Discerning Love

Earlier today I wrote an article on the urgent need for critical thinking by believers. By that I basically meant that it is imperative that we think biblically. That is, we must not be slavishly following the world in its thoughts, its values, its beliefs, and its agendas.

We must have a solid biblical worldview in other words. We must test all things, as Paul commands us, and we must even test the spirits, as John urges us. Not all thoughts are God’s thoughts and not all spirits are from God. And obviously not all worldviews, belief systems, practices, lifestyles, and policies are of God.

So the Christian must be discerning, and not just latch onto the latest worldly trend, or the latest political policy, or the latest spiritual fad. We must carefully test all things, and make sure they line up with the revealed will of God as found in Scripture.

This is just as true of something so familiar – and so near and dear to us – as the notion of love. Love of course is foundational to Christianity. God is love. God loves us. We must love. But this wonderful biblical truth can also be corrupted, twisted and easily misunderstood.

Plenty of worldly and just plain unbiblical notions of love are floating around – even in our churches. We have embraced the world’s understanding of what love is all about, while dismissing or forgetting about what the Scriptural understanding is.

Now I have written before about biblical love and its meaning, so I won’t repeat myself here. But I refer readers to this piece for starters: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2008/08/12/on-biblical-love/

Consider just one passage which demonstrates how radically different the biblical understanding of love is from the worldly conception. Romans 12:9 offers us this rather remarkable set of commands: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good”.

Of course this line of thought is found elsewhere in Scripture. In Psalm 97:10 we read these words: “Let those who love the LORD hate evil”. But both these passages would be quite shocking to many people today – Christians included. For too many years too many believers have imbibed too deeply of worldly and humanistic thinking here, so that their understanding of love is light-years removed from the biblical understanding.

Their concept is a sentimental, mushy and watered-down type of love which is more in keeping with New Age thought or the tenets of secular humanism. They have bought the foolish notion that love is about accepting and tolerating everything and everyone.

They think love means to never say no, to never judge or critically evaluate, or to question things. They believe love is to embrace everything and to reject nothing. But this has nothing to do with biblical love. And the passage from Romans – and Psalms – makes this perfectly clear.

So let’s look at Romans 12:9 a bit more closely. Notice that love – to be biblical – must be sincere. Thus there can be such a thing as insincere love. So right away we see that not all types of love are acceptable or biblical. Love, to begin with, must not by hypocritical, but genuine.

Note that love is intimately paired up here with hatred. To contemporary ears – even those of Christians – this seems utterly foreign and reprehensible. Yet it is totally and fully biblical to its core. As John Stott comments, “It may seem strange that the exhortation to love is followed immediately by a command to hate. But we should not be surprised. For love is not the blind sentiment it is traditionally said to be. On the contrary, it is discerning. It is so passionately devoted to the beloved object that it hates every evil which is incompatible with his or her highest welfare.”

R.C. Sproul offers some very cogent words here: “The hatred about which Paul writes is hatred of the highest dimension. He uses one of the strongest words for hatred found anywhere in the Bible. The word implies not mild displeasure or mere dislike; Paul is commanding in the name of the Lord that we loathe evil. We are to see evil as an unveiled assault on the character of God and on his sovereignty.”

The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. As Thomas Schreiner comments, “True virtue is not passive about evil but has an intense revulsion of it. Evil is not tolerated but despised as that which is injurious and wicked.” Thus love of necessity must be discerning; it must discern between that which is good and that which is evil.

As James Montgomery Boice has stated, “love must be discriminating. Real love does not love everything. On the contrary, it hates what is evil and clings to what is good.” If believers will not be discerning, we cannot really be loving. It is that simple.

In sum, hear the words of Douglas Moo: “‘Genuine’ Christian love, Paul is suggesting, is not a directionless emotion or something that can be only felt and not expressed. Love is not genuine when it leads a person to do something evil or to avoid doing what is right – as defined by God in his Word. Genuine love, ‘the real thing,’ will lead the Christian to do that ‘good’ which is the result of the transformed heart and mind (v. 2).”

Of course this is not the only such passage to appeal to here. Paul also clearly makes this connection between love and discernment in Philippians 1:9-10: “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ.”

Paul wants our love not to be vacuous and nebulous, but based on and grounded in knowledge and deep insight. It is to be a discerning love. Biblical knowledge and insight are essential if we are to love properly. And our love must at all times be steered by solid discernment.

