Pastor Note #91: Loving our Enemies and Gospel Faithfulness

photo by GAC

The command to love one’s enemies is the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and an attack on that Christian imperative is an attack on the gospel itself.  There can be a tendency common to most Christians to distinguish between doctrine and ethics/morality.  We can tend to think of the doctrines of the gospel of salvation by free grace as the stones of the foundation and the command to love our enemies as a coat of paint that we spread onto the foundation stones in order to make them look nice.

That distinction is wrong, but it can be especially strong when it comes to such commands as those to love our enemies, commands to serve the weak and vulnerable, commands to love without conditions.  Those kinds of commands, in my experience, can often be seen merely as exhortations to be polite, like something your grandmother might tell you when she heard you calling your brother names.  “God wants us to be nice.”  Loving our enemies is not just a matter of public relations, a matter of making sure we look nice.

The love of the enemy is the very essence of the gospel.  The gospel of Jesus Christ is nothing else but God’s unconditional and active love of his enemies.  So says the apostle Paul in Colossians 1:21:  “And you were at one time strangers and enemies in your minds as expressed through your evil deeds.”[NET]  Let’s be very clear here.  Paul means that we were once “strangers and enemies” to God.  Let me continue to be very clear about this.  God acts on his love for us while we are still his enemies.  Again, Paul is very clear about that.  See, for example, Romans 5:10:  “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, since we have been reconciled, will we be saved by his life?”[NET]

God does not love us because we stop being his enemies.  We stop being his enemies because he applies his gracious love to us.  Lest you think this is just Paul’s idea, consider the words of the apostle John:   “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”[NET]  God loves us before we love him.  That is the essential core of the gospel of free grace—God’s unearned, undeserved, unconditional love for those who are his enemies, not those who were his enemies but those who are his enemies.  That is the plain and straightforward teaching of the New Testament.

Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira, NY
photo by GAC

We cannot preach the gospel of free grace and at the same time hate our enemies.  The command to love our enemies is not merely a thin coat of paint on the foundation stones of the gospel.  The command to love our enemies is the mortar that holds the foundation stones together.  To attack the command to love our enemies or to undermine it in any way is to take a sledgehammer to the very foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Those who call us to love our enemies are not “snowflaky” guardians of “political correctness,” as some proclaim.  They are champions of the gospel of free grace against those who would tear out the heart of the gospel by a false theology of resentment.  The gospel is not the promise of God’s love for those who deserve it.  We are not called to love our enemies only so long as they don’t do anything hurtful toward us.  This is and must always be unconditional love, or it is not love, and it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The greatest champion of this gospel of free grace calls the recipients of God’s grace not merely to preach it but also to embody it.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Even the tax collectors do the same, don’t they?  And if you only greet your brothers, what more do you do?  Even the Gentiles do the same, don’t they?  So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5: 43-48 [NET]

David Dark writes this challenge:

To be people of amazing grace is to see ourselves as recipients of kindness and understanding not owed to us, and if we really believe it’s been lavished upon us undeservedly, maybe we can lavish a little upon the people we find ourselves least inclined to view generously.  If we’re showering only the people we already love with love, do we really think grace is all that amazing?  Are we any different from anyone else in our behavior?  Do we really believe in amazing grace at all?  Or have we placed a limit on it, somehow expecting it to abide by our national and cultural boundaries?  (The Possibility of America, 102)

James S. French, 1800-1881
photo by GAC

And we might add— “the boundaries of political affiliation.”  If we preach the gospel of free grace without living it, we show that we have not received it ourselves.  And we forfeit the right to be heard in our empty preaching.  When we love only those who love us, we declare by our actions that grace goes only to those who deserve it.  And that is a different gospel than the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The embrace of a “gospel” of resentment and revenge—a sort of coercive “Christianity”—that we see in America today is poisoning the gospel witness of the American church perhaps for generations to come.

This matter really is a non-negotiable.  If by our words or our actions or our silence we compromise on this command to love our enemies, we have compromised everything, and we have lost our soul.

©2020 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.


2 thoughts on “Pastor Note #91: Loving our Enemies and Gospel Faithfulness

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