By Dr Paul M Elliott
Part one of a series
We live in a time when most people in the church say that it is the loving thing to do to keep the peace at all costs. As a direct result of such thinking, error is rampant in the church today. The price of such false “peace” is the abandonment of the very reasons for which the church exists — the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. To keep silent in the presence of error within the church is, in fact, a most un-loving act. If Christ is precious to you, and if your fellow brethren are precious to you in Christ, then it is your loving duty to warn them of spiritual danger.
Pillars of Christian Unity
I want you to know what a great conflict I have for you and those in Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, and attaining to all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the knowledge of the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Colossians 2:1-3)
In these verses we find four pillars of Christian unity. These pillars rise from the foundation of the written Word of God, and from the person and work of the Word of God made flesh, the Lord Jesus Christ:
Number one, Christian unity is a matter of the heart, but it is a matter of facts and not arbitrary feelings.
Number two, Christian unity is founded on what the New Testament calls agape love, self-sacrificial love.
Number three, Christian unity is a matter of possessing full assurance based on a concrete understanding of doctrine that is well defined, not something nebulous or undefined.
Number four, Christian unity is a matter of possessing knowledge of mysteries – but they are mysteries that have been revealed, and those mysteries have not just been revealed to a few elite people within the body of Christ, but to every believer.
The Definition of Agape Love
In this study permit me to focus your attention on the second pillar of Christian unity – the fact that this unity is founded on what the original Greek of the New Testament calls agape love. Every Christian needs to understand clearly how the Bible defines agape love. There can be many different kinds of love, but according to Scripture, only one of them is agape love.
Because of the growing famine of sound, expository preaching, the term “love” is much abused in the church day — particularly when it occurs in the many passages that speak of agape love. But in the language of the Greek New Testament, agape love is unique and special. It is founded upon two things. There is something in particular that motivates it, and there is something in particular that demonstrates it. The motivation of agape love is an appreciation for the preciousness of the person who is the object of that love. The demonstration of agape love is self-sacrifice. Agape love is always put into action in terms of self-sacrifice toward those who are precious in the eyes of the one bestowing such love.
Key Characteristics of Agape Love
First John chapter three gives us a detailed explanation of the nature of agape love. There John sets forth six key characteristics of this self-sacrificial love which is to be practiced and exercised by every believer within the body of Christ. These are likewise the characteristics of the love that Paul in Colossians chapter two, verse two, says is to knit us together within the body of Christ:
First, the motivation of agape love is rooted in the person and work of Christ Himself.
Second, the demonstration of agape love within the body of Christ is a key indicator that someone has in fact been born again.
Third, the demonstration of agape love can involve the sacrifice of your reputation in the eyes of the world – but never in the eyes of God.
Fourth, the demonstration of agape love can involve the sacrifice of your worldly goods, but never without reward.
Fifth, God Himself provides every resource that you need in order to exercise and exhibit and demonstrate agape love within the body of Christ.
Sixth, the demonstration of agape love within the body of Christ is not an option, it is a commandment.
The Three Steps of Agape Love
Christian unity is based on three steps of agape love that we find in the Word of God. The first step, the Bible says, is God’s agape love for us. God has agape love for sinners, John 3:16 tells us. “God so loved the world” — the kosmos. God so loved His creation, and God so loved sinners. God’s creation is precious to Him. Sinners are precious to Him. That is the motivation of God’s agape love for us. In spite of the depth of our sin, in spite of our complete depravity, we are precious to God because He created us. He created us for fellowship with Him. Sin has broken that fellowship. Restoring that fellowship with those who are precious to Him is the motivation of God’s agape love.
And what is the demonstration of God’s agape love? John 3:16 goes on to tell us: God had such agape love for the world, that the demonstration, the out-working of that agape love, was that He gave His only begotten Son to go to the cross and take the death penalty that we deserve for our sins. In spite of our rebellion, in spite of the depth of our corruption, in spite of the deep stain of sin in every part of our beings, we were precious in God’s sight.
