Marks of Genuine Love
Series: Stand-Alone Sermons
Love is a virtue many celebrate, but what does genuine love look like? This passages gives us 6 marks of genuine love.
Romans (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), Thomas Schreiner
Duties of Christian Fellowship, John Owen
We’re trying something unique this year: We’ve shut down all our Citygroups, our smaller groups of 8-20 that meet in peoples’ homes throughout the city during the week, and on Sunday, September 10, we’ll start all new Citygroups. In the interim, we have open sign-ups for anyone to sign up for a Citygroup. That may mean signing up again because you’ve appreciated being in them, signing up again if you’ve been out of them for a while, signing up for one if you’ve never been in one, transitioning groups, or even not signing up for a Citygroup at all. The big idea of today’s sermon will not be, “sign up for a Citygroup.” The Bible gives no such command, and therefore I won’t either. Citygroups are merely a tool we find helpful to do something the Bible does command: Love one another. Specifically, at Citylight Center City, we have Citygroups to help the members of our church get started loving one another, and to provide a space where people who are new to our church can get a taste of our life together as they consider whether to become Christians and/or join our church. So we expect our members to be part of one, and I’d encourage you if you’re new to our church to sign up for one, but the bigger picture which you may do with or without a Citygroup, the thing we really will see in this passage, is the command to love one another genuinely.
Our passage begins with this simple command to let love be genuine. More literally we could translate that “let love be without hypocrisy”. Our actions should match our profession. We should not merely say we love God and others; we should actually love God and others. Many today would agree with such a sentiment: If you say you love someone, your actions should prove it. However, there is vast disagreement today over what actions match the profession of love and what do not. For example: Does genuine love require total affirmation, or does it require opposition in some cases? In this passage, God shows us 6 things that match the profession of love, 6 marks of genuine love we could call them: Genuine love is moral, familial, honoring, fervent, steadfast, and generous. Let’s look at each in turn.
Just after the command to let love be genuine, we have this command to abhor what is evil and hold fast what is good. It does not merely tell us to not do what is evil and to do what is good. It makes a demand not merely on our actions, but on our affections, by telling us to abhor what is evil, and hold fast to what is good. Such a command assumes, of course, that there is such a thing as good and evil, and that its definition is not privately determined by each individual. In this sense, we can say that genuine love is moral: It distinguishes between evil and good, hates the evil, and holds fast the good. For a more literal translation here we could even say “Abhor the evil; hold fast the good”; the definite article is there in the Greek. So this is most definitely not saying, “Abhor whatever you think is evil; hold fast whatever you think is good.” Instead, it’s “abhor what is evil, as God defines the evil, and host fast the good, as God defines the good.”
If we are to love one another genuinely, then, we must gain a clearer sense of what is good and evil. One of the biggest impediments to hating the evil and holding fast the good is the inability to identify the two. For this we need to have our minds renewed and our consciences shaped by the infallible standard of God’s Word as it written down for us in scripture, where we find God’s true and ultimate evaluation of what is the good and what is the evil. Some of us have overactive consciences, and are prone to hate things that aren’t actually evil, while holding fast vigorously to things that are more matters of opinion than “the good”. Others of us have underactive consciences, and are prone to excuse the evil, while expanding the good to include anything we can convince ourselves was well intentioned. Are you letting God’s Word shape your thoughts and feelings about what is good or evil, or are you letting the court of public opinion shape your thoughts and feelings about what is good or evil, and then trying to reshape God’s Word in its image? God’s Word won’t be reshaped. The evil and the good are what they are, and love shows itself genuine when it hates the evil and holds fast the good. Notice also that it’s not telling us to hate the negative consequences of evil or the positive effects of good, but to hate the evil itself, simply for what it is an offense to God, and to hold fast the good itself, simply for what it is as that which reflects something of God’s goodness. One of the great hindrances to genuine love is when we hate the consequences of our sin more than the sin itself, and when we pursue the positive benefits of the good rather than holding fast the good itself.
Love shows itself genuine when we hate the evil within ourselves, and hold fast the good. If you notice yourself entertaining insulting and belittling thoughts of a fellow church member, of how lame they are, or how self-righteous they are, or how unrighteous they are, genuine love means hating the arrogance that reveals in you, and holding fast humility in communion with Jesus to cultivate the kind of familial affection for that person we’ll see in just a bit in our passage. Love shows itself genuine first when we hate the evil within ourselves, and hold fast the good. But then it also shows itself genuine when we hate the evil in one another, and hold fast the good. To say I love you but then to affirm sin in your life or affirm you in your sin is hypocritical. Love desires the good for the one loved; it’s most unloving to affirm you as you plunge headlong in the opposite direction of it! So let love be genuine by letting it be moral: Get a clear sense of what is good and evil from God’s Word, hate the evil you see in yourselves and one another, and hold fast the good. And next, let it be familial.
