Love Is the Name of the Game (RJS)

Love Is the Name of the Game (RJS) October 16, 2012

As I was preparing last week’s post A Conversation About Genesis, I came across the YouTube video of this extended reflection by Tom Wright put out by World Vision as part of a Faith Effect campaign in Australia. This is an excellent clip – well worth the 11 to 12 minutes or so it takes to watch it. In fact, it is well worth the 20 to 30 it takes to listen more than once and mull over some of the ideas.

The reflections here draw on the ideas in Wright’s book How God Became King as well of many of his earlier books. (I’d say his latest book, but it is already seven months old – so I am sure there are several since.)

A few quotes to whet the appetite:

The vision which we find coming into full focus through Jesus actually goes right back to the beginning. It’s there in Genesis. When Jesus talks about what God is doing right now he is constantly invoking the sense of the ancient human vocation. God calls human beings to be his image bearers. (1:40-1:58)

This is how the Kingdom of God comes to earth. Wright goes on to reflect on the way Jesus approached the world and the people around him. The way of Jesus was …

…showing that God is running the world by healing, by bringing hope, by transforming, by bringing justice, by challenging the people who were doing the oppression and the wickedness and then by his own death taking the problems and the pains of all that into himself so that then these people who follow him can be the world transformers. (3:58-4:14)

The spread of Christianity …

The way Christianity spread over the first three centuries when the Romans were doing their best to stamp it out, was not simply by people going into the market place and saying Jesus is Lord you must believe in him, they did that too, but by people seeing that here was a community of people who lived in a totally different way. The Christians were known for going and helping people who were not their kith and kin, who were not part of their ethnic group or part of their business interests. If somebody was sick, if somebody was poor, the Christians would go and look after them. They’d say “why do you do that you’ve got nothing to gain by it” and they’d say “well, its because we follow Jesus and this is the way that Jesus does stuff”. So that it is what you do that generates the question to which the answer is Jesus is becoming king through his death and resurrection etcetra. (5:40-6:32)

As we are living as Christians we need to remake our categories and realize that heaven and earth really did come together in the incarnation, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We are not pinning our flag on God’s map – God did it. Grace transforms us so that we can be transformers. Wright uses this to go on and suggest that we should all be thinking about what God is calling us to do in the whole body of Christ.

But it all comes down to Love.

One day, in God’s new heaven and earth reality, Love is the language that we’ll be speaking, and we get to learn it and practice it in advance. It is like learning the songs that they will sing in God’s new world. We learn them and sing them here because we are supposed to people through whom a taste of the new world comes into the present. And again, if you think that that is just private and not something that goes out into the wider world you’ve missed the whole point. The whole point of love is that it is generous and outgoing. And so for Paul and for the other early Christian writers love is not just as it were  one virtue among others. Love is almost the name of what it means to be a Christian. (11:24-11:36)

I don’t think Wright goes far enough in that last statement. He leaves some “wiggle-room.” But love is the name of what it means to be a Christian. No qualifier, no almost. Wright doesn’t use this example – but I will: Living as though God is king means living in and reflecting out love. Love is the name of the game. Love God, love others. This theme runs through the gospels, it runs through Paul and the other New Testament writers. This theme gives a whole new perspective on the entire Old Testament. This isn’t the soft and wimpy approach, diminishing the gospel, it is the whole game. As God loves us so are we to love others.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45)

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

And on, and on, and on (see something of a compilation in this post).

Wright’s reflection on the spread of Christianity is particularly important here. Scot put up a graphic on Saturday afternoon that illustrated a Decline in Religion. Some may doubt the reality of this trend – but it is self-evident in my world. Religious faith is viewed by most as unnecessary at best, irrational and dangerous at worst.  We will not make a difference by having a better Sunday morning service, by serving better coffee, by having a more extroverted and energetic staff, by avoiding the hard questions, by keeping things shallow and palatable. Nor will we make a difference by focusing on precision in theological expression or the glory and sovereignty of God. We will make a difference by being the people of God such that his love is evident in us and through us. We must first care for the family of the people of God in our local church (why would any one join a family that rejects or marginalizes its own?) and we must also care for others locally and globally, not as an evangelistic gimmick to reel people in and keep churches stocked, but out of genuine love as a reflection of the very love of God. It is what we do and how we reflect God’s love in the world that will generate the questions to which the answer is Jesus is Lord.  I am not a pessimist, I think that the Church will thrive through the power of the Spirit, but Christendom is behind us, and if it forces us to focus on the essence of being the people of God, that may be a good thing.

