Is Love for Jesus, or Faith in Jesus, the Root of Ministry and Obedience?

Immanuel Nashville | Nashville

In the first service, I started with a personal testimony and I just want to tell you that because of how significant it was and is. I was ordained to the Gospel ministry in July of 1975 at Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena, California. The signature of the chairman of the ordination council at the top of my ordination certificate, and the pastor of that church, is Raymond C. Ortlund Sr. So get the picture now so that the providence of God would hit you the way it hits me. Ray Ortlund Sr. shepherded me as a young man toward ordination, and his son, Raymond Ortlund Jr., the founding pastor of this church, shepherded my son toward the gospel ministry. That’s an unusual, sweet, and precious providence, and I thank Jani and Ray for their part in that.

I want to say it again: two generations of Pipers owe more than we can say to two generations of Ortlunds. I would not be here, I don’t think, without Ray’s dad because, though I was already in seminary, I didn’t believe much in the local church. People in my day, around 1968, were going barefoot, walking around the streets, wearing black armbands, and marching. They didn’t go to church on Sunday but called themselves Christians. And I would have been there I think, if I hadn’t gone to church at Lake Avenue and looked around and listened and thought, “This is real — the company of the committed.” Oh my, there’s so much to be thankful for.

That’s not the only reason why I’m knit together with Ray, this church, and what makes this church tick. There’s another reason. From 1980 to 1998, Ray Ortlund Jr. was teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and he taught a course on Psalms. I’ll tell you afterward how I know all this because I tracked it down. In the syllabus of the course on Psalms, he wrote this:

Communion with God is the central experience of human existence, out of which flows all that is profound, ennobling, and strategic, delivering us from the stylistic banalities of the modern world, including those of evangelicalism.

What a great sentence. I read that and said, “No wonder I like this place. No wonder I like Ray Ortlund. This is so right.” Communion with God is the essence of existence, delivering us from banalities — the political banalities, the entertainment banalities, and the banalities of the world — and freeing us for something profound, noble, and strategic. So that’s my message. Only you need to hear from God, not from Ray Ortlund or me.

Trusting Jesus, Loving Jesus

So here’s the connection between that sentence, this morning’s earlier message, and this one. John 21:15–19 was this morning’s text in the first service. The point there was that Jesus says to Peter three times, “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?” And Peter replies, “Yes, yes, yes.” Then Jesus says, “Feed my sheep, feed my sheep, feed my sheep. If you love me, you will feed my sheep.” If you commune with God, if that’s the essence of your existence, to use Ray’s sentence, out of your life is going to flow rivers of living water, including strategies, nobilities, greatness, and food for sheep that causes them to grow up and be a certain way and not another way.

So obedience is the fruit of loving Jesus. He is saying to Peter, “If you love me, feed my sheep. If you love me, feed my sheep. If you love me, feed my sheep.” Communion with God is the central experience of existence because from it comes all these profound, ennobling, and strategic things.

Now here’s the question for this message: Why did Jesus not say to Peter, “Do you trust me? Feed my sheep. Do you trust me? Feed my sheep. Do you trust me? Feed my sheep.” Why did he say, “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?” Instead of saying, “Do you trust me? Do you trust me? Do you trust me?” John 14:15 says:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

And John 14:23 says:

If anyone loves me, he will keep my word.

It’s not because it’s wrong to say, “If you trust me, you’ll keep my word,” or, “He who trusts me will keep my word.” That’s not wrong. Paul said the obedience of faith is the essence of the Christian life. He didn’t say the obedience of love is the essence of the Christian life. He sums up the Christian life as the work of faith, not the work of love. It’s not wrong to say faith is where obedience comes from.

Jesus says, “Do you trust me, Peter? Feed my sheep. Do you trust me, Barnabas? Feed my sheep.” That’s not a wrong sentence, but my question is: Why didn’t Jesus say that instead of saying, “Do you love me?” I’ll give my answer, and then I’ll try to show it from the Gospel of John. I will argue that Jesus said, “Do you love me?” instead of saying, “Do you trust me?” because in Jesus’s mind and in the Gospel of John, loving Jesus that way is at the essence of trusting Jesus. That’s the point of this message.

Careful Theology

Now I was talking with Ray before we came out here, telling him what I was going to say, and I told him I just wrote a book on this. The book is out there being assessed by some competent readers because this is dangerous talk, theologically. I’ll tell you why so that I can warn you against misunderstanding me and falling into error. When you start talking about love being at the heart or the essence of faith, you are cozying up to wrecking the Protestant Reformation, where faith alone justifies. When you start mingling other things with faith, you are about to lose the precious doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works of the law, as in Romans 3:28. That’s dangerous, and I’m not a Roman Catholic.

I hate messing with the doctrine of justification by mingling faith with works so that we depend ultimately on our own transformation instead of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ on the basis of faith alone, and what I’m about to say sounds like that error. Are you with me? I don’t want you to go there. I don’t want you to say, “Oh, Piper said that obedience to the law, or obedience to the commandment, is at the heart of saving faith.” That’s heresy. Now, why isn’t that what I just said?

