Love Defined

The basic concepts in every field of learning—"point" and "line" in geometry, "life" in biology, "energy" in physics, and "beauty" in art—cannot be defined, although even the unlearned know approximately what they mean. Another concept of the same kind is "love." It is simply a given part of life. We can tell many things about it—its causes and effects, for example. We can classify it as an emotion, and to distinguish it from other emotions, we can describe it as the feeling that goes with attaching great value to something. Yet such a definition fails to capture the meaningful core of the experience we call love.

Four Faces of Love

C. S. Lewis wrote a famous book entitled The Four Loves, which discusses the different kinds of love that can exist between two persons. It is unfortunate that English has only one word for them all, making it difficult for us to avoid confusion when we speak of love. We must depend on the context to clarify which kind we mean. But Greek is more agreeable to speaking precisely. Recognizing the four loves as distinct, it gives each its own word.

  1. Romantic love. The Greek word for romantic love, eros, is curiously missing from the New Testament. Perhaps God chose not to use it, lest He validate a faulty concept of love. The word implies that the binding force between lovers must be essentially different from other kinds of love, whereas the New Testament identifies true marital love as agape (Eph. 5:25), the same kind that prompted God to give His Son for our salvation (John 3:16). Although sex and romance are a normal and legitimate part of marriage, marital love should be no less than the highest form of love. Any attraction or fondness between man and woman that is not, or is not developing into, agape is not love at all. It is simply lust. To denote lust, the New Testament uses the word epithumia, translated "lust" (e.g., 2 Tim. 2:22) or "concupiscence" (e.g., 1 Thess. 4:5).
  2. Natural affection. The Greek word storge refers to the natural warmth that unites members of the same family. An interesting feature of natural affection is that it can be easily stretched beyond the human race to include pet animals, favorite possessions, one's home and hometown and home territory, and even one's homeland. The New Testament does not command storge. There is no need to command it because it arises naturally in normal human experience. The New Testament does not even use the word, except for two occurrences of the negative form, astorgos, translated "without natural affection" (Rom. 1:31; 2 Tim. 3:3). The texts employing astorgos treat it as a sign of extreme depravity.
  3. Friendship. The Greek word for love between friends is philia. This is the kind of love that is based on commonality—that develops when people see each other as equals in some sense, perhaps through sharing the same values or interests or objectives. Although the noun form of philia appears only once in the New Testament, the verb form appears frequently. It is used with reference to the love that exists between the Father and the Son (John 5:20), the love that the Father has for all men who follow Christ (John 16:27), the love that Christ had for an individual (John 11:3), the love that an individual had for Christ (John 21:15), and the love that binds Christian brothers (Titus 3:15).
  4. Charity. Agape, the word that the New Testament ordinarily uses to denote love, has no adequate equivalent in English. When the KJV was produced, "charity" was a good translation, but this word has lost its original meaning and now refers only to the sort of condescending attitude that may accompany good works on behalf of the poor. The meaning of agape is much deeper and more profound. It is fruitless to look for its meaning outside the New Testament, because it scarcely appears in earlier Greek literature. The word in the special sense it has for Christians is virtually an invention of the New Testament. Certain key texts give the essence of agape in its highest form.
    1. It is unselfish. Because God loved the world with agape, He gave His Son to die for the sins of mankind (John 3:16). He gave what was most valuable to Himself to those who deserved nothing and who were powerless to do anything for Him. This act of love, being wholly untarnished by selfishness, serves as the supreme example of agape. When describing agape, the love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, says that it "vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up . . . , seeketh not her own" (1 Cor. 13:4-5). Whereas every other form of love requires something in return from the beloved, agape requires nothing, neither beauty or virility (unlike eros), nor sameness of blood (unlike storge), nor sameness of mind (unlike philia).
    2. It is all-consuming. The first and greatest commandment is that we love God with agape (Matt. 22:37-8) and that we draw upon the resources of our whole being to make this love as intense as possible. Perfect agape must therefore be all-consuming.
    3. It is indestructible. The second greatest commandment is that we love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:39). Again, the requisite love is agape. How do we love ourselves? Self-love is innate and permanent (Eph. 5:29). Nothing can remove it. Likewise, nothing can overthrow true love, of the kind called agape. According to the love chapter, agape "beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth" (1 Cor. 13:7-8).

The Essence of the Law

The Bible teaches that the two commandments just mentioned, the two greatest, are the fulfillment of the law (Matt. 22:40; Rom. 13:8-10). In other words, they make all other divine commandments superfluous. Though we never heard of the Ten Commandments, for example, we would keep them all just by loving God and our neighbor. We would not affront God by worshiping an idol. We would not harm our neighbor by taking his life, his wife, or his property. Yet we should not imagine that love involves no more than keeping the Ten Commandments. Each of these merely prohibits the most extreme violation of a positive duty incumbent upon true love. It will therefore be profitable to our understanding of love if we enlarge each commandment to include the positive duty as well as the prohibition.

The first five commandments warn us against offenses contrary to loving God or an authority standing in God's place (Exod. 20:2-12).

The last five commandments warn us against offenses contrary to loving our neighbor (Exod. 20:13-7).

In summary, love will lead us to keep the Ten Commandments.

Inward Righteousness

A moral life where the only achievement is to avoid murder and the other sins named by these commandments cannot be described as a life of real love. Just keeping the first five does not amount to an all-consuming love for God, and just keeping the last five does not amount to a selfless love for our fellow man.