As Gordon Fee remarks, “The reason for an overflow of ‘knowledge and (moral) insight’ is so that they will ‘be able to discern what is best,’ that is, so that the faculty for making proper assessments about what is absolutely essential regarding life in Christ will increase as well. For truly Christian life, some things matter, and others do not.”

Markus Bockmuehl is quite right to say, “Christ, it seems, has no place for love that is selfish, indulgent, and lacking in discrimination – nor indeed for knowledge that does not express itself in love. Merely impulsive, undiscerning love cannot stand the test of time. . . . Knowledge and love are not merely compatible, but mutually necessary: the measure of one is the measure of the other; genuine growth in love goes hand in hand with genuine growth in understanding and the knowledge of God (2 Pet. 1:7-8).”

Biblical love is never mindless – It is quite the opposite. Love must always be based on knowledge and wisdom. That requires discernment and critical thinking. As Stephen Fowl comments, if we are to follow Paul here “we will have to shift our notions of love away from the overly romantic and sentimentalized versions of love so common in our current culture.”

Warm, sentimental feelings are just not enough for the true follower of Jesus. Biblical love demands being discerning, discriminating, and judging all things. These words have all fallen on hard times nowadays, but we must nonetheless reclaim them.

If we will not learn to discern, if we refuse to make righteous judgments, and if we fail to critically discern, then we will be incapable of knowing and sharing Christ’s love. Biblical love is not content-less or boundary-less. Biblical love is always bound by God’s character and ways.

That is why G. K. Chesterton could remark, “Love is not blind. Love is bound. And the more it is bound, the less it is blind.” Yet sadly far too many believers today are blind, because they have simply embraced the world’s notions of love, tolerance and acceptance.

They have traded the riches of biblical love for the cheap tramp of worldly love. No wonder we are making so little difference in today’s world. We are offering the worldlings what they already have, and know is of little value. Until we start to offer genuine love, we will make no real difference at all.

And the only way we can bathe in and pass around that love is by means of godly and biblical discernment. That today is one of our biggest needs. May the church of Jesus Christ rise to this challenge.

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6 Replies to “Discerning Love”

  1. Well done to RC Sproul to go on to say this in his comments on Romans 12:9:

    “I believe that the greatest ethical issue today is that of abortion. In recent years many have come to see terrorism as more concerning than abortion. I am baffled by that, because more people were killed on September 10 in the womb of U.S. women than were killed on 9/11 in New York City. More babies were slaughtered on September 12 than adults were killed on 9/11. If we had a camera on the womb so that CNN could show us graphic videos of what actually happens in the slaughter of unborn children, abortion would be quickly abolished, but the reality of it is covered up. If there is one thing I know about God, it is that he hates abortion.”

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  2. Bill, another great article on the most pressing need for Christians today, true biblical love that is discerning and willing to be judgmental where righteousness is concerned. Jesus didn’t stand for the money changers in the temple, He was righteously discerning about that.

    R.C. Sproul is right about abortion, when will we Christians stand up like Gianna Jessen, abortion survivor, in her speech at Queen’s Hall, Parliament House, Victoria. Australia – on the eve of the debate to decriminalize abortion in Victoria.


    What an incredibly amazing young woman, unafraid to speak of God and Jesus publicly as she did. Yes God hates abortion, but I wonder what God thinks of those who know this yet fail to act.

    Fred Merlo

  3. On the ABC a featured speaker recently was Christopher Kennedy Lawford. He said when he was a youth his father handed him a vial of cocaine. But yes, his father did love him. What sort of love was this? It started him on a course of drug addiction from which he has since extracted himself.
    Anne-Marie Modra

  4. Woolly, fuzzy rhetoric about love has featured prominently in recent parliamentary debate about gay marriage in Canberra. C.S. Lewis in his The Four Loves does a masterful job of cutting through this kind of thinking – thinking seduced by Eros – thinking that has given us such aphorisms as “All’s fair in love and war”.
    John Wigg

  5. In a way it all comes down to the Lordship of Christ. God is love, so only what He calls loving should be our example.
    Prov 3:7 Do not be wise in your own eyes, fear God and hate what is evil. Only God’s wisdom knows what is good and evil and it alone only knows where which good thing belongs. A good thing in the wrong place can also turn evil, as we can see in the case of ssm. Human sexuality is a good thing, designed by God, but He also tells us where it belongs. Take it out of heterosexual committed marriage and it becomes an atom bomb.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

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