Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Gospel and Virtuous Love

The gospel is the only life-giving force in the world. Everyone is born under a sentence of death. The wages of sin is death and everyone sins, so all die. When sinners are given "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6), part of that knowledge of God's glory is his infinite love. God's love "has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Rom. 5:5). Now that we're Christians, "the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised" (2 Cor. 5:14-15). True Christians are animated and controlled by Christ's love operating in them. They no longer value themselves as the highest good, they value Christ. The value that Christians see in Christ compels them to incline their focus to act on Christ's behalf in the world, or to virtuously love. So having Christ's love inside of us enables us to love like Christ. When a Christian practices virtuous love, it is actually the overflow of Christ's love working through his body. John says something similar when he points out that: "no one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us" (1 John 4:12, emphasis mine). When Christians love others, God's love is made complete through their love. God has chosen to show his love to the world through the love given, first by Christ, then by his body, the church. So the natural fruit and outpouring of the gospel is the love of Christ proclaimed and illustrated to his creation through his church.

This gospel-driven love is recorded in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. Paul is trying to motivate the Corinthian Christians to give a generous offering to the impoverished church in Jerusalem. He does this by pointing out what the Macedonian Christians have already done: "We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints -- and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us" (2 Cor. 8:1-5).

The first thing that Paul brings up is God's grace. God had given grace to the churches of Macedonia (Philippi, Thessalonica and others). We can assume this grace enabled the Macedonians to rejoice in God so much that they could give abundantly, though their own possessions were few. Paul says they even freely gave beyond their means. When Paul was reluctant to accept their gift due to their own poverty, the Macedonians begged Paul to take it. Paul says they "gave themselves first to Lord and then by the will of God to us" (8:5). God's grace produced joy in God that overflowed in free, abundant giving. Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. "But as you excel in everything -- in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you -- see that you excel in this act of grace also. I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. And in this matter I give my judgment: this benefits you, who a year ago started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it. So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have" (2 Cor. 8:6-11).

Now Paul shifts gears from the Macedonians to the Corinthians. Paul is expecting that just as God gave grace to the Macedonians, he also has given grace to the Corinthians producing similar results. Paul even calls their giving "this act of grace" (8:7). Paul says he wants the Corinthians to "prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine" (8:8). The key word in that verse is also. Paul wants the Corinthians to prove their love is genuine like someone else proved their love was genuine. The also obviously refers to the Macedonians. The Macedonians gave out of the grace-given overflow of joy in God. Paul calls that God-given graciousness "love" and wants the Corinthians to do the same thing. Notice how Paul calls their desire to give incomplete (8:11). It's not enough that the Corinthians desire to give. They must finish doing the good they desire. That's how their love will prove its grace-given virtue. "You will be enriched in every way for all your generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission flowing from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you. Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!" (2 Cor. 9:11-15).

Paul expresses the benefits of giving cheerfully in the first part of chapter 9. He says giving cheerfully benefits the giver. He says the Corinthians' generosity will produce thanksgiving to God. The generosity of the body will bring thanksgiving to the Head. Why? Because the Jerusalem Christians know that their Macedonian and Corinthian brothers only give because the love of Christ controls them and operates through them. Paul says the love shown by the Corinthians will bring glory to God. This love is "flowing from your confession of the gospel of Christ. . . ." (9:13). Notice the word "flowing." God-glorifying, virtuous love is flowing from a confession of the gospel. Notice how the Macedonians' love follows the progression of phases. The Macedonians began with an affection for God flowing from a sense of his beauty or value. It was out of "their abundance of joy . . ." (8:2). They had a desire for God as "they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us" (8:5). They inclined their focus from things of the world to God and his cause "begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints" (8:4). Their inclination of focus overflowed in action since "they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will" (8:3). All the phases are there in this act of love.

Virtuous Love

We can safely infer from 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 some boundaries around virtuous love. First, if love is to be virtuous, it must flow from the grace of God through the gospel. Love is common to all mankind, virtue is not. The reason for this is simple. In our natural state, we don't value God, the Fountain of all virtue. God must give us the sense of his value (faith) and feed and develop it through his Word if we are to see any virtue in virtue. We are dependent on God to produce virtue through us. If he doesn't do this, then we find substitute things from the creation to value and love independently of God. The problem with this love for the world is that nothing in the creation is to be valued independently of God. This brings us to our second boundary.

Second, if love is to be virtuous, God's glory must be manifested, proclaimed and praised. "For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen" (Rom. 11:36). "For by him [Christ] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities -- all things were created through him and for him" (Col. 1:16). "Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist" (1 Cor. 8:6).

Love can have a lesser direct object (like a spouse), but if it's to be virtuous it must ultimately present God as glorious. The one doing the loving must consciously desire that God be the receiver of thanksgiving, praise and glory. In order for this to happen, God must be the central focus of our activity. We aren't meant to operate independently of God. This is why I warned in the Introduction against trying to balance God among other areas of life. God is to be the ground, channel and recipient of every area of life. For instance, the direct object of the Corinthians' offering of love was the Jerusalem Christians. However, the ultimate recipient of glory was God. Love is never independent of God. It's either magnifying God's glory or stealing it. The Corinthians loved their brothers in such a way that God got the glory for it. The Corinthians loved the Jerusalem Christians on behalf of God.