So verse 10 tells us to “Love one another with brotherly affection.” Whereas in verse 9 the love was left general, as all love should be genuine, here we see that love directed specifically to one another. Of course, this is not intended to be the exclusive channel of our love. Jesus himself said the first great commandment was to love God, not to love one another (Matt 22:37-40), and that we are to love even our enemies, not just one another within the church family (Matt 5:44-48). However, here the focus is on loving one another, where the “one another” refers to the recipients of the letter loving the other recipients of the letter. Who are the recipients of the letter? In Romans 1:7 we read “All those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints.” In other words, it was addressed to all the Christians in Rome, and these gatherings of Christians in a particular place are called churches in the Bible. So we could just as easily say that this letter was addressed to the church in Rome, as the letter of 1 Corinthians was addressed to the “church of God that is in Corinth” (1 Cor 1:2). The command to love one another, then, was a command to the members of the church in Rome to love their fellow members in the church in Rome. That’s how they would have identified who were those “loved by God and called to be saints” in Rome. And so for us, the command to love one another is a command to love the other members of our church, those with whom we gather in one place, though not to the exclusion of God or the members of other churches or even our enemies.
Love for fellow church members cannot be the only channel of our love, but it must be a unique channel of our love. We cannot substitute another for it. We cannot substitute our co-workers, our kickball team, 3-4 Christian friends we’ve hand-picked, or even a Citygroup, anymore than a husband could substitute another woman besides his wife to obey the biblical command to husbands to love their wives. A Citygroup is not a church. It doesn’t have elders, doesn’t baptize or administer the Lord’s Supper, it can’t exercise church discipline which is an important part of hating the evil and holding fast the good, and therefore it is also not an adequate replacement for a church. If you only love those in your Citygroup, you run the risk of loving only those you naturally love because you get along naturally, rather than loving those loved by God and called to be saints, however naturally different they may be from you.
And that’s the way to think of your fellow church members: Those loved by God and called to be saints. Don’t think of one another as those who there aren’t enough of, who aren’t cool enough, aren’t successful enough, aren’t holy enough, aren’t diverse enough, and so on. Think of one another as those loved by God and called to be saints, and if we are all loved by the same heavenly Father, then our love for one another should be familial. Verse 10 describes the love we should have for one another as a love of brotherly affection. It should be like the love of siblings for one another, but since Paul knows as well as we do that not all siblings have good relationships with one another, he adds this word affection, as if to say, “love one another the way brothers and sisters who really love one another do.” Don’t settle for, “We see each other on Sundays and we have no active animosity toward one another.”
I married into a healthy family. Every year my wife’s extended family on her dad’s side take a vacation together at a lodge in northern PA. This year, 44 people came. I don’t know everyone there as deeply as I know some; with 44 that’s impossible, and with a church of 98 like ours that’s all the more impossible. Within the church you’ll have some friends with whom you go deeper; our Citygroups this fall are studying a book on friendship to learn more about that. But even among my wife’s family of 44 where we aren’t all as good of friends with one another as possible, there is a mutual affection you can feel. When there is familial affection, it’s refreshing to be together. When there is familial affection, people know they are loved and accepted. How can you contribute to that kind of culture in this church? One small way I saw that in my wife’s family this year was how many cousins and aunts were flocking for an opportunity to hold our 3-month-old baby girl. They had a familial affection for her. And I’ve seen the same thing in our church family here. At our elders, deacons, staff, and spouses retreat, there were many volunteers to hold Allie and Steve’s baby, and then at our last members’ meeting, I saw Steve holding my baby. That’s just one snapshot of the kinds of actions that flow from brotherly affection, but generally you can think of the affection you have for your siblings if you have healthy relationships with them, or the kinds of actions you’d take for them, and this text is telling us to feel and treat one another within the church in that way. I remember when my brother moved to Philadelphia and still hadn’t found a place to stay, there was no question in my mind that he should stay with us. He’s my brother, after all. Let’s view one another that way. When Jesus was told that his mother and brother were looking for him, he said, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).
