Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from a lecture given by the author at Freed-Hardeman University in 1984. Used by permission.
It is not surprising that “charity” (KJV), love, would be included in the list of Christian graces which are needed “to make your calling and election sure.” It may be assumed that love is something one either has or does not have regardless of his own effort. In fact, the Bible teaches that love is not only the supreme trait (1 Co. 13:13), but that it is something we can, and should, cultivate. Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians was: “And the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we do toward you” (1 Th. 3:12).
Love is the grace of a special commandment. Jesus said: “[A] new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another, as I have loved you” (Jn. 13:34). Love always was a priority. It is before, above, and inclusive of all other rules for human relationships (Ro. 13:8ff). What, then, is “new” in Jesus’ commandment? It is that it goes beyond “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Le. 19:18), calling for love like Christ’s love. It is a “new commandment” because of the new measure of love it sets before us. Certainly love is not peculiar to the gospel. Rather, the New Testament gives new light on an old precept. As someone stated it, “It is an old book in a new, expanded edition.” The “golden rule” has become the “platinum rule.”
Love, therefore, is a grace we have in common with our Lord. This may be one reason why love is greater than faith and hope (1 Co. 13:13). Without love we cannot know God or have fellowship with him (1 Jn. 4:8, 16). Peter said that as Christians, we are “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pe. 1:4). So much of what is called “love” is sensual and selfish. Jesus’ whole life was a demonstration of what love really means. Usually we tend to think of the cross as proof of his love, but we need to remember that his love was not shown in just one single, supreme act, but in a lifetime of caring for others. We must grow in grace that we may “walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us” (Ep. 5:2). Jesus did not love us for what we could do for him, but for what he could do for us. This is especially seen in the events of John 13, the occasion of the last supper. First, consider how he reacted to the treachery of Judas. Here was love overcoming hate. We notice the emphasis in verse one that his love never failed. Love washed his disciples’ feet. Is it not a fact that most of the time the challenge is not whether we can keep from hating, but whether we can keep from being selfish? The cross was only a few hours away, yet, knowing this, he continued to love sacrificially and without self-pity. Even toward Peter, who failed to grasp the situation, and who seemed most concerned with his own self-confidence, Jesus could be patient and forgiving.
Love is the grace that identifies disciples. “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (Jn.13:35). The converse is also true. Nothing denies discipleship as does an unloving spirit. Jesus knew the impact that a church united in love would have on the world (cf. Jn. 17:21, 23). But even unbelievers can see through claims of a church filled with selfishness, suspicion and strife. Sound doctrine without sound hearts makes only an empty sound (1 Co. 13:1ff). How can men be his disciples (learners) when they fail to learn experimentally what is his special commandment. Those who serve Christ must wear his colors. They have “put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness” (Co. 3:14).
Not only does this grace help to identify the church to the world, it also assures a disciple of his standing with God. “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. . . . My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth. And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him” (1 Jn. 3:14-19). Genuine love provides the capstone of confidence for the faithful.
Love is a grace that is never is finished. Some commands are completed at one time (i.e., baptism), but love is a continuing grace. The use of the Greek present tense in 1 John 3:14 indicates “keep on loving.” It is an obligation that is never completely fulfilled. It is without limits. We never reach a time when we have loved enough. There is no limit as to whom we should love, how long we should love them, or whether we have loved to a sufficient degree. Instead it is a grace that should be always growing, ever expanding (1 Th. 3:12).
Finally, let’s consider that the grace of love is a common grace. It is not command to a few, but to all. Some people have more talent than others. Some are more influential than others. But everyone of us — rich or poor, educated or unlearned, skillful or clumsy, known or ignored — everyone of us has the same privilege of love. One may be unable to deliver a sermon, compose a song, or write a book, but he can have as full a measure of this grace as any man, and this is the one thing that matters most (1 Co. 13).
David is a member of the board of directors and the former editor of the Carolina Messenger. He is an elder of the Charlotte Avenue Church of Christ in Rock Hill, SC.