Love in the Big Circle

In Matthew 22:35-40, Jesus identified the two great commandments – love God with all your heart, soul, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself – as the greatest commandments in the Old Testament.  Did I just say Old Testament?  I did, and I said it because Jesus said it.  Jesus listed these as the greatest commandments in “the Law” (understood to be the Old Testament) saying that “the whole Law and the Prophets” (again, the Old Testament) depended on them.

In the New Testament, Jesus introduced a new love emphasis.  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love on another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35).  Three times in these two verses, Jesus repeats the new and radical command, “Love one another”.  And Jesus elevated loving one another as the gold standard by comparing its priority to His love for us.

When we view love’s priorities as competing circles, love God first and love others second, we may defend our lack of loving others in a particular situation with the reasoning that in this case my actions demonstrate that I am loving God more.  The message and model of the New Testament is that we are never to deny love to others on the basis of loving God first.  Our loves are not competing loves, but complementing loves.  Loving God is one big circle and loving our wives, loving our children, loving our fellow believers, and loving our neighbors are part and parcel of the big circle of loving God.  The apostle John, for example, equates loving God and loving others at the highest level in his epistle.  As to love’s priorities, John writes that we demonstrate our love for God who we cannot see by how we love our brothers and sisters who we can see.

Let me give you one example of how this works in practice.  In Ephesians chapter 5, Paul encourages husbands to, “Love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for it” (Eph 5:25).  When we add in, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13), we find that we are to love our wives with the greatest love possible.  Our wives do not take second place to loving God.

The challenge, for ministers and laymen alike, is to not put our love of ministry – whatever God has given us to do to serve His body – above our love for our wives and I believe by extension our families as well by some expectation that leaving them behind is putting God first.  Ministers gaining their congregation’s admiration while loosing their family’s is a well-worn tale.  It shouldn’t be that way.

Before I set up shop to prepare a Sunday School lesson or write a blog post, I often ask Rhonda, “Will you be lonely if I go off and …?”  It is my way of saying, “Do you need anything from me right now before I disappear into the study?”  It is, in a small way, an expression of my love.

In I Peter chapter 3, the apostle starts the chapter off with an admonition to wives on how to treat their husbands with respect.  Turning to the husbands in verse 7, Peter writes, “You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered” (I Pet 3:7).  Do you want to be a prayer warrior?  You can pray in Jesus’ name, stare down the devil, exercise great faith, or whatever you want, but the effectiveness of your prayers may come down to the simple question, “Are you treating your wife in an understanding way?”  Or put another way, “Are you loving your wife as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for it?”

When you are doing your seminary homework and you hear the dishes rattling around in the kitchen, the most spiritual thing you could do at that moment might be to go downstairs and help your wife with the dishes.  When you would like to start the day with focused prayer and see a lunch that still needs packed for your grade-schooler, the most spiritual exercise might be to pitch in and finish the job.  In the final analysis, loving your wife does not compete with your spirituality, loving your wife completes your spirituality.  Putting down your Bible and filling the dishwasher might be the clearest expression of your love for God today!

Motivated by Love

When we embrace the gospel message of Jesus Christ, one of the changes we experience, whether rapidly or gradually, is that we are no longer motivated by selfish ambition, by “what’s in it for me.”  We have a new motivation for our actions.

In the first chapter of I Peter, the apostle goes to great length to explain our inheritance in Christ.  “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (I Pet 1:3-4).

Peter continues in this chapter with two actions that should naturally follow when we recognize the spectactularness of our salvation.  Obedience and love.  “Therefore [based on what I just said about so great a salvation]…as obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior” (I Pet 1:14-15).  And, “Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart” (I Pet 1:22).  Obedience and love.

It is interesting that Peter follows verse 22 with the reason we are even able to love.  “For you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God” (I Pet 1:23).  God’s imperishable seed inside empowers us to love fervently.

If our goal for living the Christian life is to keep a set of rules or attain a certain level of character qualities, the road will grow stale and the motivation will fade away.  If, on the other hand, our goal is to love from a pure heart, our motivation and enthusiasm will grow as our love grows.

Think about this progression with me and the verses that go with it.

  • My ultimate goal, the greatest commandment in the New Testament, is to love one another.  (See Jn 13:34, Jn 15:12, Jn 15:17, Rom 12:10, Rom 13:8, I Thess 3:12, I Thess 4:9, II Thess 1:3, I Pet 1:22, I Pet 4:8, I Jn 3:11, I Jn 3:23, I Jn 4:7, I Jn 4:11, I Jn 4:12, II Jn 1:5.)
  • I love others by serving them.  “Through love, serve one another” (Gal 5:13).
  • A clean vessel is a vessel fit for service.  “Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from these things [the bad stuff], he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work” (II Tim 2:21).
  • I cleanse myself by obeying God’s commands, an obedience that comes from my love motivation.  “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love” (Jn 15:10).
  • Love is our motivation to do the right thing.