When we take these first two points together, 1) virtuous love flows from the grace of God through the gospel, and 2) virtuous love must manifest and proclaim God's glory; we realize the Christ-centered nature of virtuous love. Love comes from Christ, works through Christ and returns to Christ. This may seem radical at first. Is there virtue in a non-Christian soldier dying for his country? No. Apart from the gospel, this soldier is going to hell. Is there virtue in a mother nurturing her child without a desire to see God's glory manifested? No. Since God does everything for his own glory, anything not done by his creatures with the same ultimate motive would be a competitor to his glory. How can a competitor to the Fountain of virtue be virtuous? If there's one thing the Bible is clear about, it's God's passion for his own glory. All acts of love must flow from him, through him and back to him in order to be virtuous love. The very fact that living in such a God-centered way seems impossible to us just goes to show how far we've fallen. Worse yet, we often whittle down love from such a radical, Christ-centered virtue to some small act we can attain. When seen in this light, we can see just how depraved and stained we truly are. When Paul says we all sin and fall short of God's glory (see Rom. 3:23), he means way off the mark! We all desperately need Jesus Christ to wholly deliver us, not just dress us up a little bit.

Finally, if love is to be virtuous, it must be the overflow of joy and value in God. Paul said the Macedonians "gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us" (2 Cor. 8:5, emphasis mine). The Macedonians had an overflow of joy. It wasn't in their physical circumstances. They were dirt poor. It must have been in God. They consciously gave themselves to God before all else, and out of the overflow of the joy he gave them, they gave their possessions to Paul to give to the Jerusalem Christians. Virtuous love for others comes through "cheerful givers" (2 Cor. 9:7) who know the soul-satisfying pleasure in seeking God above and before all else.

Virtuous Love in Marriage

We must understand the difference between God-centered, virtuous love and non-virtuous love if we're going to ensure our marriages are glorifying God rather than competing with him. Non-virtuous love is seeking to fulfill our desires independently of God. With non-virtuous love, as long as our desires are fulfilled, we don't care where the glory goes and if God is pleased. Virtuous love, on the other hand, consciously seeks to glorify and please God all along the progression of love. Marriages that operate independently from a conscious desire for God's glory, no matter how loving and happy, cannot bring ultimate satisfaction. God is very clear in stating, "I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols" (Is. 42:8). A rogue marriage being lived for the vain, temporary pleasure of the couple at the expense of God's praise is a carved idol. God will accept no rivals of his glory. Many rogue marriages end in divorce. However, some couples hold on to an unhappy, rogue marriage for some other benefit (kids, praise of man, security, etc.). Other couples continue operating independently from God their whole lives and happily die together in their old age. God will not be impressed with those "golden" couples. They weren't any more virtuous than the others. Apart from a conscious decision to glorify God through their marriage, every couple hijacks God's creation and uses it for their own private agenda, regardless of how long they make it work. Is God supposed to congratulate seventy years of hard-heartedness more than ten? This may sound new to us and bump up against our legalistic, culturally acceptable sensibilities. Isn't marriage a good thing? Yes, marriage is a good thing so long as it fulfills God's purposes for it. Doesn't God hate divorce? Yes, God hates divorce, but that doesn't mean he can't equally hate a marriage. God can hate both if they both steal his glory. We seem to frequently forget that. Isn't divorce the cause of societal instability and wickedness? No, divorce is not the cause of anything. It's merely a further symptom of man's total depravity. In a world set up against God, divorce should be expected.

The answer to our culture's problems isn't longer marriages, it's the gospel of Jesus Christ. Shouldn't we honor those who remain faithfully married their whole lives? Yes, we can honor those who remain faithfully married their whole lives provided they did it for the glory of God and proclaim it as such. Otherwise, no, it's not good to honor a rogue couple any more than it's good to honor a bank robber as though he worked "heartily, as for the Lord and not for men" (Col. 3:23). "In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty" (Prov. 14:23). Obviously, the "all toil" Solomon wrote about wasn't sinful toil like robbing a bank. When a couple hijacks a marriage from God and uses it to fulfill all sorts of private agendas at God's expense, it is sinful, idolatrous toil and unworthy of honor.

So if we want our love in marriage to be virtuous and God-glorifying, we must make the conscious decision to live that way. We must have an affection for God flowing from a sense of his value. We must value his purposes for marriage (we'll look at those in the next chapter) as an extension of our valuing him. We must desire God above and before all else, even our marriage. We must desire our spouse as an extension of desiring God and enjoy our spouse as an overflow of our joy in God. We must incline our focus toward God-glorifying objects with God's pleasure in mind. We must zone in on what God deems important in our marriage and zone out what God calls "worldly." We must allow our love to overflow in godly ways that enable God to get the praise and glory he so richly deserves, while we thankfully get the benefits of his goodness. We must pursue our pleasure in our spouse's pleasure in God.

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