Tag Archives: love

There Are Better Books (Than “The Shack”)

This is (yet another) blog post about The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young. The Canadian in me wants to apologize immediately and get back to smiling, but that wouldn’t be quite honest. So I’ll just say I wish posts like this never had to be written.

(Before you scroll on: I promise to end this post on a positive and constructive note! And I will need your help to make it even more positive.)

[Update: Actually, this post is more a review of the theology of the original author of The Shack than a review of the book itself. As I understand it, pastors Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings helped shape the manuscript of The Shack, so that Young’s theology was not so fully expressed there. (There have even been lawsuits about who all should be named as authors.) Please bear these facts in mind as you read the rest of my post.]

What I’m Not Saying and Why I’m Writing

As debates about The Shack have escalated to a near frenzy online in recent weeks, I have been trying for the most part to hold my tongue about Young. I don’t like conflict, especially between Christians. I don’t like putting myself in a place where I’ll almost certainly receive some criticism. I don’t think reviewing controversial books or evaluating complex topics (such as God’s gender) are usually done best in Facebook text bites. Doing it in blogs is hard enough. And I want this blog to usually focus on more foundational matters than the latest hot topic—Bible reading skills and theological understandings that prepare us to navigate multiple topics as they come along.

But “this website exists to build up the Church of Jesus Christ by helping her listen carefully to the Scriptures,” and it seems to me that too many of my fellow Christians are following someone who is neither building up the Church nor listening carefully to the Scriptures. So, I’d like to shine the light of the Scriptures on a few corners of The Shack.

Before I continue, though, please hear me when I say that I nearly tremble to share this post. I realize there are some readers who feel they have (and may indeed have) found great help in Young’s writings. Some of these readers, like Young, have experienced terrible abuse and great suffering of spirit. They have found solace in Young’s depiction of God’s great love. I tremble lest my words reopen wounds or sound like a callous diminution of God’s tender love. I tremble lest, in noting the imperfections of the arm upon which some are leaning, I am the occasion for someone falling without hope of any arm upon which to lean.

If, perhaps, I may be describing you, let me assure you: There are better books than this one, and God’s love is even richer than Young describes it to be, for it reaches even lower than he imagines.

I also tremble lest my words of caution drive some even more devotedly after Young.

But, imperfect as I am, and imperfect as this post will be, I will carry on.

I have some words of firm rebuke to say later, so I want to first clearly say several things I’m not saying:

  • I am most certainly not calling any fan of The Shack a heretic. Enjoying an imperfect book does not make someone a heretic. Even believing untruths about God does not automatically make one a heretic.
  • I am not denying that The Shack contains many beautiful truths, that many find it to be an engaging story, or even that God has used it to help some people learn more about himself.
  • I don’t agree with every criticism that is being leveled against The Shack or its author.
  • I’m not interested in attacking Young as a person, belittling the suffering he has experienced, or making statements about his standing before God.
  • I am not telling you whether you should or should not either read or watch The Shack. Sometime after the novel came out and controversy first swirled around it, I read it. I don’t regret doing so.

What did I think of it? I enjoyed maybe 80% of it. It was a rare “light” read for me (I usually read non-fiction biblical studies books), and much about the plot and characters was engaging. But I also read it with an eye open to test what it was teaching–for it was written with the intent to teach, right? I’m glad I read it, but my copy ended up full of sticky notes where I sensed that something didn’t seem to be lining up with Scripture. Here’s my copy:

Orange means “caution.”

What nudged me to write this post was a chance today to scan another book by Young. As I was servicing a Choice Books rack at a Walmart this morning, I noticed Young’s book Lies We Believe about God on a nearby rack. I had already heard of the book, but had never seen it.

Unlike The Shack, Lies We Believe about God is (or at least is intended to be) non-fiction. Here Young clearly states the set of beliefs he was trying to teach us through his earlier novel. (I understand the novel was first written for Young’s children, then later published for mass readership. But, as Young shows in his new book, The Shack was indeed intended to portray and teach theological truths.) This new book contains multiple short chapters, with each chapter title being a “lie” he aims to prove false.

I took time to scan parts of five or six chapters, and snapped photos of a few pages to help me share excerpts here. (A fuzzy “dumb phone” camera partially frustrated my purposes, but Amazon preview came to the rescue.) I’ll share some excerpts, then comment.

