Costly Love – The Way to True Unity for All the Followers of Jesus


It is the shortcoming of Protestantism that it never has sufficiently described the place of love in the whole of Christianity.

Paul Tillich,
The Protestant Era

Theologian J. I. Packer called the thesis of my earlier book Your Church Is Too Small a “corrective vision.” That book identfied a serious defect in our Christian practice—a defect that has led us to embrace countless new divisions within Christianity. We value our personal views and opinions above all else, including the fellowship of our brothers and sisters, whom God the Father loves and whom Christ redeemed. In America we have clothed democratic individualism in “God words” and embraced an agenda of perpetual separation. We have chosen ideology over the Carpenter of Nazareth. We seem to have forgotten the inheritance Jesus left us: our God-given oneness (John 17:20–24).

The breakdown of unity has undermined modern life, especially our communities: marriages, families, local churches, neighborhoods, workplaces. Borrowing the words of a friend, I call this relational breakdown an “unholy separation.” The causes of this separation are too numerous to elaborate but I believe we are living through a culture-wide breakdown of virtue that has resulted in profound indifference. This indifference results in a lack of love toward those who differ from us. This “unholy separation” has caused a persistent, painful wound in the Christian church, especially since the sixteenth century. It now threatens to keep us from making a true difference in our broken and divided world (John 17:21). Recall Jesus’ warning in Matthew 5:13: “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”

At a similar time in human history, during the first two decades of the thirteenth century, God raised up an Italian reformer named Giovanni de Pietro di Bernardone. We know Giovanni today as Francis of Assisi (1182–1226). Perhaps no one (at least since the early centuries of the church) has sought more intentionally to imitate the life and love of Christ as did Francis. Bishop Robert Barron recently said, “Francis represents a back to basics evangelicalism, a return to the radicality of the gospel.” In this book I propose the same “return to the radicality of the gospel.” Although hundreds of modern Christian authors have sought the same goal, we still have not achieved “a back to basics evangelicalism.”

Globalization has shrunk distance within the human family, yet our bonds with those closest to us are being weakened. Our children hope for a better tomorrow, yet multitudes of young adults are leaving the church. The next generation dreams of making a positive difference in a world marked by so much negativity. They aim high, creating courageous projects and embracing a vision of partnership that promotes love and community. But the church doesn’t heed the young. We focus on our ritual and church-based internal programs, rather than engage in the hands-on love of Jesus with one another and our neighbors. In truth, our biggest problems are not doctrinal but relational. To address the breakdown of unity we must bridge this “unholy separation” by naming it and then repenting of it.

Many of us in Western culture sense a fresh call to co-create with the mystery of the universe. After all, even though we have rejected many traditional ideas about God, we remain an inherently religious people. We recognize the rampant breakdown of common sense. We long to heal the many families wounded by divorce. We hunger for better earthly cities modeled on transcendence. We grasp for something–or Someone—more. We wonder: What can sustain us politically, ethically, economically, and socially?

Religious leader Chiara Lubich (1920–2008), founder of a Catholic movement that seeks the recovery of spiritual oneness, gave her life to pursuing loving relational unity. “A world immersed in secularism, materialism and indifference,” she once observed, “has brought us so many sharp divisions, to such poverty and crises! [But] things go backwards, [initially] in order to advance. The world returns to the unity of the human family as God intended it to be.” I have written Costly Love because I believe our need for “advance” is far more evident now than at any time since World War II. I also wrote it because I am convinced God is already leading us toward greater unity. There is growing evidence of this unity around the world developing through many diverse movements of faithful people.

Since the publication of Your Church Is Too Small, I’ve been stunned by the way ideas about unity have caught fire (my book being only a small spark, I am sure). In remarkable ways the Holy Spirit seems to be bringing more and more of us into unity, calling people, churches, and movements into a kairos moment. In our broken and divided world, God is calling people into circles (little communities) of love where spiritual relationships bridge division. Almost all forms of Christian spirituality agree that all of nature feels itself in accord because all life has a divine unity rooted in the life of our Creator. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” I am convinced that this network of mutuality” is central to God’s design at the dawning of a new age of social media. Will our individualistic expressions of Christianity further divide the world and the church, or will we advance this “network of mutuality” for Christian unity?

I now believe the growing movement of unity I have witnessed among followers of Jesus from all our Christian traditions will change our world as this new century unfolds. In the foreword to my earlier book, J. I. Packer wrote:

Embracing this vision will mean that our ongoing inter- and intra-church debates will look, and feel, less like trench warfare, in which both sides are firmly dug in to defend the territory that each sees as its heritage, and more like emigrants’ discussions on shipboard that are colored by the awareness that soon they will be confronted by new tasks in an environment not identical with what they knew before.

“This vision,” which I call missional-ecumenism, is directly rooted in the nature of God. Your Church Is Too Small anticipated the central question I address in this book: “What does it mean to believe that God is love and, more particularly, what does it mean for the church of Jesus Christ to live out this divine love?”

