RPM, Volume 15, Number 19, May 5 to May 11, 2013

How to Excel in Love

1 John 4:7-21

(Series on First John: No. 14)

By Robert Rayburn

Text Comment:

Love again, after twice before.
The text of our recent visitation.

In his commentary on Galatians chapter 6, the church father Jerome, tells a now famous story about the Apostle John, when he was near the end of his life. He used to be carried into the church at Ephesus on the arms of his disciples, Jerome tells us, and was unable to say anything except: 'little children, love one another.' At last, growing weary of hearing the same words over and over again, they asked him: "Master, why do you always say this?" "Because," the old apostle replied, "it is the Lord's command, and if this only is done, it is enough." [Stott, p 49]

Well that story, ancient as it is, rings true. For John, as we meet him here in his first letter, is obviously very anxious that we understand how paramount a place the Lord has given to love in the life of his disciples. In the verses we have just read, he not only repeats the point he has already made twice over--viz. that one of the marks of new life in Christ is the love that a real Christian shows toward his brothers and sisters in the Lord; he does that here, of course, as in v. 8 for example. But, there is more of the imperative here than the indicative. John is here supremely concerned to urge us on in love; to make us determined to grow in this grace above all others.

And so he argues with us; giving reason after reason why we ought to be loving people; why love ought to characterize our life together as the people of God. Indeed, his arguments seem here to rush out of his passionate heart and preoccupied mind. One after another, he hurls them at us:

** Love one another because in this way our own confidence and assurance of salvation is fostered.

** Love one another because this is the most powerful way to express our gratitude to God for his great love for us.

** Love one another because only in this way can we truly love God; and because this is the proper path to that higher love for God to which every genuine Christian aspires.

** Love one another because God is love and as his image-bearers we are obliged to reflect his character.

** Love one another because in this way the craven fears and oppressive worries are taken from our lives.

And if all of that isn't sufficient

** Love one another because God has commanded it! John wants us to be a more loving people; he wants love to rule in our fellowship. And, his method for reaching that goal is argument; he seeks to persuade us, to move us to action with reasons.

He assumes that every Christian already agrees with the proposition that we ought to love one another deeply. He assumes that every genuine Christian is willing to be a loving, self-sacrificing, burden-bearing, caring, affectionate brother or sister to other believers. He assumes throughout that our problem with love is not theoretical; it is not even spiritual in the sense of desire or commitment. Our problem is a problem of actuation, of putting into practice and into expression the very things we most believe in, the very things we most want to be and to do for our Redeemer's sake.

And John seeks to actuate us, to stimulate us to loving action, to move us from inactivity to the practice of love, I say, John seeks to energize us by arguing the case for love.

Now, we may wonder about his method. After all, we say, these are not new arguments; we have heard all of them many times before; we know what he is going to say, virtually before he says it. We may think to ourselves, as we read John here: 'this is not what I need. I already know and completely accept these arguments John is making on behalf of love.'

** If only, we think, we could see for a moment the nail-printed hands and feet of our Savior, then our love would be activated!

** If only we could see, just for a moment, our brother or our sister as he or she will be in heaven, then how we would love them; how we would willingly put their interests above our own.

** If only we could see, if only for the briefest instant, our enemy in hell, what active compassion we would show him.

** If only we could see and hear--in the flash of an instant--the Lord Christ on the great day asking us for an accounting of the love we gave to others, how then we would practice love with a vengeance, letting nothing stand in the way of our brother's or our sister's well-being.

Well, says John; you will not see those things while you live in the world; you must live and thus you must love by faith and not by sight. And therefore, this is the technique, this is the means, these are the tools by which Christians must be activated to a life of actual, practical, flesh and blood, sacrificing, self-denying love for the brethren: the very arguments I have here given you; the many reasons I have set before you, why Christians should love one another deeply. He is as much as saying to every Christian here this morning, that if this text and others like it in the Bible do not turn your lives into love, they will not be turned; if this text does not set you on the way of a life of love and self-denial, you will never be set on that way. This is the biblical method to make Christians into the kind of loving people that they are going so much to want to have been on the day of judgment. This is God's method, no other. And so it is imperative that we clearly understand exactly what such arguments as these John has set before us require of us; what our response to John's appeal and his exhortation must be.

John thinks that this is what we need; that these arguments, these reasons, these appeals will do the job. And my point this morning is that they will indeed, but only if we, in the spirit of John's instruction, chase these reasons, these arguments into our hearts and into our behavior. John has given us the raw material; before the Lord, we are now to make something beautiful out of it. As the old writers would have put it, it is our duty to "improve" John's instruction and exhortation; to put it to use and to bring fruit from it.