It’s because I’m not defining love as obedience. So many people take the text, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” and say, “See, love is obedience.” It’s not. Is is the wrong word. Rather, results in is what the text says, doesn’t it? If you love me (cause), you will keep my commandments (effect). Causes and effects aren’t the same. Don’t say that. Don’t go to that text and say, “Love is obedience. Love means obedience.” It doesn’t, at least in Jesus’s mind and in the Gospel of John, loving Jesus is deeper and first, then from it, like a fountain, flows obedience to his commands.

So then, what is the love that I’m talking about, which isn’t yet obedience? To answer that question, I’m going to point out an amazing thing about the Gospel of John. And if you have the answer to this question, come see me. Although, I think they’re going to whisk me away afterward, so you won’t breathe on me or I on you.

Here’s the amazing thing that brings out the question. In the Gospel of John, which you know is called the Gospel of Belief (John 20:21), the word belief doesn’t even occur in the Gospel. The word faith also doesn’t occur in the gospel. However, the word believe occurs 98 times. The verb occurs 98 times and the noun never occurs. That cannot be an accident.

Ray said Jerry Hawthorne pointed that out to him, and I said, “I’d love to know what Jerry Hawthorne thought was the explanation.” I’m going to give you an explanation. It’s my effort to understand what’s going on here that such a crazy thing would happen as to write a whole Gospel about the importance of believing and never use the word belief or the word faith. It does not occur once in the Gospel and only occurs once in John’s epistles (1 John 5:4). But my question is: What is going on with this?

Now often you read this explanation, and I’m going to reject it and tell you why I do. Some say, “Oh, it’s because John wants us to understand that faith is active, not passive.” Now that sounds right, and in a sense, I think it is right. But as I listen, I think what a lot of people mean when they say that is, “Faith causes actions.” They say, “Faith is active because it produces action for Jesus, obedience to Jesus, and a life for Jesus.” I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think that’s why John uses the verb all the time and never uses the noun.

Here’s what I mean when I say faith in John’s Gospel is active. I mean that within us before there’s any movement of muscles in obedience at all — no embraces, no walking in paths of righteousness, no right use of your sexuality — there is this inner reality called believing, and it is an action of the soul. The soul acts, but what would that be? The soul believes and, in believing, is acting. Here’s the way I’m going to answer that question. What is the soul doing? John seems to want to draw attention to the doing of faith before there’s any doing with the body.

To All Who Did Receive Him

Let’s go to John 1:11–13 for a very familiar definition of faith in John. There’s nothing quite like it. There are one or two other texts in the New Testament that come close, but this is the clearest. What in this text is John saying that believing is?

[Jesus] came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

John chooses to use words here to make plain that receiving Jesus is what believing does. That’s what believing is. It is a receiving of Jesus, which is an act of the soul, not the body. Now I have no problem with Billy Graham asking people to come to the front. My dad did that. I’ve done it — having people walk to the front to receive Jesus. It’s just totally irrelevant to faith. Faith is this miracle in the soul that receives Jesus, and you can be totally paralyzed in a hospital bed and do that. You can be totally acting faith without moving a muscle of your body. In fact, you must act faith as distinct from a muscle in your body or you will turn faith into works.

Another clarification is that when John 1:11 says that believing is receiving Christ, usually that verse is treated as an evangelistic verse for those who receive him for the first time. That’s totally right, good, and true; it’s just not the whole story. We receive Christ daily. All day long I say to him, “You are welcomed here. I receive you here. I invite you. You’re knocking on the door (Revelation 3:20), and I open my door to you every morning. I’ll move the furniture anywhere you want it so that you’ll sit here with me. My door is open to you. My arms are extended to you. I receive you.” That’s faith. Every day, all day long I’m receiving Jesus.

Living Water and Heavenly Bread

Now the question then becomes, receive him as what? Here are two answers and then I’ll give you the verse where they come from. Receiving Jesus is the soul’s drinking of the living water that Jesus is, with soul satisfaction. So if you had to say, “What does the heart do in these 98 verbs called believing?” The answer is: It drinks and swallows and says, “Ah,” to Jesus and his word. Here’s the second thing you could say about what faith does. It is the soul’s eating of the bread of heaven that Jesus is, with satisfaction. So I’m drinking and I’m eating when I receive Jesus. Here’s the verse. John 6:35 says:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.

He could have said, “I am the living water” as well in the first part, but he shortens it down. Notice the parallel here. Do you see it? Coming to him and believing are parallel, and I think interchangeable here. However, the coming isn’t a coming with your feet. It’s coming with your hunger and your thirst, which is what a heart does. A heart is thirsty. A heart is hungry, and believing is turning to Jesus with your heart to eat his bread and drink his water.

So believing is a coming to eat this bread and drink this water, so as to be satisfied and never thirst. That’s believing in the Gospel of John. There’s no spatial movement in that, right? There’s no physical movement and no geographic movement, it’s just a coming of the soul, the heart, the will, and the affections. These are capacities of our inner being. We drink, we eat, we taste, we savor, and we’re satisfied before we move a muscle. The heart coming to the water is the movement of thirst. It’s not the movement of the body. The heart coming to the bread is the movement of hunger. It’s not the movement of any muscles.