In Jeremiah chapter forty-three, the Lord says this to the rebellious house of Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by My name, you are mine…I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…Since you were precious in My sight, you have been honored, and I have loved you…Everyone who is called by My name, whom I have created for My glory” (Jeremiah 43:1-7). That is the first step of agape love – God’s love for sinners.
The second step of agape love is the response of the believing sinner to God. The Apostle John puts it this way: “We love Him, because He first loved us” (First John 4:19). Because of what God has done for us, God becomes precious to us. Peter puts it this way: “Therefore it is also contained in the Scripture, ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a chief cornerstone [Jesus Christ], elect, precious, and he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame.’ Therefore, to you who believe He [Jesus] is precious” (First Peter 1:6-7).
When you truly place your faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, He becomes precious to you. That is the work of the Holy Spirit of God as He indwells you, and as you study God’s Word and the Spirit illuminates it for you. Christ becomes more and more precious to you. And the building up of that motivation within you has the effect, or the outworking, of a growing desire to exhibit self-sacrificial love toward God. As John the Baptist put it, speaking of the Lord Jesus, he said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). That is the second step of agape love. Step one is God’s love for sinners through Christ. Step two is the redeemed sinner’s love for God because of Christ.
But then there is step three, and this is where agape love comes into focus as one of the pillars of Christian unity. Every other believer in Christ within the true church, within the body of Christ, should be precious to you, because every other believer within the body of Christ is precious to God. That is the motivation of agape love within the body of Christ. In his greeting at the beginning of his second epistle, Peter says that we have all obtained “like precious faith…by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Second Peter 1:1).
Love Without Hypocrisy
Paul says, in Romans chapter twelve, verse nine, “Let love be without hypocrisy.” Let your agape love be undisguised, let it be genuine, let it be sincere. Let it be real, and not a counterfeit. The only way that you can have genuine agape love for other believers, is if you are truly a believer yourself. That is why the Apostle John says that the demonstration of agape love within the body of Christ is a key indicator that someone has in fact been born again: “In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:10).
Agape love is part of the evidence of saving faith in Christ. It is for that reason that Paul says this, in Philippians 2:2: “Fulfill my joy by being like-minded, [all of you] having the same [agape] love, being of one accord, of one mind.” And that mind, Paul tells us, is “the mind of Christ” (First Corinthians 2:16). The preciousness of redeemed sinners in the mind of Christ translates into the preciousness of redeemed sinners in the minds of genuine believers in Christ. That is the motivation of agape love within the body of Christ.
Demonstrating Agape Love May Cost You Your Reputation
This brings us to the third characteristic of agape love within the body of Christ that we find in First John chapter three: The exercise or the demonstration of agape love can involve the sacrifice of your reputation in the eyes of the world – but it will never involve the sacrifice of your reputation in the eyes of God.
Let me explain what I mean. In First John chapter three, beginning at verse thirteen, we read this:
Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, because He [Jesus] laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren… My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him. (First John 3:13-19)
True Agape Love: Never Has the Church Needed It More
Dear friend, there may well come a time when you will have to do some very difficult things in the body of Christ. God will call upon you do to them because of the imperative of agape love. We live in a time of growing doctrinal error within the church. We live in a time when false teaching about the most fundamental, foundational doctrines of the faith is in some places creeping in, and in other places rushing in. We live in a time when people within the church are less and less connected to the Word of God, and more and more connected to the word of man. We live in a time when people within the church are less and less certain of what they actually believe.
We live in a time when less than 15% of Evangelical church members read the Bible even once or twice a week. More than 35% of them never read it at all. And, very few people in our churches are actually reading the Bible systematically.
