Do not miss the parameters of this love. We do well to call it “Christian” on account of its scope or breadth. Christian love is not just about what we do but to whom we do it. Our Lord specifically intends for us to love each other, thereby adding a special emphasis to the traditional commandment to love “one’s neighbor as oneself” (Mark 12:31; cf. Lev. 19:18). And so, the command here is not just to love all people everywhere generally but to love “one another” specifically.
Does this mean His followers no longer love the lost around them? Of course not. However, it means that love for neighbor must begin with the family of God. This saintly specificity is verified by the details of the narrative, since John was careful to disclose that by this point Judas Iscariot had already departed (John 13:21–30). Thus, the only ones left in the room were true followers of Jesus. Ultimately, love for other believers is imperative, not merely anecdotal.
But this conclusion regarding the importance of Christian love brings us to another question: Is this kind of love actually essential? When we label something essential, we mean that without it, the object or subject in question would cease to exist. It is essential for a triangle to have three sides, for example. If you take away a side or add one, it is no longer a triangle. Three sides are not just important to a triangle—they are essential. What, then, is the relationship of Christian love to genuine Christianity? Is it actually essential or merely important?
In no uncertain terms, the Apostle John revealed love for other Christians to be essential to the new birth. It seems that Jesus’ admonition on this topic so stuck with the Apostle that He repeatedly linked Christian love to authentic Christianity. A brief survey of 1 John reveals that love for one’s brothers and sisters in Christ marks the difference between abiding in the light or walking in the darkness (2:9–11), being a child of God or a child of the devil (3:10–11), existing in the realm of death or the realm of life (3:14), and being in or out of a relationship with God (4:7–8). As if this integral relationship between Christian love and spiritual life was not clear enough, John proceeds to exclaim: “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. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20–21, emphasis added). Love for God without love for other believers is impossible. Love for one’s brother or sister in the faith is essential.
What’s Love Got to Do with It?
As clear as this relationship between Christian love and Christianity may be, we still must be extremely careful when we say love is essential to Christianity. Christian love is a consequence of salvation, not a condition for it. Thus, the Second London Baptist Confession clarifies, “Good works [e.g., love for other believers], done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith . . . (James 2:18, 22; Ps. 116:12, 13; 1 John 2:3, 5; 2 Peter 1:5–11; Matt. 5:16; 1 Tim. 6:1; 1 Peter 2:15; Phil. 1:11; Eph. 2:10; Rom. 6:22).” So while Christian love evidences genuine salvation, it does not by any means bring about this salvation.
With this caveat in mind, the practical benefits of this topic become clearer. In our longing to assess the authenticity of our own conversion or in our attempts to discern the credibility of a friend or family member’s profession of faith, we too often miss out on this incredible indicator. How many vainly connect the assurance and evidence of authentic salvation to their church attendance, denominational affiliations, religious experiences, giving records, Bible knowledge, emotional state, or some recitation of “the sinner’s prayer” while neglecting crystal clear, concrete, and incontrovertible evidence of love for other believers?
We must, then, be willing to examine ourselves and others on the basis of Christian love. Anyone can boast of love for God the Father, but can they back it up through concrete expressions of affection for God’s children? In utilizing this evidence of regeneration, a few practical questions may be appropriate: How would the world around you characterize your relationships with other Christians? Do you have more of an affinity for the godly or the godless? In what ways do you regularly express affection for your brothers and sisters in Christ? Have you clarified your love and affection for your brothers and sisters in Christ through partnering with a local church? How have you made personal sacrifices for the well-being of other believers? Your answers to these questions matter. In fact, they matter so much that I would even encourage you to check your answers by asking your spouse, child, or a fellow church member if they see these qualities in you.
So, it seems the pagan seafarer in Bradford’s journal may have been on to something after all. Love does indeed have something to do with genuine salvation. True followers of Jesus should and will reveal their saving relationship with God through their special regard for one another.