1 Timothy 1:3-7. Love: the Mark of Vintage Christianity.
Timothy stood at a crossroads: the transition between apostolic and post-apostolic Christianity. That was evidently a concern of Paul's: how biblical Christianity would be faithfully transmitted and attested to in the coming generations (ver. 2; cf. 2 Tim. 2:2). To that end, he identifies Timothy as the legitimate heir of vintage Christianity. The question is, will we also stand in the tradition of first-century Christianity? Can we with Timothy identify ourselves as the heirs of the apostles?
It is important to realize what it means to be faithful to the legacy of first-century Christianity. Or, what it means to be a “Primitive” Baptist. It seems that a lot of PBs use this word “primitive” as if the reference point for its meaning is what Primitive Baptists were doing 50-60 years ago (or even 150 years ago). To duplicate the beliefs and practices of believers in the mid-twentieth (or nineteenth) century is not what it means to be a “primitive” Baptist – at least, not in the way that word was used by those who coined the phrase in the early 1800s. It means to stand in the tradition of the apostles, and to find our reference point in the Scriptures for what it means to testify to and transmit vintage Christianity to our generation.
This is important because being “primitive” in this sense of the word may actually mean diverging from the path that modern day Primitive Baptists have forged, with the result that we may end up looking different from other Primitive Baptists. (Though I am not advocating being different just for the sake of being different!) The name is meaningless unless our real concern is vintage Christianity, a faith that takes its cue from Christ rather that a particular expression of the gospel in a particular culture and time.
As I noted last time, some additions are good and some are bad, and we need to make sure that what we are calling Biblical faithfulness is not just a robotic reproduction of a particular culture's expression of the changeless gospel. We need to be able to sift through what is essential and what is not. Partly to that end, I dedicate this series: to look back to Paul and Timothy as they dealt with the transmission of the gospel to the next generation and see if we are really following in their footsteps.
Last time, we saw in Paul's introduction to Timothy that there are two big realities that we need to be able to confess if we want to stand in the stream of the apostolic gospel: that the Bible is the Word of God and that Jesus Christ is the Way to God. Under these two realities the true Church stands. But that is not all there is to it. These realities are worked out in many different ways in the Church, ways that identify who are the true stewards of the Faith. We will look at the first of these “marks of the Church” today: the mark of Love.
1. The Importance of Love.
Paul reminds Timothy of the reason he left him in Ephesus: to stop the false-teachers. He describes this teaching as a different doctrine – the phrase “no other” refers to difference in kind (ver. 3), which he then characterizes as “fables and endless genealogies which minister questions” (ver. 4) and “vain jangling” - or “senseless babble” (ver. 6). These false-teachers desired to be known as teachers of the Mosaic law (ver. 7).
It appears that it was fashionable at that time in certain circles to take obscure characters in the OT genealogies and construct stories (fables, myths) about these characters with elaborate theologies associated with these stories. Thus, though these teachers may have had an appearance of being Biblical, what they were teaching was not Biblical at all.
William Mounce summarizes the false teaching in this way: “It appears to have been a form of aberrant Judaism with Hellenistic/gnostic tendencies that overemphasized the law and underemphasized Christ and faith, taught dualism (asceticism, denial of a physical resurrection), was unduly interested in the minutiae of the OT, produced sinful lifestyles and irrelevant quibbling about words, and was destroying the reputation of the church at Ephesus” (p. 19).
But note that the reason why Paul told Timothy to stop the mouths of the false teachers was not just so that they would be doctrinally orthodox. Doctrinal orthodoxy was not the end; it was a means to the end. This end, and the main point of verses 3-7 is given in verse 5: “But the goal of my charge to you is love that comes from a pure heart and from a good conscience and from sincere faith.” The word “charge” (in KJV is “commandment”) is the noun form of the Greek word whose verbal form is used in verse 3: “...in order that you might charge some that they stop teaching a different doctrine.” The word “commandment” in the KJV is not then a reference to the OT law, but to Paul's commandment to Timothy to stop the mouths of the false teachers. The reason why their teaching needed to stop, was not just that it was silly, senseless babble (ver. 7), but that it stood in the way of the edification of the Church by love. Doctrinal correctness is important, and this is the reason it is so.
In fact, it was their abandonment of love that stood behind their abandonment of the faith. The root of their heterodoxy was the moral problem of a lack of love. Hence, it would not be enough to speak against their error; the fundamental problem needed to be dealt with, and this could only be dealt with by aiming at the cultivation of love in believers' hearts.
The fact that this is the very first thing that Paul addresses shows up the importance, not only of getting doctrine right, but of love: that the very point of getting doctrine right is that believers might grow in love. Thus Paul says in 1 Cor. 13 that no matter how gifted we are, or how doctrinally correct we are, if we do not have love, we are nothing. Love is the bond of perfectness (Col. 3:14). All things are to be done in love (1 Cor. 16:14). We are to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). John tells us over and over again in his first epistle that loving the brethren is a mark of the new birth, and that without it, our profession is just vain blustering. Jesus told his disciples that “by this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (Jn. 13:35).
