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Christ's Test of Our Orthodoxy

Jack W. Sawyer

In our age, the French are known for their foods and fashions, and the English are renowned for their formality and elegance. In our own country, the neo-Nazis are well known for their hate, and Hollywood is famous for its glitz and glamour. In the religious sphere, some Utah Mormons are notorious for their polygamy, and the Moral Majority movement in Lynchburg, Virginia, is especially remembered for its outrage at America's moral direction. All groups in the world, large and small, are either famous or infamous for something—usually something they choose to emphasize. What is your local church known for in its community? And, what are you well-known for within your local church?

As Jesus entered into the final, daunting chapters of his earthly, redemptive mission, he had some critical matters on his mind that he wanted to impress upon his followers. Among these important thoughts were the words of John 13:33–35:

Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, "Where I am going you cannot come." A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus resolutely set his face to go to Jerusalem; in the loving interest of his covenant people, he determinately stayed the course of this dreadful pathway to the cross. Now speaking these words, Jesus is anticipating that he will soon square-off with sin, death, and the devil in a decisive, cosmic conflict. And, as the Second Adam, the federal head of his people, he will soon face compounding temptations to abandon his saving mission.

For Jesus, the near-future involves exceeding sorrow and deep grief. His closest acquaintances will soon betray and abandon him, and he will suffer numerous indignities at the hands of evil men. Additionally, as he speaks, Jesus is aware that all his suffering will culminate in his death, an unusually cruel and horrific death.

Nonetheless, King Jesus, by faith, is also anticipating an ironic reversal in this decisive, cosmic battle. He also believes he will soon victoriously rise from the dead, securing his people's eternal salvation. In addition, he also anticipates ascending to heaven soon, to be exalted in glory at his Father's right hand.

These things right before him, Jesus knew he had but "a little while" with his beloved, dependent disciples (his "little children"). Consequently, he had some very important things to say to them about relating to one another. "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another." This "new commandment" required the deliberate pursuit of a quality of love that transcended the Old Testament command to "love thy neighbor as thyself" (Lev. 19:18). For these disciples to love others, as they had been loved by Christ, would mean that they must also tread the costly pathway of a Christ-like, cross-like love-ethic (cf. Matt. 16:24–25; Phil. 2:1-8; 1 John 2:3–11; 3:16–19; John 13:3–17). In the future, Jesus would be physically absent from the disciples, but the quality of his exemplary love, by his command, was to continue amid and through them.

Moreover, this "new commandment" is followed by a weighty proclamation: "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." Here Jesus declares that observable love between believers is to be the hallmark of the Christian community. It is to be considered the definitive mark of genuine Christianity, a certifying badge of discipleship. When outsiders observe a Christian community, according to Jesus, they are to see a beautiful, Christ-like love evidenced in the various relationships. Thus, as they observe the Christian community's marriages, families, friendships, or gatherings, this signature mark is to stand out as the prominent atmosphere of all the relational exchanges. While the Romans might pursue being well known for the cruelties that maintained their vast power, and the Greeks might pursue being well known for the learning that maintained their high culture, the disciples of Christ were to pursue being well known for their beautiful Christ-like, cross-like love for one another. In summary, Jesus here proclaims that the world has a spiritual standard to test the church against, and here the church has a means of knowing whether its orthodoxy of community is as pure as its orthodoxy of doctrine.

Obviously, these passages aren't difficult to understand, and, as such, they are easy to treat with indifference. Somehow in the inner workings of our remaining sin, we Christians become complacent, overlooking the gravity of living out these familiar words. Because we intellectually consider Christ's command in John 13:34 as highly important, we somehow convince ourselves that mentally valuing these words equals obeying them. Such a dichotomizing temptation isn't new to modern Christians, as Jesus, John, James, and Paul all seem to have anticipated such a self-deceiving propensity in believers (John 13:17; 1 John 3:18; James 1:22–25; Gal. 6:7–10), and it seems that both the Corinthians and the Ephesians both deluded themselves in these matters (1 Cor. 13:1–13; Rev. 2:1–7).

