Rev. Bruinsma is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.

We hear it all the time: love God and love the neighbor. We hear it from the pulpit, in the classroom from our teachers, and surely we hear it at home from our parents. The one, great commandment of God’s law is to love God. The second commandment is like unto it: love your neighbor.

We do not have to be great theologians to understand this command. We do not even have to be an adult or a young person to know what it is to love God and the neighbor. We are taught this command of God even before we enter kindergarten. For, godly youth, what we write in this article is not so much something new, as much as a reminder to us of our calling toward God. Yet, since not all our friends and classmates pick up the Standard Bearer and read it, maybe it would not hurt to make a few copies of this article to distribute, just to remind them of their calling too?

The apostle John is considered the expert on the subject of love. In his three epistles or letters to the churches he pinpoints the source and describes the character of love. If we really want to learn what love is, we will not discover it in the thousands of sinful love novels available on bookshelves today. In fact, we will not find it in the books of the worldly, so-called experts on love either. They have no love for God. How then can they ever possibly tell us what love is? If you really want to know all about love, I suggest that you spend some time studying these letters of John. He is right on track. Of course he is — his words are infallibly inspired,after all!

I have gleaned from John’s epistles four truths about love that we do well to consider.

Love is of God.

We all claim to love God, right? I mean, if I were to ask you in catechism class if you loved God, I do not think there would be anyone of you who would say, “No, I do not love God!” Maybe there might be one or two with reservations in their hearts, but they would not be very quick to admit that to me or to others. We all claim to love God. But do we really realize what loving God means? Love is not merely a feeling or an emotion. True love goes much deeper than that. It is rooted in the heart and forms an indissoluble bond with the one who is the object of that love. This is why we can confidently say, true love lasts forever. When two people love each other, then they long after and seek each other’s fellowship and companionship. And that deep longing forms a bond between the two of them that cannot be broken.

For love to be such, however, it must exist between two perfect beings. Where there is sin, where there is wrong committed against another, love breaks down. Sin is a horrible canker that, if it is not stopped, eats away at the longing and desire we may have for another. To love someone requires perfection. This is why we read of love, in Colossians 3:14, as the bond of perfectness. For two people to love each other, therefore, requires that the love of God abide in them. Only God is perfect, and in Him alone is found true love. God is love. This love God cultivates in the hearts of His people through the work of Jesus on the cross. In Christ we have become holy and perfect. Not in ourselves, but as we belong to Christ we are capable of truly loving another person. So, that is love. That is the love that must be in our hearts. This same love comes to manifestation in our lives.

He who loves God also loves his fellow saints.

Not only does a child of God truly love God, but he also truly loves his neighbor. This truth John expresses in I John 4:20, 21: “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not the brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.” Of course! That makes sense! God has worked in my heart His love, and God has worked His love in the heart of my fellow Christian too. We are both made holy in the blood of Christ; we are made perfect in Christ. Does it not follow then that as fellow saints we will love each other too? This is why the second commandment of God is like unto the first: loving God requires that we love our neighbor. The two go hand in hand.

True love for the neighbor consists in the love we have just described. It is a bond that unites us with our fellow saints for whom Christ died. Since the hearts with which we love our neighbor are sanctified hearts, our love governs our thoughts and desires about the neighbor. God’s love in us influences our attitude towards one another. This is why our claim to love God means very little to Him if He does not see us loving each other. In fact, John makes a bold statement: if you say you love God and do not love your brother, you are a liar! How so? You are lying about your love for God: if you do not love your neighbor, you do not love God either.

Now, that is quite an assertion! When applied to young people and children it says this: if you hate (resent, abhor, are embittered toward, offended at, or in competition or angry with) a fellow young person in the church or classmate in school, then you cannot claim to love God! If you say you love God and you hate that brother or sister, then you are a liar! You do not love God! God’s law demands the love of God by way of loving the neighbor. How true is the Word of God in I Corinthians 13:1: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity (love), I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” I can say all kinds of nice religious things about God, and come off as pious as ever, but if I do not have love for my neighbor, then all I am doing is making a lot of noise!

