Words cannot begin to capture the horrors endured by the Pilgrims that first Massachusetts winter. Yet William Bradford, the Pilgrim leader and first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, would at least try to capture it in his journal Of Plymouth Plantation. His record reveals that within a few months of their arrival in November 1620, half of the first one hundred settlers would die on account of starvation, cold, and disease.

To make things worse, desperation and loneliness accompanied many up to the moment of their deaths. Bradford unpacks the dire scene: “For they that before had been boon companions in drinking and jollity in the time of their health and welfare, began now to desert one another in this calamity, saying they would not hazard their lives for [the sick, since] they should be infected by coming to help them in their cabins; and so, after they came to lie by it, would do little or nothing for them but, ‘if they died, let them die.’”

Yet, among all the misery and malady, something beautiful would happen. A small band of six or seven would sacrifice their strength and safety to serve the dying in the most extreme ways. The record here provides a stark contrast. These noble few would do “all the homely and necessary offices for [the diseased] which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named; and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren; a rare example and worthy to be remembered.” So, who were these self-sacrificing ministers of mercy?

In a most telling section of the journal, the identity of this group becomes clear. One of the self-professed pagans exclaimed to one of his caretakers: “Oh! You, I now see, show your love like Christians indeed one to another, but we let one another lie and die like dogs.” And what marked the difference between the self-sacrificing six or seven and the other abled-bodied abstainers? It was Christian love. Not just love for mankind in general but the love from Christians to other Christians. From the dying lips of this rejecter of the faith, we learn that love and care for one another uniquely marks the authentic Christian community. At least anecdotally, love for the brethren is what real Christianity looks like.

Anecdotal or Essential?

The story itself is fascinating, but is it formative? What is the significance of Christian love for our lives? When it comes to our salvation, what does love have to do with it?

For our Lord Jesus, Christian love was more than a mere anecdote; it actually represented a nonnegotiable for discipleship. On the eve of His crucifixion, Jesus pronounced: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35). These were vital instructions. After all, disciples were historically identified by the physical presence of their masters. Yet, Jesus’ imminent absence would necessitate a new means by which others could discern their master’s identity, namely, Christian love.

Love for God without love for other believers is impossible.

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.

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