[K:NWTS 20/3 (Dec 2005) 15-24]

Biblical Theology and Counseling: I John 4:7-211

Marcus J. Renkema

I have been tasked with the assignment to speak on Biblical Theology and counseling. I John speaks of the centrality of love in the life of the believer. As such it is especially essential to Christian counseling. As we look at our subject, I would have us consider Christian love as that which undergirds all biblical pastoral counseling.

1 John highlights the centrality of love in the lives of those who are of the Lord. It brings us back to the calling to love one another. It is not the first time the topic is brought up in this short epistle. We are repeatedly exhorted to love the brethren. We must of course come away with the impression that the apostle, and more significantly God himself, must place a high premium upon this attribute in the lives and hearts of God's people. It is an attribute not to be ignored for the Scriptures do not seem to let us depart from this constant refrain: "Love one another."

This message needs time to sink in. I would suggest that it needs to be brought continually before us because our tendency is to so quickly forget about it. Love one another. I mean—love one another. Again love one an other. With each reminder we are brought deeper and deeper into the nature of the love to which God is calling us. Until it becomes part of us; until it consumes us; until it typifies all of our actions towards our brothers; until the mind of Christ and of God is reflected fully in our characters as his image bearers, as imitators of God—we are not there yet and so we are compelled yet again to love one another.

Such love is not a love that arises out of a vacuum. It is not self-engendered. It is not widely understood or practiced. It is unique and profound. It finds its source in God and nowhere else. It is uniquely Christian. It is of heaven not of the earth. It is a love that you are called to practice in relationship with one another, with fellow believers and with those who are lost. It is to fill you as ones who know the God of love.

Unfortunately this calling of love for the brethren finds few takers even within the walls of the church. It is often not faithfully lived within the bounds of our own homes. Fights between spouses, bickering between brothers and sisters, disrespect of one's parents are not consistent with the love to which we have been called. We see it also in the church. We can hear it in the harsh criticisms of one another, the failure to respect one another, the gossip that goes on behind the backs of others, the contempt toward our leaders or the abuse of leaders over the sheep in their charge. Conversations, thoughts in our minds frequently betray a heart that is not in tune with the injunction in our text to love one another.

But our text, does not beat us over the head for our constant failures. It does not tell us simply to try harder. It brings us to the cross of Christ. It is only in looking to him that we can know and manifest this love. We want to once again look at God's command to love one another by examining three things:

I. First, we want to look at the exhortation to love

II. Secondly, we want to see the evidence of the loving nature of God.

III. Finally, we want to think about how this love ought to be manifested specifically in the area of counseling.

I. The Exhortation to Love

As we examine the exhortation to love one another, I want to draw your attention to the way the exhortation begins. The apostle refers to the readers of the epistle as his 'beloved.' The same word is picked up again in verse 11 where the exhortation to love another is repeated. It is not by accident that these words are used. The apostle is drawing attention to his own love for the brethren. He is, in essence, reminding them of his deep love for them. They are his friends—his beloved. He cares for them. As he does so, he is indirectly encouraging them to a similar attitude towards each other. He is saying to them: 'Imitate me as I imitate Christ.'

Beyond this I also want you to see that though the exhortation to love one another is a message that is repeated throughout the book, it is not simply repeating the same thing over and over again. There is, in fact, progression in the texts as we move through the epistle. In chapter 2 where the command is initially given, love is regarded as a duty in that it is portrayed as the new command of Christ. In chapter 3, exhortation is given to highlight the contrast between the children of God and the children of the devil. Christ's example is set off against the example of Cain. In our text, we are taken to the top of the mountain so to speak. John can climb no higher to demonstrate the love we are called to and its basis in our lives then he does in our text. He takes us to the very nature of Christ and of God—the God who dwells in the hearts of those who are his.

It is a love that is, in its essence, eschatological. That is, it belongs to the realm of heaven. The argument that is being made in our text is that love is the unique possession of God and therefore those who are of God necessarily share in it as God abides in them. Those who do not love do not know God. Those who are indwelt by the Spirit of God and thereby know God, by the very fact that they are possessed of God, must reflect his character. Their nature reflects his. Love is of God and God is love. This is also true of us who believe in him because of our relationship to him.

