How can Christians love sincerely, without sentimentalism? Such love, Scripture tells us, starts with an acknowledgement of the truth of our own nature. Preaching from Paul’s challenge to “let love be genuine,” Alistair Begg shows us how the grace that saves also shapes and empowers relationships within the body of Christ. If our good standing is the result of God’s amazing grace, that same grace will help us to love lavishly and live rightly with one another.
I invite you to turn with me to Romans chapter 12, where we’ll read from verse 9. Romans 12:9:
“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”
Thanks be to God for his Word.
A brief prayer:
And now, Father, we pray, with our Bibles open, that the Spirit of God will help us to pay attention, to listen, to actually hear, to get it, to believe, to obey, and look away from ourselves to you. Where else could we go? “You have the words of eternal life.” In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Well, as we’ve seen, the twelfth chapter of Romans begins with the word “therefore.” I point that out to you this morning so that we do not fall foul of misunderstanding and misapplying the series of directives which we’re now about to consider. The “therefore” of Romans 12 is akin to the “therefore” of Romans 8, which is similar to the “therefore” of Romans 5. It’s a reminder that, as Paul writes this great letter, all of his arguments are based on his fundamental premise. And I want to take a moment this morning to make sure that we’re clear concerning the premise on which this whole story, this exhortation, is provided, particularly here in Romans 12:9 and following. If we fail in this regard, it is very, very possible for us not only to misunderstand what is being written but also—and perhaps even more severely—to misapply what is being written.
It’s not difficult to realize that what I just read between verse 9 and verse 13, in its sort of punchy, direct nature, may very easily be turned by a misguided or untaught teacher into a series of moralistic exhortations to be attempted by everyone and anyone—in other words, a nice list of some good ideas of how a person might pull up their socks and seek to really be a far better customer than they’ve been in the previous seven days. And I don’t doubt that some of us have even tried some of those sermons, and we may even made attempts at trying to respond to such a sermon, but I want you to know that that is to go immediately wrong.
So I invite you to turn to the first page of Romans—that’s chapter 1—and I’m going to give you a whistle-stop tour to try and get back to Romans 12:9 before the evening service. I say “to try” because I had read all the way to the end of the chapter in the first service and had great plans about how far we were going to go, only to run foul of my own expectations.
First of all, the book of Romans is a book about good news . It’s important we understand that. It is the gospel that Paul is proclaiming—a gospel of which he says, in 1:16, he is not ashamed. “I’m not ashamed,” he says, “of this gospel.” And he tells us why: because “it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” Notice how important all of that terminology is. “I’m not ashamed of the good news because it is the dynamite of God”; it is the power by which God, if you like, blasts his way into the lives of those who are running from him, who are disinterested in him, who are far from him. “It’s the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” And that believing aspect is something which he’s going to work out as he continues. This is not some nationalistic thing. It is not localized and limited. It is for the Jew, for the Gentile; and it is by this means of the good news that God has made known how a man or a woman may be put in a right standing with him. That’s where he begins. “I’m going to tell you,” he says, “all about good news.”
He then identifies the necessity of the good news by reminding his readers of the bad news—verse 18 and following: God’s wrath has been “revealed from heaven.” Why would God be revealing his wrath from heaven? Well, he tells us: because of “godlessness and wickedness” on the part of “men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” Now, that verb is an important verb. They “suppress the truth.” What Paul says—indeed, what the Bible teaches—is this: that as men and women, we are made in the image of God. And by nature—and you can read this when you follow up, on your own—and by nature we know that we are dependent upon God for the truth. Made in the image of God and dependent upon on God for the truth. Despite that, we suppress the truth, and we then go about reinterpreting the universe in a way that suggests that it begins and ends with us.