Is Love the name of the game?

If not, why not? Is the “almost” a justified qualifier?

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  • Genesis is an amazing text. I recommend everyone to read that book with the original hebrew text with both a transliteration as well as a general translation. That way you can get a great feel for what the text actually means.

  • CGC

    Hi RJS,
    Great post . . . I do wonder what Wright meant by the qualifier? If love is not the name of what it means to be a Christian, then what is? What does Wright have in mind? Anybody know Wright to ask him?

    In giving Wright the benefit of the doubt, he may of said “almost” more as a rhetorical remark like “Love is almost a synonym for Christian.” If he meant it something like this, is he really wrong then or trying to open a door for Christians to have wiggle room or compromise on the love issue? He probably meant nothing by the remark although in essence, I agree with RJS that love is synonymous for Christian.

  • Mark

    See Richard Hays chapter on why love is not the the central warrant of Christian faith, especially in many important texts such as Mark, Hebrews, Revelation, etc. The ‘focal images’ he uses are Community, Cross, and New Creation. I would venture to guess that this (for good reason) is why Wright puts the qualifier in there.

  • Mark

    I think the first reviewer on Amazon captures what Hays is saying about love very well. . .

    “Love is itself not as much an image as it is the “interpretation of an image.” “Love,” in other words, is embodied concretely in the NT by the cross. Apart from the specific narrative context of the cross, “Love” loses any meaning. Thus, love in the NT is itself subsumed under the image of cross.”

    “Love” in contemporary ethics has become a fluid, debased concept that covers “all manners of vapid self-indulgence.” From the perspective of contemporary culture, elevating love as a functional metaphor may do as much harm as it does good.”

  • RJS


    I do give Wright the benefit of the doubt and I think you are probably right, it was a rhetorical connector. But it also provided a handle to make the point I wanted to make here.

  • RJS


    But neither I nor Wright are talking here about fluid self indulgence – rather about the love embodied in the cross, and the love we are called to because of God’s love. The scriptural quotes should make that clear. Far from self-indulgent it is self-sacrificing and other-centered. All words lose meaning without context.

  • @RJS Super post. Loving others trumps religious ideology and identity. I don’t live up to that statement, but I aspire to.

    @4Mark I’ve not read Hays, but to say that love takes a back seat to community seems backwards. Any NT faith community exists because of the love it first received, and continues to receive. I’m convinced that love is the “central warrant” of Jesus. Love caused the cross, not visa versa. Love precipitates new creation, not visa versa.

    Amazon reviewer says, “Apart from the specific narrative context of the cross, ‘Love’ loses any meaning.”

    From a universal perspective, I agree, recognizing that such love is not limited to a temporal event or tribal story.

  • Mark

    I’m not trying to argue either way but I do think its important to bring Hays’ work into the conversation. Love must be contextualized and defined and it seems that Hays is saying that he thinks his ‘focal images’ do just that.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Great post RJS, and thanks for the reference to the video.

    Love is the centre of our faith. The word ‘love’ has been terribly misused and confused. Christians should be at the forefront in living what real love is like. We should also be trying to better explain what love (God’s way of it) is. Calling it too fuzzy a concept is just a cop out. There are many compromised words that are important to our faith, and this is one we cannot allow to be be buried or twisted by misuse. Discussions like this are essential in the ongoing rehabilitation of the biblical concept of love. This process is likely unending because confusion over what real love is is exactly what the enemy wants. He couldn’t have chaos because God said “Let there be light.” He couldn’t have control because Jesus said “Get thee behind me Satan”. He will have confusion if the Church fails to live and explain love.