Yet the Pharisees in Jesus’ day viewed the specific requirements of the law as their whole duty, achieving as much love as God expects. For example, they imagined that the only obligation laid on them by the Sixth Commandment was not to slay an enemy. But in their view, to hate and curse him was permissible (Matt. 5:43–44). They honored the Fifth Commandment—"Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother"—by refraining from obvious disrespect. But they had no scruple against withholding financial help from needy parents. They justified their stinginess by declaring their own property "Corban"—that is, a gift to the Lord (Mark 7:10-13). They preached against adultery, as condemned by the Seventh Commandment, but they were notorious for allowing divorce and remarriage on slim pretexts.

They did not grasp that God desires inward righteousness as well as outward righteousness. For this blindness they had no excuse, since the final commandment—the commandment that serves as a synopsis of the several preceding commandments—prohibits coveting. Coveting is, of course, a flaw in one’s heart.

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, He reinterpreted several provisions of the law to show that real love is far more demanding than the Pharisees supposed. Love of the kind God desires will keep us away not only from the most extreme violations of our moral duty, but also from every lesser violation.

He started His critique of Pharisaical religion by reexamining the Sixth Commandment (Matt. 5:21). Yes, we have a duty not to kill anyone. But Jesus recast the commandment in much broader terms, treating murder, as we have done, as merely the most extreme violation of a positive duty to defend and preserve human life. Any lesser violation is also contrary to love. It follows that not only is murder wrong, but also anything that would lead to murder.

The Bible teaches that one step leading to murder is hatred (1 John 3:15). There is a causal connection between them. Hatred is the motive and murder is the outcome. Murder is the natural and even the inevitable consequence of hatred if all restraints are removed. Just because restraints exist, forcing us to hold our hand when we hate someone, does not make us guiltless. We are guilty of whatever we would do in a world without restraints, where we faced no chance of reprisals or punishment.

Jesus singled out and condemned three particular expressions of hatred (Matt. 5:22).

  1. The first is anger, perhaps the most common motive for murder. He specifically condemned anger "without a cause."
  2. The second is calling a brother "Raca," Aramaic for a worthless person. Regarding a person in this way is also a motive for murder. The aborted fetus is seen as worthless. The old person eliminated by euthanasia is seen as worthless. The Jew, the feeble-minded, and the insane that Hitler slew in his diabolical scheme to build a perfect race were seen as worthless.
  3. The third is saying to a brother, "Thou fool." For us, a fool is merely someone who is silly or stupid. But the term in Jesus’ day was a deeply cutting insult with moral overtones. It pointed to someone who was not wise before God—to an evil person, a reprobate. To see a fellow human being as essentially evil can also serve as a motive for killing him. The killings done by rioters caught up in ethnic conflict or civil insurrection fall under this heading.

The next commandment Jesus took up was the Seventh (Matt. 5:27-8). He enlarged the commandment to include not only the act of adultery, but also any manner of lust in the heart, for the inward desire is what leads to the outward sin. Neither is compatible with a selfless love for our neighbor.

Then Jesus took up the Third Commandment (Matt. 5:33-7). In Old Testament times it was permitted to certify words of promise or testimony by means of an oath. The primary meaning of the Third Commandment is that an oath in the name of the Lord must be honored. To break a solemn promise sealed with an oath or to give false testimony despite an oath is to take His name in vain.

The Third Commandment is similar to the Ninth ("Thou shalt not bear false witness"), since both prohibit false statements: the first, any false statement backed by an oath; the second, any false statement made to harm another. They converge in condemning a witness in a formal judicial proceeding who tells lies after he has sworn to tell the truth. The fact that two of the Ten Commandments deal with truthfulness shows how important it is to God.

As in His treatment of the Sixth and Seventh Commandments, Jesus sought to illumine the moral principle underneath the Third and the Ninth. The principle is that we should be honest through and through. What God wants, Jesus implied, is truthfulness deeply lodged in the heart. Every small word we utter should be gold-plated truth. As Jesus said, our "yes" should mean "yes" and nothing else, and our "no" should mean "no" and nothing else. If our promises are well known to be absolutely dependable, an oath adds nothing to what we say. Indeed, an oath cannot give us credibility if we have a reputation for lying. The reason that God wants perfect truthfulness is that lying is contrary to love. Lying is always a mask for doing harm instead of good.

We see that in His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus outlined the psychology of sins contrary to loving our neighbor. With a few broad strokes, He showed that all these sins come from a few root vices. The three vices in particular that He exposed were hatred, lust, and untruthfulness. He offered no commentary on the Eighth Commandment because He did not need to reveal the vice that propels men to steal. It is coveting, which the Tenth Commandment had already named and condemned.

Jesus’ commentary on the law is therefore a mirror enabling us to see into our hearts. It enables us to find tendencies that will lead to outward sin if we do not resist and defeat them by divine grace. Let us put this commentary to its intended use. Let us learn it by heart and meditate upon it so that we will be alert to temptation and vigilant against sin—so that lust and hatred and lying will not gain so much as a foothold in our souls and keep us from truly loving our neighbor.

Further Reading

This lesson appears in Ed Rickard's Primer of the Christian Life: A Detailed Map of the Pilgrim's Road, designed to serve as the textbook for a yearlong course on basic Christianity. For further information, click here.