So, instead of acknowledging, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” we suppress the truth of God as Creator. Instead of acknowledging that this same God who created the universe sustains it by his providence, we suppress the truth of God’s providence, and we replace it with the notions of chance and chaos in a world that knows not where it goes or what it does. And when Paul follows that through, he shows that the difficulty in it lies in the fact that, as men and women, we are now incapable of rectifying the situation. We’ve got ourselves into a dreadful mess from which we cannot extricate ourselves. And he writes concerning the whole idea that we would try and climb, as it were, a ladder of our good deeds and best ideas up to acceptance with God, and he says, “Whether you endeavor to do this from the basis of a Gentile or from a Jew who has been orthodox, you will find that the rungs in the ladder will snap under your feet, and it will be impossible for you—it is impossible for you—to be put in a right relationship with God as a result of these endeavors.” That, of course, is pretty bad news. We are unfit for God’s presence, and we are unable to clean ourselves up enough to enter his presence. But of course, he started with the good news. He says, “I’m going to tell you the gospel. And the gospel conveys the predicament in which we find ourselves and the solution which God provides .”
Now, it is important for us to recognize, then—and we can go to chapter 3, for example, in verse 21—that God has done for us what we are unable to do for ourselves. You will notice, incidentally, that there are no loopholes in this. Verse 19. Somebody says, “Well, I’m sure this applies to everyone except me.” No, verse 19: “Every mouth [will] be silenced.” “Every mouth [will] be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.” “Every mouth” and “the whole world.” No exceptions. He comes to this again in verse 23, doesn’t he? “For all have sinned and fall[en] short of the glory of God.” Not everyone has sinned to the same extent, not everyone has sinned in the same way, not everyone is vicious and all of those things, but the reality of our sinful predicament before God is a shared predicament . The extent of it, in terms of its working out, may vary from person to person, but we are in the exact same position with the most heinous of people, because it is this which separates us from God.
“Well,” you say, “well, that’s good news, isn’t it? I’m glad that that has been pointed out. God made us for himself. We turned our back on him, but apparently, he’s done something for us. Good. Thanks for letting me know. I’ll try and remember that as I’m going through my days.” Well, no, if it was simply a matter of making that known, then the knowledge of it would bring about a transformation, wouldn’t it? And yet some of you have had this made known to you by your mums and dads for a long time. Some of you have been coming here with a spouse for years at Parkside Church, and you’re about as good on this subject as anybody I know. You’re able to articulate these things with great clarity. But you are the epitome of what Calvin says. What does Calvin say? All that Christ has done for us is of no value to us so long as we remain outside of Christ. All that God has done for us is of no value to us so long as we remain outside of Christ.
You see, a man or a woman only gets this when the Holy Spirit brings them to repentance and faith. That’s why Jesus, when he speaks to the religious man Nicodemus, refers to it as a new birth. How much control did you have over your physical birth? Did you request it? Did you order the day and the time? No, you had nothing at all to do with it, did you? And how much control do you have over your spiritual birth? The same amount! No, you see, a man or a woman gets this when the eyes of their understanding are opened to see it in a way that is not simply by observation but is actually by transformation.
And this is true at whatever end of the intellectual or apparently moral scale we may find ourselves. Some of us are horribly good and totally obnoxious. Some of us are horribly bad and thoroughly likeable. Some of us are really smart, and some of us are pretty dim. And it is the gospel which equalizes, because we are equally in need of the transforming power of Jesus.
This struck me twice this week in two different ways. First, when I met one of our ex–bright boys from here. We have many bright boys and bright girls at Parkside. This particular bright boy is a professor at Harvard. He’s a pediatric neurosurgeon. And my wife and I just happened to bump into he and his wife, almost inadvertently. And in the course of conversation, we were roaming far and wide, and he said to me at one point, he said, “You know, I used to think that there was an intellectual road to God.” He said, “I used to think that all that I needed to do was join the dots, and if I could join the dots and show my colleagues that I had joined the dots, then it would be irrefutable evidence, and then they would say, ‘Aha! Oh, I see it now! I need to believe.’” He said, “But when I’ve done my best with that, they still don’t believe. And I understand why now,” he said.
