As Christians, our love for one another should be obvious to others. On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus told His disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). Other passages inform us, “you yourselves are taught by God to love one another” (1 Th 4:9b), and “keep fervent in your love for one another” (1 Pet 4:8a), and “this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (1 John 3:11), and “This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us” (1 John 3:23), and “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). In each of these biblical passages, the word love translates the Greek verb ἀγαπάω agapao, which means we value others by seeking God’s best in their lives, seeking to build them up and to meet their needs as we have opportunity.
God’s love should also be extended to those who hate and mistreat us. God has unconditional love for everyone, which means He does them good and blesses them. This is virtue love. Though God’s love is innate to Him, it is not natural to us, since we are fallen and marked by sin. Our innate personal love can never rise above our particular likes. But, once saved, we are to learn about God’s love—virtue love—and then model it in our lives to others. Virtue love must be learned. The apostle Paul, when writing to his friend, Timothy, said, “the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:5). And Paul described virtue love, saying, “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” (1 Cor 13:4-8a). As we advance spiritually in our walk with God, we can learn to love as He loves.
Virtue love and personal love are distinct. Personal love is based on an individual’s particular likes and affections, which fluctuate and change. Personal love is no greater than the person whose desires and feelings vacillate. Virtue love is greater, because it is tied to God and His love. God’s love is stable, constant, sacrificial, and does good to everyone. Virtue love is based on God’s truth. True love requires truth, otherwise, it becomes a lesser form of love that is subject to personal whims. According to R. B. Thieme Jr., “For human love to succeed, God’s perfect, unchanging truth must be the source, pattern, and basis of that love. Mankind can truly love only by possessing the virtue that derives from God Himself (1 John 4:9–10).” Virtue love manifests itself toward others in a thoughtful and sacrificial way and is not based on the beauty or worth of the object. Scripture reveals, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). This is a sacrificial love, for “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). And “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). John concludes, saying, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11). Our love for others is borne out of God’s love for us.
Operating on virtue love does not mean we expose ourselves to unnecessary harm (1 Ki 18:13; John 8:59; Acts 9:23-25; 2 Tim 4:14-15), nor that we trust all people (John 2:23-24), nor fail to rebuke others when needed (Matt 16:21-23; Luke 9:51-55), nor that we interact or befriend people who are hostile to God (Prov 13:20; 20:19; 22:24-25; 24:21; 1 Cor 5:9-11; 15:33; 2 Tim 3:1-5), nor forfeit the right to defend ourselves physically or legally when we come under attack (Acts 22:25-29; 25:7-12). And when we are attacked, it’s alright to be angry. Paul wrote, “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph 4:26). And it’s alright to be hurt, but never to hate (Luke 6:27-28).
Personal love, weak as it is, is our default setting from the flesh. Virtue love is acquired over time as we learn about God through His Word and follow His directives. Virtue love operates fully and effectively even toward those hate us and seek our harm. Jesus demands this kind of love from His disciples, saying, “I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28). All four of Jesus’ directives (to love, do good, bless, and pray) are in the imperative mood, which means they are commands to be understood and obeyed. These directives are consciously in our minds and actively obeyed as we direct our wills to seek God’s best in the lives of others. To do good to those who hate us means we are kind and generous when possible. To bless our enemies means we wish them well rather than harm. To pray for our enemies means we ask God to save and bless them, even though they seek to mistreat us. In all this, we are never to return evil for evil (see Rom 12:14, 17-21; 1 Th 5:15; 1 Pet 3:9). This is not mere passivity, but requires great discipline of the mind and will, which can be contrary to our emotions. Nor does such behavior imply weakness on our part. Jesus, the theanthropic person, possessed all power sufficient to destroy His enemies, yet He restrained His power for the sake of love and grace.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said, “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:44-45). Divine truth, not feelings, must be what guides our thoughts, words, and actions. As Christians, when we think and act this way, we are like the “sons of the Most-High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men” (Luke 6:35). Paul, when speaking to unbelievers, said of the Father, “He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17). That’s love. And in Galatians, Paul said, “So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal 6:10). God’s love for everyone is our pattern to follow. This is not personal love, but virtue love. This kind of love and behavior is accomplished by faith and not feelings. Though we can’t always change our feelings, we must not be governed by them; rather, God’s Word must be the driving force that directs our thoughts, words, and actions. As we grow spiritually, God’s love will become more and more seated in our thoughts, and as we submit ourselves to Him and walk in the Spirit, His love will begin to shine forth toward others and we will seek God’s best in their lives. Let us love others as God directs, based on the truth of His Word, and after the pattern of Himself and our Savior, Jesus. In this way, we will adhere to Paul’s instruction, in which he says, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; 2 and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Eph 5:1-2).
Dr. Steven R. Cook
- The Gospel Explained
- Commitment Love
- Let God Repay Those Who Mistreat You
- Mature Christian Love
- Treating Other with Dignity
- God Loves Israel
- Walking with God
- Knowing and Doing the Will of God
- The High Calling of God’s Servant
- A Look at Grace
 R. B. Thieme Jr., “Virtue Love” in Thieme’s Bible Doctrine Dictionary, (Houston, TX., R. B. Thieme, Jr., Bible Ministries, 2022), p, 285.