Problems with Young’s Theology:

Near the end of the chapter entitled “Sin Separates Us from God”—one of Young’s “lies”—we read this:

If separation is a lie, does it mean that no one has ever been separated from God? That is exactly what it means. Nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).

Jesus did not come to build a bridge back to God or to offer the possibility of getting unseparated. One of the multifaceted purposes of the incarnation of Jesus is that we who are lost in the delusion of separation can witness a human life who knows He is not.

There is “nothing” outside God. There is only God, and Creation is created “in” God; and according to John 1, Creation is specifically created “inside” Jesus, the Word who is God (see verses 3-4). (p. 232)

As I compare with Scripture, I see multiple problems with these paragraphs. Here are several:

  • Young is teaching universalism. (This will become explicit later.) Normally, universalism is the belief that God will ultimately save everyone, so that no one will spend eternity estranged from God. Young’s version of universalism is even more radical: He believes that already now no one is separated from God.
  • Young’s language about being “lost in the delusion of separation” sounds more like Hinduism than Christianity. And his solution sounds more like Hinduism’s enlightenment than Christianity’s salvation. [I originally compared Young’s thought to Bhuddism rather than Hinduism, but a reader suggested, correctly I think, that Hinduism is a closer comparison.]
  • Young’s biblical foundation is very shaky.

More on this last point. First, Young twists Scripture to make his point. Romans 8 is not denying that sin separates us from God. It is written about Christians who have already been freed from the penalty (Romans 3-5) and power (Romans 6-8) of sin, and it is assuring them that those who are already elect and justified cannot be separated from God’s love by any external threat. Romans is clear that apart from Christ every person is an “enemy” of God who needs to be “reconciled” to him (Rom. 5:10)—a reality only experienced by those who pursue righteousness by faith in Christ (Rom. 3:21-25; 9:30-32). It is the Spirit who bears witness that we are children of God, and “anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Rom. 8:9 ESV).

Young likewise uses John 1 in a suspect manner, both building theology on a questionable translation of a Greek preposition (“inside”) and also stretching a passage about the Son’s role as divine Creator to say something unsuggested in its original context—that if everything was created “inside” Christ/God then nothing can be estranged from God. We don’t have to read much further in John 1 to know Young’s interpretation is wrong, for we soon read that Jesus own people “did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (1 John 1:11-12 ESV). The clear message here is that (a) not all are children of God and (b) those who are, became such—they were not children of God prior to receiving Christ and believing in his name. This is not universalism!

Second, the excerpts above are the only scriptures that Young cites in his entire chapter on the “lie” that “sin separates us from God”! That is the only biblical evidence he provides as he attempts to overturn a standard Christian teaching. The rest of the chapter is just his own theological musings.

Here is only one of many other Bible passages that Young might have considered:

Behold, the Lord‘s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
    or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
but your iniquities have made a separation
    between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
    so that he does not hear. (Is. 59:1-3 ESV)

In the same chapter Young discusses the definition of “sin”:

The Greek word often translated into English as “sin” is hamartia. A moralist will tell you that the word means “missing the mark” and then go on to explain that the mark is “moral perfection” or “right behavior” and once again we are back on the performance hamster wheel. But if the essence of God’s nature is relationship, then sin must be defined and understood as missing a relational reality, a distortion of the image of God in us.

Hamartia is made up of two parts: ha- (an aspirated alpha), which is a negation (like un- or dis-), and -martia, from the Greek word meros, which means “form, origin, or being.” The fundamental meaning is “negation of origin or being” or “formlessness.” Yes, it is about missing the mark, but the mark is not perfect moral behavior. The “mark” is the Truth of your being.

…Sin, then, is anything that negates or diminishes or misrepresents the truth of who you are, no matter how pretty or ugly that is. Behavior becomes either an authentic way of expressing the truth of your good creation or an effort to cover up (performance behavior) the shame of what you think of yourself (worthlessness).

And what does the truth of your being look like? You are made in the image of God, and the truth of your being looks like God.

You are patient.
You are kind.
You are good.
You are humble.
You are forgiving.
You are a truth teller.
You are… [many more]… pure of heart…

And so on.

These are all expressions of the truth of our being.

Difficult to believe, right?