2. The Meaning of Love.
But this begs a very important question: what is love? This may at first seem a strange question to ask. After all, doesn't everyone know what love is? I don't think so. The reason I don't think so is because in our day there simply is no reference point for love. Love is what you define it to be – and in the absence of a reference point, who is to say you are wrong? For example, when a couple say they have fallen “out of love,” what they mean is that they are no longer pleased with one another. In other words, love is the feeling you have when someone else makes you happy. Is that really love?
Biblical love is different from our culture's idea of love because it has a very definite reference point: the revelation of God in words and works. God declares that he is love: and then he demonstrates it for us in history. First, in the provision of a sacrifice for Adam and Eve – after they had disobeyed Him. Then, in the provision of an ark for Noah and his family; in the Exodus, delivering an ungrateful people from the clutches of Egyptian slavery. Finally, in the provision of his Son – God himself becoming flesh to rescue sinful man. “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might be made rich” (2 Co. 8:9). The Word of God declares God is love; the Way to God demonstrates it. “This is love, not that we love God, but that he loved us, and gave his Son a propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16).
To the Christian, therefore, to be loving means to be like Christ. “As I have loved you, even so ought you to love one another” (John 13:34). Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for it (Eph. 5:25). And what the Bible emphasizes about the nature of Christ's love, is his willingness to give himself for those he loves. The overwhelming emphasis on love in the Bible is not on the feeling associated with love, but in its sacrificial nature. “Even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:28). In other words, love is completely opposite of a mindset of selfishness.
The obligation to love is not dependent on feeling, either. If I do not feel “loving” that does not release me from my obligation to love my neighbor as myself. The duty that love compels is not a function of feeling. That does not mean that we should be insincere in our love. But we need to correct what seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of our culture, and to recognize that love is not meant to be driven by a sense of euphoria. Jesus went to the cross “for the joy set before him” (Heb. 12:3). In the final analysis, he wanted to do it. But at the same time, there were points at which he did not want to go to the cross: he prayed three times that if it was the Father's will to “let this cup pass from me.” In other words, the sacrifice was real. Jesus really loved those for whom he died, but that did not lessen the terrible reality of what love was calling him to do. There was no “euphoria” driving Jesus, but a deep commitment to do the Father's will in loving sinners. He was “obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” If we are to love, we need to be willing to sacrifice for those we are called to love, even when we do not feel like it.
In fact, consider that in dying for us, Christ did not find us attractive or desirable, but loathsome. John Piper put it this way: “If we don’t understand that God finds us hateful and loathsome in our ugly sin, we won’t be as stunned by his love for us. God saves millions of people who in and of themselves are loathsome to him until he saves them and makes them the apple of his eye, which makes salvation stunningly more, if you get that. God comes to us, not in our attractiveness like, ‘Oh, I really love this person and just hate their sin.’ No, he finds me reprehensible because of my rebellion, just like we find certain wicked people reprehensible because of their sin. And he is coming to us and he is dying for us in order that he might make us into the apple of his eye.” Paul put it, “But God commendeth his love toward us in that while we were yet sinners [or “enemies” in verse 10], Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). That is the model for Christian love.
The Church is the community of those who love as Christ loves. If we imagine that we are the heirs of the apostles, we need to check whether or not we are loving people in the way that Christ loves. Do we? Correct doctrine, as important as it is, is nothing without love to back it up.
If love is so important, then, how do we cultivate it in our hearts and lives?
3. What is behind love: “love that comes from a pure heart, and a good conscience, and a sincere faith.”
When we look at these three things together, we might summarize them by the word “holiness.” In other words, if we want to be loving people, we must be holy people. This is certainly true when it comes to loving God. Jesus said to his disciples, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Paul says here that it is true in general.
This is interesting because so many people in our day do not think of love and holiness in the same category. I think this is probably because of a false characterization of Puritanism as something akin to what the NT calls Pharisaism. Those who care about holiness are typically thought to be mean and prudish people, hard to get along with. But the Pharisees were not holy people, and the modern characterization of the Puritans as gloomy people who always dressed monochromatically and who had nothing better to do than to burn witches is simply false. It would appear that this dichotomy between holiness and love is nothing more than a modern convention to justify our own lusts in the name of love.
However, when we consider what sin is and what sin does, the necessity for holiness in order to be loving becomes clear. Sin turns us in on ourselves; sin is inherently selfish. In Romans 2:8, Paul characterizes those who do not obey the truth but obey unrighteousness as those who are “self-seeking” [in KJV, “contentious”]. Thus, right along side of love of the brethren as a sign of the new birth, John puts “doing righteousness” (1 John 3:7-10; cf. 1 Co. 13). In other words, to be in the grips of sin is to be essentially a self-seeking person, and this is completely incompatible with love. On the other hand, holiness – keeping the commandments of God – is defined by love; it is to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mt. 22:34-40; Rom. 13:8-10).