And that, the Bible suggests requires at least three separate acts or exercises or operations on our part.

I. First, we must master John's case, his argument, or, perhaps better, be mastered by it.

The Devil is delighted when Christians read verses such as we have read this morning, nod their agreement and pass on to other things, even to something else in Scripture. If he can persuade us that reading such a passage is enough, or that we understand John's point sufficiently well and do not need, therefore, to study it further, he will have triumphed; for we will feel satisfied for having read the text, but he will know that we have not actually mastered it and, therefore, are not likely to do anything in response to it.

What do we mean by 'knowing' the Bible or any specific passage of the Bible, such as this one before us this morning? Do we mean simply knowing that it is here in 1 John and that it says something about our loving one another; does it mean that we have some basic acquaintance with the arguments John uses so that as we read them we can understand his meaning? Or should we rather mean that this text has been opened up to us, has disclosed its true meaning to us, and we have deep within us felt the force, and the point, and the depth, and the power of the truth John here sets forth?

My brother and sisters and I used to say of our mother that she had the happy advantage of being able to laugh at a joke three times: once when she heard it, once when it was explained to her, and once when she figured it out for herself. Well that is something like the way people 'know' the Bible. And so long as our knowledge is second hand and superficial and imprecise it will not move us or summon us or inspire us or activate us as God intends that it should.

John Bunyan in his spiritual autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, tells us of one particular passage of Scripture which the Devil was always wanting to snatch away from him, to keep him from putting it to good and holy use. The text was John 6:37: 'whoever comes to me,' Jesus said, 'I will never drive away.' 'But Satan,' Bunyan wrote, 'would greatly labor to pull this promise from me...if ever Satan and I did strive for any word of God all my life, it was for this good word of Christ; he at one end and I at the other. Oh what work did we make! ...he pulled and I pulled; but, God be praised, I got the better of him...' [Paragraph 215]

Well, Christian friends, Satan is pulling at one end of this text we have read this morning about the all important place that brotherly love ought to have in our Christian lives, and how we must not rest content until our lives are love all compact. The question is not whether Satan is pulling this text away from you, but is whether you are pulling back!

Will you stay here, ponder, pray for light, meditate, turn these verses over in your souls until you not only know exactly what John means but feel the full force of his sacred and Holy Spirit inspired meaning! That you know how God's love for you must lead to your love for others; that you know exactly how impossible it would ever be for you to love God or claim with integrity to love Him if you are not obviously, practically, and passionately in love with your brothers and sisters in Christ; and so on.

If John's argument is to have its proper effect--and remember it must, for there is no other way to a life of holy love--it first must be mastered by us.

II. Second, we must not only master the case, but we must reargue it to ourselves, we must take up John's place and put the same reasons powerfully to our own souls.

It is not enough now to know, really know, know with the heart and soul as with the mind what John means. Our souls being as stubborn and as immovable as they are, we must take up the cause of love and press it to ourselves, argue and cajole and reason and persuade until we not only have agreed that action for love's sake is necessary but are actually up and moving.

This is the biblical technique of soliloquy. Talking to oneself. Sometimes talking to oneself is not a good thing; sometimes it is sign of distraction. But, in the Bible, there is a talking to oneself which is not only good but most necessary. It assumes that there are within us two contrary selves, or better, principles; and that the holy and righteous principle must argue into silence the principles of the flesh which remain in even a reborn heart. Paul speaks of this type of double self when, in Romans 7, he speaks of being a slave to God's law in his mind but in his flesh a slave to sin; or in Galatians 5 when he speaks of the flesh and the spirit at war with one another in a Christian soul. The biblical art of soliloquy is based upon this fact and is the Christian's true self, his or her holy self, asserting itself over against the flesh.

You find such self-conference and self-argument frequently in the Psalms. For example, the famous psalm of praise, No. 103, which begins: 'Bless the Lord, O my soul and all that is within me, bless his holy name' is, in fact, virtually entirely soliloquy. David is not speaking in that psalm directly to God; he is speaking to himself; he is calling upon his soul to praise and worship God, and, his soul being backward in that work as your soul and my soul are still today, he makes the case to his own soul. He enumerates all the magnificent reasons he has to praise the Lord, all that the Lord has done for him:
'forgives all his sins, heals all his diseases, redeems his life from the pit,' and so on. He is arguing his soul into worship and praise of God. And he carries the day, for by the end of the psalm his soul is so overpowered by the goodness of God as it was just described to it that David is calling upon the angels and the whole of the created order to join him in giving praise to the Lord.

Or, take Psalm 42. Here is another classic case of soliloquy or self-conference. Here the psalm pleads another kind of case with himself. He is discouraged, finds himself in the midst of trouble, and his trust in the Lord and confidence in God's faithfulness is waning. And so he enters into debate with his own soul: 'Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.'

