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Are Christians free to love however they please?

What is Christian love like? Where does it come from? Should we desire that our love be utterly spontaneous? Should we seek to love naturally? Is it inauthentic to love in a way other than that which first comes to us? Should our affections be unaffected?

The impulse to say that the way a believer loves is best when it is natural perhaps comes from the remnants of Rousseau’s thought and Romantic movement that followed him. Rousseau famously argued that man was born free, but that everywhere he was in chains. Society and education (and religion) were evil; they distorted the natural virtue of man.

This idea of love is all over us in the world today, and it can be easily found in popular music. Countless songs bellow the great virtue of loving when it’s against the rules, or the power of love to overcome societal strictures and decorum. Love in popular culture could never be cultivated, or else it would be inauthentic. Inauthenticity is adding any kind of layer to what is most natural and “free” (cf. 2 Pet 2:17-19).

That this idea has dubious roots does not necessarily mean it is wrong. I draw your attention to the roots only to make you step back and evaluate them more closely. Instead of thinking–almost as an impulse–that close to nature is good and cultivation is bad, let’s scrutinize this notion that love is at its best when it is most free from any cultivation.

In fact, we as Christians believe in the total, natural depravity of all people. Rom 3:10-11 says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; one seeks for God.” Human beings find themselves “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Eph 4:18). From this theological ground, we should question that our loves, when most free and natural, are best. Even if Scripture’s description of unregenerate man were inadequate (it is most certainly adequate), we could simply observe that today love is synonymous with sexual immorality. The more society distorts true love, the more it will degenerate into immorality, “greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (Eph 4:19). The immorality that is known today as love further shows that unbridled, uncultivated, unsanctified, natural love is the Anti-Love.

The fact that we do not naturally love is further seen in that the descriptions of love in the Bible. What we find there is that true Christian love is wholly unnatural to us. Consider Paul’s famous descriptions of love in 1 Cor 13:4-7. Here are loves that do not come naturally. Indeed, if we were left to ourselves, our love would never look like 1 Corinthians 13’s love. The Corinthians were proof positive, and we also search in vain within ourselves for a natural spring for that kind of love.

Take, just for example, that love “is not rude.” Those who bristle at culture and civilization (i.e., the advocates of natural love) famously recoil at manners. Manners and etiquette are artificial. There is nothing so unnatural as a table manner or a man holding the door for a woman. People who so live in the world stop doing what comes naturally, and embrace the life of putting others at ease. The meaning of the verb is not rude (ἀσχημονεῖ) in 1 Cor 13:5 is “behave disgracefully, dishonorably, indecently” (see BDAG). All those words refer to (cultural) standards that are being transgressed in the rudeness. But Paul says love is not rude. That is, it is graceful, honorable, and decent. This is just one example (among 14 others) that shows that if we let our gut guide us in our idea of what true love is, we will get it hopelessly wrong.

Even more to the point, consider that the Bible teaches repeatedly that true Christian love is a divine thing, born by the Spirit of God. Love is the first fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5:22. Paul tells us that our love is look like God’s love in Eph 5:1-2. Jesus tells us to love with divine love in John 13:34: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” Paul attributes Christian love as being born by the Spirit in Rom 15:30, ” I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf.” In Rom 5:5, Paul says, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” There again, the love we have has a supernatural source: the Holy Spirit of Christ sent to us. 1 John 4:12-13 similarly says, “if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” The love we have is God’s love in us. Eph 6:23-24 explicitly teaches that the “incorruptible love” we have for Jesus Christ must come “from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

So if our love comes from God, how could we affirm that we are free to love however we please? The only way this could approximate the reality is if we were to stipulate that divine love transforms our will so that we are not loving “naturally” but loving “supernaturally,” through the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. That is, if we think Christian love is uncultivated, worldly natural love, we will get it wrong. If it is God loving through us, with his love within us, we are on much surer ground. This is the character of true Christian love, that it is not spontaneous or natural or “whatever comes into our heads at that moment,” but it is something much deeper and much more profound. Authentic Christian love is an otherworldly, sanctified love that is not coming from us, but from the Holy Spirit.

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).