The Limits of Love

More Thoughts on Sunday’s Text

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Founder & Teacher,

One of my seminary professors, Lewis Smedes, wrote a book entitled Love Within Limits. The point was that real life puts real limits on the good you can do for people—and the good that you should do for people. Let’s deal with two kinds of limits on love.

1) The first is the limit set by clashing claims. There are limits to the goodness love can do when doing good to one person will mean not doing good to another person. This limit happens virtually every time you do an act of love for someone—because in that moment you are not doing that act of love for someone else. To choose one course of love is always to leave a thousand other courses unchosen. When Jesus healed one leper, he left hundreds unhealed. His life was a continual series of choices to love one way and not another. To do, is also to leave undone.

But clashing claims express themselves in other ways. Suppose Timothy McVeigh blew up the Government Center in Oklahoma City. How should he be loved? Forgiveness and release would be one possible way. But two clashing claims are against this. One is the immediate claim of the safety of others who might be injured by his violence. Another is the less immediate, but more important, claim of a stable society based on the biblical principle that government exists for the restraint and punishment of evil (Romans 13:1-6). Maintaining a stable society that does not slip into anarchy is a great work of love to millions of citizens. The claim of this love limits the claim of Timothy McVeigh. The civil act of punishing criminals is an act of tender love to many people, though severe justice to a few people.

2) A second kind of limit on love is the limit Jesus points to when he speaks of the unforgivable sin. “Whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age, or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32). This means that God’s patience with unrepentant sinners will not last forever. They eventually cross a line beyond which God will not pursue them anymore. He will let them go, and they will never be forgiven. At this point, whatever love he was pursuing them with (Romans 2:4) is gone, and they become the objects of his eternal wrath (Revelation 14:10-11).

How does this affect our love toward incorrigible sinners? Jesus calls us to imitate God’s common grace toward his enemies, not his acts of judgment (Matthew 5:45). “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord. If your enemy is hungry feed him.” We are not to do all that God does. God may be planning vengeance according to his wisdom and justice for the sake of some greater work of love. That is not our business. Ours is to love our enemies.

There may be a rare instance when we discern that the line has been crossed into unforgivablility: “If someone sees his brother sinning a sin not unto death, he shall ask and [God] will give him life—to those sinning not unto death. There is sin unto death; not concerning that do I say for you to ask” (1 John 5:16). In other words, there may come a point when the prayers for your enemy will cease. I have never had the confidence to recognize this point in anyone I have ever known. To me it is safer to keep praying. We are to do good while we can, and hope that they will see our good deeds and give glory to our Father (Matthew 5:16; Luke 6:27). John does not command us not to pray. He only says, “I don’t command you to in such cases.”

This “sin unto death” may lie behind the psalms that are prayers for God’s judgment, rather than for his mercy. It may be that, seeing with God’s eye, the psalmists discerned the irrevocable rebellion of their enemy, and spoke judgment with the very Spirit of God.

Leaning hard into the Love of God,

Pastor John