Love May Not Mean What You Think It Means


by John Ellis

If there is a word out there that’s used more than “love” to shame Christians into silence, I don’t know what that word is[1]. Likewise, if there is a group of people who use the word “love” to shame Christians into silence more often than other professing Christians, I don’t know who they are. Swinging the word “love” as if it were a cudgel, many progressive Christians eagerly swoop in to squash any mention of God’s judgment on sin and sinners. For those people, loving your neighbor doesn’t include warning them that may be under God’s wrath.

When I was a kid, I had John 3:16, among other verses, drilled into my head; I can’t help but wonder how many of today’s children are having Matthew 22:39 (“And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself”) drilled into their heads at the exclusion of Matthew 22:37(“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind)[2]. There are many other commandments in the Bible besides Matthew 22:39 and considering that all those other commandments are wrapped up into Matthew 22:37-39, defining “love” apart from the whole counsel of God’s Word is bad exegesis, at best, and rebellious dishonesty, at worst. Sadly, this proof-texting is being used to shame people out of sharing the Gospel.

The thing is, sharing the Gospel with someone is the most loving thing that a human being can do. The story of the Bible is the story of how God, solving the problem of sin, redeems a people unto Himself. After God created the Garden, humans broke it by rebelling against God. This sin resulted in the ethical breach between humans and God; an ethical breach that has been the inheritance of every single descendent of Adam and Eve. Except one. The new Adam. The seed of the woman that, in Genesis 3, God promised would crush the head of the serpent. Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, fulfilled the righteous demands of God’s law with and by His life and then died on the cross, taking the punishment that sin deserves upon Himself. Three days later, the Holy Spirit, vindicating Jesus[3], raised Him from the dead, crushing the head of the serpent and defeating sin and death. He now, as perfect prophet, priest, and king, intercedes before God the Father on behalf of those who are His.

That is the Gospel, the good news of how God is redeeming a people unto Himself. And, if an individual has yet to bow the knee in Holy Spirit given faith and repentance before the throne of God, placing their full assurance in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that individual is still under God’s righteous and just wrath; the ethical divide separating the created from the Creator is still impassable; and, if that individual dies before placing his or her faith in King Jesus, that individual will suffer the eternal consequences for their individual and personal rebellion against a Holy God. Sharing the Gospel is loving your neighbor.

And, sharing the Gospel requires speaking; it means telling people that they are sinners who, if they die without calling on the name of Jesus Christ, will spend eternity under God’s righteous and just wrath. Unfortunately, for many people, social justice issues haven’t merely earned equal billing with speaking the Gospel, social justices issues are the Gospel; social justice, for them, is the only acceptable way to love your neighbor. Referencing the cudgel I wrote about above, this belief is distilled into the judgment that, “Speaking the Gospel (and the Gospel as defined above) is a modernist conceit that demonstrates a judgmental and unloving attitude to broken and hurting humans. We, as Christians, as humans, are called to love people with our actions, not condemn them with our words.”

Well, yes, of course we are commanded to feed the poor; but having a belly full of food does not bridge the ethical gap between sinful humans and an utterly holy and just God.

In Romans 10, the Apostle Paul writes, unambiguously, “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on him in whom they have not heard? … And how are they[4] to hear without someone preaching?”[5] In Acts, Luke recounts the Apostle Peter’s testimony to the Jerusalem church that, “he [Jesus] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be the judge of the living and the dead. To him [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name”[6]. With that statement, Peter directly referenced the Great Commission issued by King Jesus. The proclamation of the Gospel is at the core of the Great Commission, which commands followers to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”[7].

Does this emphasis on speaking the Gospel remove the urgency and necessity to obey the clear commands of God found in the Bible to love others by feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and caring for the sick? Of course not, but just because there isn’t a dichotomy doesn’t mean that there isn’t a hierarchy.

It’s often pointed out that Jesus physically cared for every person in need who sought him out[8]. However, what’s often ignored is that Jesus made clear that His reason for coming to earth was, “to seek and to save the lost”[9]. In John 4, while talking to the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus explains that “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again”[10]. Lost humans are not saved from God’s wrath through food and water. Jesus’ primary purpose for coming to earth was not to heal the physically sick, but to heal the spiritually sick by providing a bridge over the ethical gap between God and man.

Living the Gospel does mean living a life that reflects the reality that you are now in Christ; it does mean that we are to be generous with all of the resources that God has given us and seek to demonstrate God’s love through acts of mercy and charity. But the story of the Bible is very clear on the point that humanity’s biggest problem is the ethical breach between humans and God that exists because of sin. The only solution to that problem is found in the life, death, and resurrection of King Jesus. We followers of King Jesus are commanded to tell our neighbors the good news that King Jesus has fixed the problem; that in Christ, by faith, salvation is found. Sharing the Gospel requires speaking, and if you never share the Gospel with anyone, you are in violation of Matthew 22:37-39; you are neither loving God nor are you loving your neighbor.

[1] “Judge not,” while technically two words, probably comes in a close second. I wrote about that here.

[2] Not to mention that I often see the last half of Matthew 22:39 combined with verse 38 to create the blatant misquote “This is the great and first commandment; you shall love your neighbor.”

[3] Romans 8:11, 1 Timothy 3:16

[4] Many scholars believe, on one level, that Paul is referring to Jews with “they.” However, most scholars believe that, especially in the universal context of verses 12- 13 (“no distinction between Jew and Greek,” that Paul also has a universal application in mind with “they,” too. For further clarification, see, among others, The Epistle to the Romans by Douglas Moo and Leon Morris’ commentary on Romans in The Pillar New Testament Commentary series. It should be noted, the editors of the ESV Study Bible find a greater universal application than they do a distinctly Jewish application.

[5] Romans 10:13-14, ESV.

[6] Acts 10:42-43, ESV.

[7] Matthew 28:19-20, ESV.

[8] Ignoring the fact that, as the Apostle John wrote in John 21:25, “there are also many other things that Jesus did.” We don’t know everything that Jesus did or did not do. To claim with certainty that Jesus healed every sick person and fed every hungry person that approached him is an example of that epistemic arrogance that progressive Christians like to talk about.

[9] Luke 19:10, ESV.

[10] John 4:13-14, ESV.


3 thoughts on “Love May Not Mean What You Think It Means

  1. Great post John. Really enjoying your blog. I surveyed my Systematic Theology students at the beginning of the school year and found out that they strongly agree with statements such as “It is more important to be the gospel than to preach to someone”; “The most important task for the church today is the transformation of culture”; “The most important thing we can communicate to our kids about God is that He is always there when we need Him”; “More than anything, Jesus is a great moral example who teaches us how to live”; “The primary thing Jesus was doing on the cross was showing us how much He loved us”; and “The gospel isn’t primarily about historical information but is rather about experiencing God today”.I may make this blog post required reading for them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wish that I could say that I was surprised by your students’ response, but I’m not. Sadly, I, too, feel the tug to re-invent the Gospel. We all inherit from Adam the urge to eat the fruit and correct God’s rule and reign.


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