We have Citygroups, then, not as a substitute for church membership, or as a church within the church, but as a space for the members of our church to get started loving one another in this familial way. Each of us is commanded to love the other 97 members of this church with brotherly affection, but it’s hard to start with 97. So in Citygroups, we provide a space to get started with 7 or so others for whom you can begin to deepen familial affection. That may be a reason for you to join a different Citygroup than the one of which you’ve been a part most recently. Maybe you’ve developed familial affection for the members in that group, but you realize there are many more members of this church with whom you haven’t. This break and sign up period is there to give you a natural transition time. On the other hand, if you honestly believe you love your fellow members with brotherly affection better without being in a Citygroup, more power to you. But be honest with yourself. Get input from your brothers and sisters and even from your pastors. If you choose not to be in a Citygroup, are you really going to love your fellow church members with brotherly affection? I’m not saying the answer is no; I’m just saying you need to ask the question. And, at least sometimes, I’ve observed members leave their Citygroup and never really replace it with another way of cultivating brotherly affection for their fellow members. Instead, they drift to the approach of hanging out sporadically with the 2-3 friends with whom they’re already comfortable, whether they’re members of their church or not. That’s not the genuine love for which this passage calls. If you want to have this kind of love for one another and you know it is a struggle for you, signing up for a Citygroup won’t fix it, but it may be a helpful step that I would encourage you to consider. And I praise God that many of you have already been eager to sign up for a Citygroup because you are not only eager to give this kind of love to one another, but you’ve experienced it from one another. Let’s keep loving one another in that way, and let’s do so by honoring one another.
Those are pretty big, overarching commands: Let love be genuine, hate the evil, hold fast the good, love one another with brotherly affection. Next in verse 10 it gets more specific, and we can move a bit quicker as a result. Next we come to the command “Outdo one another in showing honor”. While it’s natural to our flesh to want to outdo one another in receiving honor, here the command is to outdo one another in showing honor. We show honor to others by the way we act toward them, the way we speak to them, and the way we speak about them. Think of someone you view in a really honorable light. Maybe it’s a parent, a pastor, a boss, a celebrity. If you’ve ever gotten to meet such a person, can you see ways you acted differently toward them? You probably adopted a respectful posture, were willing to bend your preferences to theirs, were willing to adjust your schedule to accommodate theirs, listened attentively to what they had to say, and spoke gently in response. Genuine love for one another means approaching one another that way. It means looking at one another and thinking, “Wow; this is one of those people who is loved by God and called to be a saint.” That’s way more worthy of honor than being a smart theologian or a successful businessman or an accomplished athlete.
We speak to and about others we honor in a certain way, in that we say of them what is honorable about them. This is one of the simplest ways to outdo one another in showing honor: Point out the way you see Jesus in other church members to them, and about them. Matt Bell, I see the love of Jesus in you in the way you intentionally welcome new people to our church, not just once, but in an ongoing way. Shannon Capps, I see the steadfastness of Jesus in you in the way you’ve continued to serve our church and intentionally help others grow to greater maturity in Christ, even through experiences of hardship in your own life, and God has borne much fruit in our church through you. Jack and Christine Cerulli, I’ve seen the love of Jesus in you in the way you’ve faithfully prayed through our members’ directory, the passion and intentionality with which you lead your Citygroup, and also Jack in the way you’ve used your retirement to serve Karen and Sonya through their recent moves. Karen, I’ve seen the love of Jesus in you in your willingness to love and stick with church members who are often different from you in just about every worldly way, but with whom you have Jesus in common, and your humility in your continued willingness to be taught and led even by this young pastor. Allie, I’ve seen your faith in God in your willingness to use your skills in finance, for which you could be and have been paid, to serve our church through love without material compensation, because you believe your Father sees in secret.
That’s just a few of the people I happen to know better that I pulled from our members’ directory going through last names A-C. There is so much worthy of honor in any true church, and so much worthy of honor in ours. Don’t worry about how much honor you’re getting. Outdo one another in showing honor. If you get to the end of your time in this church and you’ve shown honor 988 times, but have only received honor twice, you’ve won, according to Romans 12:10. Genuine love is an honoring love. And next we see it is fervent.