This Biblical illiteracy is breeding widespread unbelief. Nearly 40% of Evangelical church members do not believe the Bible is free from error. Over 50% do not believe Satan is real. 45% do not believe Jesus Christ was sinless while He was on the Earth. Nearly 60% of Evangelical church members believe that good works help a person gain eternal life. Nearly 60% of Evangelical church members do not believe Jesus Christ is the only Way to eternal life. Over 50% think other religions are equally valid ways to God.
More and more churches are sowing the seeds of doubt about the inspiration and authority of the Word of God. More and more churches are preaching a false gospel. More and more churches are teaching that being baptized and becoming a member of the church is the way you get to Heaven. More and more churches are teaching that what is important is to seek after health, and wealth, and happiness in this life. More and more churches are teaching people who have never come to realize that they are lost sinners, that the most important thing for those people to do is not to repent and to receive Jesus Christ, but to have a higher level of self-esteem, to feel better about themselves.
One church research expert has made this observation: “Among Evangelicals there’s been this shift over time – from Bible reading to feeling – from knowing what Jesus actually had to say to having a “relationship” with a “Jesus” that they know little or nothing about – from actually reading the Bible to merely revering the Bible…”
Agape Love In Action: Confronting Apostasy in the Church
Why am I telling you all of these things? Here is the reason. The time may well come when some or all of these things will be true in your own local church. Statistically speaking, there is a very good chance that these things are already true, already happening, in your local church. We at TeachingTheWord Ministries are hearing from more and more Christians who are confronting this hard reality in their once-sound churches.
What must you do if that is the case? Well, this is where agape love comes into the picture.
The time may well come when you will need to stand up and point out the fact that your local church is going in a wrong direction. You will need to point out that there is false teaching. You will need to point out that the word of man is being substituted for the Word of God. You will need to sound an alarm because the one true Gospel is being watered down, or a false gospel has taken its place, in the teachings of your local church. And you cannot wait for someone else to do it, or worse yet ignore the problem or fail to confront those who are causing it, because of an un-Biblically defined “agape love.”
No, you will need to stand up and confront and expose these problems precisely because of the imperative of agape love. You will need to do it because Jesus Christ is precious to you (and I trust that He is). You will need to do it because those around you in the church, your fellow believers, are precious to you because they are precious to God. Based on that motivation, you may be called upon to make what may seem to be an unfair or unreasonable sacrifice. Your Lord may call upon you to demonstrate your agape love by making the self-sacrifice of putting your reputation on the line by pointing out error within the church. Now, you need to do that in the proper way. In a respectful way. In a Christ-honoring way. In an Bible-focused way. But never in a spirit that compromises God’s truth.
Note this carefully: It is a lie to say that the loving thing to do in a situation like that is to keep quiet. That is the un-loving thing to do. To keep silent in the presence of error within the church is the opposite of genuine agape love. It is a counterfeit of genuine agape love. It is not an expression of genuine love for Christ, and it is not an expression of genuine love for the brethren. To keep silent in the presence of error within the church is disobedience to Christ. To keep silent in the presence of error within the church puts your fellow brethren – the people who are supposed to be precious to you in Christ – in grave spiritual danger.
Silence or compromise in the face of error is not genuine agape love. Paul says, “Let love be without hypocrisy.” Silence in the face of error is hypocrisy. It is not love for God’s people. It is not love for Christ’s church. It is love for the world. And John says in First John chapter two, verse fifteen, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Let me remind you also of what John says later on in chapter three: “My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him.”
Agape love says that God’s truth matters. And truth, not persons or personalities, is the issue. Now, there can be several different kinds of reactions when you, motivated by self-sacrificial love, put your own reputation at risk and expose the fact that there is a wrong direction within the church, error within the church, false teaching within the church.
Scripture tells us how to deal with each of those reactions. As we continue this series, the Lord willing we shall explore those points with this fact in mind: The exercise of agape love within the body of Christ can involve the sacrifice of your reputation in the eyes of the world; but it will never involve the sacrifice of your reputation in the eyes of God.
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