I do not love my unbelieving neighbor because I know that God loves him. But I do love him for God’s sake. Love for the neighbor is not rooted in a desire simply to be a decent human being. Atheists believe it is possible to love the neighbor without any love for God. Some of these atheists expressed their faith in a general human capacity for goodness with advertisements in 2008 that read: “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” Contrary to that the Bible teaches and the believer knows that true love for the neighbor is rooted in a love for God. Without the love of God in my heart I cannot love my wife, my children, my governor, my parents, my brothers and sisters in Christ, or my unbelieving neighbor. God’s love must come to me first, transform me so that I love him, and then for his sake I can love my neighbor.
In his exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism Rev. Hoeksema explained that loving the neighbor for God’s sake is the requirement of the summary of the law. He wrote,
When the Lord teaches us in Matt. 22:38 and 39 that the great commandment is the love of God, while the second commandment, concerning the love of the neighbor, is like unto the first, the meaning is, of course, that the love of God is the principle of the whole law and that without it there is no love of the neighbor possible. The latter is rooted in the love of God. It is evident, therefore that the law requires that we love the neighbor for God’s sake.
True love for the neighbor is always an expression of love for God that is controlled by the law of God. Men do not love their neighbors when the kindness they show to them measures up to their own human standards. Men might think it is a loving-kindness to the neighbor when they tolerate and even encourage the neighbor’s sins. In reality that is hatred for God and therefore hatred for the neighbor. When men seek to “love” their neighbors in such a way they are pursuing the neighbor’s material good at the expense of his spiritual well-being. Christians love others according to God’s law in order to “promote the advantage” of the neighbor both materially and spiritually (Lord’s Day 42, Q/A 111 of the Heidelberg Catechism).
Since Christians love the neighbor for God’s sake, they love the neighbor for the same reason that they love God. GRATITUDE. Why are Christians filled with gratitude to God? For the personal salvation God has graciously given to them for the sake of Jesus Christ. The reason I love my unbelieving neighbor is not because God loves him but because God loves me! If I had a Muslim neighbor next door, my thought would not be, ‘because God loves him I am required to love him.’ But my thought would be, ‘because God loves me I must love him.’ Gratitude is expressed in love for the neighbor because of the personal knowledge that says, ‘I am an unworthy sinner loved by God, so I will also love my neighbor, who may be an unworthy sinner, but no more unworthy than me.’
Why did Paul love and desire the salvation of unbelieving Jews and Gentiles? Why does a believing wife cleave to and love an unbelieving husband (1 Peter 3)? Why do Christians honor and pray for the salvation of wicked rulers? Why do Christians give a reason of their hope to Muslims and other unbelievers and pray for their salvation? Such love for the neighbor is not rooted in a knowledge that God loves everyone with whom Christians have contact. Christians love others, are kind to others, and desire the salvation of others because they are thankful for how great a salvation God has given them!
In the future I plan to take the time to examine some Scripture passages that demonstrate that Christian love for the neighbor is based on God’s love for us, not his love for all men. And perhaps in another post I will answer the question, do Christians love people that God does not love, and if so, why?