I think that is the point. (pp. 229-230)

I see several problems with this passage. First, there are several problems with his discussion of the definition of hamartia:

  • He cites the definition a “moralist” might give to hamartia, but never cites any standard Greek dictionary. This sets up somewhat of a straw man argument, or at least misses the opportunity to check his understandings against what experienced Greek students have concluded. For example, Mounce notes that hamartia “typically refers to the transgression of the law” and that “thus, hamartia is used to denote our sin against God” (Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words). Note Mounce’s observation that sin is not merely about missing some abstract “moral perfection” or “right behavior,” but about transgressing God’s law—thus making sin a relational matter (as Young claims) but a matter of our relationship to God (not to ourselves, as Young suggests).
  • Young commits what linguists call a “etymological fallacy” when he defines sin based on its word components. What does “butterfly” mean? Don’t try to define it by dividing it into “butter” and “fly”! True, many words won’t lead you quite so far astray if you divide them into parts to define them. But the dependable way to get a working definition for any word is to see how it is used in real life. Hence Mounce’s approach above, when he says that hamartia “is used to denote” such and such.
  • Young then makes a leap from his etymologically-derived definition to assume that “the mark is the Truth of your being.” Why not (assuming for the moment his definition) say that “the mark is the truth of God’s being”?
  • Young says that “the essence of God’s nature is relationship.” I don’t deny that relationship is essential to God’s nature. But I also recall that the God of the Bible never says “I am relationship.” Nor is he ever praised as “Relationship, relationship, relationship!” But there are many places where he declares “I am holy,” and multiple places where he is praised as “Holy, holy, holy.” Surely holiness is essential to God’s nature. Why does Young not consider this in his understanding of sin?

This thought flow leads to a definition of sin that doesn’t seem  anything Iike the standard concept of sin in the Bible: “Sin, then, is anything that negates or diminishes or misrepresents the truth of who you are…” If I am reading Young correctly here, it seems that he believes sin is essentially inauthenticity.  And if you understand yourself correctly, you will know you are good. So sin is to disbelieve one’s own goodness.

I’ll include one more extended excerpt from Young’s recent book, from a chapter about the “lie” that “You Need to Get Saved.” I’ll add bold font to some clauses and mostly let Young speak for himself:

So what is the Good News? What is the Gospel?

The Good News is not that Jesus has opened up the possibility of salvation and you have been invited to receive Jesus into your life. The Gospel is that Jesus has already included you into His life, into His relationship with God the Father, and into His anointing in the Holy Spirit. The Good News is that Jesus did this without your vote, and whether you believe it or not won’t make it any less or more true.

What or who saves me? Either God did in Jesus, or I save myself. If, in any way, I participate in the completed act of salvation accomplished in Jesus, then my part is what actually saves me. Saving faith is not our faith, but the faith of Jesus.

God does not wait for my choice and then “save me.” God has acted decisively and universally for all humankind. Now our daily choice is to either grow and participate in that reality or continue to live in the blindness of our own independence.

Are you suggesting that everyone is saved? That you believe in universal salvation?

That is exactly what I am saying!

This is real good news! It has been blowing people’s minds for centuries now. So much so that we often overcomplicate it and get it wrong. Here’s the truth: every person who has ever been conceived was included in the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. When Jesus was lifted up, God “dragged” all human beings to Himself (John 12: 32). Jesus is the Savior of all humankind, especially believers (1 Timothy 4: 10). Further, every single human being is in Christ (John 1: 3), and Christ is in them, and Christ is in the Father (John 14: 20). When Christ—the Creator in whom the cosmos was created—died, we all died. When Christ rose, we rose (2 Corinthians 5)…

We don’t offer anyone what has already been given; we simply celebrate the Good News with each one: we have all been included. (pp. 117-120, emphasis added)

Young is clear enough that his words need little explanation here: He believes in universalism—that all people are already saved, apart from anything (including even faith) on their part.

Young says that this truth “has been blowing people’s minds for centuries now.” What he does not mention is that universalism has also been considered a heresy for centuries now.

Here, for example, is the assessment of Roger Olson—someone who is actually probably more open to the possibility of universalism than I would be:

Strictly historically speaking, any universalism is heresy–according to all major branches of Christianity.

