Love and Its Counterfeit
by Mark Dever
I mentioned some months ago in my article that 2005 was the 450th anniversary of the martyrdom of John Bradford. It also is the 450th anniversary of the martyrdoms of Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, two bishops in the English Reformation who were clear preachers of the Gospel, and two witnesses who were faithful unto death. The older Latimer said to the younger man Ridley as he was walking out to the stake to be burned, “Play the man, Ridley!” And so he did. Both these men could have saved their lives simply by renouncing their faith in Christ’s Gospel, but they didn’t. Finally, they loved God more than their own lives.
In 1 John 3:16–18, we find some important reflections on love, and what it really is. Look at verses 16: “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” Jesus Christ was God in the flesh. He lived a perfect life and died when He need not have died Himself. He died, as John says here “for us.” As Samuel Crossman has written in one of my favorite hymns,
My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.
O who am I that for my sake
my Lord should take frail flesh, and die?
It was for my sake that Christ took frail flesh and died. He died as an atoning sacrifice for my sin, and for the sins of all those who would ever repent of their sins and trust in Him:
He came from his blest throne,
salvation to bestow, but men made strange,
and none the longed-for Christ would know.
But O my friend, my friend indeed,
who at my need, his life did spend.
In this way Christ’s death is unique and not repeatable. But in another way, Christ’s death is an example to us — an example of the depth of love. He has died for all of those who would repent and trust in Him. Will that be you?
The passion, the suffering, the death of Christ was both a unique atonement for the sins of all who would believe in Him, and an example to those who would follow Him of how we must, as John says here, “lay down our lives for the brethren.”
Study the cross. Behold the depth and extent of God’s mercy on you and love for you. Study your brothers and sisters.
Find in them the opportunities to lay down your life for them. Resolve to act. Resolve to give even what is valuable to you if it will aid others. Friendships should always be highways that draw love out from us further and further, rather than walls and boundaries that bottle up our love and constrict it to small circles of self-interest. Look for ways to inconvenience yourself in loving others.
Our churches are to be communities that are typified by being full of people who regard each other more highly than they regard themselves. So, we’re not to be marked by merely reciprocal love — loving those who love us. Even the pagans do that, as Jesus told His disciples. We’re to be those who love unilaterally — regardless of how we are cared for or responded to. As Christians, our emotional funds of loving others are not supplied by the ways others meet our needs, but by the way Christ has loved us. We are to be a community that looks for ways we can love others. From caring for the audio needs to the elderly needs in our church, we simply need to have eyes for what’s going on around us in order to see how we can lay down our lives for others, and so love as Christ has loved us.
John also briefly considers the counterfeits of love in 3:17–18: “But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.” John confronts pitiless Christians and says that real Christians want to give themselves away. John confronts wordy Christians, and says that real Christians give themselves to acts of love. Perhaps the false teachers were more stoic, or even hypocritical, drumming up interest in their teaching, but not in living lives that commended the Gospel.
So what are you like? Are there any evidences of selfishness in your own life? If you’re a non-Christian, letters like 1 John may help to explain some of what shapes Christians to be the way they are. We fail at being self-giving, but that is what we intend to be. We follow Christ. Has anyone ever been more compassionate? Has anyone ever acted more self-sacrificially in love?
It is that action that requires of us things of value — our money, our time — giving them to a Christian brother or sister for their good that John deems the very evidence of our conversion, as well as that which will give us confidence before God on that day when we are judged.
Let’s not settle for counterfeits of love. Let’s not have the counterfeit love of ignorance, or of words without deeds. Let’s pray that we can love as Christ has loved us — with actions and in truth. We may not be called to witness to our love for God by being burned at the stake like Ridley and Latimer, but we are all called to take up our cross if we would follow Christ. And the first step to the cross must be the simple step to inconvenience ourselves in love for others.