Sermon 06-13-2021: “The Love Chapter”

June 15, 2021

Scripture: 1 John 4:7-21

If I asked you, “What is the ‘Love Chapter’ of the Bible?” I know what many of you would say—it’s okay if you don’t even have a guess at all, but I’m referring to those of you who do. Hint: It’s the chapter of scripture that is read at most weddings. And if, like me, you’re a fan of the show The Office, it was even read on prime-time television, unforgettably, in an episode during which Jim and Pam are going through a rough patch in their marriage.

I’m talking about 1 Corinthians 13. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal…” In addition to being God’s holy Word, 1 Corinthians 13 is a masterpiece of ancient literature!

But here’s the thing: I think that today’s scripture—which includes most of 1 John chapter 4—could also rightly lay claim to being the “love chapter.” The Greek word that’s translated as “love,” agape, either as a noun or verb, shows up 27 times in just 14 verses. Look at the first verse of today’s scripture, verse 7: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” And look at the last verse, verse 21: “And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”

And there’s a whole lotta love in between!

But the love chapter of 1 John answers three important questions, and I want to focus on them in this sermon: One: “How do we love?” Two: “How do we do it better?” And three: “What is the result of this love?”

So first, “How do we love?” by which I mean, “How are we able to love in the first place? What makes our love possible?” 

And I want to begin by talking about a pet peeve of mine—a trendy phenomenon that has made the news in recent years. I’m referring to what is often called “paying it forward” at fast-food drive-thrus. Do you know what I’m talking about? This happens when someone in the drive-thru pays for their meal at the window and they say, “I want to also pay for the person behind me.” And that person, who was previously unaware of this act of kindness and generosity, says, “Oh! Then let me pay for the person behind me.” And it creates a chain reaction of drivers in the drive-thru paying not for their own meals, but for the meals of the people behind them.

And there are remarkable stories of drive-thrus who’ve had unbroken chains of dozens or even hundreds of people “paying it forward,” paying for the driver behind them, and this unbroken chain lasts for hours, or maybe days!

One Starbucks drive-thru in Connecticut set a record for having 1,468 customers “paying it forward” over Christmas in 20131. Chick-fil-A’s website boasts that “paying it forward” happens every day at their drive-thrus 2.

And some of you are like, “Brent, you are so grumpy about this! What on earth could you possibly have against that?”

And my answer is, “Nothing, in principle”—and if you want to pay for my meal, I will gladly let you. 

It’s just that, in practice, I don’t see much difference between “paying something forward” and “paying something back.” If it becomes an expectation that I will pay for a stranger’s meal behind me in the drive-thru, then suddenly I’m no longer receiving a gift; I’m repaying a debt. And that is no longer an act of love and generosity and kindness. And yes, that makes me grumpy. It makes me not want to do it.

When I pay my cell phone bill, after all, AT&T doesn’t receive any love from me; I’m merely paying for services rendered.

My point in sharing this is because of something that John says in verse 11. Let’s look at that: “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” 

And the troubling word is ought. Is John telling us that we’re supposed to love as a means of “paying it forward”? 

Is he saying something like this: 

Consider what Jesus did for you in taking away your sins and suffering and dying on the cross. That is an unbelievable act of love on his part. He has given you this amazing free gift! Now you ought to do your very best to love others in return… You ought to try really hard, you ought to summon all your strength, you ought to summon all of your willpower… in order to copy Jesus, to imitate Jesus, to love others like Jesus. You ought to! It’s the least you can do—especially considering this gift that Jesus has given to you.

That’s one interpretation of the word “ought.” But is that what John means in verse 11, when he uses the word?

No! Because John hasn’t forgotten what he just wrote in verse 7: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.”

Let’s focus on those words, “born of God.” What does it mean to be born of God?

As most of you know by now, I was adopted. I first met my biological mother, Linda, twelve years ago. But I have never met my biological father. I don’t know his name; I don’t know anything about him, except birth records indicate he was tall, 6’3”… and Linda, my birth mother, is 5’10”, so I don’t know why I’m not taller! 

