“…my basic truth leads me back to what Jesus would do. He walked with sinners. Prostitutes, murders, thieves. He counseled all. He preached love and exemplified love. Rules and guidelines come with religion... one very clear rule that has come down through scripture is that we don't sit in judgment of each other. So I try to understand the different views... but my default is to champion love and understanding.”
This is one of a number of similar responses that have appeared in the comments to a recent article I wrote on how Christians should respond to the SCOTUS ruling in the US. This response sums up well the common response from religious people who have a ‘fuzzy’ idea of what the Bible says, often backed by the teaching of a pastor who also has a ‘fuzzy’ idea of what the Bible says.
(By the way, there is a solution for those with a ‘fuzzy’ idea of what the Bible says – but that isn’t what this article is about.)
Clearly the Bible has a great deal to say about love, and Jesus, in particular, spoke in terms of love. (Use your computer to search love, loved, loving, etc. in the gospels – you’ll find many results – and most of them aren’t the ones being used to paint Jesus as a gentle flower of inclusivity.)
Here are the ones that are popularly used on social media:
John 3:16 – ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’
John 13:34 – 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. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
John 15:9 – As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. (Make sure you DO NOT read the next verse or it ruins the impression that Jesus was calling all people to a non-discerning position of general acceptance of all people and positions.)
Or – to draw from a different gospel…
Matthew 5:43-44 – ‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…
Matthew 22:39 – ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
These sorts of responses have a tendency to set a lot of Christians on their heels; after all, they believe the Bible is the Word of God, and the Bible truly says the things that people are quoting, so maybe opposing same-sex marriage isn’t a Christian thing to do!
However, in Romans 12:9, the Bible gives us a working definition of genuine love. This little verse is worthy of your consideration if you’re trying to figure out how Christian love works.
‘Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.’ Romans 12:9 (ESV)
I want to define three terms from this short verse.
I. Let Love Be Genuine
The Greek text at this point contains no verb. To be super literal, the apostle Paul simply writes: ‘Genuine Love’ (agape anupokritos) and then goes on to his teaching. Every major translation supplies a verb, transforming this into an implicit command, and that is the intent of the passage. This verse heads a section that describes and defines what genuine love looks like in the church and the Christian life.
We need to consider this. Our culture doesn’t use words very clearly. Those who hold to liberal theology – that is, theology that would reject the infallibility of scripture and would scoff at believing that every word in the Bible is the word of God – default to ‘love-language’ on a regular basis.
But my own camp, the camp of historic conservatism does not repudiate love – we simply want to define it.
If, for example, what you mean by love is that we are willing to perish in order to give you an opportunity to hear the gospel – and we will pour out our lives to get it to you, and dig you a well and build you a school while we pray and preach and plead for you to leave behind your old idols and come to Christ. We are all for that. Our gospel drive is fuelled by love.
If, on the other hand, what you mean by love is that we respect and honour people too much to disrupt their lives by explaining that there is a just and righteous God before whom all the world will one day stand and give an account; that in their current state they stand condemned and separated from God; that no amount of effort on their part can save them – but that God has sent his own Son to pay the penalty for their sin and will save them on the basis of his righteousness if they will only lay their faith on Christ alone. If you mean by love that we don’t do that – we simply make sure that you have water, food, education and a micro-finance loan because it would be unloving to link the GOOD NEWS OF SALVATION with the good news of clean water. If that is what you mean by love – than historic conservatism repudiates you as a citadel of Satan; doing the work of the devil by shoveling souls into hell.
That may seem like an extreme response, but I believe it is the biblical response – look again on this little verse and what it reveals about genuine love.
II. Abhor What Is Evil
‘Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.’ Romans 12:9 (ESV)
How is ‘Sincere Love’ described? The first description is to abhor what is evil.
Do you know how the lexicon defines the term ‘abhor’? To abhor is quite literally to hate exceedingly! Does that strike you as strange – I think Paul meant for it to strike you as strange! I think he was very intentional in setting up this paradox:
LOVE HATES EXCEEDINGLY!
What does love hate? Love hates evil! So how do we define evil?
If we were to ask the person on the street what is evil – what responses might we find?