  • Bev Mitchell

    On a related note,

    In an article back in the summer, I tried to contrast power and love. The title of the article caused a kind of self-hijacking of the discussion, but the main point is pertinent to today’s post. We know God is all powerful, we know he is love – it’s our views of the relationship between the two that tends to send us off in different directions. The following questions from the previous post come from thinking about this problem.

    “What was God doing when he said “Let there be light”? Was he exercising unfathomable power or unfathomable love? Is power even the opposite of love? If it is, how does that change our thinking about God, his attributes, his sovereignty? Does God’s love derive from his power, or does his power derive from his love?”

    Reference to previous article.

  • RJS

    Thanks Mark,

    I don’t want to comment on Hays’ point without reading his chapter.

  • Mark

    O.K. . .will look forward to hearing what you think if you read it. Very good book.


  • Phil Miller

    I’m actually about 2/3 of the way through Richard Hay’s book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, which was mentioned above. I think Hay’s point about love not being the overriding theme has to do with the fact that it’s not necessarily the thing in the NT texts that is driving the narrative flow. Certainly it’s there in one way or another, but, in the Gospel of John, for instance, there’s little, if any, emphasis put of the followers of Jesus loving those who aren’t followers of Jesus. The emphasis is on loving each other and being unified in faith.

  • Love, power, and kingdom are all keys words in the Gospels. Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom announces the beginning of a new kingdom: as the powerful new king, Jesus commands love, and John the Baptist says in the future this one, who is stronger than he is, will baptize with the Spirit. The empowering Spirit will enable disciples to speak the truth and to love their neighbor; that truth will include the true meaning of this love.

    Jesus defines love of neighbor differently than before; the “biblical” view of love (starting with the O.T.) is being revised by this new king. Jesus’ summary of “love your neighbor” can be found in Lev. 19:18, but there the neighbor is “the sons of your own people.” As for other peoples like the Canaanites, they are enemies to be destroyed (as in Lev. 26:7). In contrast, Jesus tells his disciples they have heard (in the synagogues) that it was said (by Moses), You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy; but I say to you, love your enemies. This new kind of love will lead to an international kingdom of disciples–who love and serve even those in ethnic groups or nations their own culture considers enemies. Such love is the fruit of God’s power–the Spirit–given by the king to his disciples.

  • John L

    @13Phil “there’s little, if any, emphasis put of the followers of Jesus loving those who aren’t followers of Jesus.”

    Phil, love limited to one’s tribe – isn’t love. It’s almost the opposite of NT love.

    Granted, many ideas and emphases drive NT narrative flow, depending on where one is reading. But if we had to pick one overarching NT meta-narrative, it is clearly: love God, love others, embrace the unconditional love of the cross. Does Hay argue otherwise?

  • Phil Miller

    Hays doesn’t argue that the New Testament doesn’t teach the importance or even primacy of loving God or loving others. He says, though, that the concept of love itself isn’t specific enough when trying to come with an interpretive framework through which the NT can be read. It may be an underlying theme but it’s not specific enough to provide hermeneutic clarity.

  • Well, count me among those that doubt the explanation by the Pew Report for the decline in religion.

    And, count me in among those that agree w/ Wright and Scot; that one section captures a great deal of what God wants for us have as a sense of mission:

    If somebody was sick, if somebody was poor, the Christians would go and look after them. They’d say “why do you do that you’ve got nothing to gain by it” and they’d say “well, its because we follow Jesus and this is the way that Jesus does stuff”.

  • David Dollins

    Great post today! It reminded me to think about how I’m going about things.

  • John C. Gardner

    Hyper American individualism tends to focus on me and Jesus. Traditional Wesleyan Arminianism(starting with John Wesley, Fletcher, etc) believed(and practiced) social holiness which Wesley saw as a means of grace. We all need to remember that God is love and that we need to practice love for others even our enemies. Thank you RJS(whoever you are) for writing this fantastic post.

  • ruben

    THanks for the post, it is very true and much needed today. The early Christians were so attractive to outsiders precisely because they loved each other and this is the only thing that will bring “relevance” to our faith nowadays. We are so stuck in trends and theological wars, faith is very simple – we should love God and our neighbors, follow Jesus, be like little children as he commanded.

  • CGC

    HI Everyone,
    Love may not be’s Hay’s interpretative hermeneutic but it sure was Augustine’s!