It would be good for us if we would think of love and holiness as in some sense defining each other. This would keep us from wrong views of both. It would keep us from thinking of love in terms of our lusts and justifying sin in the name of love. On the other hand, it would keep us from thinking of holiness in terms of Pharisaism and justify harshness of spirit towards others in the name of obedience to God.
But Paul did not just say “love coming from holiness;” he spells out three particular realities that must be true of us if we are to be loving people.
(1) First, Paul says that love comes from a pure heart. This shows that holiness is not in fact Pharisaism; it is not an external show of piety. The holiness that is the spring of love is not a hypocritical act. James puts it this way: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (Jam. 3:17-18). Note: purity precedes being peaceable, gentle, etc. - the fruits of love.
Do I watch my heart? The Wise Man tells us to “keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life” (Prov. 4:23). We must keep watch over our heart, because this is where sin begins: “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil things, for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).
Too often, we justify the thoughts and affections of our heart with the excuse that we just can't help what attracts our heart. We may watch the heart, but we do so as a spectator, feeling helpless to do anything about the state of our affections and thoughts. We feel like Derek Webb when he penned these words (from his song “Crooked Deep Down”):
Because there are things you would not believe
That travel into my mind
I swear I try and capture them
But always set em free
It seems bad things comfort me
I swear I try and capture them
But always set em free
It seems bad things comfort me
But the believer cannot feign helplessness. He/she is in an altogether different situation from those who are taken captive by Satan at his will. Believers can do all things through Christ who strengthens them; sin cannot have dominion over them any longer, for they are not under the law but under grace. The sin which had its throne in the believer's heart has been displaced by Christ. Grace now reigns, and this means that we can by grace overcome the power of sin in the heart. We don't have to be spectators; we are combatants, and the victory is sure: “He that is born of God overcomes the world” (1 John 5:4).
(2) The next thing Paul mentions is a good conscience. Conscience is that faculty of the mind, given to us by God, that is a witness for or against all that we do. It is God's law written in our hearts. It testifies against us when we do something that we know is wrong, and it commends us when we do something that we know is right (Rom. 2:14-15). Conscience is not infallible, however. It can be ignored and thus become seared and hardened (cf. I Tim. 4:2). However, the point is, I think, how do we know if our heart is pure? And the answer is, by our conscience. “If our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God” (1 John 4:21).
Do we listen to our conscience? Do we turn back when conscience says “No,” and obey when conscience says, “Yes”? Do we, with the psalmist, make haste and delay not to keep God's commandments? (Ps. 119:60). Or do we argue with our consciences? Someone who has a good conscience is someone who obeys immediately, and when he/she sins, repents and seeks forgiveness from God. Such are the people who have a pure heart.
(3) But how do we know if our conscience is telling the truth? The problem is that because of sin, our conscience may not tell the truth. Even the believer can harden his/her heart. Thus, Paul adds that love comes from a sincere faith. What allows the believer to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil, is his/her faith, a faith that is founded on the Word of God. Faith in God's word provides a reference point for love by providing a reference point for our conscience. As we grow in faith, we are able to grow in discernment (Phil. 1:9,10). It is interesting that love is never mentioned in this epistle apart from faith (cf. 1 Tim. 1:5,14; 2:15; 4:12;6:10,11).
In fact, according to 6:10, when the object of our love is what it ought not to be (money) it is because we have erred from the faith. This is implied in our text: love was being hindered in the lives of believers because false teaching was turning people away from the faith.
Faith must lead to love of God and love of others because faith opens our eyes to reality, a reality spelled out in God's word. It causes us to see that we really are small, little, insignificant creatures who deserve to die and who are not better than anyone else and who do not deserve even the smallest happiness, and yet who by the grace of God have been given the incomprehensible gift of eternal life in the presence of God. Someone who really believes that is not going to be turned in on themselves; they are not going to have an attitude that others owe them something. Further, faith causes us to see who God is; that he is alone in the universe worthy of our obedience, trust, and affection. In other words, true faith must lead to love of God and neighbor. Faith finds its expression in love: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything nor circumcision, but faith which worketh by love” (Gal. 5:6).
This faith is sincere (KJV, “unfeigned”). In other words, it is real. Such a believer is not simply okay with a head knowledge of doctrine; they really believe it and incorporate it into their lives. Their faith is a Hebrews 11 kind of faith, a faith that obeys God, fears God, and loves God more than the passing pleasures of sin.
Are we going to represent and transmit the gospel to the next generation? I hope that is what we want to do as a church. But if we are going to do this, we need to be concerned about a living faith that works by love, and to cultivate that holiness of heart that makes Christ-like love inevitable. To that end, let us trust and obey and pray for God's help through Jesus Christ.