But it’s okay that I haven’t met my birth father because I had a dad—my adoptive father, Alton White. I was surprised to learn—just two years ago, shortly before coming here, to Toccoa—that Dad was born nearby… in Lavonia! I assumed he was born in Fair Play, South Carolina, where he grew up, but he was born in Lavonia. Not that Fair Play is very far from here, either, but you know what I mean…

But here’s the thing: It’s very possible that Dad still has some relatives living in and around Lavonia… But I wouldn’t know them if I met them. See, my dad’s father, Dewey, died in a farming accident in 1939, during the Great Depression, and when that happened—for whatever reason—that side of Dad’s family disowned or disinherited Dad’s mother, Julia. So Dad, his five brothers and sisters, and his mom went to live with his mother’s family. The only other “Whites” in the family that I know are children and grandchildren of Dad’s brothers and sisters.

I am surprised at myself for how little interest I have in researching my family tree and finding out whether or not I have any cousins living around here. Why am I not more curious?

And all I can figure is, it’s because I’m not related to these people—wherever they are. I have little connection to them. I have nothing in common with them.

By contrast, I now have three natural born children. My first child, Elisa, was born 21 years ago, long before I met Linda, my birth mother. A psychologist friend pointed out something one time that blew me away. He said, “So when you met your daughter, when she was born, that was the first time you met a blood relative.” And I’m like, “Oh, that’s really cool!” I hadn’t thought of it that way!

And if you saw baby pictures of both Elisa and Ian, my third child, they look almost indistinguishable from baby pictures of me. Townshend looks more like Lisa, but when he was a little kid, someone pointed out that he walked just like me, that he carried himself like me—and I know for sure he gesticulates just like me—talks with his hands like me. Both Townshend and Ian’s voice sound a little like mine. And of course all three have plenty of other things in common with me—and of course with Lisa too—both physical features and mannerisms. 

I mostly did not teach them how to be like me, or act like me, or look like me. It mostly just sort of happened… by virtue of being my child, by virtue of being born into my family, by virtue of being born of me… Of course my kids also learned plenty of things from me! But so much of who they are, they received from me at conception; they inherited; they got from their genes. It is part of their nature… They are truly “chips off the old block.”

And John is saying something similar about us… about how it is that we Christians love the way God loves. It’s because we are born of God, he says. Therefore, just as children inherit so much of their parents’ nature when they’re born—so we inherit our heavenly Father’s nature when we are born of God through faith in Christ. 

And what is our heavenly Father’s nature? John tells us in verse 16: “God is love.” Love is at the very heart of who God is. Love defines God’s character and actions. Everything God does is loving. Everything God does serves the interest of love. Nothing God does will contradict love.

God’s nature is love. Therefore, when John says, in verse 11, “we ought to love one another,” he’s using the word “ought” in the following way: “A bird ought to fly, because it received its bird-like nature when it was born of a bird.” “A fish ought to swim, because it received its fish-like nature when it was born of a fish.” “A cat ought to purr, or hunt squirrels and chipmunks, or sleep 20 hours a day because it received its cat-like nature when it was born of a cat.”3

Therefore we ought to love because we received God’s loving nature when we were born of God! And how did we receive this nature? John tells us throughout today’s scripture when he speaks of God’s abiding in us. God abides in us—he dwells in us—through the Holy Spirit.

But even though it is now in our nature to love in a new way, John has also told us in several places in this letter that we are not going to love perfectly. We still sin; and sin often impedes our ability to love as fully we should.

So what can we do to enable us love better?

To answer that, I want to talk about the pop star and celebrity Justin Bieber4. That’s right… Justin Bieber! There was an article about Bieber in last month’s GQ magazine—because you can tell from my fashion sense I read GQ! But in this interview, Bieber talks candidly about his past—about the callous way he used and mistreated people on his way to the top of the entertainment industry; he talks about past drug abuse; he talks about terrible personal failures… indeed, he talks about his sins. Because… more than anything else… what Justin Bieber talks about in this interview… is Jesus… Jesus’ love… his forgiveness… and his grace.

“He is grace,” [Bieber] says [referring to Jesus]. “Every time we mess up, He’s picking us back up every single time. That’s how I view it. And so it’s like, “I made a mistake. I won’t dwell on it. I don’t sit in shame. But it actually makes me want to do better.”

