Jim came to our church from prison. Over the decades, his life had taken many turns, but none of them had passed through the door of a gospel-preaching church. Raised by non-Christian parents, snared by sin, and incarcerated as an adult, Jim had never heard a biblical sermon, sung a psalm, or joined his heart to the prayers of God’s people.
In prison, though, Christ drew Jim to himself through the ministry of a chaplain. As a new believer, Jim spent hours praying and studying the Bible both by himself and in groups of other inmates. Under the chaplain’s mentorship, Jim grew in his knowledge of Christ until one day–sentence served–he walked out of prison a truly free man. And, that Sunday, he came to church.
On the day Jim joined our church, he gave his testimony of coming to faith. As he concluded, he looked out over the congregation and reflected with obvious delight, “I’ve never had a people before.”
After he said that, I glanced around the room. Frankly, we weren’t much to get excited about. We had just finished a post-worship, bring-a-dish-to-share, fellowship lunch, and we sat together at tables littered with crumpled napkins listening to Jim’s story of coming to Christ. The adults half-heartedly picked at dry remnants of baked ziti on paper plates. The kids, antsy with so much sitting, ran circles around the room or sneaked a third chocolate chip cookie from the dessert table.
On the whole, we weren’t powerful, rich, intelligent, beautiful, or even especially godly. We were an unassuming collection of graduate students and grandmothers, musicians and mechanics, infants and immigrants. We were just ordinary people who would have to get up on Monday morning and do the next thing. Jim’s delight over belonging with us almost seemed naÃ¯ve.
But Jim wasn’t naÃ¯ve. He was loving what God loves.
Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God”(Eph. 5:1-2). If we are “beloved children”–and we are!–we must walk in Christ-like love for his people in the local church.
We do this in three important ways:
1. Loving the Unlovely
Since the fall of Adam, sin has made everyone unlovely. Listen to some of the words that the Bible uses to describe fallen people: enemies (Rom. 5:10), strangers (Eph. 2:12), rebels (Ezek. 20:38), and haters (Rom. 1:30); impure (Eph. 5:5), disobedient (Eph. 2:2), hopeless (Eph. 2:12), and ignorant (Rom. 10:3). Our sin not only makes us repulsive, it rightly places us under God’s wrath and displeasure (Eph. 2:3). There is nothing attractive about any of this.
But, thankfully, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”(Rom. 5:8). When we were unlovely, God loved us. We did nothing to deserve his love, but he loved us anyway.
And so, we love God’s people simply because God loves them. Hear the words of the apostle John: “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another”(1 John 4:11). God’s people in the local church are not always lovely. Every one of us can be thoughtless, immature, unkind, foolish, and repeatedly snared by sin. And those are just our obvious failings. We probably don’t even know the worst about each other. But God does, and he loved us anyway.
As we walk in love for the local church, our love models the love of God himself. There was nothing lovely in us that caused God to love us, and so we don’t wait for God’s people to seem attractive in order to love them. If God in his sovereign good pleasure has set his love on these people from eternity past, uniting them to his Son and gathering them into his church, then it is our privilege to love them too.
2. Loving Sacrificially
God also loves us at great cost to himself. Because of the great love with which he loved his people, he sacrificed his beloved Son. Christ took our sins upon him, dying the death we deserved on the cross.
Because he loved us, God propitiated his own wrath. He appeased his own judgment. He paid his own penalty. He set himself against his own Son so that he might align himself with us. With great cost and out of a great love, God reconciled his people to himself so that we might enter into a relationship with him.
Our love for the local church, then, must assume this same self-sacrificing character. “By this we know love,”writes John, “that [Christ] laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers”(1 John 3:16). Loving God’s people requires us to lay down our lives. In the local church, we will regularly give up time, emotional resources, money, respect from the world, physical comfort, and personal preferences. But, in so doing, we mirror God’s love for us.
3. Love That Makes Us Lovely
The ultimate result of God’s uncaused, sacrificial love is to make the objects of his love lovely. Garry Williams writes, “God does not find people who are beautiful and then decide to love them. Rather, he makes the objects of his love beautiful.”The glorious purpose of Christ’s incarnation, obedience, death, and resurrection was so that he might “present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish”(Eph. 5:27).
God sets his love on sinful, rebellious, hateful, and ignorant people. And his love changes everything about us. Listen to some of the beautiful words that the Bible uses to describe the people God loves: clean (Heb. 10:22), holy (Eph. 5:27), blameless (Eph. 1:4), faithful (Col. 1:2), chosen (1 Thess. 1:4), and lacking nothing (1 Cor. 1:4-8). When God loves us, we become lovely.
We cannot make anyone lovely–not in the way that God does by removing our sin and imputing Christ’s perfect righteousness to us. But our love for one another in the church does produce a sort of radiant loveliness that shines before a watching world.
The church father Tertullian famously imagined the Romans marveling at the first-century church, saying to one another, “See, how those Christians love one another!”And Jesus himself makes this point: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”(John 13:35).
Though Christians may be awkward and unremarkable on our own, gathered in the mutual love of the church, we grow in loveliness. Our loveliness blossoms out of the love of God for us and in us, and it is affirmed and magnified and publicly displayed in the love we have for one another. It stands as an invitation in our cities and communities: come and see God’s love displayed.
This article is adapted from A Place to Belong: Learning to Love the Local Church and is used here by permission.