If I were to describe my experience in evangelicalism over the past forty years – the duration of my Christian life to this point – I could sum it up in two short statements:
- Believe the right things.
- Don’t sin.
I don’t think my experience is unique; in fact, I suspect it is commonplace across evangelicalism regardless of whatever denominational tribe we might find ourselves.
These two dimensions of our faith are obviously important and not to be minimized. It is obviously important to know the essentials of the faith and to adhere to them. These are doctrinal matters and critical for understanding God accurately – to whatever extent that is humanly possible. Included are topics such as the triune nature of the Godhead, what God is like, what Jesus accomplished for us on the cross, the nature of spiritual life, why the church exists, and the trustworthiness of the Bible.
Just as obvious is the admonition not to sin. It was sin/Sin that caused our separation from God in the first place, a separation that – left unchanged – would have resulted in an eternity away from God’s presence. Even now sin can separate us from God: not for eternity but in our daily experience of and walk with Him. Not sinning – to whatever extent we are capable – is a very good thing.
Believing the right things and not sinning are necessary dimensions of our Christian life but they are not sufficient: that is, these two things alone do not accomplish God’s will for us in our remaining time here on the planet. They may be enough for salvation but there is yet another dimension that proves whether or not they actually are enough.
The third thing that is missing – at least for most of my life – is loving. Loving God, loving other believers, loving all people. Love as a verb, something we do, not something we necessarily feel. “Walk in love,” Paul tells us (Eph 5.2); “love one another, even as I have loved you,” Jesus tells us (Jn 13.34).
To be fair (to myself), I am a loving person unless I think about it. What I mean is that I love people when I’m not paying attention to myself but the minute I begin trying to love people I miss the mark horribly. I get caught up in the first two directives to believe the right things and to not sin.
When my head gets involved like that is when my love is no longer from God but is, rather, a product of my self-righteous or self-confident flesh. Probably more of the latter. To say that I have tried too hard might be too generous but it might be true, too.
John gives us a broader understanding of love:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.
In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. – 1 Jn 4.7-11
Here is a definition and application of love: it is sacrificial, giving even when there may not be any advantage for us in doing so. God gave his Son; he gave him as a payment for our sins so that those who believe would not have to pay with their own lives.
Writing about the Cross, Marshall says,
God sent his one and only Son into this world in order that we might obtain life through him. Here we see the two factors which determine the nature of love: on the one hand, self-sacrifice, and, on the other hand, action done for the benefit of others . . .
There can be no explanation or definition of true love which does not start from God’s love. We cannot begin to understand love by considering the nature of our love for God. Rather, love is to be seen in the prior act of God who loved us and expressed his love by sending his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. In this phrase we find the deepest meaning of the term “love”: love means forgiving the sins of the beloved and remembering them no more. This is what God has done for rebellious mankind: he pardons their sins against himself at his own cost.
That is how we are to love one another; that is how we are to love everyone. Love is doing the right thing for others every time. God defines what the right thing is and what love is, not us: our response is to obey and give even as he gave.
I miss this when I think about it; then again, I miss it when I don’t think about it, but at least when I’m not paying attention I’m more likely to fail in the right direction. What I need to do – what so many of us need to do – is to be a loving person even when consciously thinking about it.
I need to understand that – as Francis Schaeffer wrote – the mark of the Christian is love.
Conscious or unconscious, deliberate or spontaneous.
Because the greatest of all is love.