I grew up in an academically-minded Bible Church. We studied the Bible like our lives depended on it. Even with that rigorous research mentality, I totally missed this vital distinction between believing and loving. Whether others misunderstood or not, I do not know, but I assumed that believing in Jesus and loving Jesus were simply two ways to say the same thing.
I went to Bible college and didn't catch the distinction. I was in church ministry for nearly a decade, studying the Bible and teaching every week and I still didn't see the difference. In my twenties I was becoming increasingly frustrated, no that’s not a strong enough word. I had become downright angry. I was angry because I felt this tension; this logical inconsistency in sermons, Bible studies, and even personal conversations. It was like I was banging my head against the wall.
It basically came down to this. Preachers would say, "Salvation is a free gift, not by good works." Then they would say, "You have to love Jesus to be saved." When I questioned them about what it means to love Jesus, they would say, "Read your Bible, pray, and go to church." But those are good works; I would cry to no avail. I could see this powerful and overarching inconsistency. It seemed that no one I asked could see it. I felt like I was taking crazy pills.
When we were dating my wife-to-be invited me to join her at the Grace Evangelical Society’s Annual Bible Conference. The selling point was Tony Evans, obviously, because all of the other fellows on the playbill were unheard of to me. But she promised Tony, so I promised to go. Dr. Evans’ talk came early in the day. I enjoyed it although there was nothing unconventional about it, but these unheard of’s that followed him; wow! They were saying some of the most fascinating things. There was talk of glorified bodies, the outer darkness, the judgment seat of Christ, and eternal rewards. Throughout the day I felt my skepticism dissolving little by little. It was all terribly exciting.
In the afternoon a tall frenetic man with infectious energy skipped to the front of the room. I glanced at the schedule and found his name quickly. Dr. Robert Wilkin. I'd never heard of him, but he was going to tell us something about the letter of first John. He wove together an exciting talk. It wasn't even the main point, but he made a comment about what it means to love Jesus. At his words I recognized a division happening in my mind. Without knowing he was doing it, Dr. Wilkin was the man God used to sever that connection in my brain with the exacting precision of a surgeon. As soon as his talk was over, I couldn't wait to get to the front of the room. He glanced up as I barreled forward. I asked him a simple question.
“Can someone believe in Jesus and not love Him?” I asked as if the roof would fall in at any moment.
“Sure,” he said as he gathered his notes from the talk. “There's a difference between believing in Jesus and being a disciple.” He gave a quick explanation from various verses. I could hardly hear him because my emotions were screaming so loudly. Nor did I need to hear him. I already knew he was right.
After a quick, "Thank you," I raced out of the convention hall and headed for the nearest bathroom. I wasn't sure if I was going to throw up, huddle on the floor in the fetal position, or just stare into the mirror and try to remember my name. I found my way into the nearest stall and locked it. For the next ten minutes, I cried like a baby, a baby who just realized his high priced theological education was skewed and misinformed. I thought of all the people that I had taught over the past ten years, people who I had told lies to without even knowing it. I had said things I was ashamed of saying. Now at this point, you should know, there are only two things that can make me cry, a perfectly seasoned muchaco from Taco Bueno and sound theology.
It felt as if my understanding of the Bible was an engine that had seized up and been rusted out for years. With that one idea in place, it was as if that engine suddenly was running. It wasn't just running; it was roaring. It had power and torque. I quickly began ramping the throttle in my mind.
I ran through verse after verse as I stood teary-eyed next to the toilet. Dozens of passages that I had studied for the past 20 years suddenly slid together like a working gearbox. I had been grinding the gears so long; I had forgotten what it felt like for things to make sense.
The simple explanation that my father had given when I was six was right. Eternal life comes by faith alone. What I had missed, however, was that discipleship comes by hard work, and is not automatic. With this new basic understanding, the Bible came alive in a way that it never had before.
Many of those slick haired pulpit pounders have mixed the message of salvation with the message of discipleship and made the whole thing a muddy mess.
Eternal life comes by believing in Jesus. There are loads of verses in the Gospel of John that say essentially the same thing. However, what does it mean to love Christ? We don't have to guess; in fact, Jesus tells us in the plainest way possible in John 14:15-21.
“If you love Me, keep My commandments… He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me.” (John 14:15,21)
In this chapter, Jesus is talking to His disciples who had already believed in Him for everlasting life. It's interesting that He waited until Judas left to give this speech since Judas was not a believer and was not saved. Apparently, this message is not for unbelievers. To love Christ is not an expectation we should place on the unsaved. In fact, it's my opinion that we do a disservice to the effectiveness of evangelism if we try to convince someone to love Jesus before they believe in Him.
If I tell a manly construction worker from Kilgore, TX that he has to be in love with a Jewish Rabbi from the Middle East in order to be saved, that construction worker is probably going to say, “No thanks.” It’s important to remember what Jesus meant by love Me. He wasn’t really talking about emotion. Jesus told his testosterone filled disciples that the way they could show love for their teacher was to do what he told them to do. That’s something that even a construction worker can be comfortable with.
So Loving Jesus is the same as obeying Him. This is an instruction for believers, not unbelievers. We know this because Paul once said:
For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. (Romans 3:20)
Paul makes it clear that following commandments has nothing to do with getting into Heaven. You can't gain salvation by following God's or Jesus' commandments. Instead, you believe in Jesus for salvation. After that point, you can begin to grow by obeying Jesus. Sometimes you'll succeed, and sometimes you'll fail. Though, if you want to demonstrate that you love Jesus, you'll keep trying. This is why we can confidently say that there will be people in Heaven who didn't love Jesus. Salvation comes by faith. Love for Jesus is about doing good works.