving words and deeds. After all, the world is supposed to see the love that Christ's disciples have for one another. 

The Maintenance of Love 

I want to conclude with the maintenance of love. Love is like a fire that needs to be kept aflame, otherwise it might grow cold. Remember the Ephesian church, which had lost the love they had at first (Rev. 2:4). They had declined in their love and their fervor. Jesus speaks in Matthew 24 of the love of some growing cold. So Thomas Watson exhorts us, 
You who have love to God, keep it flaming upon the altar of your heart … As you would be careful to preserve the natural heat in your body, so be careful to preserve the heat of love to God in your soul. Love is like oil to the wheels, it quickens us in God’s service. When you find love abate and cool, use all means to quicken it. When the fire is going out, you throw on fuel; so when the flame of love is going out, make use of the ordinances as sacred fuel to keep the fire of your love burning.
Remember that you are responsible to maintain and to exercise this love. Peter exhorts us to make every effort to add brotherly affection and love to your faith (2 Peter 1). Ponder the glory and excellence and goodness of God displayed in his word and his world, so that a sense of these things might inflame that love. Then exercise it in service, in song, in worship, and in prayer. The same goes for your love for the saints and your love for other people. Grow in love by consistently exercising love and inflaming it through a meditation upon the love of your God.

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