The apostle Paul adds an additional dimension to our love motivation in II Corinthians 5:14, “For the love of Christ controls us.”  The idea of being “controlled” or “constrained” (KJV) by love is more than just being motivated by it.  As my friend Greg Despres points out, the word picture in this verse is like a rushing river being controlled or constrained by its banks.  Its the idea of being controlled or constrained by a crowd as we all press into an arena for a sporting event.  Faced with this “control”, it only makes sense to go with the flow.  Our love is going with the flow of who Christ indwells us to be.  Let your pride and selfish ambition fall to the wayside and go with the flow of Christ’s love filling you and overflowing in service to others.  Go with the flow!

On the Road to Change

Without taking anything away from our last post, The End of Sin’s Power?, we do need to talk about how this works in practice.  The message of the New Testament – the indwelling resurrection power of Christ in our lives and the thousand new things that come with it – is all true, but experiencing this power is a process.

The path to all that happened at our new birth becoming our normal practice is hindered by at least two barriers.  The first is our group of enemies – the world, the flesh, and the devil – that seek to empower our moribund sin nature.  I will not elaborate here as we have discussed this challenge many times (see Galatians 5 and The War with the Flesh).

The second barrier is what I call the timeline of our lives.  We start off at birth with a sin nature, personality quirks, and all kinds of things that make us us (Nature).  As we grow, we are influenced by our family dynamic, our upbringing, our poor choices, etc. (Nurture).  Added together, Nature and Nurture become a volatile combination of selfishness, ambition, pride, laziness, lust, and the list goes on and on.

Somewhere  along the way, in the beauty of God’s grace, Christ breaks through this volatile combination with His salvation and we are delivered to a new life.  “If any man or woman be in Christ, they are a new person.  The old has passed away.  New things have come” (II Cor 5:17).  When Christ enters our life, we become a new person.  However, we still retain some of the parts and pieces of the old man, even though dead, that was our normal way of doing business.  So then, the normal Christian life is a life of constant change, renewal, and repentance.

And the prospect of change should excite us.  Who doesn’t want to be a better person?  Who doesn’t want a better marriage?  Who doesn’t want more family unity?  As a new person in Christ, we don’t want the volatile combination to continue.  Change is what we want.  When we fail to change or change moves too slowly, we become discouraged and are tempted to give up.  And the excitement of change grows dim.

What I have tried to say in a multitude of ways during these posts about our promised victory over sin’s power is that Christ has given us the promise of change and the power to change by the gift of the Holy Spirit who lives inside us.  This unseen change is instant and real, but the outward expression is not automatic.  The outward change is not overnight.  But the promise and power to change is available to every believer.

I have observed two accelerators that speed up our spiritual transformation; the outward practice of the change inside.  The first is the Word of God.  “Therefore putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21).  To “save your souls” means to deliver you from your present enemies in your struggle with sin.  The “implanted Word of God” that we receive through reading and study delivers us and feeds our spiritual transformation.  One of the keys to change is to change our thinking – getting rid of our former grid that we interpreted the world through – and begin to interpret the world through the grid of God’s thought process.  Here is a simple question, “How long will it take for your thinking process to become like God’s thinking process if you are never reading God’s Word, where His thinking process is described and explained?”  The answer might be infinity.

The second accelerator is our community of believers.  Change does not happen in a personal vacuum.  It happens in a community.  Lasting change has the  most hope of success when we grow together, side-by-side.  Is there a place for working on personal transformation by ourselves?  Yes!  But personal change has the best chance of “sticking” if it happens in the context of community.  Growing in Christ together is the emphasis of the over fifty “one another” passages of the New Testament.  “Love, encourage, greet, build up, be devoted to, accept, admonish, care for, serve, be kind to, speak truth to, be subject to, forgive, comfort, and have fellowship with one another” are just a few.  We need each other to flesh out what life looks like on the new path God has for us.

The End of Sin’s Power?

The self improvement message behind a certain brand of Bible teaching today is work harder and stop doing the bad stuff.  Try harder and stop doing the bad stuff.  Strive harder and quit the bad stuff.  It’s on you to clean up your life.

The message of the New Testament is believe who you really are in Christ.  Embrace who you are in Christ.  Live according to who you are in Christ.  Christ has cleaned up your life already through His death, burial, and resurrection.  You were created – in your new identity – for so much more than the bad stuff.  And by the way, stop doing the bad stuff.

The first message is essentially sin management; trying to manage our sinful tugs by the power of the will.  We do this by adhering to some kind of New Testament form of keeping the Law.  Or we set up a list and focus on the externals of keeping the law.  We fall into legalism and we are constantly on the lookout for failures in ourselves and others.

The second message is sin victory, the power of The Exchanged Life.  Turn your back on those sinful tugs because to the new identity believer, sin is not natural.  It doesn’t feel right.  It doesn’t taste right.  And you have the power to spit it out!  So, in regard to the bad stuff, just stop it.

