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There is a lake in the northern part of our county where I enjoy walking. Surrounded by mountains, it is a beautiful place to slow down, pray, listen, and just be. This past week on my first lap around the one-mile loop, I question entered my mind that stopped me in my tracks.
“Do I love Jesus?” Not, do I know a lot about Jesus or do I preach about Jesus? But do I love Jesus?
Silly question, right? I am a pastor. Of course, I love Jesus.
But how do I know that I love him? And what about you? How do you know if you really love Jesus? What is the evidence of love? By what standard could I be accused of being a Jesus-lover? Not just a Jesus preacher or Jesus follower. But a Jesus lover.
I’m not sure I had ever stopped to reflect on that specific, but hugely significant question. Maybe I have subconsciously resisted it, not wanting to face the answer.
MORE THAN JUST YOUR NAME ON THE ROLL
As I began to contemplate my love (or lack of love) for Jesus, I realized there are many passages that assume those who are true disciples are not nominal Christians. There is more to their relationship with Jesus than having their name on a church membership roll, or reciting a doctrinal affirmation like the Apostles Creed, or singing hymns, and or participating in other religious activities. To be sure, these are good and beneficial for believers.
But consider the promise of Romans 8:28, “We know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (NLT). According to this text, the hope of the Lord’s sovereign plan weaving all the pieces of our lives for ultimate blessing is not a promise for humanity in general or those who are members of a church. The promise is reserved for those who love God.
After the apostle Peter’s famous crash and burn moment of denial on the evening of Jesus’ crucifixion, he is reinstated. Part of the informal restoration ceremony includes Jesus asking Peter three times, “Do you love me?” It grieved Peter to face the question because he knew that his actions had betrayed his professed devotion to the Lord. The fact that he was so grieved proved Peter really did love Jesus.
In John 14:15, Jesus makes it clear that those who love him will treasure his wisdom and want to follow in his ways. He says, “If you love me, you will obey my commands.” In verses 23-24 of the same chapter, a similar refrain is heard, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word… [but] 24 whoever does not love me does not keep my words.”
Based on these statements, it would appear as if love is proved genuine by obedience. On one level, it definitely is. We might consider practical obedience the baseline of love. Yet we know it is possible to obey someone and to not love them.
For example, I don’t avoid speeding out of a love of the government but out of fear of punishment. I don’t want to get a ticket and have to pay a fine.
This is the way man-made “religion” works. It’s law without grace. The formula is simple. Obey God and you’ll be loved and blessed by God. Disobey God and you’ll be judged and condemned. In “religion,” my standing with God ultimately comes down to an evaluation of my actions—my obedience versus disobedience. In such a scenario, fear of punishment becomes the driving motive for keeping the law for whatever religion it is. Obey, or else.
But Christianity does not work that way. In the gospel, law is not an end but a means, as the purpose of the law is to lead us to Jesus, where we trade our unrighteousness for his gift-righteousness. Our failures and sins are intended to reveal our need for the blood of a substitutionary sacrifice.
Because of grace, my standing with God does not come down to the quality of my actions but to the quality of Jesus’ actions as my substitute. He obeyed the law in my place. He suffered the penalty my sin deserved so that I could be forgiven and reconciled with God, not as Judge but as Father.
In man-made, law-only “religion” (like legalistic Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Mormonism, etc.), we obey in order to be accepted and loved.
But in the gospel (true, grace-centered Christianity), we obey because we are already accepted and loved.
This means for those who truly love Jesus, we deeply long to follow his ways. Like Peter, we are grieved when we don’t. But fear of punishment is not the motive for obedience.
In 2 Corinthians 5:14, Paul reveals the motive that drove his ministry, saying, “Christ’s love compels us.” There was something spiritually transformative about being the recipient of God’s love that modifies our motives for obedience.
A couple of chapters earlier, in 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul writes, “We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory.” The Greek word for transformed is metamorphoō (μεταμορφόω) from which we get the English word metamorphosis. Metamorphoō is composed of two words, meta and morph. Meta = great and morph = change. Like an earthbound caterpillar weaves a cocoon only to emerge with the ability to fly, so the believer is transformed when enveloped by the love of Jesus.