Pursuing unity as an end in itself will not heal our divisions. We must reconsider our view of God’s divine nature. We must return to the central truth that God is a merciful Father revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, who incarnates holy love (1 John 4:8, 16). For Christians, there is no separation between God’s holiness and God’s love. But this does not mean we try to balance God’s holiness and wrath with his divine love and grace in order to form a composite view of God’s nature. In his epistles, John clearly says love is God’s character, while holiness and wrath are what one modern theologian calls his “dispositions.” Such dispositions become active on particular occasions but love alone is eternal. Love constitutes God’s essence in a way that wrath does not because love alone is adequately Christocentric. If our experience and understanding of God are merely philosophical, then our love for one another will be philosophical too, which means it may become rigid and cautious. Unless we experience the depths of divine love, no effort for unity will ever become a deep work of the Spirit. The true knowledge of God is expressed in communion with others where mutuality and love are perfected in us at great cost.

Jesus’ words in John 13:34–35 demonstrate my point:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Jesus gives us a “new commandment.” But what is “new” about this command? The command to “love” is not “new.” What then is “new”? Jesus answers, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” The centrality of love’s pattern is now the life and actions of Jesus, a life which becomes the basis of our love. We are to love as Jesus loved!

In his new commandment Jesus expresses clearly his will for all his people throughout this present age. Yet by the late second century the church began to lose sight of the centrality of this commandment to faith and practice. The church did not move so far from Christ that she lost the new commandment entirely, but something slowly developed that was not healthy. We cannot restore this truth of love in the present by tearing down the past. But I do believe that theological debates within the church have distracted the faithful from the centrality of the new commandment. These debates are often essential to the teaching of the church, at least on one level. Yet because of how such battles have been waged the new commandment has often been lost. How did this happen? The church lost sight of the Jewishness of the Messiah and embraced a Greek and Latin paradigm, especially after the first-century Jewish community rejected the early church in large numbers after AD 70. This non- or anti-Jewish paradigm has never served the church well. Cut off from its central story, a story clearly rooted in Israel’s history, the church was left with serious problems for both theology and practice. Large elements of this unfortunate split continue still in church history. As a result, the church is sometimes defined by agreement with doctrinal conclusions rather than by our obedience to Jesus’ expressed will in the new commandment.

In graduate school, one of my mentors, Dr. H. Wilbert Norton, began each class with meditations on John 13–17. His insights into these last words of Jesus shaped me. Reflecting on this period in my life, I now realize how Dr. Norton’s teaching prepared me for what has become my lifelong passion—promoting the unity of the whole church in the mission of Christ by rooting all that we do in the triune love of God in Jesus Christ. In my early twenties my passion was the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18–20). It was also Dr. Norton’s. He helped launch the famous Urbana Missionary Conference, served as a missionary in Africa, and started a number of mission teaching institutions in the U.S. and Africa. He desired to take the gospel to all the nations. But Dr. Norton showed me that the Great Commission without the Great Commandment would amount to a form of activism that uses people as a means to a religious end without the love of Christ. As a zealous young evangelical minister I learned the hard way that pragmatism without love was a formula for catastrophe.

My first full-time pastoral ministry was a new church plant in a fast-growing suburb of Chicago. My youthful activism expressed itself in reaching and baptizing new Christians. “Church-growth” thinking shaped my ministry, but something was missing. I began to seek a better understanding of God and the gospel. By my late twenties and early thirties, I had become a more precise doctrinal preacher, which is not a bad thing at all. But in the process, I had “lost my first love” (Revelation 2:4). By my late thirties I was starving for the love of Christ I had known in my childhood and college years. I had lost my burning fire of intense love for Christ and his kingdom.

In 1981 I began a regular gathering for Protestant ministers in Wheaton, Illinois. Those meetings focused upon reformation and revival. After leading these meetings for more than a decade, I was thrust into a wider ministry that I have served since 1991, ACT3 (Advancing the Christian Tradition in the Third Millennium). Its vision is clear: “ACT3 seeks to empower leaders and churches for unity in Christ’s mission.” But initially this interdenominational ministry was shaped by the angular theological perspective I embraced in my reaction to decision-based evangelism. As my ministry grew wider, I discovered that certain tendencies in my own theological perspective were undermining what God was doing in my soul. I hungered for love and relational oneness. I longed to experience the eternal love of God and then to share this love through deep friendship. I now see this longing reflected in Paul’s affirmation: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

After writing Your Church Is Too Small, I realized well-intentioned Christians settle for divisions and schism because they have not experienced the fullness of God’s love. (It is also rooted in the busy rituals, programs and activities that can fill church life.) Settling for theological concepts—and not pursuing the experience of a loving and gracious God revealed in Jesus Christ—surely makes love die. Thus this book was birthed through my active work for the unity of the entire church.

