The distinctive mark of John Wesley’s theology has always been his theology of holiness. Wesley spoke of “Christian perfection.” By this he did not mean sinlessness or that we would be made perfect in this life. The adjective “Christian” modifies the meaning of “perfection.” Let’s first define what holiness is not:
- Holiness is not absolute perfection. The Christian is still tempted, still able to sin. It is not as if we are exalted to a state of absolute judgment or knowledge or performance.
- Holiness is not superiority. He or she is not a super Christian, as if holiness is only for the select few pastors and missionaries.
- Holiness is not immunity from life’s problems. We will never reach a point where we are exempt from suffering or from Satan’s tempting.
- Holiness is not a static (non-moving) experience. Wesley taught that a person could be made holy in an instant, like conversion, but this instant is never separated from one’s entire walk with God. It is part of the process, not the end goal of the process.
Steve Harper, commenting on Wesley’s theology, says holiness is singleness of intention. This is in contrast to what Dallas Willard mentioned about duplicity of the heart. We are no longer duplicitous and deceitful but only will and desire what God wills and desires. This emphasizes that being is just as important as doing. Our primary intention is to love God with all our heart and to love others.
Harper is helpful in an illustration as to how this can be called perfect love while still leaving room for sin:
“When each of my children were small, they had the bright idea to bring Mommy some flowers. Never mind that they plucked the flowers from the bed Mommy had worked hard to cultivate. Never mind that they may have even taken flowers from the neighbor’s bed! Their one desire was to please Mommy and to show their love for her” (The Way to Heaven, p. 84).
He then goes on to say how his wife did not reject their gift but gladly accepted it and put the flowers in a vase. We cannot hope to match God in actions but we can hope to match Him in intentions. Our controlling desire can be God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. Perfect love, however, starts with the heart and motives and our actions begin to line up with them.
Second, holiness is power over sin. Wesley did not believe there was ever a time when a person had to sin. God’s grace is always greater than the lure of temptation. And if you think about it, this is really matching one’s singleness of intent to action. When given the choice of sinning or loving, we can choose to love each time. This doesn’t come automatically–note how we’re talking about holiness toward the end of the ordo salutis–but with God’s grace and our practice.
Third, holiness is radical dependence on Christ. This is the idea in John 15, where Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. Apart from him we can do nothing. I find this facet of holiness the most intriguing and most emphasized in contemporary holiness circles today. We use phrases like “fully devoted disciples” or “wholly surrendered to Christ.” The surrender, both instantaneous and ongoing, becomes the focal point, but we soon lose sight of God giving us power over sin. We get tired of ongoing surrender, wondering if our hearts and hands will ever synchronize. If holiness is radical dependence on Christ, then the act of surrender ought not be the focal point, but the One we surrender to ought.
Fourth, holiness is equipment for ministry. We are set apart for service to God. Holiness is always a social experience: it always fleshes itself out in love for others expressed in service with other Christians. There is a reason why Harper listed this last, and why I agree with the order. Namely, it is dangerous to skip straight to empowerment for ministry because that tends to be an easy disguise for any number of intentions that are unholy. We serve out of who we are; we serve out of the Spirit’s power; and we are eager to serve because in service we can display Christ’s love.
For the early Christians, a relationship with Christ was even more about making a change in their social groupings than it was individual, personal salvation. Becoming a Christian had sharp consequences as they would be shunned by their Jewish brethren. While ethnically Jewish, they chose to believe in Jesus the Messiah and thus separate themselves from family members and close friends. Unless whole families converted.
This is why we read of Christians calling one another brother and sister in the Bible. They had become a new family, God’s family, and they needed the social bonds and friendship made possible in Christ and through the Holy Spirit.
Sadly, our picture of human relationships prior to coming to Christ has been affected by such things as rejection–just ask any student about the loss of a friendship or the way kids bully others at school–verbal abuse, wounds, fear, pain, the desire to belong, etc. We remember that John Wesley said that after the Fall, the political image of humanity was marred. We no longer related well with each other. We must re-learn what it means to love one another again.
The Bible says, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death” (1 John 3:14). Love is essential. And yet love is so misconstrued as either a feeling we have or as something we are allowed to withhold from some and yet give to others.