Olson suggests that not all forms of universalism are as dangerous as others. Which kinds are most dangerous?

I think universalism is a minor heresy SO LONG AS it does not interfere with evangelism…  I also evaluate the seriousness of universalism by its context–viz., why does the person affirm it?  If universalism is evidence of a denial of God’s wrath and/or human sinfulness, then it is much more serious.

Given Young’s redefinition of sin (and of God’s wrath in other parts of this book), I suggest that his version of universalism is no small heresy.

I do not know Young. I do not know his intentions. I do not aim to make a judgment call on his salvation. I sincerely hope he is my brother in Christ. Again, listen to Olson:

[Universalism] is unbiblical and illogical.  However, that does not mean a person who holds it is not a Christian.  I have never met a Christian who was one hundred percent theologically correct.  Scratch hard enough and you’ll always find some heresy beneath the surface (if not on the surface).  That’s true for me as much as for anyone else.

However, the unfortunate truth remains: Young’s books promote the heresy of universalism—a heresy that reaches near to the core of our understanding of the gospel. Many of us sensed such problems in The Shack; they are now evident to all with eyes to see in Lies We Believe About God.

In addition, our brief discussion of only a few pages of his recent book revealed the following problems:

  • Young radically redefines sin in unbiblical ways.
  • He does not follow standard lexical methods for defining biblical words.
  • He uses relatively little Scripture, takes it out of context when he does use it, and overlooks passages that contradiction his assertions.

Sadly, what Young does not seem to realize is that his attempts to emphasize God’s love (by promoting universalism and its supporting doctrines) actually produce an anemic vision of God’s love. By downplaying the horror of sin’s afront to God’s holiness, God’s offer of love to sinful humanity is also diminished.

I understand that people such as Young who have suffered terribly often struggle to feel God’s love. I do not want to belittle this struggle in any way. I, too, have tasted of it, though I will not compare myself with others. I do suggest, however, that the answer to our desperate sense of distance from God is not to deny that distance via a universalism that strips the cross of its awesome incongruity, but to acknowledge the immensity of the gulf that God has spanned at immeasurable cost on our behalf. In denying that gulf, Young unwittingly diminishes our vision of God’s love.

Better Books

As I left Walmart and reflected on Young’s writings, one thought grew uppermost in my mind: “There are better books!”

With all the great Christian literature out there, why should The Shack float to the top?

I freely affirm that there are valid concerns that lead people to books such as The Shack. Many of us have experienced terrible injustices and abuses. Many of us have been hurt by our churches. Most of us have stood in urgent need of a fresh vision of God’s love and grace!

But why turn to The Shack as the best answer to these needs? Yes, Young writes with great authenticity (a virtue which is opposite of his definition of sin, after all). But many other writers have also written with authenticity. And authenticity is not the same thing as truth. Why do some of us seem to value authenticity more than truth? Without truth, there is no real life—no eternal life. Why not seek and promote books that speak healing and grace and love—and truth!

This is where I need your help. If you share any of my concerns about our need for fresh, healing visions of God’s love and grace, if you share any of my experience of being hurt (once or repeatedly) by the church, and if you also share any of my concerns about the false teachings found in Young’s writings, then please do us all a favor:

Share in the comments below the name of a book or two that you would suggest instead of The Shack.

Pointing out false teaching is unfortunately essential work at times. But merely pointing out the false does not bring life to anyone. Help us out! What books would you suggest to someone who is wrestling with suffering, abuse, pain, distance from God, hurt by the church, or other major heart tragedies? Which books have helped you?

Let me begin by listing several:

  • Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan. Eugene Peterson suggested that The Shack could do for our generation what Pilgrim’s Progress did for Bunyan’s. Actually, Pilgrim’s Progress served many generations well. Why not read an updated version today?
  • Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church, by Philip Yancey. This one was helpful to me in my early twenties. Yancey recounts his “horror story” about his church experience, then mini bios of  many saints past and present whose lives renews his own faith.
  • Speaking of Yancey, he has written many good books on suffering and wrestling with God, as well as an influential book on grace: What’s So Amazing About Grace? [Note: I originally called this a “great” book, but I amended my endorsement after someone emailed me with a concern about the book. I confess I have not read this book, but shared it based on earlier positive feedback I’ve heard and my experience with Yancey’s other books.]
  • When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty, by Joni Eareckson Tada and Steven Estes. (This one was recommended as an exceptional read to me several years ago by Clifford Schrock of Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute. Tada has a new one that may be even better.)
  • The Gospel According to Job: An Honest Look at Pain and Doubt from the Life of One Who Lost Everything, by Mike Mason. Mason’s book on marriage is the only marriage book that my wife and I have both deeply enjoyed. I gave this book on Job to my friend Lowell Herschberger, and I think I’ve seen him reference it multiple times since.

