Devotional for Elder Retreat: We Must Never Say, 'God Loves You But I Don't Have Too'
Paul begins his first letter to the Corinthians with these words, “Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes. To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.”
In these opening verses we find that Paul is called by God to be an apostle. He was set apart by God to be an authoritative voice concerning the Gospel of Jesus Christ which results in grace and peace. And we see that he is writing those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus in Corinth. He wrote to these Christians are called to be saints along with all those everywhere who call upon the LORD Jesus Christ.
What a privilege it was for Paul to be called an apostle. He said of himself in 1 Corinthians 15:9, “For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” God called this once violent man to be His apostle. Consider what Paul says next. He says, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The man who once persecuted the church and imprisoned Christians now preached grace and peace of God.
Some might say that it is good enough that Paul would be preaching grace and peace the way that he was but this is only part of the story. Paul had the privilege of being a preacher of the gospel but he also was so transformed by the grace and peace of God that he put it on display in practical ways in the churches. That is what I would like to briefly consider here today.
When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth he knew that there was a lot that needed to be addressed. The church was experiencing divisions so he dealt with this issue first. These Christians had picked their favorite ministers and became their disciples and somehow Christ was lost to them. As a result of this Paul says, “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.” (3:1)
In chapter five Paul has to address sexual morality within the church and begins to answer some questions that the church has concerning a great many things. He also address some false teaching that has gained some traction within the church regarding the resurrection. If grace is perfected in weaknesses then the church is a wonderful place to share grace with others and to express it among each other. Paul has displayed this in the way he has begun to deal with this church.
When you come to the end of this letter we see what the grace of God has brought about in the heart of Paul towards this church. We read, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen.” (16:23-24)
Now if we begin to read 2 Corinthians it would seem as though things pick up right where Paul left off. He writes, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1:2) It would be easy to be a preacher of grace and peace if the implications of this preaching only had vertical significance. It would be easy to preach something like, “God loves you but I don’t have too!” Paul preached a gospel of grace and peace that effected our relationship with God and also with the people we live with too.
One thing that we may not see is the drama that has happened between 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians. After Paul wrote his first letter he hears that the church is struggling. He changes his itinerary and he comes to visit the church in person. Apparently the trip does not go well and Paul describes this visit in 2 Corinthians 2 as a ‘painful visit’. Paul left the church in Corinth without having been reconciled and without there having been repentance.
When Paul is in Ephesus he sits down to write the church of Corinth a letter which we do not have today. In this letter Paul calls them to repent and he hopes that they will respond well to the letter even though they did not respond well to him in person. Later he receives word from Titus that they read the letter and that they repented and that reconciliation has begun. What good news!
I mention all of this drama because so often we fail to see that grace, love and peace are possible even in our messy relationships, our complicated circumstances and even though we have sinful inclinations. The grace and peace that Paul spoke of was often tested in his horizontal relationships. His love for others was often tested because of our sinful natures and inclinations. Yet, these things are possible to have even after we have had ‘painful visits’, even after we receive ‘a letter of rebuke’, even after we go through the drama of severed relationships.
The love that Paul has for the Corinthians is no ordinary love. It is not simply a brotherly love. It was not a greedy and self-seeking love. It was not a love that had to be reciprocated in some way to be enjoyed. It was the agape kind of love. It was the love that only believers can enjoy because it comes with the new birth, the new heart and the new life that is given in Christ.
Paul probably had no idea that when he wrote the end of Corinthians that this agape love would be tested so much but it would be. If it were not agape love it would not have endured. If it were not agape love it would not have remained. If it were not agape love it would have died out.
Paul modeled this type of love and we are to model it as well. Paul opened wide his heart to the Corinthians but they had to open wide their hearts to him and reciprocate this love. (2 Corinthians 6:11)
This had been a difficult season for the relationship between Paul and this church. Their love was tested but it survived. Even after the struggle they had to continue to let it grow more and more. And this process would never end for them. They would need to learn to apply the love (agape) the pastor and elders, the person sitting next to them in church, the young believer who asked a lot of questions, the older saint who seems stuck in their ways, and the sinner who had brought ill repute upon the church.
In 2 Corinthians 2 we see another step that the Corinthian church would need to take in forgiving and loving a sinner. It was probably a struggle for them to love this person because Paul has to beg them to receive him back into the fellowship. We read in 2 Corinthians 2:6-8, “For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.”
There are two aspects of love in this passage. The same love that is to be present in church discipline is the same love that is to be extend to the sinner when they repent of their sin. The word that Paul uses here for love is ‘agape’. Agape love makes the decision to love a person. Agape love makes a decision of the will to turn to them in forgiveness and comfort. One of the greatest privileges and responsibilities of a believer is to reaffirm our love (agape love) towards others after some of the most difficult seasons in life.
Some of us are in difficult moments at home, in relationships, at church, etc. We wonder if we can love these people? We wonder if we can love them again after we have been hurt?
Let me express two thoughts. First, notice that in 2 Corinthians 2:6-8 there are two important observations. The punishment and the church discipline is not the removal of love; but it is to be an expression of agape love. Paul does not tell the Corinthians to love him once again; but he tells them to reaffirm their love for him. Paul wasn’t trying to convince them to love him again. No, Paul knew that agape love never fails. He knew that agape love does not keep a record of wrongs. Agape love is patient, kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not arrogant, or rude. It does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Cor. 13:7-8a)
Secondly, notice that Paul tells the church to turn and forgive the man now that he has repented. There is a side of forgiveness that is only extended after one repents and not before. If the sinner refuses to repent then the church does not forgive, restore fellowship and offer comfort. So we may need to discern where our relationships are at and where the boundaries should be. Paul knew when to leave Corinth even though the relationship was not reconciled. Paul knew a letter might work better. Paul had to write and beg the Corinthian believers to restore this man because they had not responded to his repentance yet.
As elders at Community Church it is our privilege to preach grace and peace. And it is our privilege to love the people we serve. This love will be tested but we never have the option of saying, “God loves you but I do not have too.”
How is your love for the body of Christ? Are you relying on your own ability to love or are you learning to rely on the love (agape) of God for others. Are you motivated by this agape love in your interactions with each member? Are you motivated by this love in your counsel? Are you motivated by this love in considering church discipline and in offering forgiveness and comfort? Your love is tested, and the love of this church for us will be tested, but if we are all operating in the agape love of God we will make it through these painful times. It is the love of God that should be our motivation as elders. It is the love of God that empowers us as elders. It is the love of God that sustains us as elders. Anything less will not endure. Anything less will cause us to close our hearts and not widen them to receive others.