This comes to us as a series of brief commands: Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Isn’t one of the most common impediments to our love simple laziness? I recall a time recently when l saw an opportunity to love someone else, but it would have meant jumping on the phone with them, then getting out my computer and doing some research, figuring out some finances, potentially even involving others, and I realized: I just don’t feel like doing this. I feel like sitting on my couch and watching TV or reading the book I’m into right now. I was being lazy. We all have that impulse from time to time, but don’t act on it. Instead, be fervent in spirit, and if you notice the footnote there in your ESV Bible says this could also mean “be fervent in the Spirit,” as in be fervent in the Holy Spirit, and given the way the word spirit is used throughout Romans, I think that’s actually the better translation. There is what we could call a fleshly fervency, and that’s not a mark of genuine love. It’s just as possible to be an unloving workaholic as it is to be lazy and unloving.
In fact, our world essentially oscillates between the two. We overwork trying to fulfill our selfish ambitions, and then we feel entitled to a time of self-indulgence that not even the demands of love are allowed to interrupt. Rest is biblically essential, and taking time to sit on the couch and watch a TV show you like can be a way you bring God glory as you receive it with thanksgiving. But we must not give our lives to such things at the expense of loving one another genuinely. I already mentioned how Jack is using his retirement, a time many view as a time for self-indulgence, to pick up heavy boxes, despite his own shoulder pain, and help two ladies in our church move recently. I’ve seen others of you use your days off to work here for hours on a Sunday morning to make this service happen, to get groceries for someone in need, or to meet with a younger believer to help them grow to greater maturity in Christ. Vinh is a teacher who gets summers off, and the last few summers, he’s used a significant chunk of “his” free hours to prepare a sermon out of love for us.
Are you feeling weary today? As we think about Citygroups, sometimes this is what causes problems, isn’t it? You get excited about going for a bit, but then the process of getting out of your house after a long day of work, or getting your house together if you’re hosting, just gets to be draining, and you give it up. Maybe a season of rest is appropriate; we try to build those in to the Citygroup calendar for that reason. But if that’s more so a symptom of growing weary of loving others, don’t just let that go. Examine it. Are you seeing your brothers and sisters as those loved by God and called to be saints? Has your love for them become something you do to feel righteous? Do you feel like you must do it perfectly to do it at all? These things can drain you. But verse 11 ends with this simple statement: Serve the Lord. In all our service of one another, remember that you are ultimately serving the Lord, and he is a gracious, gentle, wondrous master. Be fervent in the Spirit, and in a closely related way to this, be steadfast.
We see steadfastness in our next verse, verse 12, when it tells us to rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, and be constant in prayer. We don’t only grow weary of love because of the laziness of our flesh. We also grow weary in love because life is just hard. Here the text doesn’t tell us to be patient if you face tribulation; it simply tells us to be patient in it, because it assumes we are all, to varying degrees, in it. So what does genuine love do with that? First, it rejoices in hope. Tribulation alone is not cause for rejoicing, but the tribulations of this life can serve to remind us of our future hope: the resurrection of our bodies at the return of Jesus, on which day the glory that will be revealed to us will be so great as to make the sufferings of the present age unworthy of comparison to it. So we rejoice now because we know that the days of this tribulation, while real, are numbered, and short in comparison to the eternal joy that awaits us at the coming of Christ.
And, second, we are patient under tribulation, which means, in short, that we bear it, instead of simply trying to escape it, or directing all of our energy toward fixing it. Of course, if there is a simple way for you to escape it that still brings God glory, do so. If the suffering in your life is debt, and God has provided you the funds to pay it off, do so. But the trial may be a hard marriage or a hard child, and there is no God-glorifying way to escape. Be patient in tribulation means staying. And it means you aren’t going to devote all your resources to fixing it at the expense of love. It is possible to spend all your time researching solutions to your problems online, spend all your money finding the specialist with the answer, and then not have time to love your church family, or money to contribute to the needs of the saints, which we’ll talk about in a moment. Endure tribulation patiently instead.
And the way you do that, the last part of this verse, is to be constant in prayer. Ask God for the strength to persevere. Ask him to give you zeal from his Spirit. Continue in prayer for others. He’s really there, and he really hears. And finally, the last mark of genuine love we see in this brief cluster of verses is that genuine love is a generous love.
Verse 13 tells us to contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. When it says contribute to the needs of the saints, the word used there is the word elsewhere translated fellowship, so that the idea is “Have fellowship with the needs of the saints.” Share them. Make them your own. It’s a simple yet helpful mental exercise. When you recognize a need in the life of a fellow church member, stop and think, “If this were a need in my own life, what would I do to address it?” Now it may be the case that the answer to that question is something only that person should do or can do, in which case contributing to their need may mean just telling them, “You need to pay that bill.” But, there are other cases where you realize they can’t actually do the thing they need, or for various reasons, it would just really serve them if they didn’t have to. Those are your opportunities to contribute to the needs of the saints.
