The word love has been hijacked by the secular world. The meaning of the phrase unconditional love has been twisted from meaning loving somebody regardless of their faults to accepting and approving of every fault of a person regardless of the damage to themselves and those around them. This hijacking of love has moved from the secular world into the church as well. “Progressive” (or “liberal theology”) churches and teachers are teaching that we should embrace the culture and accept and approve of living in deliberate and unrepentant sin. That we are to love the sin as well as the sinner. The world has always viewed love in this way, but the church never has been this way. It is true that Jesus loves sinners. He loves them more than anybody ever has or ever will again. He loved them to the death. His death on the cross and his glorious defeat of the the grave was to save us from eternal death. It is true that Jesus commands us to love sinners. It is not true, however, that we are commanded to love the sin of a sinner. Instead, we are commanded by Scripture to love our neighbors as ourselves.
We are told by Jesus in Mark 12:31, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The problem is that we don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about what that word “love (agapaō)” means. Nor are we talking about the context in which he explains this. Instead, enemies of Christianity cherry-pick this commandment out of context and throw it in the face of people who stand in opposition to sin. They say, “aren’t you supposed to love your neighbor as yourself?! Would you like it if somebody like the way you were living? That’s not very Christian-like.” They don’t care about what else Jesus is talking about in the full context of making this declaration.
Which commandment is the most important of all?
After being continually questioned by the temple leaders and priests who are attempting to trick Jesus throughout Mark 11-12, they actually start to see that he knows a thing or two about Scripture and the Law, and some scribes who were in a dispute among themselves come up to Jesus and ask, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”
Jesus gives his response in verses Mark 12:29-31:
Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
He doesn’t say that loving your neighbor is the most important. Instead, he says first Love your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Second to that is to love your neighbor as yourself.
In order to understand how to love your neighbor as yourself, we first need to understand what it means to love God with everything you have.
How do we love God?
In order to understand how to love God, we have to determine first, what God hates, because you can’t love somebody by doing what they hate. The answer to that question is exceedingly easy; it’s sin of every kind. Sin is the only reason we are separated from God (Isaiah 59:2). It’s the only reason we are not still living the Garden of Eden. Sin is the reason that man’s image is no longer the perfect, uncorrupted image of God. Sin is why God sent Jesus to live a sinless life and still be crucified for us. In Romans 5:8, Paul writes “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
We can love God by hating sin, turning from it (repentance), and living in a way that glorifies Him. We are only able to do this by the regeneration of our hearts by the Holy Spirit. This regeneration gives us the ability to trust in Jesus as our Lord and Savior. Once we have faith in Christ Jesus, we will begin to receive the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22):
- Self Control
Only then can we turn from sin and truly love God with all our hearts, all our souls, all our minds, and all our strength. In all that we do, it must be confined within the context of what Jesus has declared as the greatest commandment: love God.
How should we love ourselves?
Now that we’ve determined how to love God, we get to the second greatest commandment. That is to Love thy neighbor as thyself. Before we can dig into what it means to love our neighbor, we need to figure out how to love ourselves.
If we are to love God, and God hates sin, we are forced to hate sin, as we’ve already determined. We also have to submit our entire selves to Him. This means that in order to love ourselves, we must love ourselves in the context of loving God. It means that we should give up our sinful ways and turn our lives over to Christ fully and wholly and live it out in a way that is glorifying to God.
We are to love ourselves by manifesting the fruits of the spirit that occur when we have become regenerate (some call this born-again). We love ourselves by treating our bodies like the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). Loving ourselves does not mean that we love who we are, or derive our self-worth on the works of our hands, or in our knowledge, or in our abilities. Loving ourselves should not be born of selfish pride. The complete opposite is true. We love ourselves by humbling ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s ever working, ever speaking, ever urging presence, by fighting back the sinful nature that resides in every one of us, and by resisting the attacks of the enemy.
How can we love our neighbor?
