"For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Matthew 5:46-47
Buddhists love one another and they serve those around them. Muslims have a concept of caring for the poor. Atheists, agnostics, Wiccans and individuals from just about every other system of belief do nice things for each other and for others around them. In a world where there are seemingly more non-Christians fighting for immigrants, abused women, racial reconciliation and almost every thinkable social issue, what do Christians have to offer that is so different? What is it really that sets the love of the one true God apart from all of the "love" we see around us?
The answer can be found in the text above from Matthew 5. The love of God is not a common love - it is a scandalous love. The love of God i not at all like the love we see among people of like beliefs - it is a tremendous and awesome love. The love of God doesn't just love those who are like us, believe like us, are hurting, are poor or deserve it - the love of God loves the very people that hate us, betray us, are different from us, believe differently than us and don't seemingly deserve to be loved by us.
I use the term "love of God" because that is what it is. It is not our love for people - it is His love for people living in us and flowing out of us. What is so different about Christian love is that it is absolutely unconditional and absolutely undeserved. We are to love our enemies which means we are to love those who hate us, fight against us, can't stand us, make life difficult for us, hate our gospel, hate our God, hate all of our causes, and even those who harm us or our loved ones. That's the love of God and it is the absolute center of the gospel. Without love like this there is no gospel at all.
Now, many people try to tell me that we are to simply preach the truth of how God loves us and that as long as the message of the gospel goes out, God will take care of the rest. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing could be more false. Nothing could be more unbiblical. Nothing could displease God more. Nothing will lead to more death and more people hearing from Jesus "I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness," than this view of the gospel.
The gospel is not a "packet" of truth that we send out and it simply does something by itself. If that were the case, God wouldn't use people to spread it. That is not to say that God can't or does not work in situations like that - He does. But Jesus told us clearly what He wants from us; how He wants the gospel to be spread and it is not simply through "truth" going out from our mouths or our ministries.
Consider how Jesus spread the gospel. God came to earth as a man; lived a perfectly obedient and sinless life; died a death in our place for our sins to reconcile us to the Father; and rose from death to vindicate us and set us free. During His life on earth He preached often with words and parables. But what is striking about His ministry is not that He stood on a hill and shouted truth about people. No. What is striking about Jesus' ministry and the reason I gave my life to Him is that He actually loved people sincerely - and not just in word but also in deed. Jesus ministered to people. Jesus healed the sick. Jesus gave sight to the blind. Jesus protected a women just caught in adultery from the punishment of the religious establishment. Jesus cared for His friends and loved them deeply. Jesus died for His friends and also for His enemies. Jesus took time while hanging on the cross, bleeding and dying, to give His mother a new son to take care of her. Jesus washed the feet of Judas - the man who betrayed Him and the man Jesus knew would never turn and would never love Him. Jesus was scourged, beaten, had His beard plucked out, was spit upon and was mocked by the very people whose sin He was paying for. Jesus didn't just preach a message of good news - Jesus lived and died a message of good news, and that good news is the love of God. The love of God is nothing like the love of Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, agnostics or any other human being.
Now, if you think that this love can be "performed" and simply done out of duty Jesus would want to rain on your parade. Two verses in particular make this clear to us.
"Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep." Romans 12:9-15
Love must be sincere and genuine, meaning it must come from the heart. Anyone can pretend to love an enemy by showering him or her with gifts in the face of persecution. Anyone can act the part of loving a person they don't really love. What is more difficult is to actually have a sincere affection for a person who persecutes you. To want what is best for the person who just betrayed you and to sense a deep emotion of love for them in your heart is something that cannot be faked. It either is there or it is not. Such love comes from God and not from human beings. Such love cannot be faked - it comes from the Holy Spirit Who lives in those who belong to God.
"Love is patient and kind; live does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends." 1 Corinthians 13:4-8
Every single mention of what love is from this section of Scripture can only come from the heart - it must be felt. And from that deep root of love in our hearts, from the Holy Spirit, flows the actions of love. The actions can be imitated - the feelings cannot.
So let's relate this to what I said about spreading the gospel. If we preach the truth of the gospel but do not have love like this in our hearts, we are liars and the truth is not in us. We may have intellectually grasped the facts of the gospel but we are no different from demons (James 2:19). People may get saved through what we preach but I would submit to you that much of what looks like the gospel spreading is simply another "club" growing or another religion spreading. People who are part of the club may love those who are in the club - but to love one's enemies and to bless those who persecute and hate us is all together different. And like I said earlier, it is this heart-felt love and emotion-wrought behavior that distinguishes Christianity from every other religion on earth. Without it, the gospel will not spread - our message will ultimately lead only to death and pain.
People will know Who we belong to by how we love, not by what we say or preach (John 13:35, 15:8). You can't love as God loves without pointing to the One from Whom all things flow so speech and preaching is necessary. But to emphasize preaching or speaking over love is to butcher the gospel. And to define love as we want to define it is to blaspheme against mighty God.
Let's end with two more verses that drive this simple and unavoidable truth home.
"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have and deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing." 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
We can preach all we want; we can believe all we want; we can prophecy all we want; we can do as many good deeds in Jesus' name as we want to, but apart from real, genuine, sincere heart-felt affection for all people (especially those who belong to Christ), we are and will be nothing. This is just another way of saying that Christ's Holy Spirit in a person reveals itself in a particular way - through real love. The conclusion is simply that without such love a person cannot claim salvation - no matter how true what they preach, no matter how much they believe and no matter how many good works they do. Love is the point and without it there is only death. If you don't believe what I am saying, read the text again. You can have all the faith in the world and still go to hell. You can preach the truth all you want to and still go to hell. You can give everything you own to the poor because of what you believe and still go to hell. True, saving faith is evidenced by one thing and one thing only - love (Galatians 5:6).
"On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, "I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness." Matthew 7:22-23
I would submit to you that the context of this verse, located in the sermon on the mount, shows the serious nature of preaching a gospel and assuming that you are in the clear with God because of what you believe. If we really believe it, we will live it! If we really love God, we will show it by our love for others - and it is not simple kindness or generosity, it is scandalous and profoundly costly for us. It cost Jesus His life to live what He preached and He calls us to do exactly the same thing.
"You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Matthew 5:48
You should read this verse in context and realize that Jesus is likening the perfection of God to His love for His enemies and that this is the perfection to which we are called. It's not optional!
Many of you may be boiling at this point thinking that I am setting a bar that the Bible doesn't set. Maybe you hate what I am saying because you think that we all grow at different rates and that many of us may not have an obvious love like this just yet. Maybe you think I am unreasonable and that I have a 2x4 stuck in my eye and therefore have no right to say what I am saying. Please disregard what I say then and listen only to what God says:
"For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should no be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous...We know that we have passed out of death into life. because we love the brothers. Whoever doe not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives fr the brothers...And this is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us." 1 John 3:11-23
Don't put truth above love because there can be no truth without love. Love never ends...everything else does so take care that you are abiding in His love and bearing His fruit of love lest you deceive yourself and think that you will be justified by what you believe in your head but don't live out in your life from your heart by His Holy Spirit!