When you think about this text and what it teaches us about the nature of God it makes sense. God is love. It is a characteristic at the core of his being. Think of where God dwells—in heaven and you think about the atmosphere of heaven, a place of perfect love. There is no place there for bitterness, for unrighteous anger, for hatred, for hurting others, for unkind words. These things run contrary to everything we think about heaven. Such things find no place in the presence of God. Love is the air we breathe in heaven—between God and us and our fellow saints. Jesus' summary of the law to love God and to love our neighbor is the law of heaven itself. And as Ephesians 1:13-14 states the Spirit of God is the down payment of that heavenly inheritance. God's presence already now is abiding in our hearts. Therefore the nature of God is to be reflected in us already now, though presently imperfectly. If it is not, then we do not know God.

The other thing that is taught here is that love is uniquely Christian. Its source is God himself. The unbeliever does not know love. He does not recognize the greatest expression of love as seen in the sacrifice of Christ. He cannot know or give expression to the self sacrificial nature of the love of God. While the unbeliever may have the appearance of being loving, we may say that to some degree they may still reflect the image of God in the arena of common grace. We may also say that their love is always deficient in that natural human love is that which finds it origin in something of our liking, something that is rewarding to us. But God's love is different. His love is giving to the unworthy and the unattractive. Christian love does not have selfish ends but is given freely to others regardless of benefit to us and entirely for the glory of God not of men.

The exhortation to love is rooted then in the very nature of God himself. As God is love, we also are to love for we are of God. But the text goes on to demonstrate and give evidence of the nature of God's love. We are shown the love that we must emulate.

II. The Evidence of God's Loving Nature

Our text focuses specifically on the love of God as it is manifested in the self sacrificial work of Christ. What does Jesus do? He humbles himself, becoming a man and taking on human flesh. He stretches out his arms on the cross. Dying! Suffering! Enduring mockery and intense pain! Jesus suffers for us the cruel death. He goes knowingly and willingly on his march to the cross. There he will bear the full brunt of God's wrath for our sin. One perfectly innocent of all wrongdoing is crucified. He endures suffering and shame, not for his sin but for yours and mine. There he bears the curse that we deserve.

Yes, it is in the cross of Christ that we find the love of God manifested. It is in Jesus, who is the propitiation for our sin, that we see God's love revealed. God is loving not only in words, but he is loving in deed. He gives us his only begotten son. Here it is important that we understand the eternal bond of the Trinity. God is giving of his most precious treasure—the only begotten of God. He is giving of himself. He sends Christ into the world so that we might be given life. He sends him into a world that is hostile to him, a world that will largely reject him and gives him over to those who will kill him. He sends him into the world for the sake of the undeserving, the unworthy.

It is in the sending of Christ that we see the love of God. According to verse 10, love cannot be measured or comprehended in our love for God. If you think about it, our love for God is expected. After all, we owe our very existence to him. He is the giver of every good thing. Everyone ought to have a love for God. It is the absence of such love among men that is the aberration. It is to our shame that we do not love God more and that even the love that we do have is a love that is placed there by God himself. No, neither our paltry love for God nor any other human love can be the defining example of love. That definition is found in the fact that God loves us.

What have we done to deserve God's favor? Nothing at all! In fact the opposite is true. We have done everything to earn his displeasure. We have sinned against him and rebelled against him. We have dishonored him. We are unworthy, unlovable, despicable creatures.

God's love is manifested in the fact that in spite of this he gives his Son. The price was not light or easy. Jesus was sent to be the propitiation for our sins. That is, he was to bear himself the punishment for sin that we deserved. What was that punishment? It was the wrath and curse of God. It was the torment of Hell itself, endured by one entirely innocent of all sin. It was suffering for us and the misery we had earned. There is no greater love. The just dies for the unjust. Such is the nature of the love of God. As Robert Law states in his commentary, "It is love that shines forth in its purest splendor upon the unattractive, the unworthy, the repellent."

When we look at the cross of Christ, when we see the intensity of his misery in the garden of Gethsemene, we cannot help but be impressed at the selfless expression of love demonstrated by his sacrifice. This is genuine love. There is no higher love. This is the love of God. This is that eschatological love we are speaking of. This is the love that abides in us as believers.

