I do not ask if you go to church. I do not ask if you read the Bible. I do not ask if you believe in God. These are important questions. But today, I ask you this: do you love Jesus Christ? There is perhaps no question more important than this one. So important is this question, that Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Despite this, I fear many today have never honestly asked themselves this question even once.
What passes for Christianity today is a far cry from the Christianity of the Apostle Paul―a man who said, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). Speaking of the Apostle Paul and his love for Christ, Jonathan Edwards noted:
It appears by all his [the Apostle Paul’s] expressions of himself, that he was, in the course of his life, inflamed, actuated, and entirely swallowed up, by a most ardent love to his glorious Lord, esteeming all things as loss, for the excellency of the knowledge of him, and esteeming them but dung that he might win him.
Do we know nothing of this ardent love for Christ? Then we know nothing of true Christianity. Today, it seems, someone can be considered a Christian if they simply make a profession of faith, regardless of the fact that they have not evidenced any repentance, humility, or obedience. Most poignantly, they have not demonstrated love for Jesus Christ. But love for Jesus Christ is as essential to spiritual life as breathing is to physical life. The fact that this biblical truth is so neglected in our day reveals our lack of understanding concerning what it means to be a Christian.
Love for Jesus Christ is the Baseline of Christian Discipleship
A baseline is a minimum starting point. That love for Jesus Christ is the baseline and foundation of all Christian discipleship ought to need no defense. “Love to Christ is the common meeting-point of believers of every branch of Christ’s Church on earth” (J.C. Ryle). If you are a Christian, it means you love Jesus Christ. That Jesus demanded such love from his followers is plain to any honest inquirer of the Gospels: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). It is noteworthy that Jesus later lists the “great and first commandment” as loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37-38). Only God himself could rightly command people to love him more than everything else. It is this love that marks every follower of Christ.
There is one thing in a true Christian which is eminently peculiar to him. That thing is love to Christ. Knowledge, faith, hope, reverence, obedience, are all marked features in a true Christian’s character. But his picture would be very imperfect if you omitted his “love” to his Divine Master. He not only knows, trusts, and obeys. He goes further than this―he loves. (J.C. Ryle)
Love for Christ is not something reserved for “more mature” Christians. If we are to grant the use of the term “baby Christian,” let us then grant this as well: such a “baby” Christian will have a love for Jesus Christ that surpasses all other things in his life. Love for Christ is not a higher-plane of Christian experience. Love for Jesus Christ is the singular characteristic of every true Christian, young or old, recently converted or seasoned saint. It is not a love for religion, it is not a love for the idea of a savior, it is love for Jesus Christ himself.
Love for Christ is that truth which even a child can easily grasp. It is that point “which we ought specially to dwell upon in teaching religion to children.”
That He loved them even to His death, and that they ought to love Him in return, is a
creed which meets the span of [children’s] minds….There are myriads of Christians who know every article of the Athanasian, Nicene, and Apostolic Creeds, and yet know less of real Christianity than a little child who only knows that he loves Christ. (J.C. Ryle)
If a person does not love Jesus Christ―if he does not love to think about him, love to hear about him, love to talk about him, love to abide with him―then he has not met the most basic, baseline level of Christian discipleship. He has not been born again. He is not converted. He is not a Christian.
Love for Jesus Christ is an Immediate Effect of the New Birth
It is preeminently love for Christ that is awakened in a sinner’s heart when he or she is born again. It is love for Christ that is stirred in the soul of a man when he is converted to Christ. Love for Christ is that inevitable and irresistible response to being saved from sin, death, and damnation. Love for Christ is that unquenchable fire that is ignited in the heart of a person who has been made alive with Christ (cf. Ephesians 2:1-10).
The Bible teaches that in order for someone to become a Christian, they must be born again (John 3:3). There must be a radical transformation, a “new birth.” The 1689 Baptist Confession notes that in the new birth, a person has a “a new heart and a new spirit created in them through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection.” This new birth causes the sinner to see the true nature of his sin and his desperate need for salvation. This new birth causes the sinner to see the beauty of Christ and the wonderful reality of forgiveness in Christ. Because the new birth produces repentance and faith, it also produces love for Christ. Because the new birth is intricately tied to being forgiven from sin, it will produce a great love for the one who died so that you would be forgiven.
In Luke 7, Jesus spoke of the connection between being forgiven and having love for him. A woman who “was a sinner,” comes to a Pharisee’s house where Jesus is dining. She demonstrates her love for Jesus by anointing him with oil. The Pharisee is offended that Jesus would allow such a “sinner” to be near him. In response, Jesus tells the parable of the moneylender―a story demonstrating that one who recognizes the immensity of the forgiveness that he has received will love all the more. He closes with these words: “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven―for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47).