Those soul movements — desiring, longing, drinking, feeding, embracing, treasuring, and tasting Christ — are what John says faith is doing, and that’s why it’s a verb all the time in John. We’ve got to be careful here because if you’ve walked with Jesus a long time, you’ve probably spent a lot of time in John. John is often the first book people are given, and John is the deepest book in the Bible, probably. Oh, how deceptive is the simple grammar of all these little Hebraic ands. I want to say, “Don’t you know there are some other conjunctions?”

It is the simplest book and probably has more layers of meaning than any other book, so I want to be careful. The explanation I’m giving to you right now as to why the verb is always used is a part of the explanation. I’m sure it’s not the whole. Are we clear on that? No presumption here that I’ve got John figured out because I think the Apostle whom Jesus loved was granted sight more than the others. The book is unfathomable in a literal sense.

Soul Satisfaction

Notice the words not and never in John 6:35:

…whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.

That means this is eternal life we’re talking about here. If you never hunger again because you’ve drunk Jesus and are satisfied in Jesus, you’re not in hell. Believe me, people are going to be hungry and thirsty in hell. But this says you’ll never be thirsty, so this is eternal life we’re talking about here. John 6:58 says:

Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.

So what is believing in the Gospel of John? It’s a receiving of Jesus. And what do we receive him as? We receive him as living water and as bread from heaven. And this Jesus water and this Jesus bread are the two staples of life. If you wonder, why did Jesus pick bread and water? That’s what you need to live — food and water. If you don’t have water, you die. If you don’t have food, you die. You can’t live on only water. You can’t live on only bread. You have to have both. These are the two summary necessities of life. It is the same thing with eternal life. You have to have Jesus satisfying the thirst and hunger of your heart or you won’t live forever. That’s the meaning of believing.

So when I ask, why did John never use the noun belief or the noun faith in his Gospel, but the verb 98 times? My partial answer is that John loves to foreground believing as a spiritual act of the soul — receiving, coming, drinking, eating, and loving Christ. The beliving soul has tasted Christ is good, as Psalm 34:8 says:

Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good.

When the soul tastes that the Lord is good, that taste is what John means by believing. We never put down the cup and we never lay aside the loaf. It’s not like, “Oh, I start the Christian life with a nice cup, knowing him as a satisfying Savior,” and then I don’t drink anymore. You’re not saved if you’re not drinking, which is why I think Jesus didn’t stay only with these images. Do you remember the other image that implies the continuity of it more clearly in chapter 15, the vine and the branch? In John 15:5 he says:

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit…

What is a branch doing when it’s abiding in the vine? It’s drinking, right? I’m no biologist, but the sap is flowing and if you snap off the branch, it’s dead. So when you hear, “Receive Jesus,” or, “Drink Jesus,” or, “Eat Jesus,” don’t just think of a cup on the table that you pour into, as if you pour into it, drink it, and then just put it down as you go off to work. That’s a bad image. I need Jesus driving. I need Jesus in making decisions at work. I need Jesus everywhere, all the time. I need to be drinking Jesus, trusting Jesus, and feeding on Jesus at every point. That’s believing, in the Gospel of John.

Do You Love Me?

Now circle back to Peter at the Sea of Galilee and we’ll finish. When Jesus asks, “Do you love me, Peter? Do you love me? Do you love me?” he means, “Do you receive me as your all-satisfying bread? Do you drink from me as your living water?” That is believing. So it was a bad question I posed at the beginning. The way I asked the question may have messed with you. I said, “Why did Jesus say, ‘If you love me, you’ll feed me my sheep,’ instead of saying, ‘If you trust me’”? The reason he didn’t do it is that that’s not the way he thinks.

Bad questions can wreck good answers. That’s a bad question because it misunderstands that in John’s Gospel, and in the mind of Jesus, believing is a receiving of Christ as the all-satisfying bread of heaven, the all-satisfying water of life, the all-satisfying light of the world, and the all-satisfying sap running through the vine. It’s receiving and saying, “Ah,” and, “Thank you,” and, “I love you,” and “This is all I’ve ever hoped for.” And then John turns around and says, “That’s love and that’s faith,” not to equate the two but to say they overlap. Where faith and love overlap, that’s where he’s talking. You don’t have saving faith if you don’t love Jesus like this, and if you love Jesus like this, you have saving faith. That’s how much they overlap.

The first and great business of life is to believe like this. So back to Ray Ortlund Jr.’s Psalm syllabus quote. He said, “Communion with God (or feeding on God in Christ, my paraphrase) is the central experience of human existence.” Yes, it is. Out of that flows, to use Ray’s words, “all that is profound, ennobling, and strategic.” Indeed, all ministry and all leading by feeding flow from communion with God; and communion with God is communion with God in Christ; and communion with God in Christ is receiving, feeding, drinking, and abiding, which means that in John’s mind, there is a way of loving Jesus that is at the heart of believing in Jesus.