Love is the will to seek the good for another person. It is always a choice we make. We remember that God’s vision for the world is one where He loves every person, and where we, bearing His image, love every person as well. This type of love transcends ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, color of the skin, history, prejudice, politics, emotions, social standing, etc.
We are called not only to love our neighbors but also to love our enemies.
Dallas Willard writes, “Spiritual formation, good or bad, is always profoundly social. You cannot keep it to yourself. Anyone who thinks of it as a merely private matter has misunderstood it…. Strictly speaking, there is nothing ‘just between me and God.’ For all that is between me and God affects who I am; and that, in turn, modifies my relationship to everyone around me” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 182).
Some may buy into the myth that “my personal relationship with God” is also a private one. Don’t. As Andy Stanley has said, “It may be personal, but it’s public.”
Part of spiritual formation is both our call to love our neighbor as ourselves as well as our wisdom in changing the people with whom we allow in our “inner circle.” Some Christians have mistakenly taught that becoming a Christian means forsaking one’s non-Christian friends. This is the wrong approach, for God has now positioned you in their lives as a witness for Him.
Joseph Myers wrote a profound book, The Search to Belong, on the ways in which people choose to belong to groups and to one another. He said that people belong in four different ways: public, social, personal, and intimate. In each space, we know people in different ways. He says we will only ever have one person in the “intimate” space, and that our capacity to belong to others in the other spaces grows (i.e., we’ll have more people in the personal space, even more in the social space, and a huge number in the public space). Here is how he defined each of these “spaces”:
Public: These are people we meet at public places, like the waiter at our favorite restaurant or the gas station attendant. They may be people we only know by name. We need more people in this space than any other. Public belonging is about connecting through outside influences–we’re all Tigers fans, all parents whose kids go to the same school, etc. People in this space don’t generally exchange personal information, and if they do, they move to a new space. People may want anonymity in this space but they don’t want to be strangers; it’s all about feeling like you fit in.
Social: Social belonging is what you think it is: It’s about small talk over coffee and donuts. This is the relationship you may have with your neighbor. You chat about the weather each time you see one another getting the mail. In this space, we know people just well enough and are perhaps evaluating whether or not we want to become better friends with them. These are the people you greet at church but don’t know much more about. You’ll have less people with whom you relate in these social ways.
Personal: This is the space that starts to get affected the most when a person becomes a Christian. It is here that we ask the question: Is it okay with Jesus if I still spend as much time with my close friends as I used to? Personal relationships are ones we share the details of life, the private stuff that maybe doesn’t get shared with too many others. These are relationships that many people term “intimate” but this is a misnomer. We are only capable of being intimate with one person–our spouse (if we are married, or another close friend if single).
Intimate: This is where we share the “naked truth” with another and are “not ashamed.” We fully trust this person to keep our secrets, to like and love us for who we are, and to never leave us. Intimacy is not only a sexual term but an emotional and informational term as well (The Search to Belong, pp. 39-51).
Thus, we seek to have a Christian spouse and a larger group of Christians in our personal friends, while maintaining relationships with others.
We can think of spiritual formation influencing relationships with our spouse, our children, our extended families, our neighbors, our close friends, our co-workers, strangers, people at church, people who have wronged us, and people who no one else seems to care about. There is not one person that we cannot love like Christ loves, though it will take his help and the help of the church.
Robert Webber writes, “The church and its worship are sources of nourishment precisely because they embody God’s story and witness to God’s divine embrace and constantly keep God’s vision of a restored people and renewed earth before us” (The Divine Embrace, p. 220). We do not attend church on Sundays because we must, but because in the church, we remember God’s plan for us and our world. Worship, Scripture, prayer and the sacraments together with other Christians form us into God’s people.
