Love is the heartbeat of Christianity:
“For God so loved the world . . .” (John 3:16).
“In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us” (1 John 4:10).
From eternity God set His love on His people. In time and space, the Father sent His Son as the great display of that love. On the cross Christ secured our salvation out of love for us. Not one of Christ’s blood-bought people will be lost, because He loves every one of them. The gift of the Holy Spirit is a further outpouring of divine love. Truly the heartbeat of biblical religion is the love of God.
God has loved us so much and blessed us so abundantly in Christ that the only appropriate response is to love Him in return. We do not need to be reminded of Christ’s incisive summation of the law as “love God and love your neighbor” (Matt. 22:34–40). We read our Bibles, hear inspiring sermons, and wholeheartedly agree that Christians should love their Savior because He first loved them. Yet, the reality for many is that this truth is rarely experienced in practice. If we are honest, despite being convinced that we should love Christ, most Christians struggle to love Him in any meaningful and consistent way. Our love for Him is at best intermittent and often elusive.
This lack of affection for our Lord and God can be seriously debilitating. Some learn to live with a permanent sense of guilt, leading them to feel like second-class citizens among Christians who appear to know and experience Christ in deep and intimate ways. Others find that their lack of heart devotion for their Savior causes them to doubt whether they are truly one of God’s people. Questions of assurance of faith crowd in as they look at themselves in the mirror and fail to see anything that even approximates a biblical love for Christ. This problem is exacerbated by the way that we normally experience love and devotion in our everyday relationships. Shared time, places, experiences, interests, joys, and griefs, along with a myriad of other relational minutiae, combine to create a sense of connectedness with others. These produce deepening emotions that in turn draw out our love and affection for family and friends. The same does not seem true of our relationship with Christ. How can we relate to, and therefore grow in love for, someone we have never seen? How can we enjoy a deep devotion to a Savior with whom we struggle to share time, space, and experiences?
The Bible answers this very real problem in a number of ways. It may surprise you to hear that Christ was Himself deeply concerned about this precise issue. He devoted His last hours with His disciples to preparing them for His physical departure and reassuring them of the presence of another Helper—namely, the Holy Spirit (John 13–16). The teaching and experience of the New Testament church is clear. Jesus Christ can be known and a living relationship with Him enjoyed despite His physical absence. Through the Word of God, and especially in what the church came to identify as the means of grace (preaching, sacraments, and prayer), Christ communicates His grace to His people, and His people enjoy a living relationship with their Savior. In addition, the knowledge of God in His Word, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, obedience to His holy laws, delight in the beauty and majesty of God in the created order, the sovereign providence of God in our lives, heartfelt prayer and thanksgiving—all these, though different from our everyday means of cultivating love, nonetheless provide real and meaningful ways that we can seek, savor, and strengthen our love for Christ.
There is another way that love for Christ is to be known, expressed, and experienced. This way is often overlooked and under emphasized, yet it is powerful, helpful, and immensely encouraging. What am I referring to? Simply that we love Christ by loving Christ’s people. The words of 1 John 4 are striking. Having repeatedly asserted that “love is from God” and that “God is love” and that God has “loved us,” what does John encourage us to do? To love one another! (1 John 7, 11, 12). Our response to God’s love for us is to show we know God and abide in His love by loving one another.
In 1 John 4:19–21, John takes this one step further, anticipating the very problem many Christians experience. Using compelling gospel logic, he questions whether we can love God whom we have not seen, when we hate our brothers whom we have seen. He concludes, “Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:21). This is more than compelling in its logic, it is persuasive in its pastoral care. What are we to do when we struggle with loving our God who has loved us so much? Where do we go to both express our love for God and be reassured that we do actually love Him? We turn to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we love them. Our love for God is shown in our love for other Christians.
Jesus, in Matthew 25, takes this connection between devotion to Him and devotion to His people one step further. In His description of the final judgment, Christ tells us that when He returns in glory, seated on His glorious throne, all nations will be gathered before Him. He will divide them into two groups: the sheep and the goats. The distinguishing mark that will differentiate the sheep from the goats will simply be their treatment of Christ—whether they gave Him food and drink and welcomed Him and clothed Him and even visited Him. The sheep will be perplexed, wondering when they did these things to Christ Himself. And He will answer, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). In other words, to bless one of Christ’s children is to bless Christ Himself. To show love to other Christians is to show love to Christ.
It is worth considering how this works. How can it be that when I love my fellow Christian it is as if I am loving Christ personally and directly? The answer is union and communion. As Christians, we are united by faith to our Savior. We are His and He is ours. We are one with Him. To use the language of Paul, we are “in Christ” and “Christ is in us” (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 2:20; Col. 1:27). The truth of our union with Christ is not only the basis for our understanding of salvation itself, but it is also wonderfully encouraging. We become joint heirs and co-heirs with our Savior. And yet there is more. By virtue of our union with Christ, we are brought into communion with all of His people. All Christians have this in common—their union with Christ. And this union with their Savior unites them to each other in mutual fellowship.
Perhaps an illustration will help. If you tune one hundred pianos with a single tuning fork, you accomplish two things. First of all, each individual piano is in tune with the tuning fork. At the same time, and by the same means, all one hundred pianos are now in tune with each other. The harmony of each piano to the tuning fork results in a harmony between each and every piano. This highlights the twin effects of our union with Christ. We are each brought into union with Him. This union has the additional benefit of making all those who are brought into union with Christ to be brought also into communion with every other Christian. This, then, wonderfully explains how it is that when we love each other we are also loving Christ. It also explains how Christ can say that by feeding, welcoming, clothing, and visiting the least of His brothers, we are actually doing it to Him. Our Savior is bound to each and every one of His blood-bought children. And we are bound to each other in Christ. This union is such that to bless His children is to bless Him, and to love His children is to love Him. When we love our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are loving Christ even though He is physically absent from us.
If you struggle to love Christ as much as you would like to, then be encouraged. Not only is our High Priest sympathetic to this struggle of faith in our Christian lives, but He has given us numerous ways to know, experience, and cultivate our love for Him. One of those is by loving His people. When we love Christians, we are loving Christ.
So what are you waiting for? This Sunday at church, or sometime during the week, serve and bless one of Christ’s dear saints. Do them good, encourage them, and love them, because when you do, it as if you are doing it to Christ. And all it takes is a cup of water, a friendly conversation, a meeting of a practical need, or an invitation for coffee. When you doubt your love for Christ, then actively pursue your love for His people. When we love other Christians, we are loving Christ. In fact, we love Christ by loving His people.