This GQ writer says that unlike Bieber, he is not a Christian. And this writer implies that he has a hard time figuring out what to make of Bieber’s Christian faith. On the one hand, he writes, “It is beautiful to hear Justin Bieber talk about God.” On the other hand, he worries that Bieber’s understanding of God’s grace—that we are totally accepted by God because of what Jesus did for us through his atoning death on the cross—leads to a belief in what the writer calls “total impunity” for our misdeeds—“no matter how bad or dark or selfish they are.”5

I have a couple of thoughts… First, Bieber’s view of God’s grace is the biblical view of grace. We are totally accepted by God because of what Christ did for us on the cross. No matter what we’ve done! All of our sins—as the writer says, “no matter how bad or dark or selfish they are”—all of our sins are forgiven. The writer isn’t wrong about that! And he also isn’t wrong when he suggests that Justin Bieber is going to escape from his sins with “total impunity”—all because he believes in Jesus.

To this I say “Amen” and “Hallelujah!” If there’s hope for a sinner like Justin Bieber, that means there’s hope for a sinner like me—and you!

In fact, listen to the apostle John again, this time in verse 10. He writes, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” 

In this is love… In other words, John says, this is the very heart of what true love looks like… this is how true love manifests itself… this is how it lives itself out… Are you ready? “God sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

“Propitiation” isn’t a word that we use much. But John uses it here and earlier in chapter 2, so it’s important that we know what it means. It’s a theological word that points back to the Old Testament, when the high priest, on the Day of Atonement, would enter the Holy of Holies inside the temple and sprinkle the blood of a bull and a goat on the Mercy Seat—or lid—of the Ark of the Covenant, and thereby turn away God’s wrath from his people’s sins, and bring forgiveness and reconciliation. 

Propitiation is literally the turning away of God’s wrath—that is, God’s justifiable anger toward our sin. And of course what the high priest did back in the Old Testament symbolizes what Christ accomplished in the New. That’s what God himself did, through Jesus Christ, on the cross. God turns away God’s wrath.

And here’s the thing: the apostle John says in verse 10 that propitiation is at the heart of what it means to love—it is love’s fullest expression in this world!

Now, in our modern world, God’s wrath is not a popular topic, to say the least… even among Christians. In part because we have a hard time reconciling God’s love with the idea that God has wrath or justifiable anger toward sin. And here I’m going to call upon pastor Tim Keller, who puts it like this:

When you see people who are harmed or abused, you get mad. If you see people abusing themselves, you get mad at them out of love. Your senses of love and justice are activated together, not in opposition to each other. If you see people destroying themselves or destroying other people and you don’t get mad, it’s because you don’t care. You’re too absorbed in yourself, too cynical, too hard. The more loving you are, the more ferociously angry you will be at whatever harms your beloved. And the greater the harm, the more resolute your opposition will be.6

Keller’s point—which summarizes the Bible’s view—is that wrath is a necessary part of God’s commitment to justice, which flows out of God’s love. In the early days of Methodism, John Wesley required Methodists in good standing to answer this question affirmatively: “Do you desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from your sins?”7

Methodists used to be far more comfortable talking about God’s wrath than we are today. We talk a lot about love, but according to the apostle John, we can’t talk about love without talking about wrath!

Because of what Jesus did on the cross—enduring the wrath that we would otherwise have to endure—we are saved from wrath. And that is love, John says. Amen?

So getting back to the Justin Bieber article, when the writer worries that Bieber’s view of grace means “total impunity” for a sinner like Bieber—because the writer wants him to pay for his sins—he’s right except… it’s total impunity for Bieber, but not for God. Because God the Son, in Jesus Christ, willingly and out of love chose to suffer the punishment that Bieber and the rest of sinners would otherwise have to suffer.

That’s what love looks like, according to God and his Word! I think that is good news. And notice what Bieber says about this love and grace: “[I]t actually makes me want to do better.”

He’s exactly right, and the apostle John agrees with him: Understanding God’s grace, which means understanding what God the Son did for us on the cross, “makes us want to do better”… makes us want to love better… to love more authentically, from the heart… and to love more like Jesus!

A fellow United Methodist pastor, who had listened to a few of my sermons, was provoked to anger. She said—and I quote—“All you ever talk about is sin, sin, sin!” 

And to her credit, she wasn’t entirely wrong. I do talk a lot about sin! Why? Because nothing melts my heart more than reminding myself what God did for me and for you in sending his Son Jesus to die for my sins on the cross! It at least thawed the heart of Justin Bieber’s interviewer, so much so that he said, “It is beautiful to hear Justin Bieber talk about God.” That’s the gospel… and only the gospel will help us to love one another the way John describes in today’s scripture!