I said, “Why?”
He said, “Because God needs to bring them to the place of repentance and faith. God needs to do this.”
And we paused, and we acknowledged that that is exactly what God does and has done. I couldn’t even crack one of his chemistry books, biology books. I failed at the point of the periodic table of the elements. If my life depended on it, I couldn’t tell you what the symbol for magnesium is. But I know how to strike a match. And we stood together, united in the gospel.
At the other end of the spectrum, if I might put it that way, I came back to find all of my mail, and a large ton of it from prisoners—substantial amount of mail from prisoners who listen to Truth For Life all the time. And one particular letter stood out, I guess because of this, the way my mind was working.
It begins like this: “Greetings, Pastor. My name is X. I’m twenty-nine years old, and I’ve been incarcerated for eleven years and nine months.” Describes being brought up in the projects in Chicago, and he says—ironically, and with a touch of humor—he says, “In 1993, we got evicted from the projects for not paying rent. Can you believe that? Being evicted from the projects—the lowest-income living—for not paying rent? After that, it seemed like every time the wind blew, we had a different address and a different school and different friends.” I can’t read the whole letter; it would take too long. He says, “In February 1999, at the age of eighteen, I was incarcerated. In 2000, I was convicted and sent to prison. When in prison, I continued to join members of the gang. We used the chapel to meet other gang members, where we transferred information and passed weed to one another,” etc.
“But in 2005, the Lord placed some brothers in my life.” I’m quoting exactly what he says and his verbs here. “In 2005, the Lord placed some brothers in my life who was incarcerated too, who were what we had considered real hood-rich gangsters. He had renewed them brothers’ heart and poured out his Spirit in them. They would have me for hours, planting the gospel in me. They watered it as well. I resisted it initially, but then I found myself going back to them, wanting to hang with them. They had a joy and light that I knew was there but just couldn’t quite comprehend it.” You get this? “They had a joy and a light that intellectually I knew was there, but I couldn’t quite comprehend it. I was drawn to them.” “They wasn’t preaching ‘plant a seed today, get rich tomorrow’; they wasn’t giving me a motivation speech, they were preaching Jesus Christ—the power of God’s plan of salvation, the Word of God, how he hates sin,” etc. I can’t continue to read. He then goes on to say, “I suddenly realized for the first time that the things that I did were ugly, tasteless, and merely sin.” Full stop. Short sentence: “Yep, sin!!!” “Yep, sin!!!”
Now, he’s one of six kids, brought up in the projects; you don’t hear him explaining his life away: “The reason I’m here is because I’m a horrible victim of this, that, and the next thing.” No, he says, “I now suddenly realize that the reason I did what I did is because I am a rotten sinner. At that moment, my blind eyes were opening, and I began to see. And the struggle began.” “My eyes were opening. I began to see. The struggle began.” “What do I do? Funny, it wasn’t me.” He’s saying, “What do I do?” He’s now goin’ present tense: “So what do I do in this circumstance? What do I do? Funny, it wasn’t me, talk about predestination, and election; the Holy Spirit compelled me, gave me the courage to step forward and denounce the gang. Yet didn’t leave his house empty. Began to fill it up with the Word, fellowship, worship, etc. A. W. Tozer said it best: Where man has presently responded to the call of God, God had previously worked in him. Thereby I still can’t boast in the role I played. It was all God, from before the foundation of the world.”
This is better theology than you get from most people that have been at Parkside for twenty-seven years, for goodness’ sake! This guy gets it! This isn’t somebody who says, you know, “I banged my head in the jail and turned over a new leaf and decided to be a better person.” No! He says, “Frankly, I had no interest in this stuff. But these guys—they shone! This walking the narrow path with the Lord Jesus Christ, who did to me what he did to the blind man in John 9”—notes this—“has been full of pain, heartaches, heartbreaks, unwanted loss, trials, and tribulations.” And earlier in the letter, he describes how in July 2006, his baby sister, Felicia, died from septicemia: “And I felt the pain I had never felt before.” That is after he’d come to Christ, not before he came to Christ. He’s not telling a story here that says, “I was a miserable thing and everything was going badly, and now I’ve turned around and everything’s fantastic.” No. He says, “That’s when the struggle began.” He got it. Let me ask you: Do you get it? Do you get it?
