“How to Help Our Neighbors Meet Jesus” is a series that asks notable thinkers and theologians to answer this question: “What is the most important thing the church must do right now to help our neighbors trust Jesus for their salvation?”
It’s absolutely vital for the church to practice demonstrable love, particularly between its members. This may be the most powerful motive for our neighbors to trust Jesus.
Without true Christians loving one another, Christ says the world cannot be expected to listen, even when we give proper answers. Let us be careful, indeed, to spend a lifetime studying to give honest answers. For years the orthodox, evangelical church has done very poorly. So it is well to spend time learning to answer the questions of men who are about us. But after we have done our best to communicate to a lost world, still we must never forget that the final apologetic which Jesus gives is the observable love of true Christians for true Christians.
Intellectual objections to the faith should be addressed. However, the truth of the gospel must be declared, defended, and practiced such that the unbelieving world can’t help but take note. It should be apparent something inexplicable on natural grounds is at work. That’s Christian love.
The unbelieving world is familiar with attraction and commitment based on relationships of sameness and reciprocity. For Christians, love should be shockingly sacrificial. Yet Christian love is even more astonishing when it crosses normal human boundaries.
The nature of the church’s love for one another shouldn’t make sense solely on sociological grounds. The world takes notice of love between professing believers that far exceeds sociocultural affinity—a supernatural love.
The nature of the church’s love for one another shouldn’t make sense solely on sociological grounds.
Jesus said in Matthew 5 that his followers are to do more than the Gentiles who greet their brothers and love those who love them (vv. 46–48). When we surpass that standard, we show the supernatural beauty of the gospel to the world.
In his high priestly prayer, Jesus linked the oneness of his followers to convincing the world the Father had sent him (John 17:23). Supernatural love is a testament to the transformative power of the gospel, which calls us to self-denial.
By the power of the Spirit, Christians practice humble, self-denying service as an act of love for one another.
On the night of his betrayal, Jesus noted that all people would recognize his disciples because of their love for each other (John 13:35). He also commanded his disciples to love each other as he had loved them, which he illustrated by humbling himself as a servant to wash their feet.
The polarization of the United States (the context in which I live and with which I’m most familiar) is sadly reflected in the church. Self-denying love is particularly crucial in our day when the church is marked by doctrinal, racial, and political division. What if we displayed love through our readiness to extend forgiveness to one another when wronged? What if we sought forgiveness when we sinned against each other?
Love for Unbelievers
Scripture teaches us to prioritize loving each other in the church: “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.” (Gal. 6:10). But the temptation is ever-present for the church to become ingrown and fail to reach outward.
Prioritizing love between believers doesn’t diminish the importance and necessity of loving unbelievers. We’re responsible for loving our neighbors as ourselves whether or not they’re regenerate. However, when thinking about evangelistic effectiveness, we all too often focus heavily on loving unbelievers while not paying nearly enough attention to how our lives together as Christians showcase the attractiveness and plausibility of the gospel.
I’ve long pondered why the epistles contain fewer exhortations to evangelize than I’d expect. They contain a great deal more about sound doctrine and how Christians are supposed to conduct themselves in the church, the family, and society. I’ve concluded this is because our lives and relationships with each other are integral to reaching the world. Word and deed accompany each other for full evangelistic effectiveness.
Faithful Love Demonstrated
A major challenge for the church is creating opportunities for non-Christians to observe the kind of Christian love I’ve described. Sunday morning services provide little in this regard due to their structure.
Self-denying love is particularly crucial in our day when the church is marked by doctrinal, racial, and political division.
We need to exercise our imaginations about how people can be together in ways that allow non-Christians opportunities to see Christian love in action. This may require countercultural approaches to show what the gospel looks like in Christian community.
For example, a key element of Francis and Edith Schaeffer’s apologetic work was the hospitality they offered at their home in Switzerland, known as L’Abri. They insisted the communal life of believers was integral to demonstrating God’s existence. We can learn from their example as we imagine new ways to demonstrate the goodness of the gospel.
At the same time, we must ensure the practice of Christian love is in accord with God’s definitions. We must resist the temptation to allow our understanding of love to be shaped more by the prevailing cultural narratives than by Scripture. It’s imperative we submit to a biblically grounded understanding of what it means to love both God and neighbor. The practice of truly Christian love cannot be severed from rich Christian theology.
By demonstrating faithful, supernatural, and self-denying love toward other believers, we can provide unbelievers an illustration of what it means to be redeemed by God. Such love is the best apologetic for the hope of salvation found through faith in Christ.