Dallas Willard points to Romans 12:9-21 gives a great list of the ways our gatherings should look:
- Letting love be completely real and sincere (v. 9)
- Abhorring what is evil (v. 9)
- Clinging to what is good (v. 9)
- Being devoted to one another in family-like love (v. 10)
- Outdoing one another in giving honor (v. 10)
- Serving the Lord with fervor and diligence (v. 11)
- Rejoicing in hope (v. 12)
- Being patient in troubles (v. 12)
- Being devoted constantly to prayer (v. 12)
- Contributing to the needs of the saints (v. 13)
- Practicing hospitality (v. 13)
- Blessing persecutors instead of cursing them (v. 14)
- Being joyful with those who are rejoicing and being sorrowful with those in sorrow (v. 15)
- Living in harmony with one another (v. 16)
- Not being proud, but fitting in with those considered “lowly” (v. 16)
- Not seeing yourself as superior or wiser than others (v. 16)
- Never repaying evil for evil (v. 17)
- Having due regard for what everyone takes to be right (v. 17)
- Being at peace with everyone, so far as it depends on you (v. 18)
- Never taking revenge, but leaving that to whatever God may decide (v. 19)
- Providing for needy enemies (v. 20)
- Not being overwhelmed by evil, but overwhelming evil with good (v. 21)
Willard says, “Just think for a moment what it would be like to be a part of a group of disciples in which this list was the conscious, shared intention, and where it was actually lived out, even if with some imperfection” (Renovation of the Heart, pp. 195-196).
Preached this on Feb. 11th as a “Valentine’s Day” sermon. So maybe it’s no surprise what the subject was (begins with “L” and ends with “OVE”). But read on to discover what John has to say about loving one another.
Title: Seeing Valentine’s Day in Light of Easter
Text: 1 John 4:7-21
Valentine’s Day: a day known for chocolate, for hearts, for Cupid, for diamonds, for flowers, for love. I’m sure some of you can look back on Valentine’s Days past and remember the wonderful, sweet, romantic things your special someone or your children did for you. This Valentine’s, Jamie and I are getting each other Papa John’s pizza. It will be a great memory of our first Valentine’s in Baraboo.
And some of you lack those memories. You can’t think of a V-Day when someone bought you jewelry, or made you a special meal, or gave you a card. Whether you have such memories or not, Valentine’s Day is a day set aside to love one another. It’s a day to show our appreciation for spouses, kids, classmates, co-workers. Now you’re probably not going to go out and buy a diamond necklace for all your female co-workers, but you might set out a bunch of chocolates on your desk. Even if it’s something small, people all over America this Wednesday will be saying, “I love you.”
Back in elementary school we used to create boxes to hold all of the valentines we were going to get. Even us boys, who were too young to understand that five shades of pink was just too feminine for a shoe box, decorated as best we could. And then we bought bunches of valentines and candy to give to our friends.
There’s a story about a girl named Amy, a shy kid in elementary school. And she, like all the other kids, decided to give valentines to everyone. She said, “Mom, Jesus talks about loving everyone, and I want to give the other kids valentines. Could you help me?” So she asked for her mom’s help in getting all of them made.
Amy didn’t just want to buy them; she wanted to make the best valentines ever. So her mom bought all the colored paper, scissors, glue, and stickers. And Amy spent a month making the 30 valentines, one for each classmate. All the while her mom agonized over what was happening. She knew her daughter wasn’t the most popular child, and that the other kids left her out during recess. While the other girls laughed and held hands coming home from school, her Amy walked alone. Amy’s mom was afraid her daughter would spend all this time making the valentines and not receive any in return. But she loved that her daughter was concerned about what Jesus wanted. She remembered last Easter when her pastor delivered a message about God’s love for us expressed through Christ’s death on the cross and His resurrection. That Sunday Amy asked Jesus to be her Savior; she was so excited to know that Jesus loved her. And now, there was nothing that would stop her mom from letting her daughter love those kids.
Valentine’s Day came, and Amy piled up the valentines neatly into her backpack and left for school. Her mom prayed that Amy would get something that day. The afternoon passed and she waited by the window for her daughter. Again, she came alone, arms empty. Amy walked in and her mom asked, “What happened?” All she heard Amy say was, “Not a one, not a one.” Her heart sank. And then Amy added, “I didn’t forget a one, not a single one.”
What a wonderful story. But don’t miss this: Amy did what she did because she knew that Jesus loved her. Her love for her fellow classmates flowed from the love God had for her. As we talk about loving our neighbor today, we must remember that the love we show on Valentine’s Day cannot be separated from the love God showed to us on Easter. Our love for others must come from God’s love for us.