Those are a few. My list is tilted toward nonfiction. Try Les Miserable or some Dostoyevsky for some tested fiction that wrestles deeply with tragedy and grace.

What can you add to this list? Please suggest a helpful book in the comments below. And again… if you think I’ve been overly critical of Young and The Shack, I sincerely hope we can still be friends. God’s love can cover a multitude of sins, including my own.


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Like Spring [Poem by Mom]

Georgia vines cover our backyard like love covers a multitude of sins. At least that is the natural order of things—with the vines, as well as with true love.

We are slowly learning about southern biology. My wife’s daily devotional times are suffering thanks to the babbling birds boldly blaring their boom boxes behind our brick abode. I’m noticing—I think, I hope—that Georgia grass grows just a bit more gradually than Iowa varieties.

I might be wrong. Either way, I know that my love should look more like Iowa grass and Georgia vines, and that forgiveness should grow more quickly in wounds of my heart.

Mom talks about these things in the poem she shares this month. If you are struggling to forgive, or surprised by your own capacity to hate, then may her words give you fresh courage.

Mom’s poem is old—first written when I was only eight. (I recall the geological events she describes from the time, but was blissfully unaware as a boy of the concurrent ecclesiological disruptions motivating her poem.) Mom has written a new introduction to her old poem. But first, here is the poem. Enjoy!


Photo Credit: Dainis Matisons via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Dainis Matisons via Compfight cc

LIKE SPRING

How persistent Spring is,
Untiring in her zeal
To carpet all that’s barren,
To beautify and heal.

Even into gashes
That man has blasted out,
Peninsulas are greening
And tiny islands sprout.

How forgiving Spring is
Of winter’s wasting shocks;
Ferns trail her every footstep
And moss adorns the rocks.

Oh, if man would mellow,
Forgive as joyously,
And seek to heal old wound scars
As conscientiously.

—Elaine Gingrich, January 1982/1985. Published in Ontario Informer, 1985.


Ken and I have been marking Bible courses for prison inmates for over twenty years. The very first lesson in the first Gospel Echoes Team course asks the student to name the most forgiving person that he knows other than God. Another question I marked last night: “What have you observed in Jesus’ relationships that could help you get along better with others?” The inmate responded with “Forgiveness is key.”

Forgiveness! This theme appears again and again in the inmates’ responses and comments and prayer requests. “Pray that my family, my wife, my children will forgive me.” “ Pray that I can forgive myself.” “I am finding it easier to forgive those who have hurt me.” “Studying these courses is helping me to forgive others.”

One student had wanted his life to end but reading the Bible showed him that he could turn his life around. He asked forgiveness of God and his loved ones and was finally able to forgive his girlfriend who left him while he was in jail. Forgiveness is transformative.

We all know forgiveness is not essential only for prison inmates. The scars that I write about in this poem have nothing to do with crime or incarceration. Sadly many Christians live imprisoned far too long in the grips of unforgiveness and bitterness. No wonder the epistles command us over and over to be tenderhearted, to forgive as Christ forgave us, and to return good for evil.

“Like Spring” was written after a discouraging season in church life. Differing opinions on church affiliation had caused our beloved pastor to move on. A few members moved away. Ken wondered why he was building our new home. The images for the poem grew out of the road construction occurring that summer past our property. The cottage trail winding between the northern lakes was redirected, blasted through the rocky hill between our circle drive. Several times rock-drilling and blasting sent us out of our trailer home to safety, and the dust and rumble of huge dump trucks and power shovels entertained my three young sons who had a front rock seat to all the action.

