We have a big week ahead because today we launch week number five hundred on the podcast. That is incredible. That’s a lot of sustaining grace, and not possible without you. So thanks for your prayers, support, questions, and listens. We don’t take any of this for granted. Thanks for listening while you wait in airport terminals, ride in subways, do your daily mundane chores (dishes, laundry, walking the dog), drive to work, or shuffle your kids around town, or even listen through your iPhone speakers at the end of your day. However and whenever you listen, thank you for making this podcast a part of your busy life — now for five hundred weeks.
We begin week number five hundred with a question from a listener named Joe. “Pastor John, hello and thank you for this podcast. What would you say is the difference between the kind of love that is produced in the Christian’s heart for others through the new birth (1 John 4:7; 1 Peter 1:22–23), compared to the charitable and often self-sacrificial love that we often see demonstrated in the world among non-Christians? How would you explain this difference?”
The difference between secular love and Christian love is that secular love is not rooted in the cross of God’s Son, and is not sustained and shaped by the power of God’s Spirit, and is not acted for the glory of God the Father. So the source of it is different, the sustaining power of it is different, and the goal of it is different. Let’s think about each of these one at a time and see if we can fill it out.
Rooted in the Cross
First, there’s a different source of these two loves. First John 4:19 says, “We love because he first loved us.” And how did he first love us? Well, John says in 1 John 3:16, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” So, Christian love is rooted in Christ’s sacrifice for me and for you.
By this our sins are forgiven. We’re justified, accepted, and loved by God. We have the hope that everything in life will work together for our good and bring us to everlasting joy, so that fear and greed, the great barriers to love, are taken away as we trust what God is for us in Christ. When Paul calls Christians to have compassion in Colossians 3:12, he prefaces that command with three identifiers of who we are. He says, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts.”
Now, this is the root of the source of compassion. God chose me. God consecrated me — made me holy, set me apart for himself. God loves me. And all of this is provided for us because of Christ’s death in our place. There is no other way. That death for us provided the hope from which love flows. Colossians 1:4 says, “We heard . . . of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” That hope is purchased by Jesus on the cross.
Christ’s death also provided the joy from which love flows. Second Corinthians 8:2 says, “In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” In other words, joy overflows in love. Christian love is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others, and that joy is a blood-bought joy from the death of Jesus.
So, the first difference between secular love and Christian love is that our love is rooted in and is the overflow of the work of Christ and its effects in our lives.
Shaped by the Spirit
Second, Christian love is sustained and shaped by the work of God’s Spirit, where secular love isn’t. Paul calls it the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22. It is the Spirit that takes the death of Christ, causes it to be real for us, and gives us new hearts so that the death of Christ has a love-producing effect on us. First John 3:14 says, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.” Love in our lives is the evidence that the Spirit of God has brought us from death to life.
“Love in our lives is the evidence that the Spirit of God has brought us from death to life.”
The Spirit not only gives us life at the beginning of our Christian walk (in the new birth), but he sustains our faith and life as we go along, moment by moment depending on his power so that we can make the sacrifices necessary that love demands. It’s the Holy Spirit that sustains our faith so that we can continually lay hold of the promises of God for hope, for joy that frees us for love.
We could go on and on about how the Spirit forms and sustains our capacities to love by overcoming the great love killers of fear and greed and selfishness; by directing our hearts over and over again to the truth of God’s commands and promises, where we get the wisdom and boldness we need to love; and by humbling our pride so that we don’t need to be somebody, and instead, we can take thought for the interests of others and not just our own — and on and on. The work of the Spirit sustains and shapes Christian love, but not the love of the world.
Aimed at Glory
Third and finally, Christian love has a different goal — not an entirely different goal, but a radically different goal. It’s not entirely different from the unbeliever who loves. It’s not entirely different because secular love often aims at the physical and emotional and psychological and relational and economic well-being of other people. And Christians care about these things. There’s overlap. But when Christians ask, “What is good for people in all those areas — what’s really good?” the answer is always essentially different from the answer of secular people, because for Christians what’s good for human beings is always defined so as to include their relationship to God in Christ.
What is good for people is that they trust Christ, depend on his Spirit, walk in obedience, and live for the glory of God. Therefore, when Christians talk about seeking the physical good of a person, for example, we do so in the hope that they will experience this physical good as a gift of God and receive it in the name of Jesus and rely on the Holy Spirit to use it for his glory. If all those Godward dimensions are missing, our love is falling short of its goal, and we grieve.
“Christian love is keenly aware that life on earth is a vapor followed by an eternity.”
Christian love is keenly aware that life on earth is a vapor followed by an eternity either of exquisite happiness in the presence of God or eternal suffering cut off from his presence. And therefore, Christians care about all suffering, but especially eternal suffering. The Bible tells us to do everything to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31), so we should love people for the glory of God.
Love That Enthralls
And when someone asks, “Is it truly love for a person if we are motivated by the hope that God will be glorified through our love for this person?” I know people ask that question. I’ve heard it recently. And the answer is yes, it is love — the greatest love.
The reason the answer is yes — it is love when you love someone in order that God would be glorified — goes like this: Love is doing whatever it takes to enthrall the beloved with the greatest and longest happiness, even if it costs you your life. And what will enthrall the beloved with the greatest and longest happiness is the glory of God — all that God is for them in Jesus. Therefore, love for people means doing all we can at whatever cost to ourselves — like Jesus did — to help people be enthralled with the glory of God now and forever.
When they are enthralled with all that God is for them in Jesus, then they are satisfied fully and forever, and God is glorified in their being satisfied in him. That’s what makes us tick at Desiring God — this glorious, profound biblical insight. Therefore, loving people and glorifying God are not alternatives. They’re not at odds. They are profoundly one thing.
So, in those three ways, Christian love is different from secular love. They have a different source (the death and resurrection of Christ), a different sustaining power (the work of the Holy Spirit), and a different goal (full and everlasting joy in God).