On Biblical Love

Yes I know, it is silly to even try. Write on the love of God in 1200 words, when entire libraries have barely even broached the subject? Indeed, even before beginning this, I was reminded of the third verse of the great 1917 hymn The Love of God by Frederick M. Lehman:

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

Nonetheless let me press ahead. Three recently read verses of Paul have got me thinking again. I want to highlight just one aspect of this incredible subject. And that is, I wish to dispel the notion held by far too many believers that love is little more than sentimentalism, or nice feelings, or just going along with things, or syrupy sap.

Biblical love is none of this. It is bounded by truth, discernment and knowledge. It has nothing to do with feelings and everything to do with knowing the mind of God and sharing that with others. It is about willing the best for the other person – God’s best.

The first verse to look at in this regard comes from the famous “love chapter”. Oceans of ink have been spilled on 1 Corinthians 13 of course. I just want to look at a brief phrase found in verse 6 where we are told that love “rejoices in the truth” or “rejoices with the truth”. Here we see, as in so many other places, a close connection between love and truth.

Messianic Rabbi Jonathan Cahn, in a talk at the Presidential Inaugural Prayer Breakfast, Washington DC earlier this year made this short but profound remark: “Without truth there is no love.” And John Stott made the connection this way: “We seem in our generation to have moved a long way from this vehement zeal for the truth which Christ and his apostles displayed. But if we loved the glory of God more, and if we cared more for the eternal good of the souls of men, we would not refuse to engage in necessary controversy, when the truth of the gospel is at stake. The apostolic command is clear. We are ‘to maintain the truth in love,’ being neither truthless in our love, nor loveless in our truth, but holding the two in balance.”

Of course that verse which Stott appealed is from Ephesians 4:15 which is the second verse I have had in mind. In that passage Paul mentions “speaking the truth in love”. I have just written on this verse elsewhere, so I refer readers there: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/12/03/speaking-the-truth-in-love/

But just last night I read some terrific commentary on this verse by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, so I will pass some of it on here: “Above all we must realize that love is not sentimental and weak; love is strong, love is true, love is pure. To love a person truly is to desire the very best possible for that person. Love sometimes has to hurt; occasionally we have ‘to be cruel to be kind’. The parent who never corrects the child is a very unsatisfactory parent….

“If we are animated by a spirit of love we shall be anxious for our beloved fellow Christians to be delivered from error and to cease to be children. To that end, we may have to speak very severely to them at times, and chastise with all the strength we have.

“Love does not mean that we smile at everything and show ourselves indulgent, saying that nothing matters as long as we are all one. Love is one of the most virile, strong, magnificent qualities in existence. And love is so powerful that it is prepared to hurt its object in order to win it and save it and to safeguard it from a dreadful fate. ‘Love is strong as death’.”

The last passage I wish to briefly examine is 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 for the day of Christ.”

Love does not just run wild, but is channelled and propelled by discernment, by knowledge, and by insight. To repeat: love is not a feeling or an emotion. It is an act of the will to do what is right and offer to others what is in their best interests, as determined by God and his word.

James Montgomery Boice puts it this way: “The Christian life must be motivated and informed by love. Without love we are only clanging symbols. But this was never intended to be a wishy-washy, undefined, sentimental love. It is the love of Christ. Hence, it must be a love governed by biblical principles and exercised with judgement.”

These are only a few of the verses which might be considered here on this topic. The point should be clear by now however: the modern notion of love which so many believers cling to is really little more than a worldly understanding, complete with its acceptance of an anything-goes tolerance.

That is not at all how Scripture understands the love of God. This is a love which cares enough to confront, which cares enough to offend when need be, and cares enough to challenge falsehood and ungodliness wherever it is found. Indeed, it is the love of the master surgeon.

It is willing to hurt to heal. The real doctor who loves his patients will not hide truth from them. He will not make things easy on them so that they will just feel OK, even though they have a cancer eating away at them within. Truth will be spoken, along with corresponding drastic measures to remove the life-threatening cancer.