We’ve determined that we first have to love God, who hates sin. We’ve also briefly discussed what it means to love ourselves within the context of loving God, which also includes hating sin. This does not, however, mean that we should hate a person that sins. As John writes in 1 John 3:15, “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.” Instead, we should love our neighbor within the context of loving ourselves: by helping them live their lives to the glory of God.
We shouldn’t say, “I hate people that do, x, y, x.” Instead, we should say, “I hate when people do x, y, z.” When we see a friend living in sin, we should support them. We should help them move from their lives of sin into the light of Christ.
Often times, people mistake you trying to guide someone from sin as you being “hypocrite Christian” trying to condemn them and will bring up when Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone” in John 8:7 referring to the prostitute the people drug outside the city. Instead of stoning her, they walked away one by one, and the woman is let go. Out of context, this statement makes it seem like Jesus is saying, “Let her go! You’re all sinners too! There is nothing wrong with what she’s doing! Sinners shouldn’t judge sin!” He’s not. In verses 10-11, “Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.‘” (emphasis is mine)
Jesus is showing what loving your neighbor really means. It’s not condemning a person who sins, instead it’s guarding them and helping them move past the sin and sin no more.
We, as Christians, have gotten a bad reputation by condemning and hating the sinner. The world has used this as a weapon against us. The secular world now sees any kind of rebuke from a Christian as a sign of discrimination or bigotry. In response to this, some Christian sects have begun to move away from Jesus saying, “go, and from now on sin no more,” to Jesus simply saying, “go.” This is a fatally flawed view of love. It is dangerous at best, and is not remotely an example of unconditional love.
What is unconditional love?
Think about your parents. Unless you had awful parents or guardians, you understand that they love you. It’s an unconditional love. It’s a love that will never go away, no matter how many times you sin against them. The thing is, they still got mad at you, didn’t they? When you screwed up, you got into trouble. When you screwed up, they rebuked you, grounded you, and in the case of many, spanked you. You may not have understood at the time when you screamed “I HATE YOU” at them after they told you to stop doing what you were doing because it was wrong. When you look at it now, you know that every time they punished you, it was to guide you down the correct path and to help you “sin no more.”
God, the Father, shows how he loved his covenant children. He saved them from Egypt, and sent them to the “land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 33:3) The only problem is that his children, the people of Israel, sinned constantly against him. In response to their sin, he afflicted them with plagues, opened the earth and swallowed them, let countries overthrow them, put them under bondage, exiled them from the Holy Land, etc… However, in each of these cases, when they repented, and only after they repented, he would save them and restore them to glory. God punished his children for their sin as a way to get them to turn from their sin and “sin no more.”
If a person truly loves another person, they don’t let them continue to live in sin. A family of an alcoholic man still love him, but they hate his drinking. Because they love him, they stage an intervention. During that intervention, they explain to him what his drinking is doing to the family. They explain to him that they love him too much to let him continue to drink his life away. They ask him to seek help for his addiction. They ask him to go to rehab or to attend AA meetings. They certainly don’t let him just continue drinking without trying everything they can to save him. That’s not love; that’s indifference.
How, then, should we rebuke with love?
This is the main question, and one that is extremely difficult to answer, especially with how the secular world is today. It’s a world that believes we should be free to do whatever we want, express ourselves however we want, and be happy however we want. Telling somebody they are sinning or “living in sin” will get laughed at at best. You’ll get labeled a “religious freak” or an “uneducated bigot” or something like that. They’ll mock you. We are living in a culture that values self over anything else.
Outside of the church, and for people who are not regenerated, the task is extremely difficult. Until the Spirit regenerates a person’s heart, they hate God. The talk of sin or Jesus or church are appalling to them. They will not listen to you if you attempt to admonish them for their unrepentant sins because they don’t believe they are sinning. They are doing what feels good to them, and that’s what life is about for the unregenerate. Life is about getting as much cheap pleasure as possible in the short amount of time we have on earth. It’s about getting what we want when we want it no matter what it takes. There is no thought of an afterlife. There is no thought to a God who sees and judges all actions.
