Rev. denHartog is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Randolph, Wisconsin.
Love for the brethren is a great mark of godliness. Our Lord said that His disciples would be known in the world by the love which they had for one another. “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). There are few exhortations that appear more often in the Scriptures than the command to love our brethren. Paul says in Colossians, “And above all these things put on charity which is the bond of perfectness” (Colossians 3:14). Peter exhorts, “Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently” (I Peter 1:22). And again he says, “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover a multitude of sins” (I Peter 4:8). The apostle John speaks often of brotherly love. “He that loveth his brother abideth in light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him. But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth because that darkness has blinded his eyes” (I John 2:10-11). Again he says, “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love” (I John 4:7-8). We all know the famous passage on love that is found in I Corinthians 13. There the inspired apostle Paul states emphatically that all our religion, no matter how great we may imagine it to be, is utterly vain without love.
Though the Word of God often exhorts us in the matter of brotherly love, there are always those in the church who do not take heed to all these exhortations. They are so spiritually blind that they do not see the inconsistency and hypocrisy of this. Their words and deeds are born out of hatred and gender strife and division in the church. When they are admonished they will make all kinds of excuses. They will seek to justify themselves. They will pretend that they still do love, when in fact hatred dwells in their hearts and is revealed in their dealings with their fellow saints. This is a very grievous thing which ought not be the case in the church of Jesus Christ. This must be preached against in the church as strongly as false doctrine is preached against. The church of Jesus Christ must be characterized by love. When there is hatred and confusion the name of the Lord is greatly dishonored, the Spirit of God is grieved, and the world is given occasion to blaspheme.
Love is of God, for God is love. He that knoweth God must walk in love. We expect that there is no love in the world because the world lies in wickedness. Not all the humanistic affection of the world measures up to the love which God requires in His holy law. Ungodly men from the time of Cain have filled the world with hatred, strife, murder, bloodshed, and war. Marital strife and broken homes, crime and revolution in the world, the thousands and thousands of abortions that are performed each year in our land, all these testify of the dreadful hatred of the world. But God has redeemed His people from this world of hatred and murder. He has sent forth His Spirit into the hearts of His people and shed forth His own love into their hearts. As born again Christians we must walk in love. The love of Christ towards us and in us must constrain us also to love one another.
Brotherly love is an entirely unique and wonderful love. It implies the great truth that all the saints of God are brethren. We are all brethren in the household and family of God. This is a wonderful thing, a great and amazing work of the grace and Spirit of God. We have all been redeemed by the precious blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. We $1 have the same Spirit of Christ Jesus dwelling in our hearts. We are all fashioned after the image of our heavenly Father. We have one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father who is above us all and in us all.
If we love God we will also love His saints. God commands us to love them because they are His. Love for the brethren has God as its source and also God as its ultimate object. God loves His own with such a great love that He gave His own beloved Son for their salvation in the way of the awful death of the cross. How precious the saints of God are in His sight. Surely they ought also to be precious in our sight. God loved us when we were wholly unloveable. He loved us while we were yet His enemies. We are to love one another with the same love. This is impossible for us by nature. Our old sinful nature is characterized by hatred, pride, and enmity. As long as we are in this life we have only a small beginning of the new obedience also in respect to the love we have towards our brethren. It is still very imperfect. We must constantly strive to put away all hatred and enmity and walk in love with our brethren.
But what does all of this mean practically? Love for the brethren must of course be more than a beautiful doctrine for us. It must be practiced and walked in. Paul defines love as a bond of perfectness. Love is and must be the bond that unites the saints together and causes them to delight in one another’s fellowship and friendship. Above all, a Christian may not live alone as a recluse. That is contrary to the Lord’s commandment. Our love for the brethren is exercised and revealed in the midst of the communion of the saints. Brotherly love is more than a warm feeling inside while we are sitting in our houses.
Love for the brethren operates in the sphere of perfection. There can be no true love in darkness. True love is a holy affection. It delights in holiness and perfection. Brethren who walk in love together delight in perfection and strive for perfection. They exhort and admonish one another according to the perfection of God revealed in His Word. Love is not the worldly tolerance. Love does not condone or wink at sin and evil. If we love our brother we will admonish him in his sin. Admonishing a brother requires a very great love. Such admonition is not the same as harsh and cruel judgment of the brother. To admonish in love is a very great matter. He that converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death and hide a multitude of sins (see James 5). In brotherly love we must labor to build each other up in the grace and faith of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Brotherly love operates also in the sphere of the truth of God. It is the truth of God that unites true saints of God together. Because of that truth they have all things in common. God has given His wonderful truth to His saints. We have the calling with our brethren in the church to strive together for the truth of God, to grow in that truth, confess that truth, defend and promote that truth to the glory of God. That is possible only in the sphere of brotherly love. Sad to say, sometimes it is seen in the church that brethren strive against one another rather than with one another for the truth of God.
Brotherly love involves working for the highest good and welfare of our brethren. In love we must not all seek our own but also the things of others. Love is action and work done for our brethren. Brotherly love requires self-sacrifice and self-denial. If we love our brethren we will spend much of our own time and energy and resources for the good of our brethren. It is good sometimes to consider how much we really do for our brethren. Our evil world is characterized by horrible self-centeredness. Because of our sinful nature we as Christians can sometimes also be very selfish. This is a great evil from which we must repent. How much of our time and energy and money is really spent on ourselves. How little often is given freely for others.
Brotherly love means that we bear with one another’s weaknesses and sins and forgive one another constantly. It means that we are not easily offended by the sinful words and deeds of our brother. How needful this is. We are all such great sinners. We sin against each other repeatedly. Unless we are conscious of our own great sinfulness we can never continue in brotherly love. Unless we are by the grace of God ready to forgive until seventy times seven, brotherly love will soon cease with us. Humility is an absolutely necessary corollary to brotherly love. Where there is pride there can be no true brotherly love.
Brotherly love is revealed in its most beautiful character when our brother is in need or in distress. This world is full of misery and wretchedness. The saints of God cannot escape the misery of the suffering of this world, of sickness, disease, and death. The saints of God are often lonely and forsaken, especially because the world hates them. Jesus said that He will judge all men whether they have given food to their hungry brethren, taken them in when they were strangers, clothed them when they were naked, and visited them when they were sick and in prison. Have we done these things?
If we truly love our brethren we will always be careful what we say to them and about them. How often love is violated by words of hatred and strife and of harsh judgment. What grief and sorrow this has brought to many a dear saint of God. Scripture tells us always to speak the truth in love. It exhorts us to be careful about the words that we speak that they may always minister grace to the hearers and be to the use of edifying. To love our brethren is to use our mouth to exhort and encourage and comfort our fellow saints with the truth of God.
How much more could be said on this very important subject. Let us all be careful to dwell in love with our brethren in the Lord. God is glorified by this. His virtues are most gloriously displayed in the earth when the saints dwell together in love. May it be said of the members of our churches, “Behold, how they love each other!”