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Every year as spring turns to summer, my enthusiasm grows for my son’s baseball season. As we sit in the bleachers cheering on the team, my youngest daughter will often ask me, “What team are we?” Since she is too young to understand the difference between the infield and outfield, I try to find the most tangible way to identify our team. “We’re the green team,” I say. From the green hats down to the green socks, that is the unique characteristic that separates us from everyone else. Somewhat like this, the Bible teaches that love is to be the distinguishing attribute of the Christian.
It would be hard to overemphasize the place of love in the Christian life. Jesus taught that love for God and neighbor is the sum of all the commandments (Matt. 22:40). Paul said that without love, we are nothing and we gain nothing (1 Cor. 13:1–3). We are told by Apostolic command that love is a debt we owe to one another that can never be paid back in full (Rom. 13:8). James speaks of love in the highest terms when he calls it the “royal law” (James 2:8). And John reminds us that loving others is an assurance that we have been born of God and know Him (1 John 4:7).
It is important to discern what this love is. We live in a culture that embraces the obscure idea that “love is love.” Tragically, this self-defining love has promoted all manner of sin and unrighteousness. It is a love that is motivated by human personality, knows few boundaries between right and wrong, and aims at the ultimate gratification of the individual. So different is the world’s idea of love from the Bible’s that worldly love cannot be a part of the believer’s identity. Rather, Christian love is grounded in the character of the triune God, motivated by His grace, concretely expressed in attitude and action through the law of God, and promotes the glory of God. It is that kind of love that Jesus exemplified in His life and ministry, and it is the only love we are called to as disciples.
Christian love should be extended to all people—believers (John 13:34), neighbors (Mark 12:31), and even to our enemies (Matt. 5:44). Admittedly, there are practical challenges in understanding the extent of our love. For instance, the whole Bible commands us to show love to our enemies (see Ex. 23:4–5; Lev. 19:18; Prov. 25:21), but the psalmist also sings of hating those who hate God (Ps. 139:22). These difficulties should not disturb us too much. After all, God’s love toward the evil (Matt. 5:45) is not incompatible with His hatred for the wicked (Ps. 11:5). But leaving aside those difficulties, there is no challenge in understanding the absolute necessity to love those who are our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Loving other Christians is not something that is simply optional, preferable, or even ideal. Rather, the Bible bluntly asserts,
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20)
It is an impossible contradiction to be a believer who hates other believers. As hard as it can be to love our brothers and sisters (we all have different personalities, preferences, and sins), by His Spirit, God meets the demand of the command with His boundless stores of grace so that we can fulfill the royal law of love.
Therefore, we can love fellow Christians with the kind of love that the Bible talks about—love that is patient and kind; that does not envy or boast; that is without arrogance or rudeness; that does not insist on its own way; that is not irritable or resentful; that does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Such love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. By His grace, we can love with that love that covers a multitude of sins (see 1 Cor. 13:4–13; 1 Peter 4:8).
There are many benefits to loving each other this way. It fuels our worship and praise of God, it aids our prayers and supplications, and it enriches our life and fellowship together. But Jesus also taught that by loving one another, we show the world that we are His disciples. Our Christian identity is not something to be hidden in a dark corner or spoken in a barely audible whisper. In this sense, a Christian has no right to privacy. Who we are in Jesus Christ is to be made manifest to those around us.
So, let us ask an important question: How does the world know you are a Christian? Is it by your social media memes and tweets? By a well-placed bumper sticker or the books on your shelf? Is it by your getting (or not getting) a tattoo or listening to Christian music? Is it by your wearing religious symbols or using catchphrases? Or is it by your ability to debate and argue? Jesus tells us of a more excellent way: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Loving one another genuinely and affectionately in the daily and mundane routines of life is a powerful witness that cannot be contradicted or overcome. The world may not understand our love for each other, it may not appreciate the way we love each other, and it may not praise the love we have for one another. But as we love our brothers and sisters in word and deed, all will see and know, by this love, that we are disciples of Jesus Christ.