I continue to treasure my academic work and read widely. I love to teach and write. I also love theology, philosophy, and discussing the big issues of our day. I joyfully embrace the intellectual ability God gave me; Jesus said to love God “with all your mind.” But the mind can be divorced from the spirit. The famous French thinker René Descartes (1596–1650), called the father of modern philosophy, believed we should clear our minds of everything we know and start fresh. Accordingly, he concluded then our most basic certainty is of our own existence, thus his famous dictum: “I think; therefore I am.” But it is not thinking that lies at the core of our human existence. What most shapes our identity, who we really are, is love. What we ultimately love gives us our sense of purpose and lls our life with meaning. That is, We think because we are loved. To be fully human, our deep thinking must prompt deeper love. If we continue to pursue thinking as our primary purpose in life we will lose our way (Philippians 1:9–11).

The vocabulary and resources of formal theology can lead into abstractions if theology settles for thinking as its ultimate goal. These abstractions chill the soul. When we cease to grow in divine love, we miss the central truth of Jesus’ life and mission. Few of us realize this—those driven by thinking about great ideas rather than by great love. I didn’t come to this realization during my first twenty years in ministry. I often spoke in large churches and conferences all across North America and overseas, yet I was missing one of the clearest truths in all of Scripture: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18). God had gifted me to teach and preach, but I was failing to love deeply. Slowly, I grew to understand the intimate relationship between the mind and the heart. I learned to build bridges between them; true wisdom lies on these bridges.

The Way Ahead

Costly Love is divided into five parts. Part one (chapters 1 through 3) considers the nature, or character, of God. By understanding that “God is love” we come to see who God is and how his costly love can mark our daily life. Part two (chapters 4 and 5) asks: “Why should we love with God’s love?” Can we actually “fall in love” with God? Can we really enter into God as love within the hard reality of living among broken people and communities? How does this love show us the way to treat others, even our enemies? Part three (chapters 6 through 8) develops how the church can make love its goal and why love is at the heart of Christian discipleship. In my reading on discipleship (within my evangelical Protestant background), I have almost never seen love rightly connected with discipleship. I seek to make that connection. Part four (chapters 9 through 11) considers Jesus’ “new commandment.” The majority of Christians today are not astounded by this commandment. Finally, part five (chapters 12 through 15) unfolds what makes love costly in the fullest sense of the word. By rediscovering “God-Love” we can experience fully the grace and mercy God has poured out upon the whole world. And the world around us will see this love when we truly love one another, just as Jesus prayed in John 17. What we shall see throughout this book, in many different ways, is that we must enter into the gift of unity in the Spirit by being filled with God’s gift of costly love.

My goal is simple: to explain what I call “God-Love,” a compound word that I believe will help us adopt a vision of unity that is immensely empowering and genuinely transforming. I wish to do this in such a way that you will truly love God and your neighbor. en I shall lead you into a dis- covery of the power of the new commandment (John 13:34– 35) so that with your heart and soul you can learn how to love your brothers and sisters as Jesus commanded. By this way you can learn to practice the love of Jesus as a daily pattern of life. Through the lens of this divine love, this costly love, you can see how unity then becomes a shared reality that transcends our divisions.

A Fresh Interpretation of Love

The quotation that begins this introduction says, “It is the shortcoming of Protestantism that it never has sufficiently described the place of love in the whole of Christianity.” Both Catholicism and Orthodoxy have a rich theology of divine love, especially because of their deeply Trinitarian understanding of God. In seeking a more-robust place for faith the Protestant Reformation tended to create a theology that distanced itself from experiential love. For this reason theologian Paul Tillich concluded, “A fresh interpretation of love is needed in all sections of Protestantism, an interpretation that shows that love is basically not an emotional but an ontological power, that it is the essence of life itself, namely, the dynamic reunion of that which is separated.” Costly Love attempts to offer a “fresh interpretation of love” that will, I humbly pray, appeal to all Christians everywhere.

Behind Tillich’s thought lies the sad reality that millions of Christians (and not just Protestants) have replaced love with faith, or church doctrine. Moreover, multitudes have replaced love with religion and ended up teaching Christianity as doctrine and theology. Active faith is reduced to knowing dogma or propositions. People are urged to pursue a better understanding of sound teaching, as if this itself is living faith. In the end, faith and knowledge are celebrated as if these were Christianity’s highest ideals! A century ago a new kind of Protestant “theological warfare” divided liberals and conservatives. (Catholics would come to experience the consequences of these battles decades later in different ways.) Sadly, this division continues. Many conservative Protestants have divided the church even further, separating from their fellow conservative Protestants over how to define and explain the faith in precise ways. Now more conservative Protestants are dividing yet again, this time over moral and political issues that weren’t even on the table when I was a young pastor.

Yet Paul, the apostle of faith, says the love of Christ must become “the very spring of our actions” (2 Corinthians 5:14, J. B. Phillips New Testament). This great apostle of the Christian faith also said, “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6, italics added). If this is God’s truth, then how does faith working through love shape who I am and what I do? How does this faith working through love empower the church? Ultimately, my central premise is rooted in these words: “For right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope, love. And the best of the three is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13, The Message). I hope extravagant love describes what you desire for your life and church. I understand extravagant love as the kind of love that goes beyond reason, beyond what we call common sense. This leads me to my title: Costly Love. God’s extravagant love was ultimately poured out at a great price: Christ’s total sacrifice. Such love is extravagant because it cost God everything. Such love has value beyond words.