Let us rid ourselves of the idea that a person can be saved and yet have no love for the Savior. Let us jettison the thought that a person can be born again and yet have no affection for the Lord. Let us abandon the notion that a work of the Spirit can be so lame as to not produce love in the heart for Christ. Such a concept is as foreign to biblical Christianity as any deplorable heresy. “He who has no religious affection [for Christ], is in a state of spiritual death, and is wholly destitute of the powerful, quickening, saving influences of the Spirit of God upon his heart” (Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections).
Love for Jesus Christ is the Radical Root of All Obedience to God’s Commandments
It was Jonathan Edwards who rightly noted that “the affections are very much the spring of men’s actions.” The Bible speaks of the heart as the wellspring of life (Proverbs 4:23). It is love in the heart, therefore, that will result in the actions of godliness. It is love for Christ which will animate and motivate growth in holiness. It is love for Christ which will then be demonstrated in obedience. One of the most telling phrases in all of the New Testament is found in John 14:15, where the Lord Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
Though reverent fear of God is a legitimate and appropriate response from believers (cf. Proverbs 9:10), the Christian’s obedience is ultimately motivated by love for Christ. The Apostle John, that great apostle of love, writes: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:18-19). Don’t misunderstand John, however. This love that he speaks of is an obedience-producing, commandment-abiding, sin-hating type of love. In the same epistle he says things like this:
- “Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him.” (1 John 3:24a)
- “And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:21)
- “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.” (1 John 5:2-3)
Jesus Christ is our “Lord” and our “God” (John 20:28). To love God is to love Jesus. And to love Jesus is to keep his commandments:
- If you love Christ, you will not speak his name carelessly. (Exodus 20:7)
- If you love Christ, you will be deeply affected when Christ’s name is used in vain and his law is spurned. (Psalm 119:136)
- If you love Christ, you will let no corrupting talk come out of your mouth. (Ephesians 4:29)
- If you love Christ, you will depart from iniquity―you will hate sin. (2 Timothy 2:19)
- If you love Christ, you will flee from the sin of sexual immorality. (1 Corinthians 6:18)
- If you love Christ, you will love children and not see them as a burden. (Matthew 19:14, cf. Psalm 127:3)
- If you love Christ, you will not get drunk with wine, but will be filled with the Spirit, which produces self-control, love, and patience. (Ephesians 5:18, cf. Galatians 5:22-23)
- If you love Christ, you will gladly speak of him to others. (Mark 5:19, cf. Matthew 10:27)
- If you love Christ, you will delight in obedience to him, rather than the pleasures of sin for a season. (Hebrews 11:25-26)
- If you love Christ, you will delight in God’s Law-Word and store it up in your heart. (Psalm 119:11, 47)
- If you love Christ, you will not consider following him to be a merely peripheral component of your life―it will be the central, driving force in your life. (Philippians 1:21)
- If you love Christ, you will be brokenhearted when you sin against him. (Luke 22:62)
The sinner saved by grace does not simply obey Jesus because he is required to (which he is). He obeys because he loves his Savior. Jesus makes it clear that a lack of love for him is the reason people don’t obey him: “Whoever does not love me does not keep my words” (John 14:24).
It is really quite simple: “If we love a person, we like to please him. We are glad to consult his tastes and opinions, to act upon his advice, and do the things which he approves” (J.C. Ryle).
Love for Jesus Christ is the Preeminent Mark of the True Christian
Do you seek to know whether or not you are truly in Christ? Look for love to Christ. Without love for Christ, there is no true salvation. This is why the Apostle Paul said, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed” (1 Corinthians 16:22). Accursed. Damned. Anathema. How can Paul say that? Isn’t faith the grounds for our salvation? Yes, but love for Christ goes hand-in-hand with faith in Christ: “Great as the danger is of him ‘that believeth not,’ the danger of him that ‘loveth not’ is equally great. Not believing and not loving are both steps to everlasting ruin” (J.C. Ryle). To have faith in a Christ you do not love is as foreign a concept as can be found in the Bible. Search the New Testament from Matthew to Revelation―search the annals of church history from Athanasius to Zwingli―search your own experience of those who have demonstrated something of that holy zeal for the things of God―and the report will always and ever be the same: all those who believe in Christ love Christ.
Love to Christ is the inseparable companion of saving faith. A faith of devils, a mere intellectual faith, a man may have without love, but not that faith which saves. Love cannot usurp the office of faith. It cannot justify. It does not join the soul to Christ. It cannot bring peace to the conscience. But where there is real justifying faith in Christ, there will always be heart-love to Christ. He that is really forgiven is the man who will really love. (Luke vii. 47.) If a man has no love to Christ, you may be sure he has no faith. (J.C. Ryle)
If one has true faith, it means he has the Spirit of Christ. And if one has the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9), then he will demonstrate that distinguished characteristic of the fruit of the Spirit: love (Galatians 5:22). It should not surprise us that Paul lists love first in his list of the various components of the fruit of the Spirit. Love is that defining characteristic of the Christian (1 Corinthians 13, 1 John). That this love begins with a love for Christ, and then expands to a love for fellow man, is evident to every diligent student of the New Testament.