“Well, I’m working on my PhD at the moment at such and such, and you know, I’m really quite above these things.” Well, let me give you the telephone number of my friend up at Harvard. Maybe the two of you could have a little conversation. “I’m a wretched bum. There’s nobody as bad as me in the entire Parkside Church. There’s no way that if ever anybody found out who I am that I could ever get myself out of this mess.” Hey, let me tell you about my friend here in East Moline. Maybe you could give him a call.
“All that Christ has done for us is of no value to us so long as we remain outside of Christ.” What Paul is doing here is making clear to these readers the fact of their union with Jesus, so that what is true of them in Christ may then be true of them in their living for Christ as they are increasingly conformed to the image of Christ. It is because of God’s grace that they have been justified and given peace with God. As a result of being given peace with God, it has brought them into the realm of warfare. That’s Romans chapter 7: “The good I want to do, I don’t do. The bad I don’t want to do, I end up doing it.” They’ve been brought into the realm of sufferings. That’s why he tells them, “The sufferings of this time and this world are not worth being compared to the glory that will be revealed in us.” He’s not saying the sufferings aren’t there or the sufferings don’t matter. He’s saying, “In comparison, you are in a radically different position.”
And ironically, the freedom into which the Christian is brought is actually a bondage; it is an enslavement. You say, “Well, where do you get that?” Well, Romans 6:18 is as good a place to summarize it as any: “You have been set free from sin”—something that you couldn’t do for yourself, put in an entirely different relationship with God as a result of the righteousness of Jesus credited to us. “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves [of] righteousness.” Slaves of righteousness.
How do slaves of righteousness live? Go to 12:9; we can pick it up there. This is not the only story, but if faith is the gateway to God, then love is the key to our relationships with one another in Christ. “Love must be sincere.” You see why Paul has taken so long to get to these imperative directives. Because if you start with the directives without what is true, then all you do is you create people who are moralists. People who are legalists. People who are externally conforming to human regulations, either on the basis of pragmatism, or on the basis of sustained exhortations, or on the basis of guilt. But that’s not conversion. Conversion is this: that “Christ died for the ungodly.” Christ died for sinners. Romans 5:8: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: [that] while we were [yet]”—or “still”—“sinners, Christ died for us.” In other words, what Paul is saying is this: “Your good standing with God is on account of his amazing grace. Your life is explicable only in terms of his grace. Therefore, since your life is now framed and shaped by grace, and since the gospel is the dynamic out of which you live, then make sure that, in your relationships with one another, the same grace that has put you right with God allows you to live right in the company of each other.”
If you think about this, it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? What he’s saying is that God did not come and love us because we were the right group. He didn’t come and love us because of a peculiar affinity towards us. He didn’t come and love us because we were particularly attractive to him. In fact, the prophet says that even on our best day, when we make ourselves as perfect as we can for the party, even when we dress ourselves up as good as we can, our best dress is like filthy rags before his pristine and unalloyed holiness. No matter what we show up in, we still look dirty before absolute holiness and purity. And since God has loved us when we were like that, then won’t it be that kind of love, then, that shapes the community in Rome?
Well, let’s just look at this little phrase. We only have a couple of minutes; we can come back to it later. But “love must be sincere.” What is this love? What is this love? Well, first of all, it’s not emotionalism. It’s not emotionalism. We’re saved from any kind of mushy sentimentalism, I think, by the contrast which runs through these verses, from 9 to 21, and it actually is framed by them in 9 and 21. What is the contrast? The contrast between evil and good. Look at verse 9: “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.”