III. The Manifestation of Love

The text in I John 4 draws our attention to the love of God demonstrated in Christ Jesus for a reason. We are to see that love is the essence of God's being. He is love. His love was manifested. Now as those who are indwelt by God, we are to reflect that kind of love in our own relationships with one another. As God's love is made manifest and actively demonstrated toward us, so we are called to manifest the love of God actively toward one another.

In some ways, this exhortation comes as a surprise. One would almost expect after being shown the love of God for us, that there would be an appeal for us, to respond in gratitude in love toward God. But instead, we are told to love one another. Our text compels us to love each other. God's nature is reflected in our nature.

The implications for Biblical pastoral counseling are in many ways self-evident. As Christ, the true shepherd, has manifested his love for us, we who are under-shepherds of his flock ought to manifest the love of God to those who come to us for counseling. It is the love of Christ to which we must draw them so that they see their lives hidden in his. It is in counseling that we seek to bring the counselee to the warm embrace of Christ's forgiveness, compassion and care. It is here that we instruct them in how to reflect the loving character of Christ in their own lives as they are molded into the image of Christ.

The impact of love on Christian counseling may be seen in two distinct areas. First, it affects the attitude and heart of the counselor toward the counselee. Second, we see it as the critical component in the content of our counseling.

The counselor must begin with the same attitude as the apostle in the text. The counselee is 'beloved.' He must be moved with a genuine spirit of compassion and care for the individual coming to him for aid. He must have the mind of Christ. In lowliness of mind, he must esteem others better then himself, looking out not only for his own interest but for the interest of others. He is to be a humble servant not a domineering taskmaster. How easy it is to become arrogant in the presence of those whose lives are messed up.

Beyond this, it also affects the way we view our counselee. He is not a computer that has malfunctioned. It is not as though all you need to do is type in the right things and he will be fixed or that he simply needs reprogramming. He is a person made in the image of God. People are complex. They are affected by the circumstances of life both positively and negatively. This fact calls for us to listen, to be understanding, even as we lovingly lead them to see their lives hidden in Christ. We have a concern for the whole person.

It affects the language we use in our counseling. The words we speak are not demeaning or condescending. Christian love is kind and respectful. It conveys a spirit that truly cares. We speak the truth, but we speak the truth in love. We display the fruits of the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and self-control.

Love for the counselee calls for longsuffering and patience. Anyone who has done much counseling knows the need to bear with one another. It can be extremely frustrating. Your advice and counsel may not be followed. It can be misinterpreted. It can lead to a host of other problems rising to the surface. But we must be ready to forgive one another. We must persist in working patiently with people as they continue to struggle. There are not always quick resolutions to complex issues. Again our attention can be drawn to the love of God and of Christ for us. We also fall into sin and are dependent upon the patient forbearance of our God.

Christian love also affects the content of our counseling. Where do we start? What do you do when you greet a new counselee? Where is the starting point? Where do you begin? The starting point of all pastoral counseling is the love of God. The love of Christ is the starting point. We want people to understand that, if they believe in Christ, they have the benefits of his warm, embracing love. We want them to respond to that love in kind. But how can we ask them to love the Lord and his people unless they have first tasted the love of Christ? It is here that they must first learn of the loving mercy of the Savior.

Many of the problems that come to us in counseling are directly related to a lack of biblical love either in the character of the counselee or in others. Those who come in with marriage problems can be directed to Ephesians 5, which speaks of marriage in terms of the love of Christ and his church. The mystery of Christ's love for his church, as Paul calls it, is the starting point. The husband is called to love his bride as Christ does his church. As Christ has loved them so they must love their spouse. We can discuss with them the implications of this. Wives are called to loving submission to their husbands who love them and care for them. Marriage issues are ultimately resolved as husbands and wives bring their lives into conformity with the image of Christ and love one another.

Pornography, one of the sins that plagues our day and age, is a lack of love to one's spouse. It is love perverted. It is glorying in the shame of another. It is the opposite of the faithful love of God for us. It is self-centered as opposed to the beautiful gift that God has given to us in marriage.

This is the counseling that we also give to our children. They are called to love their parents as God, the Father, has loved them. As we are called to honor the Lord in obedience and love for him; we also call our children to love and honor their parents.

It is the solution when we talk about conflict in the church. We drive them to Christ. Look at how God has forgiven you. Yet you are willing to hold on to the sins of others and not forgive them. Look at the love of Christ, how he has born with you through your own rebellion and sin. Yet he loved you and sent his Son for you. But you are going to hold on to your petty differences—your bitterness and anger. Love those, even those, who are the most difficult to love.