ISIS – HITLER – CHILD-ABUSE – TERRORISM
If we were to ask the person in the pew, what is evil, the list would expand.
ABORTION – EUTHANASIA – SEX AS AN EXPRESSION OF PERSONAL PREFERENCE
But what answer would Paul give when we come back and ask him to define evil.
We don’t have to look far, he uses the term 11 times in the book of Romans – let’s look at how the term is used:
(Speaking of those who do not worship or thank God we come to these words in Romans 1:28-32) - And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (ESV)
Paul is describing every person in the world, evil is set in among four other words –
UNRIGHTEOUSNESS – the opposite of righteousness.
COVETOUSNESS – discontent with what God has given.
MALICE – the desire that bad things happen to people I don’t like.
Add EVIL to this mixture and you have a definition of how the whole world lives.
In Romans 2:9 we read that God’s judgment is upon those who do evil, and it is equally against Jew and Gentile: There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek…
If we stopped at this point in our examination, we would have a skewed picture. We would then say that love means HATING worldliness. We are opposed to the sinful practices of the world.
That is correct, but it isn’t the whole picture. The Christian who has sincere love looks deeper.
The apostle Paul, speaking of his own struggle with sin in Romans 7 writes: For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.
Brother and sister Christian – it is to vague to speak of evil as the most heinous things of history perpetrated by people given to violence. Those things are evil but evil is closer to home.
It is not enough to speak of evil as worldliness, as unrighteousness and discontent and malice towards neighbours. These things are evil, but evil lies closer than this.
It is disingenuous to speak about evil only as that which God hates so much that he will finally destroy it in judgment – that is true – but there is more.
Evil, as Paul is describing it, is something that I struggle with day by day. Sin is evil. All sin is evil. My sin is evil.
So as I seek to ‘let love be genuine’ I am called to HATE the sin that I find in my life!
This is where the gospel comes in - Jesus is a Saviour who saves sinners. I do not rely on some internal goodness to overcome my evil – I turn to Jesus who has overcome all evil. This is good news, not only for me, but for those in every other list – the grace of God is great enough to wash away the evil of sexual sin, abortion, divorce, malice, covetousness and unrighteousness. Even the abuser, the terrorist and ISIS are invited to be redeemed by faith in Christ.
But there are two sides to genuine love, not only what we hate exceedingly, but what we desire deeply.
III. Hold Fast (Cleave) To What is Good
The old translations used the word CLEAVE and that’s a good word – because this word comes from the idea of marriage. We so desire the good that we bind it to ourselves. The word cleave carries the connotation of being bonded, welded or glued to something so that there is no way to separate one from the other.
We are to cleave to what is good! It is easy for Christians to be known only for what they denounce and reject. But we are to be equally known for what we affirm and embrace.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4:8-9
There are many things in this world that have been created for our enjoyment and to lead us to worship God in thanksgiving.
My desire is that I should be known for what I love and delight in as much as I am known for what I repudiate. I find in this little verse the command to hate sin in every incarnation – especially when I find it in my own heart and life. But equally to lay hold of the good that God has made and to delight in these things.
The true Christian should be famous for their happiness, joy and the fullness with which they partake in all the good that God has made – and it is right to be reminded at this point of the words that God spoke at creation over all that he had made… he called it good!
So, Christian LISTEN! LOOK! SMELL! EAT! TOUCH! God gave us senses. So I aim to listen to music and rejoice; to sit on my back porch and watch as many sunsets as I can with joy; to smell the flowers that I cultivate in my garden and to give thanks to God as I eat my grilled chicken!
Let us LOVE and DELIGHT in everything we find that is TRUE, HONORABLE, JUST, PURE, LOVELY, COMMENDABLE, EXCELLENT AND WORTHY OF PRAISE.
Christian, do not be silenced in your repudiation of evil with an argument from love – true love repudiates evil. But don’t get so caught up in repudiation that you neglect delight. Perhaps a review of your social media is in order. Does it reflect ‘Genuine Love’? Does it reflect both the things you repudiate and the things you delight in? Does your life reflect both? I hope, that when people seek to describe you, they can come as quickly to the things that you DELIGHT in and REJOICE over as they can in the things that you HATE and RUPUDIATE.