It was the next spring, as I walked and prayed, that I was amazed to see how soon the barren disturbed patches of earth and crevices in the rocks were again sprouting with new growth and green beauty. But then, of course, Christ is the giver of life, of new life, in nature and in human hearts. And God is love and has called us to love and forgive as He does, to join Him in the ministry of reconciliation. I think of a simple poem I wrote in my teens: “Hating Those Who Hate.”

HATING THOSE WHO HATE

The times when I most see the need
To love mankind,
I feel like driving this great truth
Into man’s mind.

The passion of this growing lack
Of love grips me.
I see it is our foremost great
Necessity.

And yet the times my being throbs
With pain at hate
Is when my heart most tends to hate
Those men who hate.

You cannot hope to help someone
You do not love—
The only answer to this need
Comes from above.

Yes, God’s way and nature’s way is better.

—Elaine Gingrich, May 26, 2016


For the rest of the poems in this monthly series, see here.

And if you enjoyed this poem, leave a comment here for Mom, or send her an email at MomsEmailAddressImage.php.  Thanks!


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Is “Love One Another” A New Commandment for You?

The coming of the light changes everything. Did you see the sunrise this morning? Even if you didn’t, it changed your life. The coming of the light transforms the whole world, including you and me. As the sun rises each day, we are infused (barring sickness or early alarm clocks) with new vision and energy, stirred to move with purpose and life.

The same is true of the spiritual dimensions of our beings. The coming of the Light changes everything.

The apostle and author John (assuming, with reason, that the two are the same person) liked to talk about light and darkness. He is the one, for instance, that noticed that Nicodemus visited Jesus in the dark while the Samaritan woman visited him in the light of the noonday sun. Guess who possessed spiritual sight?

One place where light makes all the difference is 1 John 2:7-11:

Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. 11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.

This passage is full of short, simple words. Even the Greek is among the simplest in the NT. But, as is typical with John, easy words bear weighty thoughts.

I see at least three basic themes in these verses:

  • A commandment to love one’s brother
  • A contrast between light and darkness
  • An apparent contradiction between “old” and “new”

Let’s start with the apparent contradiction first.

How can the command to love our brother be both old and new?

Some try to solve this dilemma in part by noting that the Greek word for “new” in verse 8 is καινὴν, not νέος. The latter often means new in time (i.e., recent), while the former can sometimes mean new in quality (i.e., unusual or superior). Thus we could perhaps theoretically translate verse 8 like this: “At the same time, it is a fresh commandment that I am writing to you.” This would remove the tension between “old” and “new,” for an “old” commandment could still be a “fresh,” or perhaps even “better” one. One commentator suggests it is like a familiar symphony being performed anew by skilled musicians, or a familiar dish of food prepared by a culinary wizard.1

But, however true such images are, this solution doesn’t work on a linguistic basis. Why? Because the same word καινὴν is also found, negatively, in verse 7: “I am writing you no new commandment.” Unless John changes the meaning of καινὴν from one verse to the next (which is entirely possible but which then overturns the distinction between καινὴν and νέος), he is still apparently contradicting himself.

The simple English word “new” is a good translation. And the word clearly includes a chronological dimension, for “old” is amplified by the phrase “from the beginning.” So we must not try to hide the appearance of contradiction: John is saying that the commandment to love is both old (known from the beginning) and, in some other and more recent sense, new.

(John, with his black-and-white language, is full of such apparent contradictions, prompting us to puzzle profitably over his words as over cunning proverbs.)

So, how is the love commandment old?

One possible answer is to note that the command to love our brother has existed since the oldest parts of Scripture. Jesus summarized the OT law with two great commandments:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:37-39)

In doing so, Jesus cited two OT texts:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deut. 6:5)

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, …but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Lev. 19:17-18)

So the love commandment is as old because it is older than the Bible itself.

But John likely had something else in mind when he called the love commandment “old.” The commandment was old to John’s readers because they “had [it] from the beginning” (2:7). “From the beginning” is a phrase that John uses in multiple ways, but here it seems to refer to time when his readers first heard the gospel message:

Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. (1 John 2:24)

For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. (1 John 3:11)

And now I ask you, dear lady—not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning—that we love one another. (2 John 1:5)

Isn’t this true with us, too? I can’t recall a time when I didn’t know I was supposed to love my brother. Can you? “Love one another” is  very old command—so old, in fact that we sometimes forget that it is also new.

So, how is the love commandment new?