Isn’t it interesting that he follows “love” immediately with “hate”? And people think, “Well, if you love, then you don’t hate anything or anyone. I just love everyone!” That’s just sentimentalism. Talk sense! If you love your spouse with a passionate purity, you hate everything which would rob you of that relationship. Otherwise, your love is not love. You cannot love without hating. “There is a time to embrace. There is a time to refrain. There is a time for war. There is a time for peace.” That wasn’t The Byrds, incidentally. That’s actually in the Bible in Ecclesiastes and in chapter 3. And that is what Paul makes clear. No. Hatred of evil. Love for what is good. It comes back to it in verse 17: “Don’t repay evil for evil. Do what is right.” Back again in 21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” And I think that, more than anything else, helps us to shy away from the notion that, somehow or another, Paul’s decided before he finally wraps up his letter to get a little cozier, a little mushier, you know, and get into a kind of Hallmark trip. No, not for a moment.
One good quote will help us. I’ll give it to you now. This is from Vine. He wrote a wonderful book called The Expository Dictionary of [Greek] Words. It will help you get to sleep on a cold afternoon. But anyway, this is his quote concerning this love. He says, “Christian love”—“Christian love … is not an impulse from the feelings.” Christian love is not an impulse from the feelings. “It does not always run with … natural inclinations, nor does it spend itself only upon those for whom some affinity is discovered.” In other words, this isn’t natural. This isn’t natural. Because it is natural for us only to love those whom we deem to be lovable, only to love those who are like us and who fit within our framework, only to show affection for those who meet our expectations. That’s not this love. This love is the love of Romans 5:8: “God showed his love towards us in this: that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” He dies for the ungodly. And therefore, when that shapes the life of a fellowship, as in Rome here, it will change the way these people are and the way in which they deal with one another.
And what Paul is actually doing in this word “sincerity”—which is the word that gives us our word “hypocrite”; it’s anupokritos, which sounds like “hypocrite,” doesn’t it? Because it is “hypocrite.” What he’s doing here is he is confronting the danger of superficiality and deception—the danger of superficiality and deception. The kind of, sort of… the superficial size and that stuff that you see in movies, where the film captures so magnificently the dissonance between what’s being said and actually what is going on inside. It’s usually done just by a close-up on the eyes. “Well, how wonderful to see you again, Mrs. Jenkins.” Right? And just in that gesture, people say, “What she’s saying, she doesn’t really mean. What she means is, ‘I can’t believe I bumped into you, Mrs. Jenkins, and now I’m stuck with you here, and I’ve gotta talk to you unless I can find somebody else to move away and talk to. Someone else I could say, “Oh, wonderful, I’m glad. Oh, I… oh, yes.”’” No. That’s not it.
You see, this is actually liberation, isn’t it? This is so good. Because this means you don’t have to like everyone. And this sets you free from the tyranny of thinking you have to be liked by everyone. You don’t like everyone! And I don’t like everyone! But in Christ, supernaturally, he enables his people to like people—love people—that they wouldn’t even have sat close to in high school. You wouldn’t even have sat within five rows of these people. You wouldn’t even have given any consideration to allowing them to come to your place at the radiator, to your little group where your gang hung out. No way. And now Mr. Nerdy, or Mr. Smartypants-Athlete, or Miss Cheerleader, she’s in the next row at Parkside. “What am I going to do now? I never liked her!” Well, now we’re going to find out whether this love is “shed abroad in your heart by the Holy Spirit” or whether it is an external requirement pressed down upon you as a result of a religious formalism that you have endeavored to embrace.
We have to wrap this up, but Phillips paraphrases it, “Let us have no imitation Christian love.” “Let us have no imitation Christian love”—the kind of love that is suggesting a willingness to serve when, in actual fact, that’s on account of a hidden agenda.
