23 January 2012

The Paragon of Perfect Love

by Phil Johnson

What follows is a message I wrote to an anonymous Internet hit-and-run commenter who posted an angry blast labeling some friends of mine "Pharisees" because, he said, they were "too concerned about orthodoxy and not concerned enough about unity, diversity, human dignity, and other' people's sensitivities."

The gadfly objected because someone in that forum had used the expression "theological miscreant" to describe a certain pernicious heretic. He went on for several paragraphs, scolding no one in particular but indiscriminately upbraiding anyone who might read. Then, oblivious to the irony of his closing remonstration, he wrote, "No one has the right to correct someone else's theology unless you have established a relationship based on love."

Anyway, I Tweeted the first sentence of the following response last week, and someone asked me for more context. Here it is:

he Pharisees' problem was not that they were too concerned with orthodox teaching, but that they had invented their own orthodoxy. Jesus condemned them for replacing and modifying the clear truth of Scripture with their own traditions (Matthew 15:1-9).

They were the chief theological miscreants of their day.

So how did Jesus treat them? Did He show them love—i.e., did He obey the Second Great Commandment in His dealings with them? Of course.

What did that love entail? First and foremost, Jesus declared the truth to them. He also frequently delivered public rebukes for the errors that threatened to damn them. He castigated them. He occasionally held them up to public ridicule. He obviously valued their souls more than their feelings. That is what authentic love looks like.

In other words, Christ, not Rodney King, is the paragon of perfect love.

The vast majority of Pharisees didn't heed Jesus' warnings, of course. The smug or snide ones might have even claimed it was because He didn't "have a relationship based upon love." It was nonetheless the right thing for Him to correct their false teaching and warn others of the danger posed by their error.

Phil's signature


Bill (cycleguy) said...

Bulls eye! Well said Phil.

Tom Chantry said...

And speaking of hit-and-run commenters!

Shortened version: The one who loves you most is the one who tells you the most truth.

Solameanie said...

And don't forget the invite for coffee. ;)

Scot said...

And cinnamon swirl coffee cake. Anything else is a Clanging gong.

John Dunn said...

And after having admonished them and warned others, we are to leave them alone as per Matthew 15:12-14.

When blind guides lead the blind, refusing loving admonishment, both fall into a pit and receive the due reward for their error (Rom 1:28, 2Thes 2:11-12).

The Squirrel said...

"miscreant"is such a great word. It just feels good sayin' it!


Eric said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FX Turk said...

Mike Gantt has been baninanted.

Not sure why the spam filter isn't working on him.

Kerry James Allen said...

"Hard words if they be true, are better than soft words, if they be false." CHS

Anonymous said...

I have a question for y'all...why is "love" held up as the definitive standard, over and above truth?

And, I place "love" in quotes because I believe it has been redefined by today's evangelicals.

Tom Chantry said...

Jules, my own opinion, with which others will no doubt disagree:

There is a sense in which love is a crowning virtue and an ultimate aim for the Christian life. Many have spoken of how Paul develops this theme in I Corinthians. What is missed is that proper biblical love flows out of and is established on the other virtues. Consider I Peter 2:5-7...

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.

Alright, love is listed last, as though it were the ultimate goal, but love is unimaginable here without virtue, knowledge, self-control and so on.

Further, it is forgotten that biblical love is ethical in nature. Not only does Jesus emphasize the command aspect of love, but Paul in Romans 13:8-10 presents love as a summary of the duties required in the law.

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

For Paul, then, love for your neighbor takes on specific ethical contours, if you love, you will do no wrong, which means you will keep the commandments. (Which, by the way, implies that if you love, you will not lie; truth and love are inseparable.)

So, if Christians want to argue that love matters more than anything else, more power to them - provided that they remember that love only happens in context of the other virtues and that it is itself ethical in nature.

P.S. I see that my word verification is "sprol." He could probably explain all this better than I!

P.P.S. My first comment (about hit-and-run commenters) was not in reference to Bill(cycleguy) as it now appears; rather it was about the banned and now deleted commenter whose name will not be mentioned.