The apostle John knew this better than probably anyone. He was, after all, the Beloved Disciple. Just look at the Gospel of John, and you’ll see multiple references to the one Jesus loved, or to the beloved disciple. This is John. So it should come as no surprise that’s John letters contain a BUNCH of references to love. His letter, 1 John, has 43 occurrences of the word love. And in the passage we’re looking at today, there are 29 of them. Twenty-nine times the word “agape” is used. Obviously John wanted to make a point. If you have your Bibles, turn to 1 John 4:7-21, and we’ll see what point John was trying to make.
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.
And Love Is…
John’s point is this: Hey guys, we ought to love one another. Right there in verse 7 he says that. But what does brotherly love look like? We can answer that question by defining agape and by looking at what John tells us in this passage.
The word “agape” perhaps was best defined by dc Talk in the early 90s when they sang “Luv is a Verb.” It is a verb, and therefore it is a decision we must make. One can decide to love God and his neighbor, or he can decide not to. And the only way to know what decision has been made is by that one’s actions. As John Wesley once said, “There is no holiness (perfect love) except social holiness.”
As one commentator puts it, “Agape is not a half-hearted love. It is listening faithfully and obediently to God’s Word, placing yourself under His lordship. It also means basing one’s whole being on God, clinging to Him with unreserved confidence. It is hating and despising all that does not serve God nor come from Him, breaking all other ties, cutting away all that hinders, snapping all bonds except that which binds to God alone.”
Agape is not conditional. Once you choose to love like this, you love no matter what. John gives us five descriptors to help us understand more of this love for one another.
Our Love is the Evidence of Sonship (vv. 7-8)
Verses 7-8 say, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
Notice how those who love are both born of God and love God. Being born of God is a big theme for John. Does anyone remember John 3, where Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about being born anew? The word for “born” is γεννάω, which speaks of the father’s action in the process of procreation. When John uses this term, he wants to emphasize that being born of God is nothing that we can do in and of ourselves. Loving our brother doesn’t make us born of God; rather, it is a sign of those who have been born of God.
And knowing God isn’t just a head-knowledge. It is an intimate knowledge of someone you’ve been with; it’s a first-hand knowledge based on experience of God rather than a scientific knowledge based on hearing about God. It’s knowing God like a son knows his dad.
If you don’t love, then it shows you don’t really know God. If you did, you would know that “love comes from God.” God’s love is characterized by who He is. John tells us that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. That means that His love for us and our love for each other does not tolerate sin. It calls for us to repent, to confess our sin and allow God to cleanse us. God’s love (and our love) keeps us accountable and honest with one another about our faults and failures. It shows that we are sons of God…like the song says, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
Our Love is Defined by God’s Love (vv. 9-11)
Verses 9-11 say, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
We would not be capable of loving one another, nor would we understand how to love except that God first sent His Son as a gift of love to us. John makes it very clear that God didn’t send Jesus to us based on our love for Him. “Not that we loved God…” The way John phrases this in Greek is to say that we continually didn’t love God. Over and over in the past, we failed to love Him. And it says that our failure to love has an effect on the present—God loves us anyway.
That blows me away. How often do we expect someone to do something for us before we’ll act on their behalf? How often do we need to know we are loved first before we’re willing to love someone else? I remember asking Jamie to date me. For the longest time I was afraid to ask her because I didn’t know what she would say. I was afraid of rejection. It took a while to gather up the courage to ask her out. It’s not that she had done anything to make me think she’d say “no,” I just wasn’t sure if she liked me too.
And God showed us His love first. He “asked us out” with the knowledge that we had rejected Him in the past. “Not that we loved God,” but that He loved us. And God sent Jesus for two reasons: 1) that we might live through Him and 2) that Jesus might provide new life to us. Love is not natural to us. My natural desire is to be selfish and think about ME. But because I am now born of God, because Jesus is our atoning sacrifice and we have new life in Him, we live through Him. His Spirit lives in us, empowering us to love and to give and to serve. We live through Him, not ourselves. And just as God loved us while we rejected Him, we ought to love one another regardless of the rejection we feel.