God has always been concerned about this. All the way through the Old Testament he was, wasn’t he? Jesus quotes it in Matthew 15, quoting Isaiah. He says, “The problem with this group,” he says, “is these folks draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” That is ultimately, classically epitomized in Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, isn’t it? I mean, of all the things! No wonder Jesus says to him—I mean essentially, he’s saying to him—“Judas, you could have pointed at me. But did you have to kiss me? Would you betray me, Judas, with a kiss?” You see, “if love is the [essence] of virtue”—and I got this from John Murray, but I can’t quote it—“if love is the [essence] of virtue and hypocrisy [is] the [measure] of vice, [then] what a contradiction to [put the two of them] together!” Hypocritical love!
You know that my mind is so messed up with song lyrics, and I shouldn’t always quote the ones that are passing through my mind, because often, as soon as I start them, I go, “This is a bad song.” And here’s the line that’s in my mind right now. We’re in the context of romantic love—which is just a segue into Wednesday night, when I will be telling people who they ought to marry—in the context of romantic love, you remember, the girl sings, “Hold me ’cause you want to, not because you have to.” “Hold me ’cause you want to, not because you have to.” Legalism, moralism, says, “I just have to do this.” The transforming love of Jesus says, “I want to do this.”
Do you get it? Do you get it the way our friend here gets it?
It would be very easy for me to have come here this morning and given all kinds of little anecdotal bits and pieces of material on the four-word phrase “love must be sincere.” But what a disservice I would have done you. Because I could have sent some of you away feeling, “Well, that’s really what it is about. I mean, the Christian life is really about love, and the pastor was talking about love this morning, and love makes me feel so much better. I love love. And ‘all you need is love,’ and, I mean, he’s really just saying what John Lennon was saying. I mean, frankly, I should have listened to John Lennon; it would have been a lot shorter. But it’s just… it was all about love.’” Yeah, it is about love. But it is about the love of which we’ve been singing: “Oh, the love of my Redeemer. Oh, the love that drew the plan of salvation.” And then out of the reality of the disclosure of God’s love in me becomes the prospect and the product of God’s love through me.
It is not natural. It is not as a result of the impulse of emotionalism. It does not follow the lines of conventionality. It breaks the boundaries of race. It breaks the boundaries of human intellect. It breaks the boundaries of social status. It breaks all the boundaries. And people, when they came around the church in Rome, must have said, “There’s something different about the way these people relate to one another.” And it is our prayer that something of that flavor might become—might increasingly become—what shapes our relationships here at Parkside.
Gracious God, how glad we are that we have the Bible. How thankful we are for the way in which you raised up Paul—took Saul of Tarsus and turned him upside down. And as a result of your grace in him, we are the beneficiaries of the peculiar intellect that you gave him and the radical change that you brought in him.
And I pray that you will bring us to see just how level the ground is at the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, so that we might stand or kneel together, as it were, to say, “Lord, be merciful to me, the sinner,” and that when you bid us rise, that we might stay, as it were, in the awareness of the fact that the ground is level at the cross and that all of the things that become the basis of our boasting, of our selfish lack of self-esteem, are more than adequately dealt with in all that Christ has accomplished on our behalf.
So then, work in us, Gracious God, and through us. May our church be shaped by grace. May the good news be our theme. May humility be our uniform. May joy and hope be our ethos.
And may grace and mercy and peace from God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one who believes, today and forevermore. Amen.
 John 6:68 (NIV 1984).
 Emphasis added.
 Genesis 1:1 (NIV 1984).
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.1.1.
 Romans 7:19 (paraphrased).
 Romans 8:18 (paraphrased).
 Romans 5:6 (NIV 1984).
 Ecclesiastes 3:5, 8 (paraphrased).
 W. E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1977), s.v. “love.”
 Romans 5:5 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 15:7–8 (paraphrased).
 Luke 22:48 (paraphrased).
 John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (1965; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 2:128.
 Paul Davis and Bobby Emmons, “Love Me Like You Used To” (1987). Lyrics lightly altered.
 John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “All You Need Is Love” (1967).
 William Reed Newell, “At Calvary” (1895). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Luke 18:13 (paraphrased).