Professor Joe Dongell delivered this groundbreaking address helping us refocus on the true core of John Wesley. In this third installment, he lays out five clarifications about Christian love that demonstrate the depth and the freshness of Wesley’s teaching on it.
Wesley is saying something more than that love is “important,” a claim with which all Christians could agree. Rather, Wesley has a specific understanding of how love works across the whole Christian life, and how love is the operational, functional center of all things. So I want to put before you 5 proposals that sketch out some of the contours of how Wesley understood love, an understanding that he derived from Scripture.
1) First, the love advocated by Jesus and his apostles cannot be defined by general human intuition, or by cultural sensibilities, or by finding some supposed ethical overlap between all the world’s religions. When Jesus declared that the two greatest commandments were: a) “You shall love the Lord your God,” and b) “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” he was not creating a new moral principle de novo on the spot, but quoting directly from the Pentateuch (from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18). Surely he presumed that the immediate contexts of these verses (along with the whole Old Testament context) must shape our thinking as we try to live out these twin commandments now forwarded to us. According to Jesus’ own outlook, then, God’s self-revelation to Israel as expressed throughout the Old Testament must form the first crucible for our interpretive work as we craft a theology, yes, even of Christian love.
But even more critically, in several key NT passages it is clear that neither Jesus nor the apostolic writers trusted the supposed power of words (like avgapa,w or file,w) to carry the full freight of what they meant by love. For example, in both John 13 and John 15 Jesus did not simply say, “Love one another,” (again, as if the use of the verb avgapa,w would make all things clear), but rather said “Love one another as I have loved you.” In other words, Jesus put forward his whole life and teaching as the defining pattern for the love he commands. No language has a word that captures all of that! Similarly in Ephesians Paul did not simply say, “Walk in love,” (as if that were enough guidance to give) but, “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” So as the apostolic witnesses insist here and elsewhere, the Christian understanding of love must be closely tethered not just to the Bible in a general and platitudinous way, but particularly to the story of God in Christ specifically as narrated within the Bible, with special focus on the cross and the network of truth woven into it. To put it another way, the first battle about love must be fought at the definitional level, where the fundamental question “What is love?” must be answered from within the framework of the canonical apostolic proclamation [i.e., from within the NT as it presumes the OT].
2) Second, we must stop equating Christian love with good actions, even if those good actions are helpful to others and done in the name of Jesus. Many of us have been told that, since “love is a verb,” love itself is an action. By this logic, we have too easily concluded that love comes into existence in the exact moment we act to help someone. I imagine that, if I have helped someone, then (by definition) I have loved him or her.
But love is something prior to, and beneath the action it sponsors. Love is a matter of the heart, a disposition that is deeper and longer lasting than the specific actions we undertake. For example, even in God’s case, we read in Romans 5 that God demonstrated his love for us by sending his own Son.” In other words, love was something already residing in God, something already part God’s character long before God proved (demonstrated) this love in the act of giving his Son. Love precedes action, and therefore is something distinct from and prior to any actions that might arise from it.
This is not just a technical point, for it opens up an inverse truth we will find hard to accept. If love and helpful actions are in fact distinct from each other, then it may be possible (sadly) for us to be doing helpful deeds without really being persons of love underneath it all, without having experienced the deep transformation of the heart in love. In other words, good deeds may unfortunately arise from motives other than love. I know for a fact that nurses, for example, can provide life-saving treatment to patients without having or desiring any positive relationship with them. As the apostle Paul explained in I Cor. 13:1-3, and as John Wesley himself carefully noted (with awe) when commenting on this passage, one may be a Christian, and may be functioning effectively in ministry, and may even act so benevolently as to give away all of one’s possessions for others . . . and still not “have love,” that is, still not be a person fundamentally characterized by love. In other words, I may exhaust myself in compassion ministries, and yet at the same time be hyper-competitive, or consumed with self-image, or abrasive, or unforgiving, or impure. This is why a focus on action, a focus simply on motivating inert people to become active doers of good may be a far shallower project than we imagine, and may be largely accomplishable in the power of the flesh through various forms of merely human persuasion. A more radical change of the heart in its deeper chambers is the divine miracle we need to be seeking.