Theologically, we call this transformation sanctification. Like a butterfly progressively changes in the cocoon, we experience a progressive change in our lives. If the goal of our change is to be more like Jesus (“made into his likeness”), then sanctification is nothing less than learning to love like Jesus—to love the Father like Jesus loves the Father and love other sinners the way Jesus loves me.
But how do we learn how to love like Jesus? Like we learn anything. Not just by reading about it. We learn through experience. If I want to become a fly-fisherman, I need to get out on the river with a guide who can show me how to properly cast my line. The experience is essential.
In the same way, if I am going to love like Jesus, I need to be loved by Jesus. The experience is essential.
A PERSONAL ENCOUNTER
This is why a personal encounter with the affection of God is the catalyst for spiritual metamorphosis! Think about it. What if the love of God were just functional—a kind of fact without feeling.
Don’t get me wrong. The objective, fact of God’s love for me is an amazing reality upon which I am grateful to stand. But the subjective, emotive affection of the Father toward me like a parent toward a child is something even more.
We as parents would do anything for our children, risking life and limb to protect them. It is a demonstrative love that cannot be quantified. How much more is this exponentially true of the Father’s love for us. To know and feel the Father’s love is what transforms the heart.
To love Jesus with my whole heart is to have the very core of my being affected in such a way that transforms not only my actions but also my motivations and affections. In this way, loving Jesus is both objective and subjective. Granted, the bedrock foundation is objective. God did not just say, “I love you.” He showed it with the cross, an undeniable expression of divine affection. Upon that rational, factual foundation, our emotions are stirred in response. As Jonathan Edwards said, quite bluntly if not shockingly,
“He who has no [true spiritual] affection [for Jesus], is in a state of spiritual death, and is wholly destitute of the powerful, quickening, saving influences of the Spirit of God upon his heart.”
In plain language, if I do not feel any real affection for Jesus, I do not love him. I emphasize the word any, because just like a mustard seed of faith can move mountains, so can a mustard seed of love for Christ. What is important is not the size of faith and love but the object of faith and love.
In Revelation 3:15-16, the church at Laodicea received a word of warning from the Lord,
“15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
The Laodiceans were very religious. They went to church regularly and did a lot of ministry activities. But they didn’t really love Jesus. Their affections were room temperature. Not hot nor cold. They were indifferent.
Nobody orders room temperature coffee. No spouse wants to settle for lukewarm indifference in their marriage. It is the same with a love for Jesus.
Even as a pastor, I confess to having a lukewarm love for Jesus on numerous occasions. Maybe you are lukewarm now. If so, what can you do?
What I have learned is that moving from lukewarm to hot is not something you can do. There is not a “hot” knob on the tub of the heart. Essentially, you can’t really apply this lesson. You can only put yourself in a posture to receive the metamorphosis God desires for us.
THE ONLY WAY TO LOVE JESUS
As we’ve said, the only way to really love Jesus is to be really loved by Jesus. And that is the problem with many professing Christians. It’s my problem, too.
My love for Jesus is lukewarm because I think his love for me is lukewarm.
Because of the remnants of man-made, law-heavy religion left in my heart, I have a hard time believing his love for me as a sinner is hot, intense, unbridled, and unrelenting toward me. When I think of the degree to which I am loved, questions put up barriers to prevent me from allowing myself to be fully loved.
Have I done enough? Am I committed enough? Do I love Jesus enough?
Those questions loom large in my heart when the gospel is eclipsed with law, duty, and fear. Because the cross tells me, without static, it is not whether I have done enough. I haven’t. Thankfully, Jesus has done more than enough. It is not that I am committed enough but that Jesus is committed enough. It is not that I love Jesus enough but that he loves me enough.
What could happen if I began to rest in his doing, his commitment, and his love for me? What if I could be thoroughly convinced that his shed blood gets the final word over my soul?
I believe that is what the Holy Spirit wants to impress upon your heart. Through the cross of the risen Christ, he wants you to know and believe you are forgiven without qualification and loved without hesitation—right now, in your sinful condition. Because the blood of Christ covers you.
The apostle John wrote, “We love him because he first loved us.” When I begin to rest in the height, depth, width, and breadth of his holy, burning, pure love, the mustard seed of love will begin to grow in my heart, producing the good fruit of greater and greater love for the one who first loved me.
All to the praise of his glorious grace!
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