Jamie said...

You ask, “did He [Christ] obey the Second Great Commandment in His dealings with them?” That is a great fundamental question and should always be in mind when we look at the example of the Apostles and/but especially Jesus as they interacted with individuals. It would appear that in any public discourse there are two audiences the active and passive. These of course can be nuanced into subgroups but how did the speaker, whether Paul, Peter, Jude, etc. address the active individual. We must acknowledge that it is possible for the Disciples to have sinned in their dealings with individuals but certainly not when we examine Christ’s interactions. So that He is the prime example of not only loving God with all your heart but also loving your neighbor as you love yourself. This is very important and usually overlooked as many self righteously “love” people with the error of just not calling a spade a spade. But we have not learned this from Christ or the Apostles. In these last days may God grant that we be the salt and light He has commanded.

donsands said...

Excellent word. Thanks for sharing.

We had Psalm 139 as our sermon yesterday. "Sanctity of Life" Sunday was the subject, and yet there was so much more in this Psalm.
So much truth of our Lord sovereign care to makes us have spiritual goosebumps, and then we get to these verses:

"Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with complete hatred;
I count them my enemies."

We had some good preaching on this "hate", and some good discussion afterwards. It's a difficult truth, to say the least, but one we need to take into our hearts, and so become more genuine disciples, so we can bear more fruit for Christ.

There's a time to love, and a time to hate.
Love your enemies as God loves them.

Aaron said...

Jumping onto Chantry's point, today's Christians, especially American Christians, tend to have a secular romanticized definition of love that we read back into Scripture. We tend to think of love purely as an emotion that causes us to lose all process of thought or self control. Combine that with a few out of context verses on gentleness and voila! Evangellyfish.

Our problem isn't that we believe love matters more than anything else, IMHO. It's that we have no idea what the meaning of love is because we don't get the meaning from Scripture.

FX Turk said...

Love is not exclusive of truth, and therein lies the problem.

Jim Pemberton said...

Frank nailed it. Since both love and truth are of God, then there is no love without truth and there is no truth without love. That means that there is neither one without holiness also. Any one without the others is idolatry. Pursuing love alone is mere sensuality. Pursuing truth alone is vanity. Pursuing holiness alone is hypocrisy. One must pursue all three to find any of them.

Aaron Snell said...

Great. Now I can't get:

What is love?
Baby don't hurt me,
Don't hurt me no more

out of my head. I blame Frank's video.

Anonymous said...

But, why? Why is truth being overlooked or even discarded in favor of an ambiguous version of love?

Aaron Snell said...

Actually, I'm teaching through 1 John in my church right now, and am eagerly anticipating expositing 5:2 -

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments.

This speaks volumes to the issue Phil raises in his post.

Joey White said...

Jules said " Why is truth being overlooked or even discarded in favor of an ambiguous version of love?". I think its probably because kisses and butterflies are easier to handle than words that call you to change. This romantic type of love that most speak of says you're perfect the way you are. Truth stemming from biblical love always says you have a problem, here's the solution (Christ).

Joey White said...

Or is it possible that some read "God is love" and pervert it into "love is God"? Just a thought.

Eric said...


The natural man hates truth, for truth reveals us to be what we are: depraved sinners. When the church bows to the unregenerate they too seek to eschew truth. The church has fallen for a sales pitch that says that the unregenerate can't handle the truth, when in reality the truth is exactly what they (and we all) need. The church in many places has become so determined to be broadly accepted by the unregenerate that the church has become oftentimes unremarkable and indescernable from the unregenerate.

Robert said...

I am thinking that one could apply the exact same thinking to love as Machen did to faith in "What is Faith?" because a lot of the same principles apply, just in a bit of a different fashion. He was dealing with the fact that people have to have an idea of the object of faith before they can truly have faith. In other words, there is no such thing as "blind faith", unless it is totally groundless.