For these folks, sometimes it’s better to approach these issues from a carnal moral standpoint. Try to reason with them that their actions are not healthy. Try to reason with them that what they are doing may hurt them or somebody else. All the while, be ever praying that the Spirit move into their hearts and regenerate them that they may finally see the true spiritual and, more importantly, eternal affects that their sins have on them.
Within the church, there have always been ways to try to get people to move away from their sin. It’d start with friends or family talking to the individual. If that didn’t generate results, they would talk to the church. The pastor would make a house call and talk to that individual, and try to talk some sense into them. If that didn’t generate results, the last step would be the church excommunicating them (Matthew 18:15-20). This essentially means that they are barred from worshipping or fellowshipping with the church or its members. The goal of this discipline is always restoration, not retribution.
When people were loyal to a church and a congregation, excommunication was an extremely difficult, trying, and self-reflecting, and restoring experience. It made you realize that it’s not just your closest friends, or your pastor alone, but your entire congregation that is concerned about your sin and your unwillingness to repent with a contrite heart and faith. When you finally did, the church would welcome you back with open arms. They would rejoice with you! They saw you turn from darkness into the light.
Unfortunately, the secular world has made its way into churches, and there is a general belief that nobody, especially a church, has the authority to discipline a person on moral or sinful grounds. If they try, the person will just up and leave the church and start going to another. If that new church catches wind of the person’s unrepentant sin and tries to discipline, they’ll leave that one. They’ll jump from church to church to church. Church discipline, which was once viewed as one of the ultimate displays of love for an unrepentant sinner, is viewed as unloving now. There is no more loyalty to a church. The church is no longer a place where you are held accountable for your sinful actions. The church is simply a place where you go to worship God and socialize with friends. You can worship God wherever you want, and you can make friends anywhere.
Since the church, sadly, has lost its authority over the moral standards of its members, we can no longer seek out the church for help in attempting to rebuke or correct our love one’s unrepentant sin in a corporate manner. The plea must be made to them that we are legitimately worried about them. We can ask to pray for them. We can ask them to pray with us. We can plead with them to give their life back over to Christ. We can show them scripture that explains the dangers of their sin. In the end, we must always come back to the Gospel and that their salvation is dependent on having faith in Christ as both our savior AND Lord.
What we absolutely must NOT do is attack them. What we absolutely must NOT do is unjustly judge them. What we must absolutely NOT do is demonize them as a person, make them feel inferior, make them feel worthless, make them feel attacked. When a person is attacked, they become defensive and walls build up around their heart. They will continue to do exactly what you want them to stop doing, but they’ll do it ever more resolutely because you were not tactful or loving in the way you rebuked them. They will sin to spite you.
To rebuke with love is to show charity alongside your rebuke. This is demonstrated by Jesus as I explained above with how he handled the situation with the prostitute. He rebuked her, but did so by being merciful. The letter of the law demanded that she be stoned, but Jesus saw that she would be repentant if shown charity, so that’s how he handled the situation. God wishes that none shall perish, and will give a person plenty of time to repent (2 Peter 3:9). Therefore, to show love when we rebuke somebody for their sin, it’s not stoning them (attacking who they are as a person), it’s showing them mercy and providing them an opportunity to repent.
In conclusion, when a Christian talks about love, s/he should not be using the same definition as the world uses. A Christian must see love in a way that holds a Christ-centered worldview. Our love should not be blind acceptance of sin. Instead, it should be a love that hates sin and wants to see our friends, family, and even complete strangers freed from it. It should be a love that is not afraid to speak up against the sins of those whom we love. Our love ought to be a love that wants to see everybody moving towards Christ, and not away from Him for the sake of political correctness.
We must be thoughtful in how we address the sins of other people. It is a very delicate, and personal subject. Using hate as the Westboro Baptist Church does as a way to get your point across is not the right way. All discipline or rebuke must be done in a way that displays the mercy, love, and forgiveness of Christ.