It is the same in the spiritual life. If we really love a person we will speak truth into their life. We will not sugar-coat things, or pretend things are OK when they are not. That means loving a sinner enough to warn of hell to come, unless they come to Christ in repentance and faith.

It means loving the carnal or backslidden brother enough to proclaim truth into their life – hard truth that they must repent or risk being lost for all eternity. It does not mean excusing sin, mollycoddling sin, blinking at sin, or white-washing sin. And that is to be the case both in our own lives, and the lives of others.

Love always means willing the highest good for the other person – that is biblical love. It is not sentimental mush or New Age hocus-pocus. It is not feel-good pep talks, and it is not therapeutic moralism. It is speaking the truth of God into every situation of life.

If you really love, you will speak truth. It is that simple. Much of the church today has lost these basic biblical givens. We need to recapture them quickly. Too much is at stake if we don’t.


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6 Replies to “On Biblical Love”

  1. Just wondering Bill, I have read much along the lines that seem to leave me thinking that feelings are to be denied expression. That love has no connection to feelings whatsoever. That feelings are almost sinful to have. What roll in the human existence do feelings play?

    Dave Powell

  2. Thanks Dave. There is of course nothing wrong with feelings as such. God made us in his image as emotional, psychological, mental, volitional, spiritual and physical beings. The trouble is, as you know, far too many believers run their lives almost fully based on their fleeting emotions and changing feelings, instead of choosing to remain firm on the unchanging Word of God.

    One can also discuss theologically if and to what extend God may have feelings or emotions (is God passible, etc?), and we can look at the life of Christ (he was angry with sin, etc). But we are made to feel. It is just that we too often let feelings trump mind and will.

    For more on one aspect of this I often refer folks to the essay by B B Warfield, “The Emotional Life of Our Lord” in his The Person and Work of Christ.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Dave, there’s an important 18th century treatise on emotions towards God (“Religious Affections”) by Jonathan Edwards:


    He says, “The affections are no other than the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.” That is, our emotions show us what our hearts most desire.

    I’m sure Bill would agree that a love devoid of feeling and emotion is less than what God or our fellow people are owed! Indeed, Scripture enjoins us to love and delight in God (and in our spouse), and commends zeal, fear, mercy, desire and even hatred of what is evil. Far from sinful, they are an essential part of worship and a virtuous life.

    A Christian’s emotions (especially love) must be rightly directed by their mind and the Spirit who rules it.

    Dave Burt

  4. Yes Dave and Bill I agree whole heartily, it is just that when defining love many people seem to neglect giving feelings their appropriate status in the human experience. We react to the abuse of what is erroneously called love (usually some form of lust) by many and give the impression that love is void of feelings.

    I see feelings as being in part a result of the desires of ones heart.

    Dave Powell

  5. The modern misunderstanding of the nature of love – that’s it’s about feelings, especially romantic feelings and sexual desire – is what is garnering support for homosexual ‘marriage’ because young people have never been taught anything to the contrary.

    I know plenty of young ‘Christian’ people who genuinely see the issue as a matter of fairness and equality usually summed up in the question: why can’t two peple who love each other marry? They are so brainwashed into the secular mindset that they are genuinely perplexed.

    Clearly they have no understanding of the nature of true love (hint: it’s not about ME), let alone a proper understanding of the nature and purpose of marriage (hint: again it’s not about ME but rather the welfare of children).

    But wasn’t it heartening to see those Taiwanese turn out in their hundreds of thousands to defend marriage for the sake of children’s welfare! Just look at that massive crowd: http://www.nomblog.com/38592/

    How sad that such a huge anti homosexual ‘marriage’ protest was totally ignored by our media. We know that the GayBC has offices in Asia, so why didn’t they report this massive demonstration? Maybe we should ask them?

    You can lodge a complaint here: http://www.abc.net.au/contact/complain.htm

    Antonia Feitz

  6. I wonder if the “love is all that matters” crowd in the church actually contemplate how scathing Jesus was of the religious leaders and lawmakers.
    Did Jesus love these people? Of course! Someone needed to explain their folly to them.
    We are called to be like Jesus, so we are justified when offering believers and doubters alike repentance advice when they have become complicit in sin.

    Dameon McManus

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