The thing is that if we are putting faith into our love, then we must also have some grounds for doing so. Is there some way to show that this love has some value? How do we determine that it is actually a good quality? We need some basis for determining what the love that the apostle Paul is speaking of in 1 Corinthians. And the only place to find that basis is in Scripture. This presents a couple of problems:

1. Most people these days just want somebody to tell them what they can and can't do...they don't want to have to read for themselves to find out the truth. (DJP addresses some of these problems and their consequences in today's society in chapter 2 of GWiP)

2. Most people are offended at the truth of Scripture. Remember that in John's gospel we are told the following: "'This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.'" (John 3:19-21)

Mr. Fosi said...

Boy, I sure like Jim Pemberton's synopsis.

That, or some segment of it might become my new email sig.

olan strickland said...

This tweet and this tweet are probably where your hit-and-run commenter is getting his "Kool-Aid."

Darlene said...

These discussions of love and truth often pit one against the other or exclude one to the preference of the other. However, I think the discussion of these matters goes deeper. Most Christians, (the genuine-real-deal ones) will acknowledge the importance and necessity of both truth and love - and that a Christianity without them is no Christianity at all.

However, in the rubber-meets-the-road Christianity, actually living out and applying these virtues of our faith takes wisdom from above. This kind of wisdom empowers the Christian with discernment in order to ascertain which situations call for speaking the truth and which ones call for silence. Furthermore, the Christian's motives and methods really do matter. In other words, speaking the truth will be ineffectual if the motivating force is born out of the passions. Such truth-speaking will damage the hearer/s and wreak havoc. Going the love route (with confusion and/or misunderstanding about the 'l' word) will likewise result in an unsatisfactory outcome. Truth without love is very much like a bull in a china shop. Love without truth is very much like tossing a pea at a tank. Both are fruitless.

Sometimes we Christians are just acting like a Bible character, clothed in a costume that for a moment in time seems to bestow the actual attributes and temperament of said character. However, hindsight is often the test that brings greater focus. How often have we deluded ourselves into thinking the costume makes the man or the woman, only to discover we didn't have the integrity to carry out the mission. We weren't equipped or commissioned for the task, but rather acted in the fashion of a self-appointed prophet.

General Soren said...

I think there's a lot of room for diplomacy between the modern Christian definitions of "Truth" and "Love".

Don't get me wrong, don't lie or water down the truth. But, literally for the love of God, I think that sometimes we need to stop and realize that just as the Epistles were written by specific person to a specific church, we need to consider the source and audience of what we say, before we say it, and "It's true" isn't the only consideration.

Case in point: I've been making friends with a 18-year-old girl (I'm a 28-year-old guy) at my church, because she looks like she pretty desperately needs friends.

She showed me a picture of her nephew last week, her younger sister's boy. Her own little girl was taken by her mother (probably justifiably) to be taken care of a few months back.

This Sunday, I found out that both of them are "probably" pregnant again.

Now, I know enough scripture to hammer this girl flat with the Bible, and could use the Sword of the Lord to cut this girl to ribbons with verse-cited Truth about how jacked up her life is.

It would be true.

It would be WRONG.

Instead, I asked one of the pastors to send a sister in Christ to make friends with this girl, because this girl's not gonna listen to me, no matter whether I speak truth or not.

She might not listen to a sister, either, but there's a much better chance.

I think Paul spent as much time describing his own life as he did because he knew that the messenger is vitally important to how the message is received.

Just my thoughts.

The Squirrel said...

Jules LaPierre said...
"I have a question for y'all...why is 'love' held up as the definitive standard, over and above truth?"

A huge part of the problem is the fact that, for many, "Love" has been defined as God's primary attribute. We see this in popular evangelical methodology constantly. "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life." That's certainly not true for the non-elect! And, for many of the elect, this life is full of pain and suffering.

Love is one of God's attributes, but it is not His primary attribute. His Primary attribute is His holiness. All the rest of His attributes can be described as "holy."

We can speak of His holy love, but also of His holy wrath, His holy justice, His holy ... [insert attribute here].

Focusing on God's love and defining that as His primary attribute distorts our understanding of God and causes a mushy sentimentality where being "nice" becomes more important than being honest. (Which is, in reality, unloving. As Tom Chantry said earlier, "The one who loves you most is the one who tells you the most truth." Or, as I've said before, "A real friend tells you when you've spilled spaghetti sauce all over your shirt.")