And this is an area where we have again found Citygroups to be helpful. It’s hard to contribute to the needs of the saints when you don’t know the needs of the saints, and it’s hard to get to know the needs of 97 saints at once. So Citygroups give us a place to get started knowing one another’s needs, and contributing to one another’s needs. And in the second part of this verse, we see that this kind of love is meant to be proactive. There it tells us to “seek to show” hospitality, as in look for opportunities to do it. When many today hear hospitality, we think of having people over for dinner, which is a great way to do it! But when those words were originally written, it more commonly meant hosting people in your home so that they’d have a place to stay when traveling. One way I’ve seen you all do this among the saints is when someone is dating or engaged to someone who doesn’t live here, other members of the church will host them when they come visit so they don’t face the temptation of sleeping over with their boyfriend, girlfriend, or fiancée. Other ways are when someone is in a tight spot financially or for some other reason their living space has become uninhabitable for a time, others of you will offer them to come live with you for that time. The bigger picture, though, is looking for ways to share your life and resources with others for their good. Don’t wait for the needs to come to you; look for the opportunities.
Love one another genuinely. And what is genuine love? It’s a love that is moral, familial, honoring, fervent, steadfast, and generous. It’s a beautiful love, isn’t it? And yet, it comes in Romans 12, not Romans 1. Why? I mean if this beautiful love is what God wants from us, why not just come out and tell us to do it? Because as beautiful as this love is, it does not come naturally to our flesh. Instead of a moral love, we turn love into blanket affirmation. Instead of familial affection, we keep others at arm’s length. Instead of outdoing one another in showing honor, we grumble that we aren’t shown more honor. Instead of being fervent in Spirit, we’re fervent in our flesh for self, and lazy in love. Instead of being patient in tribulation, we look to escape or fix tribulation. Instead of seeking to show hospitality, we try to avoid knowing the needs of the saints too deeply, for fear of what it might cost us. And so, before commanding us to love one another genuinely in Romans 12, Paul showed us how God loved us genuinely in Christ in Romans 1-11 when this love was entirely absent from us.
Jesus had no evil in himself to hate, but he so hated the evil in us that he didn’t pretend it wasn’t there. Instead, he took it upon himself and suffered the judgment we deserved for it on the cross. With the greatest brotherly affection imaginable, Jesus willingly died, was buried, and rose again for us so that we could be forgiven and risen to new life with him. Instead of grasping honor for himself, he left the honorable position of God to take on the form of a servant, and go through the dishonorable death of death on a cross, so that we could be honored with him as those loved by God and called to be saints. Though he was tired, he carried his cross all the way to death by the power the Spirit provided. Though he suffered the worst possible tribulation under the judgment of God, he endured it. He didn’t wait for us to bring our needs to him; he saw our greatest need, and left his home to meet it, so that we could have an eternal home with him. If you are here today and you have not yet believed in him, don’t just go try to do these things. Confess that you haven’t done these things, receive and rest on him alone for salvation, and he will pour his love into your heart by His Spirit.
And because he has done that in so many of you here today, I have seen this in you all and in our church. I’ve been a benefactor of it, as I know so many of you have as well. Citygroups have been a helpful tool in that for many of us. Keith, Dana, Matt, Kerith, Karen, Mike, Kelly, Lorielle, Miles: I’ve received this kind of love from you all in our Citygroup most recently. Shannon, Phil, Jack, Dave, Jennifer, Vinh, Steph, and many more: I’ve received this kind of love from you and have never been in the same Citygroup as you. As Citygroup sign-ups are now open, if you’re already a member of this church, I’d encourage you all to consider whether signing up for one might help you get started loving your fellow church members genuinely. If you’ve been attending a Citygroup for some time and plan to continue doing so but aren’t yet a member of our church, why not? I get that in some cases the schedule just hasn’t worked out to come to a class, but a Citygroup is no replacement for a church. And if you are new to our church, I would encourage you to sign up for one so you can witness our love for one another as you consider whether to become a Christian and/or join this church. But more importantly, trust in the one whose love is truly genuine, hold fast to him as your supreme good, and love one another genuinely.