Verse 11 is best translated this way, “Loved ones, since in this way God loved us, then we are owing one another to love.” John makes it very clear that since God sent Jesus, we must love one another, just as one man must pay a financial debt to another. Our love for one another is defined by God’s love for us.
Our Love is the Evidence of Fellowship with God (vv. 12-16a)
Verses 12-16 say, “No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.”
John starts out by saying that if we love one another, God lives in us. This sounds like he’s saying all you have to do is show love and you’re a Christian. He’s not. John then says that you must acknowledge…the same word as “confess,” which means to call something what it truly is…that Jesus is the Son of God. If we confess this to be true, God lives in us, and we live in God.
John is the only person who writes that we live in God, and God lives in us. Matthew, Mark and Luke talk about being part of God’s kingdom, and about being witnesses for God, living as Jesus did, etc. But John takes things a step further, saying that Jesus actually lives in us.
Here’s my question regarding John’s statement: What do you think Jesus feels when we, who have Him living inside of us, who are living through Him, don’t love one another? What do you think He feels? I wonder what He feels when we who know that He is the Savior of the world, like John says, keep Him to ourselves?
Our love, our actions, our service to one another shows the whole world who Jesus is. We get to be pictures of God’s love. So when we keep it in, we’ve just put the cloth over the picture. The world doesn’t get to see its Savior when we don’t love. Christ’s death on the cross must be our motivation to actively love one another. Every opportunity we have to show love must be taken. Not so that we will be seen in public and praised, but so that we can show Christ to the world.
Our Love is Evidence of Holiness (vv. 16b-19)
Verses 16b-19 say, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.”
Remember how I talked about being afraid to ask Jamie out? One reason I was afraid was because I didn’t know how she would answer. Another reason I was afraid was because we were still at a stage of liking each other. We hadn’t started to love one another. There was no way we could have that “perfect love” John talks about in verse 18. Now we’ve been married for almost three years. And I can say with confidence that we can share how we’re feeling, if we’re frustrated, if we’re happy, etc. and not be afraid of how the other one will react.
The Bible has another word for this perfect love. It’s called holiness. Loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself, that’s holiness. It’s something that Wesleyans emphasize quite a bit. And for good reason.
If God lives in us, and we in Him like verse 16 says, and if this is how God makes our love perfect, then it makes sense for God to expect us ALL to be holy. Holiness is such a big, intimidating word. When some people think of holiness they think of Charlton Hesston playing Moses, walking down the mountain after seeing the burning bush with his beard all white. That picture says to me that holiness is only for the spiritual elite and not for me. But God says holiness is natural and expected for every believer. God will make our love complete or perfect as He lives in us and we live through Him.
Our Love for One Another is Essential to Loving God (vv. 20-21)
Throughout 1 John, John lists several groups of people who are hypocritical. In 1:6 he says, “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in darkness we lie and do not live by the truth.” In 1:10 he says, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be liar.” In 2:4 he says, “The man who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar.” In 3:6 he says, No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.”
And now, in verses 4:20-21 he says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
John calls those who say they love God yet cannot love their brother liars. Loving one another is essential to loving God. In what we say about one another and what we do, we must love one another.
At the beginning of the sermon I said we must view Valentine’s Day in light of Easter. Perhaps we must also view Easter in light of Valentine’s Day. To view Valentine’s Day in light of Easter means you recognize that your love for your brother comes from your love for God. And to view Easter in light of Valentine’s Day means you recognize you cannot love God without also loving your neighbor.
Our love is evidence of sonship, it’s defined by God’s love, it’s evidence of fellowship and of holiness, and it’s essential to loving God. So here’s what we ought to do; here’s what we owe ourselves and God. This Valentine’s Day, get out there and celebrate like you normally do but with a twist. As John said in 1 John 3:18, “Let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” So, take action. Actively love someone this week. It’s cold out, so offer to help one of our elderly members with shopping. If it happens to snow, shovel your neighbor’s driveway…or sidewalk for that matter. Bake cookies and some hot chocolate for your spouse. Do whatever you want to, but DO something, and do it in love.