But when we are focused on God's holiness, we are humbled by our own sinfulness, and we are able to gently & lovingly call others to holiness. Remember, if, when you discover someone else's sin, your first thought is that your are somehow better than they are, then you just don't understand your own sinfulness.

But, as Joey pointed out, the world will try to define God and His love for us in such a way that their own sin will never be condemned.


one busy mom said...

Jules, you said:
I have a question for y'all...why is "love" held up as the definitive standard, over and above truth?

A lot of really great answers have already been given, but I think there is another aspect as well. Part of the answer may have less to do with theology and more to do with backbone...or rather lack of it.

"Love" has been redefined by our postmodern society to mean "never hurting anyone's feelings". Biblical truths that don't meet that definition tend to be chucked. The Biblical text is then deconstructed to support the current definition of "love", and objectors are dismissed as "unloving".

Being "loving" by these standards is easy. Frankly, most folks enjoy getting along with others - it's a lot less hassle than the alternative. When redefined, "love" means: no confronting popular sins -in oneself or others, no taking unpopular stands and being ridiculed, no need to come along side of and get involved in the lives of difficult and messed up people, no church discipline, in fact - no need to ever tell anyone anything they don't want to hear. In other words: Christianity for wimps. The problem is, without truth, it isn't Christianity at all. But it certainly is easier than the real deal- and its prophets much better recieved by the world.

Actual Biblical Love and Biblical Truth are inseparable, and together are the definitive standard for our lives.

Darlene said...

Thank you General Soren. There are churches where such a young woman wouldn't be welcomed, rather just ignored.

I would suggest that some of the comments here lean in the tendency toward preferring telling the truth with a bit 'o' love tossed in for good measure - ah but not too much now, we don't want to be seen as namby-pamby milksops.

Balance is a beautiful thing though. And much harder to acquire.

Robert said...

one busy mom,

I'd say that what you are describing is actually a form of self-love in the worst kind. We need to be willing to present the truth to others in a gracious, loving manner. There are so many exhortations in Scripture for us to be about the work of discipling one another that a failure to do so shows a love of one's self instead of a love for God and a love for others.

General Soren,

I think that you should be able to approach the young lady in the fashion that Paul describes to Timothy: "Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters, in all purity." Now, that doesn't mean bringing a sledgehammer, but showing that God offers forgiveness and redemption for the repentant sinner through His grace. The same is true for another large group of women in many churches today: women who have had abortions. And they need to hear about the forgiveness that Jesus offers them...He can cleanse the heart of any taint of sin. Many women are carrying this burden and need to hear that Jesus will forgive them for that sin and remove it as far as east is from the west so that they can be freed from that burden. And any one of us could be the one to bring that freedom to an unwed mother, a mother who has had an abortion, a drug addict, a habitual liar, a self-righteous hypocrite, or even a hardened criminal guilty of the most heinous crimes imaginable. But we have to be willing to step in and show the truth in love ourselves while keeping in mind that we are all wretched sinners saved by grace alone.

Eric said...


You said: "I would suggest that some of the comments here lean in the tendency toward preferring telling the truth with a bit 'o' love tossed in for good measure"

Care to provide an example?

Tom Chantry said...

One wonders if perhaps it is time to re-post #4 from TeamPyro's Blog Rules for Our Commenters:

If you want to charge us with breaching the boundaries of Christian civility, please be specific. Point out the infraction and explain why you think it is unbiblical. General complaints or cheap-shot comments about "tone" and undocumented accusations that someone has been uncharitable will be summarily deleted.


Anonymous said...

True love must be centered on what is best for the person receiving it. This is often exactly the opposite of what that person may want.

So, what’s the ‘end game’ for every recipient of a believer’s love?
Salvation .. and then a daily, close, intimate walk with Christ as both Lord and Savior.

Neither of which is possible without truth.
That’s why it’s called ‘true love’.

General Soren said...