  • John L

    @16Phil “the concept of love itself isn’t specific enough when trying to come with an interpretive framework through which the NT can be read.”

    The way I read the NT, it is nothing but a divine love story, supported by fantastical plot twists, universal aphorisms, supernatural surprises, raw emotion, repentance, reconciliation, life, death, faith, hope, promise, and enchantment.

  • Phil Miller

    John L,
    That’s fine as far as it goes. Also, please understand I’m simply trying to explain the point Hays makes in the book, not necessarily give my own opinion (although, I should say Hays is pretty convincing).

    I think Hays’ point is that is to say that underlying framework for a NT ethic is love is a bit of an abstraction. How do we consistently define love? For example, there are messages within the NT that are in conflict with each to agree. Jesus says that his disciples need to be willing to “hate” their family to follow him (hate of course being a form of hyperbolic speech, but nonetheless, it still certainly isn’t a “family-friendly” message). Paul emphasize family stability.

    I believe Hays’ point is that what love looks like in these various cultural contexts can be best described when the text is read in light of the context of Community, Cross, and New Creation. I don’t think he would disagree with anything that Wright is saying in this video nor with anything RJS wrote, per se.

  • John L

    @Phil “How do we consistently define love?”

    I don’t know. That’s the thing about love. The moment you think you’ve “defined” it, it reveals another facet of itself more profound than we had ever imagined.

    “I believe Hays’ point is that what love looks like in these various cultural contexts can be best described when the text is read in light of the context of Community, Cross, and New Creation.”

    But this bothers me. Community does not define love. Love defines community. Love is never bound by context. Love is the meta-context by which all creation lives, moves, and has its being.

    As for the difficult passages (Jesus whipping people, separating the sheep and goats, dividing families, nasty name calling, sword not peace, wiping the dirt, etc..), I’ve often seen these used like religious weapons – to divide and bully rather than gather and nurture – to instill fear rather than peace and goodwill – to win debates rather than encourage dialogue – to justify endless denominational divisions rather than sustainable, generative unity. Frankly, I question anyone using such difficult passages to promote some flavor of “hermeneutic clarity.”

  • NateW

    “Christian theology must be theology of the cross, if it is to be identified as Christian theology through Christ. But the theology of the cross is a critical and liberating theory of God and man. Christian life is a form of practice which consists in following the crucified Christ, and it changes both man himself and the circumstances in which he lives. To this extent, a theology of the cross is a practical theory.”
    Jurgen Moltmann “The Crucified God”

    I think Moltmann is radically correct in saying that the cross is the defining center of christian faith and practice. It is in participating which Christ in his crucifixion that love is defined. This is also where community is defined.

    The love that Christ calls us to is not vague or wishy-washy. As RJS said, it is defined clearly by the Christ and his way to the cross. Yes, it takes different practical forms in different situations, but it is always a matter of “Self-Emptying in encounter with what is alien, unknown, and different…” (again, Moltmann, Crucified God). Love is an embrace of those who are “other”, who are different than “us”. The surprising thing is that crucifixion comes not from the “other” who we love, but from the “us” that feels threatened by our solidarity with “them”. This is the sense in which Christ says that we must hate our families. Family is the core of “us” in which our identity is formed. To be in solidarity with the other is to forsake one’s identity as a member of your own tribe/family. As others have said, it seems like “Christendom” is our “us” and the next step in advancing the kingdom is to radically step outside our walls to love those of other (or no) faiths. This step will undoubtedly lead to the crucifixion of many saints by their own church families. (See Rob Belll, Brian MacLaren, et al).

    I can only pray that I will have the faith to give up my identity as “Christian” when Christ calls me to do so.

    For more on this definitely check out The Crucified God (yes, its from the 70s, but i just discovered it!) and Brian MacLaren’s new book. Both are prophetic must reads that are changing my life.

  • NateW

    Edit: “To be in solidarity with the other is TO OPEN ONE’S SELF UP TO BEING FORSAKEN BY “US”.”

    It is possible to love the other without forsaking our identity if our identity is located in our crucifixion with Christ, and not as a member of our Christian “family” or “tribe”.