In the variety of counseling situations, the key to each is teaching them to see the love of Christ. As they behold his love, we can encourage them to love as Christ has loved.

When our love is seen in light of the love of Christ, it is clearly found wanting. Our love cannot compare. We always fall short. Not one of us comes close to faithfully expressing this love toward one another. What love we have is the love God works in us.

It would be easy for us all to leave here with the great weight of our failures upon our shoulders. To leave here as those who are overwhelmed with the guilt of our shortcomings. But then I would have failed in the proclamation of the gospel. We are indeed guilty of not loving as we ought. But the guilt of our sin drives us once again to the cross of Christ. There at the cross, we once again bask in the love of Christ who again graciously, mercifully forgives our sins. Once again the love of Jesus overwhelms our callous hearts—we, who are unworthy, unlovable creatures. Christ dies for us. Then having tasted afresh the love of Christ, we go forward loving as God has loved us. It is in knowing God's love that we can express God's love. For in seeing God's enduring patience with us, his readiness to forgive, his great mercy, his sovereign care for us, we begin to do the same for others. Without this knowledge of God we cannot love.

Finally, I would like to address some misconceptions of love. There are several ways in which the concept of love has been distorted. The first one I want to address is the idea that love is either strictly an emotion or feeling and its erroneous counterpart, namely that love has nothing to do with feelings, it has to do only with actions. Both assumptions do not adequately reflect the Biblical perspective of what love is. Love is more than the stirring of emotions in our hearts. It is not simply the warm fuzzies for another person. It cannot be reduced to simply caring about someone. Genuine Christian love goes beyond the feelings and acts upon them. We certainly see this in Christ, who loved his people not from a distance, but by coming to pay for our sins. His love is evident in what he does. This is also seen clearly in I John 3:18. We are not only to love with word or tongue, but in our deeds as well. James 2 echoes this also. Faith without works is a dead faith. Love gives evidence of itself through our actions. But love cannot be reduced to actions either. There is an emotional component to Biblical love as well. We see it in Christ, whose heart is moved with compassion for the people. We see it when Christ weeps for his friend Lazarus. He genuinely cares for and is drawn to those he loves. Christian love is reflective of this as well. We are drawn to one another. We care about the well-being of one another. We have an affinity toward one another that desires what is best for that person.

Another mistaken notion of love is that it is non-confrontative—that it simply accepts people the way they are and the way they want to be. It is this kind of love that the secularist seeks to impose upon us as Christians. By their definition of love, Christians are unloving because we insist that there is right and wrong and we call people to live by that standard. We do not simply accept all religions as truth. We do not ignore those who teach false doctrines. We confront those who are living in sin and call them to repentance and faith. Genuine Christian love is rooted in truth and loving others implies calling people to live by that truth. Ignoring their sin is to leave them on the path that leads to judgment and destruction. At the same time we must understand that when such confrontation is necessary then we must conduct ourselves in a loving manner. We must be kind. We must respect the other person. Our love and compassion for them ought to be evident to them.

Genuine love is also more than helping those who are in need. For many in the liberal denominations of today, this is the definition of love. All we must do is help people with their physical and emotional needs. This concept of love is very much centered upon this earth. Little concern is shown for the person's spiritual well-being. But when we look at the ministry of Christ, it is much different. His love for the people goes beyond providing the physical needs of those who are suffering; it is also accompanied with the call of the gospel and their need to have their sins forgiven in him. Providing for one's earthly needs apart from their spiritual needs is not loving. What does it profit a person to have all his earthly needs met, but then to lose his soul to hell? But again we must not be smug as conservatives, for we are often guilty of the opposite. Calling people to repentance and faith, but not being willing to help those in need. Genuine love calls for both.

It is my prayer that all of our counseling be a manifestation of the love of Christ. May it be done in love for one another. May it draw people to see how wide and deep the love of Christ is. May it call people to live lives that manifest that love toward one another.


1 This is the revised version of an address delivered at the Kerux Conference, May 2005. Rev. Renkema is Adjunct Professor of Pastoral Theology at Northwest Theological Seminary and pastor of Trinity Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Bothell, Washington.