Not the Gospel: Love

I am walking a thin line with this post, and I know it. At one level to say that the gospel is not about love is to make a bold misstatement, but at another level to say that the gospel is love is to be nothing more than shallow and ambiguous. What, after all, do we mean when we say that the gospel is “love?” Throughout history lots of people have promoted such an idea, but always to the disparagement of key elements of the true gospel. Throughout history theologians have promoted the Moral Influence Theory of the atonement as the ultimate understanding of the work of Christ. The idea behind this doctrine is that in his death Jesus teaches us that we are to love our enemies, just as he loved us. Such is true of the cross, but often theologians have promoted the Moral Influence theory at the expense of other key important aspects, such as Penal Substitutionary Atonement (the doctrine that on the cross Christ paid the penalty for our sins). But just from a quick survey of this doctrine we can see that the gospel is both about love and not love. That distinction, however, is a key one to make.

To say that the gospel is about love is important because, after all, love is what compelled God to send His only begotten Son to die. And it is because of love that Jesus “lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). And it is because Christ so loved us that we are called to love others (1 John 4:11). His love does send him to the cross, and his love is a model for us. But saying that the gospel is about love is slightly different from saying it is love.

Some will no doubt accuse me of mincing words and playing semantics, but I think when the gospel is at stake we must be clear. To say that the gospel is “love,” is to use too generic a term. We might bemoan the abatement of the word, but we can’t deny it. We love french fries and spouses, good books and hot dogs, sunsets and socks, and God. Love can mean to express affection for, it can mean to experience sexual attraction, it can mean to demonstrate compassion, it can mean to ignore faults, it can mean to get along with. The idea is replete with a myriad of not entirely compatible notions. To say that the gospel is “love” is to leave it open to all sorts of interpretations. Beyond that is lacks the specificity that is required to find it in the Scriptures.

In the Scriptures we find that man is at enmity with God, a rebel, sinner, and god-hater. So to express the good news as simply “God loves you,” is to miss some very important key points about the nature of man’s relationship to God and the manner in which it can change. In the Scriptures we find that Jesus bore the wrath of God in the place of sinners. So to express the gospel simply as “God loves you” is to miss the fundamental piece of that love, namely Jesus’ death. In the Bible we also find that man must repent of his sin and turn in faith to Christ for salvation. So to express the gospel merely at “God loves you,” is to place man in a relationship with God that is not his apart from repentance and faith.

As an all too important and related feature of this false-gospel is the idea that the good news can be expressed as “Love God and Love Your Neighbor.” In this famous passage from Jesus’ encounter with the religious leaders, we find that Jesus tells us the greatest commandment is to love God and to love your neighbor. Often people will quote this as the essence of the gospel. I think I can appreciate where they are coming from in such a view but my contentions are three-fold. First, the function of the commandments was to expose us all to the fact that we can’t live up to God’s righteous standard (Galatians 3:24). That means that we can’t fulfill this greatest commandment. No one can perfectly love God and love his neighbor. That’s why we need the gospel. Secondly, this commandment, which Jesus teaches us is a summary of the whole law has been around since Moses. What makes the gospel so special if it can essentially be summed up as keep the law. Thirdly, and most fundamentally for me, we must see that this false-gospel makes the good news ultimately about what I do and not about what Christ has done. I believe the gospel should propel me to love, calls me to care for the poor and the needy, and in fact requires me to take steps to change the world. But that is not the same as saying the good news is I can change the world. Even the gospel of the Kingdom is not fundamentally about what I do, but about what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do. Whenever a “gospel” highlights my accomplishments then I can rest assured it’s no gospel of God’s.

Love is a huge part of the gospel, but I want to be extremely careful that I am not confusing the placement of that idea. Love and the gospel necessarily go together, but they are not synonyms!

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  1. […] this series with posts on the prosperity gospel and the appropriate use of the word “love” when talking about the […]

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    Not the Gospel: Love – Pastor Dave Online

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