How Can We Love as Christ Loved?

Confusion about the Definition of Love

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the most influential theologians and Christian activists, the celebrated martyr of the twentieth century, once wrote:

The worth of a life is measured by how much love it has. Everything else is nothing, nothing at all, totally indifferent, totally unimportant…Life is really not worth living at all without love…the sole purpose of happiness as well as unhappiness, poverty as well as wealth, honor as well as disgrace, living at home or abroad, living and dying is to love all the more strongly, purely, fully. It is the one thing beyond all distinctions, before all distinctions, in all distinctions. ‘Love is as strong as death’ (Song of Songs, 8:6).1

It seems, according to multiple testimonies of those who understood its nature, that the phenomenon of love makes our lives meaningful, maybe not always happy, but certainly meaningful. Though love is the most important and pleasant ingredient of the phenomenon of human life, most of us still do not agree on what the nature of love is. Love is not easy to define. It defies logic and resists any rational definitions.

Speaking about love, especially love for enemies, Martin Luther King Jr. tried to elaborate on this existing confusion: “The meaning of love is not to be confused with some sentimental outpouring. Love is something much deeper than emotional bosh.”2 King continued, presenting the traditional understanding of love in the New Testament described by three Greek words for love (eros, philia, and agape).3

My point here is not to define all these nuances of love (erotic, friendly, parental/unconditional/divine) widely accepted in the ethical-theological interpretation of the Bible and Christian tradition, but rather to point to the fact that love is not simply emotional/sentimental expression. The definition and reality of love, at least in the Christian community of faith, cannot be understood in the context of the complex emotional or volitional structure of human beings. Love has no source and origin in the emotional aspiration and will power of humans.

Furthermore, the meaning of love cannot be exhausted on the ethical level. Love is not just a moral mandate prescribed for humans as moral beings. Love is more than just the commandment to fulfill. According to Scott B. Rae, an ethicist widely respected in college circles, New Testament ethics considers love as a central virtue.4 Indeed, in all Paul’s writings love is at the top of the list of virtues (Colossians 3:12-17; Philippians 2:2-3; Ephesians 4:2-3; Galatians 5:22-23). Of all the Gospel virtues or high moral mandate, love occupies the special place in New Testament ethic, and there is a reason for it. Love is certainly more than just a virtue; it is more than just a principle of behavior. Biblically speaking, love is a way of life and therefore, should be lived in the certain context of God-given reality.

That love is the principle of the way of life is clearly articulated in Ellen G. White’s following statement: “True love is not merely a sentiment or an emotion. It is a living principle, a principle that is manifest in action. True love, wherever it exists, will control the life. Thus it is with the love of God”5 (emphasis mine). The life-controlling principle of love is a God-given gift, not an impulse of emotional or moral nature of human beings.

Why is love so unique in Christian expression of the communion with God? Why does the call to love always transcend emotional/sentimental or even ethical/moral aspirations of a human being? Where is the ultimate source of love and how can love be lived in complete alignment with this source? What kind of understanding and living experience of love should we proclaim to the world

Love: Moral Mandate or Presence?

The love of God, presented as revealed in the Holy Scripture and reality, is the most glorious experience a human being can have in this loveless and unloving world. The undeserving favor of God expressed in the miracle of the glorious Grace, which is in reality divine love, still captivates our minds and souls with awe and trembling. Despite the amazing and enlightening revelation we have in Holy Scripture, it is still extremely difficult to probe into the nature of this transcendent love of divine reality. John the Apostle tried to fathom the depth and breadth of this reality by his words:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (John 4:7-12)

Allow me to unpack this flagship text about love. Notice here that John is seemingly starting with an ethical/moral phenomenon about the commandment of love. The ethic of love and embracing one another is the indispensable principle of the Christian experience, call, and life. It appears love is the moral imperative and that according to biblical revelation and Christ’s example we should love God and love one another. The key question here is why we are not able to imitate Christ in this regard and love God and neighbor as ourselves. What is the main obstacle to practicing the principle of divine love and way of life expressed in this sacred text?

If love is understood only as a moral principle or virtue, or a moral mandate, we will encounter some difficulties in this project of love. When we look at love as an emotional expression of the moral mandate we all agree that the commandment is impossible to fulfill mentally, emotionally, volitionally. We are stretched beyond our possible horizons.