Likewise, if we're honest, we know that we're prone to put other things in love's rightful place within the Christian community. For instance, love is supplanted in the church when our good intentions die birthing, when our resolves to minister to others in the body fail to reach expression or realization. Similarly, love in the body of Christ is also displaced when we hyper-prioritize other legitimate things ahead of it. Even the pursuit of good things, like the diligent pursuit of our theological development, voracious reading habits, and fighting doctrinal causes can supplant love. For some reason, there seems to be in us a twisted proclivity to believe that if we are short on love, we can somehow make up for it by being longer on truth. But nothing could be further from the truth.

In addition, Reformed believers often don't seem to grasp that loving others is a sophisticated life-skill that believers must spend their lifetimes improving. Loving others wisely and effectively requires much deliberate effort and experience, and it takes years to master (e.g., Titus 2:1–5). After all, growing in one's love for others is just like the pursuit of one's theological growth: it requires spiritual cultivation and discipline to develop and mature. If we give it a low priority in our Christian walk, such will leave us unequal to the relational challenges that confront us. Moreover, the fallout of such inaction can be quite ugly and painful, littering a local church's history with misunderstandings, strife, schisms, hurt, and distrust. Everywhere we go, Lady Wisdom cries out for us to come and learn, and she also ever warns us of the consequences of ignoring her life-giving pleas (Prov. 1:20–33).

Furthermore, idle negligence in learning to love leaves believers unqualified and ill-equipped to relate and minister to other people who face complicated circumstances. As an example, it is rather complex to prudently approach another believer whose child just tragically died in a car accident. Entering such a delicate situation demands maturity. Good intentions alone are not enough, as those ministering will need much love-laced wisdom. In such a heartbreaking tragedy, believers need to understand that loving means putting their own helpless feelings aside when they approach such a devastated brother or sister. Otherwise, they may inadvertently lose the golden opportunity to love, instead thinking that they must somehow say something magical to make everything okay (which, in reality, shifts the focus of their ministering onto their own helpless feelings). More often than not, when another's grief is fresh, our words should be few. Loving others this way, intelligently, is a sophisticated life-skill that believers must spend their lifetimes improving. The Spirit, in sanctifying a believer, imparts such love just as he does light—via the means of instruction, correction, and training. Hence, believers need to invest energy and effort into maturing in it, and they also need walking, seasoned examples of what it looks like to live this out in a Christ-like way. Learning how to love others, in such challenging settings, requires making it a deliberate priority.

Similarly, such is also true of marriage and child-rearing. An infantile love, bubbling over with good intentions, simply isn't enough. Staying married and raising children is one of the most sophisticated things we'll ever do in life, and if we would have a loving, cohesive family, it will be via much energy and effort in the deliberate pursuit of a wise, discerning love (Phil. 1:8–11; James 3:13–18).

Jesus's words, "by this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another," haven't made it into many of the historic, orthodox creeds; nonetheless, they provide a simple, reliable test of the church's true state of spirituality.

As we have seen, observable love in the church is critically central to Christianity. We are to preeminently love—as we have been loved—for the glory of God. Yet, what do people see today when they peek into our churches? Ashamedly, what is often common in our churches is that members leave a church after rather insignificant (sometimes even petty) differences. Or, needy believers are avoided because of the personal cost and complexity of becoming involved with them. In many of our churches, there is abundant moral concern and outrage about sin and error, yet precious little sincere empathy. In others, there is such an over-emphasis on pure doctrine and theological issues that very little energy is left to expend on seriously learning how to love one another. So, what does the world conclude when they see this? They, of course, accurately infer that believers aren't essentially different, so they conclude that "Christian" relationships are just like the other relationships they observe in the world. Remember our text says: "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." And, how do you suppose our beloved Christ, who issued the "love-one-another" command, responds? Well, how else could he respond: "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do what I tell you?" (Luke 6:46).

Vital as these matters are, consider: when was the last time you heard someone identify a group of believers as manifesting the John 13:35 mark? Moreover, how many believers do you know who consider evidencing this definitive trait as an indispensable component of their orthodoxy?

In contrast, let's consider what might positively come to pass if this virtuous love-mark was commonly evidenced and experienced among Reformed, orthodox believers.