3) Third, love’s origin is God himself, or as it is expressed in I John 4:7, “Love is of God” (evk tou/ qeou/). Imagine a rare kind of gem that is dug from only one mine in the world. Wherever we see it on display, no matter who is wearing it or what cut and setting it has, we know where it came from originally. And so it is with love. Wherever we see it truly expressed, we know that God, in his grace, is somehow the ultimate supplier. (Compare James 1:17, “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”) Though human beings of course participate in shaping the expressions of love (just as with the cut and setting of a gem), all real love is still “from God,” and as such, has not been created, ex nihilo, by any human individual. Fundamentally, whatever love you and I express toward God or toward others is always and only a repackaging and re-gifting of love we have already received from God. Love, therefore, just as Wesley himself saw and insisted, is a gift from God, and is not the raw creation of our wills. We cannot love our enemies simply by deciding to do so; we cannot become people of love (through and through) simply by determining to be such. We can give away only what we have received (see I Cor. 4:7b).
4) Fourth, if love is a gift from God, then we must seek to receive love from God, the very love we are commanded then to express both to God and to others. The mere fact that one is a Christian, even a spiritually gifted and effective person, is not yet proof that one has undergone the deeper reception of God’s love. This deeper infusion of love is something we must, apparently, seek (just as Paul urges in I Cor. 14:1), and must seek with the expectation that God will (in his own time and way) actually satisfy this quest. This seems exactly the point of Paul’s prayer for his readers (who quite clearly were already Christians, see 1:3-14) in Ephesians 3, one of the most eloquent prayers in all of Scripture, which reaches its apex in 3:19, “and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, and [so] be filled with all the fullness of God.” Here is the highest prayer, the supreme agendum for the Christian life, which (when granted) so satisfies our inner thirsts (through this infusion of divine love for me) that I am finally freed to turn outward in self-giving. We must learn to pray this prayer together, actively waiting within the means of grace for God to answer it.
5) Fifth, the love poured out by God through the Spirit is a mighty force set loose in the deepest chambers of the heart and community, manifesting a host of powerful internal and external effects. Among its many internal effects, Wesley frequently spoke of this infused love as expelling sin from the heart. Wesley’s logic is easy to follow. For if love fills the heart (and by its nature fulfills the whole law of God), then the heart so filled with love has “no room left in it” (metaphorically speaking) for evil intensions and designs. In other words, Wesley viewed purity as resulting from being infused (from above) by divine love. If I have been filled (by God) with love for you, I cannot at the same time, lie to you, steal from you, damage your reputation, or violate you sexually. In other words, the infusion of God’s love within us (in a way we clearly feel and sense) produces holiness as its natural outcome. Therefore a deficit of holiness, under this analysis, turns out to be traceable to an underlying deficit in our (sensible) reception of God’s outpoured love (cf. Rom. 5:5, another favorite verse of Wesley). Unholy people are, by scriptural logic, unloving people; and unloving people are, by scriptural logic, unholy people.
Then among the external effects of infusion with God’s love will be mission and service of every sort. For to be filled with love from God is to be empowered by the same passion that has been energizing God’s own redemptive mission. Remember, it was because God loved the world that he willingly sacrificed his own Son (John 3:16). Love is that unstoppable energy powering every heroic undertaking, and I’m not speaking romantically here, but biblically. [The apostle Paul refers to the labor of love (I Thess. 1:3; see also Heb. 6:10), ostensibly because the one filled with love is compelled from within to expend every ounce of energy to surmount every obstacle for the sake of the beloved.] This means that any person or church that is luke-warm in zeal to reach the lost or address human suffering is best described (not as sleepy or lazy or unfocused or disorganized, nor even as disobedient (though it is that)) as insufficiently filled with God’s own love for humanity.
Such a deficit of love for others cannot be really be erased just by explaining a theology of love to a congregation, or by commanding them to pour themselves out in self-giving ministry, or by warning them of the impending death of their cherished church, or by shaming them about the irrelevance of their church in the eye of the community. These sorts of motivation may work for a time, or to a degree. But a deficit in loving (and therefore in energy for ministry to and for others) can only be relieved by the deeper inflow of love from God (the source of all love), by our being infused with the direct awareness of being beloved by God, by the actual experience of God’s very love for me. Such a direct knowledge of the Lover of all souls compels me (from within) to draw the whole world into my embrace, and by doing so, to draw them to Him. In other words, if God’s love drove him on a mission, then only his own love (resident within me) can drive me to join him on that same mission. [To be concluded in the final installment! Ed.]
Dr. Joseph Dongell is professor of biblical studies and director of Greek studies at Asbury Theological Seminary where he has served for over 25 years. He is an ordained minister in The Wesleyan Church.