“More Love to Thee, Oh Christ”
And yet, for all that has been said in the foregoing words, it is a peculiar thing that many today will consider a man or woman a Christian who does not demonstrate love for the Lord Jesus Christ. There are many today who consider themselves “Christian,” and yet know nothing of love for Christ. They speak of Jesus as a religious reality, perhaps, but they do not love him. They may love their spouses, they may love their children, they may love (or hate) the New England Patriots, cats, and chocolate. But they know nothing of that burning love for Christ that led Paul to say “the love of Christ controls us” (2 Corinthians 5:14) and “to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21).
Jesus said that we will recognize counterfeits by their fruit (Matthew 7:16). And yet that singular, conspicuous fruit of love for Christ is strikingly absent from so many who are considered “Christian” today. Have they knowledge of the Bible? So does the atheistic scholar. Have they interest in church services? So does the religious pagan. Do they see themselves as sinners? The same could be said of Esau, but he had no love for the Christ of the blessing he sought (Hebrews 12:17). Have they a desire to hear the Bible taught? King Herod desired as much, and yet had no love for Christ or his messenger (Mark 6:20). All public expressions of piety are useless and shallow apart from a heart-love for Christ.
Of these truths, the judicious reader of the Bible cannot contend. Nevertheless, the dismal state of Christianity in our day has led multitudes to consider themselves and others to be followers of Jesus Christ, even though they have no love for the Savior. The reason for this is no doubt due to a low view of salvation, a low view of conversion, a low view of the new birth.
How do we begin to remedy this problem? Let us first have that proper and biblical conception of salvation and then we will once again have that proper conception of love for Christ. Let us begin again, like the prophet Ezekiel, to preach the old truths of supernatural regeneration and holy consecration to God (Ezekiel 36). Let us begin again, like the Apostle John did two millennia ago, to correct that ancient, noxious error which insists a man can be saved from sin and yet not be consecrated to God in holy obedience (1 John 3:7). Let us, like the Native American Indian in the following story, have a proper understanding of the despair and ruin from which Christ has saved us. Then, and only then, will we have love for Christ, the Savior of wretched, pitiable sinners.
“Man,” said a thoughtless, ungodly English traveler to a North American Indian convert, “Man, what is the reason that you make so much of Christ, and talk so much about Him? What has this Christ done for you, that you should make so much ado about Him?”
The converted Indian did not answer him in words. He gathered together some dry leaves and moss and made a ring with them on the ground. He picked up a live worm and put it in the middle of the ring. He struck a light and set the moss and leaves on fire. The flame soon rose and the heat scorched the worm. It writhed in agony, and after trying in vain to escape on every side, curled itself up in the middle, as if about to die in despair. At that moment the Indian reached forth his hand, took up the worm gently and placed it on his bosom. “Stranger,” he said to the Englishman, “Do you see that worm? I was that perishing creature. I was dying in my sins, hopeless, helpless, and on the brink of eternal fire. It was Jesus Christ who put forth the arm of His power. It was Jesus Christ who delivered me with the hand of His grace, and plucked me from everlasting burnings. It was Jesus Christ who placed me, a poor sinful worm, near the heart of His love. Stranger, that is the reason why I talk of Jesus Christ and make much of Him. I am not ashamed of it, because I love Him.”
If we know anything of love to Christ, may we have the mind of this North American Indian! May we never think that we can love Christ too well, live to Him too thoroughly, confess Him too boldly, lay ourselves out for Him too heartily! (J.C. Ryle)
In all that I have said, let it not be thought that I think a true Christian loves Christ as much as he ought. That he loves him is without question. But that the Christian loves the perfect, sinless, beautiful Savior as much as he ought is something that I find neither in my own experience nor in the pages of Scripture. “Of all the things that will surprise us in the resurrection morning, this, I believe, will surprise us most: that we did not love Christ more before we died” (J.C. Ryle). May the prayer of the true believer be that of Elizabeth Prentiss:
More love to Thee, oh Christ, more love to Thee!
Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee.
This is my earnest plea
More love, oh Christ, to Thee
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!
[Note: Many of my thoughts for this post were inspired my J.C. Ryle’s peerless work, Holiness. For more on the topic of love for Christ, I entreat you to read the chapter entitled “Lovest Thou Me.” You can read the PDF of that chapter here.]