C.S. Lewis makes this point nicely in his book The Screwtape Letters. The book is a fictionalized “correspondence” between demons—a senior demon, “Uncle Screwtape,” writes a series of letters to his nephew, Wormwood. Each demon is assigned a human “patient,” and the demon’s task is to lead that person away from Christian faith and salvation, and toward hell. So Screwtape is acting as a mentor to Wormwood, offering him advice about how to do it. The problem is, Wormwood’s patient has recently become a Christian. But from Screwtape’s point of view, this doesn’t pose an insurmountable challenge.

In one letter, Screwtape says that one of the best reasons that this new Christian has for abandoning his newfound faith is… well…  fellow Christians. Because his fellow Christians will inevitably disappoint him, and act unlovingly, and act hypocritically, and hurt his feelings, and let him down. So he tells Wormwood to direct his patient’s attention to the character flaws and sins of his fellow Christians when he’s sitting in his pew at church. He writes:

[I]f the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge-player or the man with the squeaky boots a miser and an extortioner—then your task is so much the easier. All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?’ You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is!8

Lewis’s point is, we Christians can be so easily put off or angered or bothered or disappointed by the behavior of our fellow Christians that we forget who we are… we forget that we are sinners saved by God’s grace alone. We forget what God did to save us

Remembering John’s definition of love in verse 10 will enable us to love our brothers and sisters in Christ better: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

So, I’ve answered the first two questions: How do we love? And How do we love better? Now for the third question: What is the end result of love?

Let’s notice this about John’s definition of love: It is directed ultimately toward one goal: rescuing sinners from God’s judgment and God’s wrath so that they may have eternal life. That was the goal of Jesus’ love, and so it should be our church’s goal, too. If we’re going to love the way John says we should, then the end result is that we will fulfill the Great Commission.

What are you doing right now, in your life, to help bring others into a saving relationship with God through Christ? Do you love people enough to do so?

Did you know that starting today at 5:30, you have an opportunity to fulfill the Great Commission… to help introduce children, and perhaps even their families, to Jesus, to teach them about Jesus, to demonstrate the love of Jesus. And even if you’re not participating directly in VBS, you can still participate… through prayer.

[Invite to pray for these volunteers from our church. Invite others to commit to pray. Pray.]

  1. Khushbu Shaw, “Over 700 People Paid-it-Forward at a Starbucks This Week,” 22 August 2014, Accessed 10 September 2020.
  2. Katie Joyner, “Chick-fil-A guests are inspiring strangers by picking up the tab,” 20 July 2017, Accessed 10 September 2020.
  3.  This illustration, along with the concern about the moralistic overtones of the word “ought,” comes from John Piper’s sermon on this text, “The New Birth Produces Love,”, 16 March 2008. Accessed 10 June 2021.
  4. Zach Baron, “The Redemption of Justin Bieber,”, 13 April 2021. Accessed 9 June 2021.
  5. Zach Baron, “The Redemption of Justin Bieber,”, 13 April 2021. Accessed 10 June 2021.
  6. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008), 71.
  7. Paul Lawler, “Wesley, Wrath, & the Revival that Changed a Nation,”, 16 June 2014. Accessed 11 June 2021.
  8.  C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 189-90.

One Response to “Sermon 06-13-2021: “The Love Chapter””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I think if is a good question whether we can “sin with impunity” as a result of Christ’s death. Certainly it is true that we “pass from death unto life” as a result of Christ’s sacrifice. Our “eternal destination” is changed. However, where we end up in our eternal destination is still affected by whether we sin or not, as I see it. Recognizing various verses such as “as far as the east is from the west” and “will remember them no more,” there are also verses such as that “we will all stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ to receive for what we have done in the body, WHETHER GOOD OR BAD.” And, “Man shall give an account for every idle word.” And, “Be not deceived, God is not mocked, for whatsoever a man sows, that shell he also reap.” And we can build with gold, silver, precious stones, or on the other hand, wood, hay, or stubble, and our works will be tried by fire, and they may be burned up,and we will SUFFER LOSS, but we will still be saved, yet so as one escaping through the flames. Etc From which I conclude that there must be two ways that God looks at us and what we do–one, whether he will let us live with him forever in heaven or not, which turns on our acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice and our repentance in response; and second, what we DO, which will determine our rewards (or the lack or lessening of them). That’s the only way I can reconcile all these passages. So, impunity for one purpose, but not for all purposes.

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