Gospel Love by John Owen
The Apostle Paul writes, ‘So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.’
All these things may be evident in your life, yet there may still be no genuine gospel love. These things – which seem to be the greatest and most practical fruits of love – may be practiced, and yet they may all be done without love. We may forbear without love, forgive without love, be kind to one another without love, and all to no avail, if over and above all these things we are not aroused and animated by love.
The sum and substance of all Christ commanded of us is love. The Apostle John, who lived a long life – indeed, he lived to see the Christian religion advance far in the world – very likely saw a decay of love among believers. It is probably for this reason that he wrote his first letter. He wanted to let us know that there is no real proof of salvation, nor evidence of our love to God unless we have a fervent and intense love for the brethren. No matter how much we say, if we don’t love fellow believers our words are mere empty professions.
Because this gospel love is so different from any other kind of love, allow me to clearly define what I mean by this expression.
Gospel love is a fruit of the Spirit of God, an effect of faith, by which believers, being knit together by the strongest bonds of affection because of their common interest in Jesus Christ, and because of their common participation in one Spirit, do delight in, value, and esteem each other, and are constantly ready to act for the temporal, spiritual, and eternal good of one another.
Allow me to explain a little further concerning my definition:
- This love is a fruit of the Spirit: ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love’ (Gal. 5:22). Some people apart from Christ may naturally have a great deal of love, kindness, and tenderness. This is especially evident when we compare people with one another merely from a human perspective. But this is not the kind of love that is the fruit of the Spirit. The thing that uniquely separates gospel love from natural love is that gospel love is a product of the Spirit of God in the heart of believers. This fruit is not produced or developed in unbelievers because regeneration is the seed which produces this, and unbelievers, by definition, are not regenerate, and thus, are not capable of producing or developing this type of love.
- This love is an effect of faith. ‘The only thing that matters is faith working through love’ (Gal. 5:6). But how does faith work by love? Or, put another way, in what way does faith set love to working? Faith works through love when it respects God’s command requiring this love, and believes God’s promise that He accepts this love, and when it practices this love to the end of glorifying God. I urge you to practice love on no other basis. You should love because Christ commands it, and promises to accept it, and because it promotes His glory. It is possible to love because of fleshly interests and promotions. It is possible to love only because of the reputation one will gain because of it. This is not gospel love. Gospel love is love that is the result of ‘faith working through love.’
- It is this love, and this love alone, that knits together the hearts and souls of believers. The apostle tells us of the communion that the body of Christ has by love: ‘The whole body is fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies’ (Eph. 4:16). What is it we supply to one another? Love. This is what promotes the building up of one another. As the Psalmist said, ‘As for the saints who are in the earth, they are the majestic ones in whom is all my delight’ (Psalm 16:3). This is how much we should esteem one another: We should be willing to lay down our lives for the brethren. In other words, we must be willing to expose ourselves to difficulties, dangers, and hazards if this were to mean edification for the church. The Apostle Paul said of his afflictions, ‘I fill up the measure of the afflictions of Christ, for his body, which is the church’ (Col. 1:24). He bore his afflictions out of love for the church, as well as out of faith and love to Christ personally. He was unwilling that any offence, scandal, or temptation befall the church in order that their faith might be confirmed and strengthened. This is the kind of love we should display if we are called to such a thing. This is the kind of love of which the Scripture speaks. Not that careless, negligent, self-motivated and self-absorbed love which the world and, sadly, many in the church abound with. To truly describe all that this type of love requires would demand many sermons and not just this one! This type of love will affect all our lives and direct us in all our ways. All of our behavior – all that we do, say, think, act – should be influenced by this!
To read John Owen is to enter a rare world. Whenever I return to one of his works I find myself asking “Why do I spend time reading lesser literature?”
—Sinclair B. Ferguson
John Owen’s treatises on Indwelling Sin in Believers and The Mortification of Sin are, in my opinion, the most helpful writings on personal holiness ever written.
I owe more to John Owen than to any other theologian, ancient or modern; and I owe more to [The Mortification of Sin] than to anything else he wrote.
—J. I. Packer