But then … there is the sin factor: “the good that I would I do not, and the evil that I would not that I do.” It seems to be much easier to love God than to love the neighbor. God is perfect and never sins against me. My neighbor often does things to hurt and injure me. He speaks evil of me. His actions often are meant to offend me. How can I love a neighbor of that sort? Most of the time I harbour feelings of revenge. Besides, my own envy and covetousness often lead me to do hurtful things toward my neighbor. Ah yes, that horrible, horrible sin factor — that sinful flesh we carry with us everywhere — it surely does mar our relationships with our classmates and fellow saints! But our sinful flesh cannot be used as an excuse for not loving the brother. What should we say about our proneness to hate the neighbor? Perhaps we ought to ask ourselves a couple of questions.

First of all, do we fight against this sin? Remember, Christ died not only to gain for us the forgiveness of sins, but He died to conquer the power and dominion of sin in our lives. Our sinful flesh was crucified with Christ on the cross. We are no longer servants to sin. Do we, then, earnestly fight the sinful desire in us to hurt someone or to “get back” at someone for what he did to us? How much do we struggle within ourselves to love the neighbor as much as we love God? Surely, we ought not to allow the sin of hating the brother to rule in us!

Secondly, how much do we hate our sin? When we do stumble into hateful and hurtful words or actions toward a fellow saint, perhaps a classmate in school, how much does that sin bother us? Do we go home at night and loathe ourselves for what we did to that person? Do our prayers get stuck in our throats because we know that having hurt our brother we are not right with God? How sorry are we when we sin against another? Sorry enough to confess our sin to God? Sorry enough to confess our sin to the one we hurt? Are we lovers of God … or are we liars?

We cannot love God without loving the neighbor.

If a man loves his brother, he will show that love.

Loving the brother means that we must also reveal that love to him in our words and actions. Again, this is God’s Word to us in John’s first letter to the church. In I John 3:18 John writes, “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.” The child of God, above all other people in this world, should show compassion and charity toward his neighbor — especially toward his fellow saints. We live in a selfish and self-centered world that is filled with competition, envy, and strife. In our society, more than anywhere else, people do not show love, but hatred, in their words and deeds. Such ought never to be true of us! We say we love God. We say we love our fellow saints. But when it comes to putting those words into deeds … are we lovers of God, or liars? The deeds to which we refer, of course, are the words we speak to and about a person. They are also what we reveal in our actions — our actual dealings with someone. We cannot say we love someone if we are constantly hurting him with our words and actions. Neither, when we do this, can we say that we love God.

Let me give an example or two. Can I say I love God when I have just called a classmate of mine “stupid,” or whispered something mean about her to my friends? The question is not simply: do I love my neighbor, but do I love God? Do I love God when I roll my eyes at someone or make a snide remark to him? Do I love God when I, with my friends, deliberately try to walk fast enough to leave someone else out of the group? Do I love God when I mock a person or his inability to do something? Do I love God when I throw a ball at him or threaten to hurt him? Again, the question is not: how cool am I when I do these things? My guess is that our sinful natures would tell us that we are really cool! So would plenty of other “cool” people! But when we do these things we ought to ask ourselves this question: do we truly love God as we say? Are we lovers of God, or liars? There is much more involved in our words and actions than merely our relationship with our neighbor. It is not simply a matter of being able to get along with a brother or sister in the church. Our relationship with God is involved. Our place in heaven is involved! That is a serious matter!

Only those who love the brother have a place in heaven.

In the day of judgment, when all nations are gathered before Christ, He will say to His sheep, “Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison and ye came unto me” (Matt. 25:34-36). Then God’s saints will humbly ask, “When did we do all this to you, Lord?” And He will answer them: “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40). In the day of judgment we will be judged according to our works. Those works will include what we have done to our neighbor.

It is true that our place in heaven has already been determined in eternity. It is also true that entrance into the kingdom of heaven is possible only in the blood of Jesus Christ. If our salvation depended on our loving the neighbor perfectly, none of us would enter. How thankful we can be that Christ died for us! But it is also true that those for whom Christ died are believers. And believers are those who walk consciously with their Lord. The mind of Christ is in them. They hear and obey the exhortation of Paul in Philippians 2:3, 4: “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” As believers walk in obedience to this command, they inherit the kingdom of heaven.

What then is the conclusion to all this? “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God” (I John 4:7).

I know, young people, none of this is new. Yet, as old as the commandment is to love each other, it always needs repeating because it is so easily forgotten. In fact, if your parents have not read this article, run off an extra copy for them. Parents need to be reminded of this commandment too!