What is love? And how do we love others?

There is unlikely a word that is more familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. We love pizza and our spouses. What do we mean?

The Bible is helpful in pointing us back to the greatest demonstration of love:

"By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers." (1 John 3:16)

In light of this, here’s a shot at a definition: love is joyfully and willfully sacrificing yourself to serve others by doing them good. This is what we see in the gospel, and this is what Christians endeavor to do as we respond to the gospel. The gospel is the most heart-melting and liberating truth. It models and motivates true love.

The type of love we have in the gospel is total acceptance in light of full disclosure. God knows how sinful we are but accepts us based upon the doing and dying of Jesus. As has been said by others before, “We are more sinful than we can ever have imagined, but we are more loved than we can ever have hoped.”

This type of love brings tremendous freedom.

  • Freedom from trying to impress others—because we are securely accepted in Christ. We love out of acceptance.
  • Freedom from trying to gain from others—because we have been abundantly satisfied in Christ. We love out of satisfaction.
  • Freedom from trying to dominate others—because we have been arrested by grace and submit to Christ. We love out of submission.
  • Freedom to sacrifice for others—because Christ has sacrificed for us. We love by sacrificing.
  • Freedom to serve others, rather than ourselves—because Christ has served us. We love by serving.

This type of freedom shows itself in the marriage. If the love of the gospel is my compass, then my marriage is not about ultimately about me and my needs being met by my spouse. Instead, it’s about Christ meeting all of my needs and then me serving my spouse out of this abundance.

This also intersects with issues outside of marriage. I don’t know how many times I have heard someone involved in sex before marriage saying, “But you don’t understand, I love her/him.” While this is a popular sentiment, it’s an inaccurate depiction of love. Love never takes; it always gives. What they really mean is, “I want her. I need her.” The gospel flips this around for the purpose of serving and sacrificing; giving rather than taking; having rather than needing.

Contemporary understandings of love object and provide a vivid gospel contrast.

  • The world says “love for the purpose of self,” but the gospel says “love at the expense of self.”
  • The world says “what can I gain from you,” but the gospel says “what can I give to you.”
  • The world pursues love for the fulfillment of self and is left empty. Christians pursue love at the expense of self and are made full.

The gospel teaches us that we are, at the same time, intimately known by the omniscient One and infinitely loved by the gracious One. This brings security and freedom. We need not use people to meet our needs because our needs are met; we are made full having been loved by God. We need not love out of insecurity because we are truly secure in God. We are free to love others out of the overflowing security of being loved instead of the nagging insecurity of personal need.

We can’t just flip a switch and “do this;" it takes time marinating in and basking in the gospel of grace. This is why the apostle John tells us to take our cues for loving one another from having been loved by Jesus. The gospel is the model and motivation of Christian love.

Editor's Note: This originally published at The Gospel Coalition