Ever wonder why this girl got in this situation? What's wrong in her life that she, and her younger sister, ended up single mothers? Where her own mother is, or why her mother took her first child? How this girl supports herself? Where she lives, or who she's living with?

If she leaves a (presumed) boyfriend, would she be homeless?

Would she have food tomorrow?

I'm not saying that I can never, in any situation, rebuke a sister, but I am saying that there are situations in which frankly, I, being a man, am not the best messenger for the message. I've never been pregnant, never even been a parent, never had a child taken from me...

I know there are women in my church who have been in similar situations, and those are the people who need to get involved. My pastor can get the girl connected with a wise lady who will actually, meaningfully, and productively help this girl through life.

I can not. All I can do is chastize this girl for mistakes, and point her back to God, but that would be the utter limit. I could offer zero practical advice (repentance will not put food on her table tomorrow), zero bits of sage wisdom, zero motherly or sisterly comfort, absolutely nothing but "Repent!"

Don't get me wrong, this girl needs to repent of her sins. She also needs practical advice on how to avoid going straight back to them, and the situation is probably a heck of a lot more complicated than I imagine it to be.

If some guy's an alcoholic, who would better help him out, the guy who's never had a drop, or the guy with a 20-year chip from AA?

I can welcome someone to church, I can love them as best as I can, I can even speak truth to their lives, but it would be unseemly arrogant to think that I would never need to sit down, shut up, and let other members of the Body of Christ do the talking. Even, perhaps, using words I don't always agree with.

Thus, my original point that discretion and diplomacy cannot be discarded in a singular quest for truth-speaking.


Nathan Blazek said...

Awesome! I have been blogging on the topic of love all month as part of my New Years Resolution to explore and pray for the fruit of the spirit! I'm going to give you a follow!

If your interested in following a blog that posts on Christ-centered topics as well, I'd love for you to visit my blog! www.lostblogger.com

Robert said...


You do not only have the option to chastise. While you may not relate to her in the exact same sense of whatever sin issues she is dealing with, you can show her an example of how you do have sin that you are actively dealing with in your own life and that Jesus offers forgiveness and freedom. I agree that women need to step in to help with the particulars, but you can still show her the mercy and love that flow from the truth of the gospel. All I am saying is that we shouldn't avoid speaking with fellow believers and encouraging them because we don't share the exact same struggles. Sometimes it takes seeing people that we feel can't relate to our own sinfulness humbling themselves and showing that they are also fellow wretched sinners saved by grace to help encourage a believer to walk in obedience.

CR said...

There is a very real distinction drawn in the NT between what we are to endure for ourselves and our response when the truth is attacked. With regard to ourselves and our own personal feelings we are to endure anything and everything. We are not to use harsh words when people attack us. But when the truth is concerned, where doctrine is involved, where the gospel is concerned and when the person of the Lord Jesus is concerned, we are to be strong and we are not to hesitate to use some of the language you used.

C. T. Bennett said...

A great example (to me) of the impact on truth of making 'collaboration despite differences' about what is real a proxy for 'love' (rather than 'collaboration by working to reconcile differences') can be seen today by going to James MacDonald's twitter site where there is a joint discussion in ER2 with Bishop Jakes and Mark Driscoll. Scroll through the 'truths' this collaboration has vetted as worthy of veneration: don't jump to conclusions and then stick to them out of pride, we have to talk to each other or we will die, we should want to help others not win arguments, I look to others to complete me not compete with me,....

There was a column in the British monthly Punch at the start of the 20th century called "Happy Thoughts," a parody. The parade of insights being turned out by flying these three to the ER think tank could be put into that column without detection. This is a loss to the entire body of Christ.

Linda said...

I think love is confused with tolerance.

People think that putting up with others is love --and it is to a point. But true biblical(agape love) goes way beyond that-it reaches out and it protects whereas tolerance has no boundaries and actually destroys all the limits meant to protect us and our society.

True love is protected by the truth

In the right circumstances a fire provides warmth, light, and food. But, outside the (confines of truth) fire in the wrong place has enormous capacity for destruction