Now in view of our internal conflict with  sin, the frailty of the human condition, the baggage we carry from our past, and the designs of Satan our enemy, can we really approach sin with a “just stop it” attitude?  As incredible as it sounds, this seems to be the message of the New Testament writers.

Look with me at Paul’s logic in Romans 6 where he declares us free from sin’s power on the basis of our old self being crucified with Christ and our new self being resurrected with Christ.  Paul writes, “What shall we say then?  Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?  May it never be!  How shall we who died to sin still live in it?  Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?  Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin” (Rom 6:1-7).

Because your sin nature died with Christ, it is not only morally wrong, but it makes no sense to continue in sin.  It is insanity.  “He who has died is freed from sin.”  The alternative Paul offers is “to walk in newness of life.”

Peter continues this message, “Therefore, since Christ has suffered death in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he (talking about you now) who has suffered death in the flesh (old nature died with Christ) has ceased from sin” (I Pet 4:1).

Does Peter’s “he who has died has ceased from sin” sound eerily similar to Paul’s “he who has died is freed from sin”?  Could these authors be carried along by the same Divine Author?  Could this message of freedom from sin be one of the main themes of the New Testament; the New Covenant; the New Arrangement between God and man?

Peter goes on to emphasize what changed in your relationship to sin in this passage as he continues, “So as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.  For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousals, drinking parties and abominable idolatries” (I Pet 4:2-3).

The time for sin is past.  The time for sin is in the rear view mirror.  Sin is no longer your natural affection, attraction, and action.  It would be insane to continue in sin when your sin nature died with Christ.

The apostle John comes to the same conclusion through a slightly different path.  Rather than focus on the death of our sin nature, John emphasizes our freedom from sin based on our new birth as children of God.  John concludes that as those who carry the very seed of God inside, we now have a moral resemblance to Christ; a moral resemblance that is incompatible with the practice of sin.

John writes, “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be.  We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is.  And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.  Every one who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.  And you know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin.  No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.  Little children, let no one deceive you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning.  The Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the devil.  No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in Him; and he cannot sin, because He is born of God.  By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious:  any one who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother” (I Jn 4:2-10).

John’s logic is that to continue in sin as a believer is insane because of our new birth as a child of God.  It makes no sense to continue in sin when the seed of God dwells inside.  It doesn’t fit who we are.  Starting at verse two, the essence of this passage is:  as children of God in this world, we do not yet appear as we fully will appear, but one way we do look like God now is in our practice of righteousness.  In fact, to create in us a righteous person is one of the reasons Christ came.  “He appeared in order to take away sins” and “He appeared to destroy the works of the devil”.  Satan’s primary work is to take us down the path of sin, since it is his essential nature having “sinned from the beginning.”  Satan’s work is to empower sin.  Christ’s work is to destroy sin.

The message of these New Testament writers is consistent.  Our sin nature “died” “suffered death” “was destroyed”.  As a result we, filled with resurrection power, have what it takes to “walk in newness of life”.  Go in grace and embrace this gift and enjoy all that God has in store for you in your new life.  You, by the indwelling Spirit of Christ, have the power!

Faith is the Means

The power to live the victorious Christian life is “Christ in me, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27).  The power of the Exchanged Life, the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit of God is the fuel that frees us from the power of sin.  And the means or vehicle to lay hold of this power is faith.

God has promised that our old self, our sin nature, died with Christ.  I believe this by faith.  God has promised to take up residence inside us by His Holy Spirit.  I can’t always feel this, but I believe it by faith.  God has promised Christ’s resurrection power to all believers.  I believe this by faith.  God has promised that sin will not be our master.  I need constant clarity on how this works in practice, but I believe this by faith.

Three times in the New Testament – Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, and Hebrews 10:38 – God succinctly states, “The righteous man will live by faith.”  Paul summarized the role of faith in experiencing the power of the exchanged life in Galatians 2:20.  “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ 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.”

The power to live the Christian life comes by faith, not by human effort or self-righteousness.  Listen to the apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians,  “That I may be found in Christ, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil 3:9).  We often view these kinds of verses in the past tense.  That is, we were not justified in our initial salvation by keeping the Law, but by faith in Christ.  But I believe this encouragement applies to our ongoing salvation, our sanctification, our growth in acts of righteousness, as well.

Twice in Philippians 3:9 we are reminded of the role of faith in our righteousness; “righteousness which is through faith in Christ” and “righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”  Our present righteousness does not come from a self-righteous effort to keep “the Law”.  (We often form a New Testament version of what keeping the Law looks like.)  Our righteousness, our present righteous actions, come through faith in Christ.  Faith is the power.

“For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith” (I Jn 5:4).  In our conflict with sin, fueled by our enemies – the world, the flesh, and the devil – we are the overcomers by faith.  Let’s learn to believe God’s words in our every day experience and thinking rather than search for excuses for our weakness.  You have the power!