How do we know if we really love Jesus? The Bible’s answer might surprise you.
We know if we love Jesus by what we consistently (not perfectly) do and don’t do. We know this because Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). And the apostle John echoed Jesus when he wrote, “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:3).
At face value, these statements should make any lover uncomfortable. We all know intuitively that the essence of love is not merely its actions. Love cannot be reduced to a mere verb. That’s why everyone laughs at John Piper’s illustration of a husband handing his wife a big bouquet of flowers on their wedding anniversary and then telling her he’s just fulfilling his obligation as a dutiful husband. It’s why everyone understands Edward John Carnell’s illustration of a husband asking, “Must I kiss my wife goodnight?” Because we know the answer is “Yes, but not that kind of must.”
Not That Kind of Must
“God made us to wear our love on our sleeves. He wired us to serve what we treasure.”
Neither Jesus nor John meant that obeying Jesus’s commandments is the same thing as love. What they meant was that love for God, by its very nature, produces the consistent characteristic of “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5). So, on earth, love for Christ tends to look like obeying Christ.
Now, love, faith, and obedience are not the same things. Love is our cherishing or treasuring Christ, faith is our trusting Christ, and obedience is our doing what Christ says. The essence of each is different. Bad things, like dead orthodoxy and legalism, happen when we make them the same thing. We must keep Christ’s commandments — but not that kind of must.
Though they are distinct, they are inseparable. We cannot love Christ without trusting (exercising faith in) him (1 Peter 1:8). We cannot trust Christ without obeying him (James 2:17). So, naturally, we cannot love Christ if we live in persistent, conscious disobedience to him (1 John 1:6; Luke 6:46).
Wearing Our Love on Our Sleeves
This is an elegant, devastatingly simple design. God made us to wear our love on our sleeves. He wired us to serve what we treasure. How we love ourselves is evident by how we serve ourselves, for good (Ephesians 5:29) or for evil (2 Timothy 3:2). How we love our spouse or children or friends or pastors or co-workers or pets is evident by how we serve or neglect them. Whether we love God or money is evident by how we serve or neglect one or the other (Luke 16:13). In the long run, we cannot fake who or what we really serve.
It’s true that we sometimes can hide our sleeves from human view — sometimes even from ourselves — at least for a while. But God has a way of exposing our sleeves eventually.
This is what the parable of the good Samaritan was about, which nearly all of us are granted the opportunity to live out in different ways and at different times. The priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan all outed their sleeves by the ways they responded to the injured man (Luke 10:31–35).
“We know what love is by what love does.”
It’s also what the story of the rich young man in Mark 10 was about. He seemed at least partially blind to the love on his own sleeve, because though he thought he had done lots of obedient things (Mark 10:19–20), something was troubling his soul — which is why he came to Jesus. But Jesus saw the man’s sleeve clearly and with one sentence drew everyone’s attention to it: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). Then it was clear: the man could not obey Jesus because he loved and trusted money more than Jesus.
We see this all over the Bible: love for God or love for idols is made visible by obedience or disobedience to God. We see it in Cain with Abel (Genesis 4), Abraham with Isaac (Genesis 22), Reuben with Bilhah (Genesis 35), Joseph with Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39), David with Saul in the cave (1 Samuel 24), David with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11), Judas with his silver (Matthew 26), Peter with his denials (John 18), Peter with the Sanhedrin (Acts 4), Ananias and Sapphira with others’ admiration (Acts 5), and Demas with Thessalonica (2 Timothy 4) — just to name a few.
By This We Know Love
But the most important place in Scripture (or anywhere else) we see love demonstrated through faith-empowered obedience is in Jesus:
- By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us (1 John 3:16).
- God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
- Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).
Supreme love was made visible in Jesus’s death on the cross, where “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2) pursued his, and our full, eternal joy (John 15:11) through his obedience in the midst of the greatest suffering (Hebrews 5:8). God wore his love on his bloody sleeve. Jesus did not merely “love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). “By this we know love.”
“How do we know if we love Jesus? By what we consistently (not perfectly) do and don’t do.”
How do we know if we love Jesus? By what we consistently (not perfectly) do and don’t do. All lovers of Jesus keenly know we don’t love him perfectly. “We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2), and “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). But “if we say we have fellowship with [Jesus] while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:6).
We know what love is by what love does. All lovers of Jesus refuse to walk in persistent, conscious disobedience to him. Our faith-empowered obedience in public and private places is the God-designed evidence of our love for Jesus.