Here we are reminded of the words of Jesus—as recorded by John:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. (John 13:34)

What did Jesus mean when he called this commandment “new”? I think the answer lies in the phrase “just as I have loved you.” Jesus provided us a new example of love, an example that renews the old commandment by giving us a picture of what our love should look like.

John says much the same thing in his first letter:

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. (1 John 3:16)

Jesus’ example demonstrates a new magnitude of love:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:12-13)

In fact, Jesus’ love extended not only to his friends, but to his enemies—an almost unheard of thing, as Paul notes:

For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:7-8)

Jesus’ coming also provides a new power for us to love. John is the apostle of new birth. He is the one who records Jesus’ words, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). He said that all who received Jesus were given the right to become children of God, born of God (John 1:12-13). And in his first letter he says that being born of God gives us power to keep God’s commandments, including the command to love one another:

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments... And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world… (1 John 5:2-4)

Being born of God gives us power to love. So does abiding in Christ, another theme emphasized by John. At the end of the famous passage about bearing fruit by abiding in the Vine, John records these words from Jesus:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends... You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (from John 15:12-17)

Abiding in Christ, therefore, empowers us to bear the fruit of mutual love.

I have suggested three ways (there are surely more) in which the love commandment can properly be called new:

  • Jesus provided a new example of love.
  • Jesus’ example demonstrated a new magnitude of love.
  • Jesus’ coming gives us new power to love.

John pictures all this newness by talking about light.

Listen again to the verse where John first calls the love commandment “new”:

 At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. (1 John 2:8)

There are grammatical challenges in interpreting this verse. (In the Greek, “which” is a neuter pronoun while “commandment” is female, so the relationship between clauses is debated.)

But the basic ideas seem clear: The love commandment is “true”—realized or actualized—in both Jesus and in those who belong to him. And it is realized because “the darkness is dissipating and the true light already shines.”2 The coming of the light actualizes the commandment, thus making it new.

This language of light links back to the foundational theological thesis statement for whole letter:

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)

How did John know that God is light? Because Jesus, God in the flesh, had come into the world. John is a first-person witness to the word/Word of life (1 John 1:1). The incarnation of the Word is the theme of the opening verses of John’s letter (1 John 1:1-4), and also of the prologue of his Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:1-9)

As John’s poetic prologue continues, the identity of the “true light” becomes clear: It is Jesus.

“The true light.” This is the same phrase that John uses in our original passage: “The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8). Jesus, God in the flesh, is “already shining”!

Putting it all together, here is what John is saying: The coming of Jesus, the light of the world (cf. John 8:12), makes the commandment true and thus new.

There is much more to see about the nature of light and darkness in John’s writings. Light suggests divine revelation, human exposure, honesty, spiritual sight, and holiness. Light exposes our hearts (John 3:19-21; John 9:39-41) and will transform us into “sons of light” if we believe in it (John 12:35-36).

We have enough light to ask ourselves some questions:

Am I loving my brother in a way that demonstrates that the Light has come into the world? Or am I still living as if the world is abandoned in darkness?

Can others see, by the way I love, that I have been transformed by the Light?

Am I imitating Jesus’ new example of love? Does my love mirror his new magnitude of love, or is it no bigger than the love of non-Christians around me? Am I experiencing new power to love? (Or is there little evidence that I am abiding in Christ or even born again?)

In sum, is the command to love my brother a new commandment for me? Or is it just an old, powerless, forgettable and forgotten one?


I’ve tried in this post to express the love command in something of its end-of-the-age freshness. I have also tried to demonstrate some techniques of good exegesis:

  • Identifying and focusing on key words and themes.
  • Tracing these key words and themes beyond the immediate text, giving priority to (a) the rest of the same book of the Bible and then (b) to other books by the same author, without importing meanings from more distant contexts.
  • Teasing out apparent contradictions, without denying anything Scripture affirms.
  • Looking for how Christ, the ultimate subject of Scripture, is key to the meaning of the text.

Now it is your turn. What insights do you think John intended to communicate? How has the coming of the Light changed the way you love your brother? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

  1. David L. Allen, 1-3 John: Fellowship in God’s Family, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), Kindle Location 1251.
  2. Translation by Robert W. Yarborough in his 1-3 John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Exegetical, 2008), 101.

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