This kind of soliloquy is a kind of preaching to oneself and it is an important and necessary instrument of spiritual growth and, in that case, of growth in the grace of brotherly love. Argue this way: Come, my soul, Christ has done so much for you and you will not do this little thing for another? The day approaches my soul and what will you want to have done then? God and the angels are watching you, my soul...will you love your brother or only yourself? John said this is how we love God and know we love God, by loving others--Do you not want to love God, O my soul!?

If John is the only one arguing with our souls in favor of love, we are unlikely to love very much; but if we add our voices to his, in an unending argument with our own souls, then we are very likely at last to get up and moving in loving others.

John Flavel, the puritan, warned that this is not natural to us; it takes concentration of will and real effort. Left to itself it will not be done. He wrote: 'There are some men and women that have lived forty or fifty years in the world, and have scarce had one hour's discourse with their own hearts all that while. It is a hard thing to bring a man and himself together upon such an account...'

But you must. John will not win his case in our hearts unless we take his side and add our own voices to his!

III. Third, in addition to mastering John's case and arguing it over again to our souls, we must hold ourselves to account, must make ourselves give an account of what we have done with what we now know.

'Give careful thought to your ways' calls the prophet Haggai to the people of God in his day. Four times in that brief prophecy he calls on them to 'give careful thought to their ways.' And we must as well.

You do so in regard to many things; you hold yourself to account and consider what you have done and measure the consequences and results. You who are students study for the examinations which you must soon sit; and afterwards you will receive a grade which will indicate how well you learned the assigned material. You who have bank accounts, each month must balance your checkbook, to ensure that you have kept your figures accurately, that you have as much in the bank as you think, and enough to pay the bills which are piling up on your desk. You who go to the doctor for a physical examination, and if he finds some matter of concern--high cholesterol or blood pressure--you change your diet, or begin to exercise, to take medicine and soon check again to ensure that the steps you have taken are bringing the desired result.

But for the far more important matters--the things for which an answer must be given on the soon coming great day, the things which are the true and lasting measure of our lives, we often take no account at all. And so for months, even years, nothing happens, no progress is made, we do not love our brethren more now than we did two years ago or five years ago or twenty years ago.

No! Change will come, obedience to John's summons here in 1 John 4:7-21 will appear in our lives, when we force ourselves to reckon with our lives, day after day, call ourselves to account.

What of today? what of yesterday? of the day before that? of this week just past? Did I love others because and in the same way God loved me? Did I love so as to make God's love complete in me? Did I both show that I belong to God and draw nearer to the Lord by my committed service to others? Did I drive fear right away out of my heart by my loving the brethren? Did I obey the Lord's command to wash by brother's, my sister's feet, to consider their interests more important than my own? To pray for them, to forgive them heartily, to speak so as to build them up, to keep no record of their wrongs, to weep with them and rejoice with them?

Or, if the truth be told, was it rather this way these past two or three days:
I lived for myself, I thought for myself,
For myself and none beside--
Just as if Jesus had never lived,
As if he had never died.

You see, a genuine believer, with a new heart and with the Spirit of God within him, cannot stand still in the face of the plain fact that he is dishonoring his God and his salvation and failing to live up to the calling he has received. If he is forced to face those facts, he will, she will be moved to action, to repentance and to new obedience. But any Christian can go for weeks, for months and for years doing very little if he or she is never forced to reckon, to give an account. Our deceitful hearts will assure us that all is well, unless and until the contrary evidence is forced upon our attention. And that is precisely what we must do for ourselves, day after day and week after week, and, the happy irony is this: that the result of all of that painful honesty with ourselves will be a life that will give us vastly more pleasure, more satisfaction, and more reward than the unaccounted and unanalyzed life of ease we are so inclined to live.

Love keeps no record of wrongs, except its own! And if it keeps a careful record of its own wrongs, soon those wrongs will get fewer and love will grow stronger and deeper.

Master John's argument; argue it yourself to your own soul; and hold yourself to a strict account, demand that your soul face squarely your record of loving, however dismal that record may now appear. Do these things, and John's arguments will win the day and God and your brethren and your neighbors and your enemies as well as your own soul will bless you for it!

Obviously you can't do this for everything; it takes too much time, too much intellectual and emotional energy. But John's point is simply this: the love of the brethren is so important, so fundamental, so significant for this life and the life to come, that it, far more than other things, justifies such an investment of time and mind and heart.

For as the old apostle put it, at the end of his long and holy life, the apostle whom Jesus loved, when asked by his disciples why he made so much of Christians loving one another:
'Because it is the Lord's command; and if this only is done, it is enough.'

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