For instance, wouldn't it be interesting to know what might become of the ministries of seminarians who embraced John 13:35 experientially? What if our future pastors spent as much time in their ministerial preparations learning how to skillfully pastor as they did learning how to skillfully preach? What if these two things were so interwoven into their beings that outsiders observed them being as loving as they were learned? What if they left seminary knowing that learning to navigate relationships was as important as learning to navigate Scripture? What if they became convinced that the manifestation of a Christ-like love in the church is one of the most powerful weapons in the Christian apologetic?

Similarly, I wonder what might become of a session's ministry if it maintained a deliberate record of, at least, remaining sincerely concerned and cordial to the most challenging people that leave its church? What if these elders saw every such circumstance as a providential opportunity to demonstrate Christ-like, cross-like love toward such sheep? What if this session firmly held its doctrinal convictions—amid all such encounters—yet it also determined that agreeing to disagree, wisely and lovingly, was also just as central a matter of Christian orthodoxy?

In the same way, what do you suppose might come to pass if a group of friends in one of our local churches got John 13:35 deep into its spiritual bloodstream? What if those around this group observed that these believers had become as earnest to address pressing, emotional needs in others as they were to pick-apart complex theological issues? How do you suppose such would impact their marriages, their children, the other members in their congregation, or the unbelievers who peek into moments of the group's day-to-day being and doing?

In summary, it has been said that: "People don't care about how much you know, until they first know how much you care." Common as this old adage is, isn't it also profoundly true? Love is a universal language, observable and discernable to all men, converted or otherwise. Its fruitful manifestation is beautiful, healing, and influential. Its rarity in the world is the church's prime opportunity. What in the world are we waiting for? Why don't we Christians just honestly embrace this command and get busy doing it—today? After all, we have an abundance of examples of how to live such a life in the gospel accounts of our Savior.

The Gospels record that Jesus was an astonishing, powerful theologian (Luke 2:46–47; Matt. 7:28–29; 13:54; 22:23–33; John 7:14–15), an adept, formidable debater (Matt. 21:23–27), and masterfully wise at navigating the theological schemes of subtle opponents (Matt. 22:41–46; Luke 20:19–26). Nevertheless, throughout all four Gospels, we also find that his doctrinal ministry wasn't an end in itself, as it was inseparably interwoven with a ministry of constant caring. His caring and his doctrine perpetually intersected; his loving deeds (even just the ordinary ones) were just as profound as his teaching.

For example, Jesus was known for associating himself with lowly people that other "believers" despised (Matt. 9:9–13; John 4:7–9), and he was recognized as continuing to do good to others even after he was falsely accused of doing evil (Matt. 9:32–35). Christ was observed as moved with compassion at the sight of tired, wandering sheep (Matt. 9:36), and he was renown for being a shelter to the needy and weak who faced the legalisms of false, insensitive leaders (Matt. 12:1-13; 15:1–11). He is remembered for insisting on being readily accessible to children (Mark 10:13–16), and he was noted for taking time to relieve those suffering in the shadows when others were quite comfortable passing by them (Matt. 20:29–34). At times, Jesus was so inundated with people's needs that he had to make time for privacy and prayer (Mark 6:30–32, 45–46; Luke 4:42; 5:15–16), and his ministry was publicly aimed at the poor, needy, and broken (Luke 4:18; John 8:1–11). Although he was a Master and Lord, he is well known for assuming the role of a lowly servant (John 13:4–17), and he is acclaimed for empathetically entering into mankind's plight with death up close and personal (John 11:1–6, 25–26, 34–38, 43). Jesus was famous for ever pressing on in his resolve to sacrifice himself in the interest of others (Luke 9:51), and, even when he was suffering and dying, Jesus was noticed meeting the pressing needs of other people (Luke 23: 42–43; John 19:25–27).

In conclusion, all of us are remembered for something, and leaving a spiritual legacy is something we do—whether good or bad, whether we like it or not. Is your orthodoxy of community as pure as your orthodoxy of doctrine? What are you currently well known for, and what do you want to be remembered for in the future? What is your church currently well known for, and what do you want it to be noted for in the future? Jesus's will is crystal clear: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

Jack W. Sawyer is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as the pastor of Pineville Presbyterian Church in Pineville, Louisiana. Ordained Servant Online, June-July 2011.

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