Jesus made it even harder when he mentioned to his disciples that they should love one another as He loved them (John 13:34-35). He shocked them with this alien experience to ordinary emotional machinery and His call to an extreme sacrificial form of divine love. By the way, this new commandment is not just simply the eleventh commandment as some would love to say, but the foundational principle or mandate of ALL commandments ever revealed by the will of God. This “commandment” is the expression of the way of life in the very presence of God.

The love commandment understood as a commandment and moral mandate is, therefore, doomed to fail as our experience and knowledge clearly prove that this expression of Christian love must lie beyond ethical demands. Individuals and nations tried to follow Jesus by keeping this commandment of love and the whole project ended as a clear overturn or distortion of everything God represents. There must be something deeper here that transforms us to the point of loving God and loving neighbor universally, perfectly, unconditionally. There must be a way to the fulfillment of this glorious “commandment.” God must remain faithful to His promise of transforming His people.

John clearly articulates this reality in his words: love comes from God, God showed his love, this is love: not that we first loved God, but he loved us….

For John, the commandment to love is not a moral imperative, virtue, or mandate, or sentimental/emotional expression of affectionate attachment to the God of love. It is not even a commandment. When John cries out: God is love, the emphasis is not on love but God. That reality called love, affection, impulse to be beneficially generous and kind and caring is not produced by human will power, nor emotional commitment, nor moral imperative, nor reality stimulated by true convictions, dogmas, or belief system.

That reality called love is a manifestation of the transcendental presence of God Himself. If God is love then it cannot be found anywhere else except in God, and incarnated Christ Jesus, the Lord of love. Bonhoeffer explains:

God is love: that is to say not a human attitude, a conviction or a deed, but God Himself is love. Only he who knows God knows what love is; it is not the other way round; it is not that we first of all by nature know what love is and therefore know also what God is. No one knows God unless God reveals Himself to him. And so no one knows what love is except in the self-revelation of God. Love, then, is the revelation of God. And the revelation of God is Jesus Christ… (1 John 4:9).6

If God is love, according to this powerful testimony, then love can be found only in his ultimate expression of incarnating presence and death of Christ as well as His glorious personal post-resurrecting communion with us. Love is the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Notice that in the biblical text, John mentions several times that love of God is shown to us in Christ who died as an atoning sacrifice. Love of God is an action of caring for the dying world, and this action is the transcendent presence of God Himself (namely, the revelation of God). The revelation of God makes love possible and doable. The origin of love is in this revelatory presence.

If we love, God lives in us, says John. This means that love is guaranteed when the overwhelming and transcendent presence of God is present within us as a new dimension of life, life itself revealed in Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is clear that John does not speak about love only as a moral mandate or emotional attachment but as transformed expression and extension of divine reality itself, as the incarnated reality of God’s life in us. If God’s life and his presence are extended through us, if it lives in us, only then can we love like God and become love. We can love like Christ (loving God and perfectly loving humanity universally and unconditionally). If we receive His Spirit (His full presence) and His life in its fullness, we can start loving God in return and loving our neighbor. Love is not just simply an ethical demand, it is the very presence of God.

Preaching and Teaching of Love as Presence of God

Thus, preaching of love as an emotional attachment or moral mandate will not be able to transform the community of faith. Preaching and teaching of love as the glorious embodiment of God’s very presence and transcendental overwhelming extension of His Life and presence of His Spirit coming as result of a commitment to the Crucified and the Risen One, will be able to make an impact in the community of faith.

Preaching of God’s love in this regard will create a new birth of love. “Everyone who is born of God” (by His Spirit), says the apostle, will be able to love God and love humanity.

Therefore, if we focus on the moral mandate and emotional aspect of love we can miss the wholeness of God’s love. Furthermore, if we insist on the pristine doctrinal articulation of God’s love as a sign of belonging to a community of love, we will miss the living incarnational presence of God which is a clear manifestation of His love. The community of faith should not just believe or talk about love—it should love. Love is a gift of His transforming presence, not the impulse of human will, education, religiosity, spirituality, or belief. Only if God lives in us and performs His presence among us, will His love be made perfect among and through us.

This might be bad news for the community of faith heavily dependent on the correctness of beliefs and convictions as a sign of the presence of God’s love in the community. If the love of God is revealed only among those who believe correctly or have enough will power to promote this moral mandate, then it is not universal. If this were true, the Pharisees would be the best candidates for the kingdom of God. However, as we know, they crucified the Lord of love. The love of God as the mighty presence of God is universal and, therefore, belongs to everyone who is open to recognizing love based on this presence, irrespective of their dark past or lack of sense for religion. In fact, the world is loved even before its openness to the presence of God.

We should not preach love to the world as a moral mandate, or expression of the deepest emotion, or the highest central virtue, or fulfillment of all God’s commandments, or as a sign of belonging to a morally and doctrinally pristine community of faith. Rather, we should teach that the universal presence of God’s revelation transforms, shapes, and mightily leads toward the complete image of Christ Jesus. The overwhelming presence of God makes this “commandment” sweet and desirable, makes it fully livable and completely fulfilled.

Love is God. God is love. “Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them,” (1 John 4:16).

Notes & References:

2. Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength to Love, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2010, p. 46.

4. Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009 ed., p. 42.

5. Ellen G. White, How God’s Love is Manifested, Part 1, Published in The [Australasian] Union Conference Record, June 1, 1900. Retrieved from the web May 31, 2018 (http://www.whiteestate.org/message/Love_Manifested1.asp).

6. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Eberhard Bethge (Touchstone: 1995), p. 53.

Alex S. Santrac, DPhil, Ph.D., is a Professor of Ethics, Philosophy, and Religion and the Chair of Religion and Philosophy Department at Washington Adventist University, Takoma Park, MD. Alex is also an extraordinary [research] professor of dogmatics and dogma and Church history at North-West University, South Africa and Tutor for Graduate Studies at Greenwich School of Theology, UK.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8805
1 Like

There are so many priceless nuggets in this essay that call to be highlighted. Thank you Aleksandar for a divinely inspired revelation of Christ’s new commandment, to love each other as He loved us on the cross and still loves us today. No wonder Paul revels in the fact that the love of God has been poured into our hearts.

What an insight into the meaning of the new birth! The old heart, full of self love, crucified with Christ and replaced with a heart of love, the love of God in Christ through the indwelling Holy Spirit.

What a joy to know that loving the way Christ loved is not a standard we have to meet. It’s God, pouring His love into our repentant, newly created hearts.

God is love and He lives in us. That is truly life-changing.

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I think we can all agree there isn’t much love of any kind sweeping this globe. All kinds of sentiments and behaviours masquerade as love, probably because that is what every human being is searching for, but can’t define. Christian religion tries to explain it to us, but it, too, often falls short.

If love is a gift, rather than a mandate for behaviour, we have to assume we have no part in receiving it. Gifts are not earned. Jesus says we have to possess the humility and trust of childhood, untouched by life’s disappointments, in order to “enter God’s kingdom”; however, we can’t “unring the bell”. Not long after we’re born we begin to experience some of the harsh realities of life without love - some earlier than others. By the time we are able to read God’s word with some level of understanding, we are already bringing a lot of baggage into what it means. To return to our childhood is not an option, so those institutions set up to represent God’s will, themselves made up of broken people, try to mandate ways we can experience it. The approach they use is to focus on our very basic needs; and speak to our deepest fears. In total, “religion”, too often, focuses on what we get out of it; not how we can experience God’s love.

The pragmatist will define our love for God by citing the commandments, and tells us that by “keeping” them we are exhibiting our love for God. The focus is on us, and the way into God’s kingdom. The irony is, that the more we try to love through behaviour, the more self-centred we become, and the farther we drift from that pure, unselfish love toward God and others. Love happens when we stop focusing on ourselves in the process of trying to find it.

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Ellen in MoB, page 18, on the Beatitude, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.”

“Not by painful struggles or wearisome toil, not by gift or sacrifice, is righteousness obtained; but it is freely given to every soul who hungers and thirsts to receive it. “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat, … without money and without price.” “Their righteousness is of Me, saith the Lord,” and, “This is His name whereby He shall be called, The Lord Our Righteousness.” Isaiah 55:1; 54:17; Jeremiah 23:6.”

If our righteousness, our commandment keeping is a gift, then it has, as you have said, nothing to do with our behavior, but our willingness to accept the precious gift God has offered. We just reach out, and God places it in our hands, and we then do his will as we have given ourselves to him, and he has given his power to us to do his will. Like an obedient child following the will of a beloved parent, who has given him all, even life itself.

Such a simple, but profound wonder, and amazing benefit that we have through Jesus. Righteousness! Pure and unadulterated! Real, rather than fake, or pretentious. And we may rest in such righteousness. It is not my own, so I have nothing in witch to boast, but only enjoy the gift God has bestowed. I am a blessed indeed if I just accept what God has to offer.

Standing before God will He see Christ’s righteousness or how well we kept the 10 C’s? Which covenant do you choose? Because if you keep the bondwoman you are a slave to the old covenant and are breaking a command of God “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman”. It is explained clearly in Gal. 4.
If you don’t cast out the bondwoman then you will be judged by all of the old covenant laws and breaking just one is breaking all.
This is another gospel that Paul warns about many times.
Still waiting to hear your response to why the Adventist church spends the majority of their resources targeting Christians, so they can put them back wth the bondwoman?

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Paul, our righteousness, all our right doing, all that we do that is a following of God’s will, including our commandment keeping is a gift from God. It is through Christ by faith. I don’t depend on my commandment keeping our salvation. I can’t keep them. But Jesus can keep them in me if I will let him.

When I stand before Christ at the judgement, it is not anything that I have done that will get me into heaven, but only what Christ has done.

But, if I refuse the gift, that is, I will not allow God to do his will in me, his commands, then i will be excluded, just as the one who refused the wedding garment was excluded. You can’t be a rebel in the kingdom, refusing the righteousness that God offers.

You are confusing the standard of salvation with the method of salvation. The standard has always been the 10 C’s and God’s other commands, love one another, love as I have loved you, etc. There are the standard. None of us can do them.

The method of salvation is by faith in Christ. We are saved by faith in him. Does that mean as Paul might say, the law is done away with? No longer an issue? No! It is the standard. Not the method.

Note my complete sentence:

My commandment keeping has nothing to do with my behavior? It is because I get it from somewhere else, from Jesus.

I will answer the other on the other thread, just have not had time.

You’re just repeating a false narrative. What was Paul referring to when he quoted from Genesis “Cast out the bondwoman and her son” in Gal 4? What did he mean and as a commandment what is required? You passed right over that for some reason. Why?

We cannot come to God on our own merit. We must be escorted by His Son. No amount of self-cleansing can make us pure enough to warrant the attention of Perfection. The Bible says that in our natural, sinful state we are enemies of God (Romans 5:10). But, escorted by the Son, we are welcomed into His presence. Through repentance and acceptance of Jesus’ death on our behalf, we are even called His children (John 1:12; Galatians 3:26). God no longer sees our imperfections; He sees the righteousness of His own Son instead (Ephesians 2:13; Hebrews 8:12). Because we are in Christ, God sees Christ’s righteousness covering us. Only “in Christ” is our sin debt cancelled, our relationship with God restored, and our eternity secured (John 3:16-18; 20:31).

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He was saying we cannot we cannot earn salvation by law keeping. I agree. Do you mean to say the commandments, the standard is thrown out? Can we then NOT do the commandments or any of God’s commands? I don’t think that you are saying that.

You think that the commandments are the ‘bond woman’. Is that right? What you seem to be saying is that we can be righteous by removing the standard. That way, we don’t have to look at it, and can then say, "Voila! righteous!

I agree that we are escorted into the presence of God by Jesus as are accepted, covered by his righteous robe. Then what? We can do as we please? Sin under the righteous robe of Christ? No, we do his will. That is keep his commandments.

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Lookout, as it is not me that brings these points up. Gal. 3 is coming as it applies to you. And you @blc, I see you lurking. Will be back…

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The old testament laws. No I did not say that. Paul did. Jams your gears huh?

Paul, I just posted a helpful reminder, just don’t want to post it again here; check it out:

For me I have always found CS Lewis’ description of the four loves to be the best. Agape is our love for others in general–always wanting the best for all and helping when possible and meaningfully not out of thoughtless emotion but because it is right. Charity would come under this. The others are affection,friendship, and marital love

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