By: Rev. Patrick Malphrus
The theme of synod this year is to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength. But what does it actually mean to love? The article that follows is a condensed version of the sermon I had the honor of preaching this year at General Synod.
In our modern day context there’s a serious problem when it comes to love that goes all the way to its very definition that says love is something you have, something you get, and perhaps even something you fall into or out of. The term love, when used in a flippant manner, is often used to express an emotional tie or a strong preference. Even when used in a genuine manner, however, often times the term love is misused because the worldly idea of love is flawed.
My wife and I are currently going through the certification process to become foster care providers for the state of South Carolina. Not too long ago we attended a class required for certification that required us to watch video segment titled “Love is not enough”. The video said love isn’t enough to be a good foster care provider because you have to be truthful, kind, and have perseverance and patience. After watching the video, it occurred to me that in our modern day context, love really is no more than an emotional attachment, linked to a strong preference, shrouded in positive thinking. But I ask again, is this love?
Consider the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10: 25-37. This passage defines true, real love. In verse 25, the reader is told that “behold, a lawyer stood up to put Jesus to the test” and asked, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” In turn Jesus asked the lawyer, “what’s in the law, how do you read it?” The lawyer responded by saying “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself”. It’s at this point that Jesus forces the conversation out of the theoretical and into the practical and tells the lawyer in verse 28 that “You have answered correctly, do this and you will live.”
At this point the text says that the lawyer was offended and sought to justify himself by asking “And who is my neighbor?” An evil but common practice amongst Pharisees and others in Jesus’ time was to take the Biblical concept of neighbor and deal with it handily by saying “the only person who is my neighbor is the one who is honorable and who fears the Lord as I fear the Lord”. If someone did not match up to this and other vague criteria the person was simply dismissed as being less than a neighbor and, as a result, God’s law no longer applied to him.
In the verses that follow, Jesus masterfully told the lawyer and his other listeners the parable of the Good Samaritan. The plot is a simple one. A man is attacked on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and is left naked, penniless, and nearly dead with his life hanging in the balance. After both a priest and a Levite refused to help, the man finds help from the most unlikely of sources—a Samaritan. Not only did this anonymous Samaritan help the man, he saw to the man’s proper care and ultimate health.
A few paragraphs above I wrote that this passage defines true, real love. The fact is that you see and understand what true, real love is or you don’t. Sadly, I have not always understood what it means to love. On June 5th, 2007, I was examined for licensure and ordination by Second Presbytery. I had passed my committee exams and only had to pass my floor exam. A call to become Associate Pastor at Devenger Road ARP church was hanging in the balance.
In my opinion my exam went very well, that is until Dr. Rob Roy McGregor stood to ask his questions. To be clear, I had a background with Dr. McGregor. He suffered with me and the congregation through some of my earliest sermons at the Iva ARP church when I was still in seminary at Erskine. Even so, he was always so encouraging and gracious. Yet when he stood during my examination, after watching student examinations in Second Presbytery for three years up to that point, I knew I was in trouble.
I do not remember Dr. McGregor’s precise words, but to paraphrase he asked “I have heard you speak, I know your testimony, and I know that you profess to Love God. But when you say you love God, what is it that you love?” Falling back on the good training I received at Erskine Seminary I responded with a confessional answer, citing the Shorter Catechism and Chapter 2 of the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Immediately I could tell that I was not giving a satisfactory answer. Dr. McGregor rephrased his question and asked again but my answer was still not correct. Being a gracious man and perhaps sensing I would not be able to answer him in a satisfactory manner Dr. McGregor said “of course what you’ve said is true but that’s not the answer I was looking for, but you and I will get together and we’ll talk”. I passed my exams and went on to be ordained and to receive the call, but shortly thereafter Dr. McGregor invited me to lunch.
It was during our conversation over lunch that Dr. McGregor asked again, “You say that you love God, but what is it that you love?” I began naming God’s attributes but I was still puzzled as to the direction of his question. Dr. McGregor then gave me a hint by saying “talk more about those attributes of God—what makes God who God is.” After doing so, Dr. McGregor asked again “when you love God, then, what is it that you love?” It was at that point that I was confronted with perhaps the most profound theological reality of my life and I finally understood what it means to truly love.
Dr. McGregor wasn’t really interested in whether or not I knew the catechism because that wasn’t the point of his question. Instead, he was interested in the contents of my heart. Dr. McGregor helped me see that the point of his question—“when you say you love God what is it that you love”—is that you can’t say you love God if you don’t love the things that make him God. The truth is this: It is easy to say we love God as a concept but when we think about what makes him God it changes everything. Why? Consider the implications.
God is Truth. If you say you love God you are saying you love truth.
If you love truth will you be a liar? Will you slander your brother? Will you defend your brother’s good name? In the same way, if you love truth will you stand up for truth and proclaim it?
God is merciful. If you say you love God you are saying you love mercy. But if you love mercy will you be characterized by wrath and volatility? If you love mercy will you refuse to forgive?
God is just and righteous. If you say you love God you’re saying you love righteousness and justice, yet if you are unjust in your dealings, if righteousness doesn’t matter to you, and if you’ve no desire to pursue personal holiness can you truthfully say you love justice and righteousness?
God is on a mission to redeem his people. This mission was and is so drastically important that he sent his only Son to die for His Church. If you say you love God you’ll love the gospel, and if you refuse to tell it? If you refuse to get your hands dirty with real evangelism do you really love God’s mission?
Do you get the point? Love is not something you fall in or out of. Love is not some emotional attachment, linked to a strong preference, shrouded in positive thinking. What is love? Love is what you actually do.
At the parable’s conclusion, Jesus asked the lawyer “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The lawyer had no answer other than admitting that the true neighbor was “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus responded by telling the lawyer “You go, and do likewise.”
Jesus did not say to think likewise. Jesus said to actually do likewise. Love is defined by what you actually do.
Should this concept be surprising to us? James 1:22 says “Be doers of the word, and not only hearers, deceiving yourselves.” Deceiving yourselves how? Deceiving yourselves into thinking your faith is genuine. James wrote that any man who is a hearer but not a doer is like a man that stares into a mirror and then turns and forgets what his face looks like.
Remember the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25. The servant who was given the one talent, but instead of investing it or working it like the other two servants, just buried it in the ground out of fear received the rebuke of being called wicked and slothful. He was called worthless and he was cast out into the darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.
This business of loving God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, is not about simple emotions. Instead, this is a call to action, as is the call to love your neighbor as yourself. There are consequences for those who refuse but there are blessings for those who submit such as the ultimate blessing of being called a good and faithful servant as seen in Matthew 25. However, these blessings are not limited to our Heavenly reward.
It is time to be both honest and practical. The fact is that the ARP is not in great shape as a denomination. I don’t know all the numbers but I have heard that about half of our churches have less than 50 members. That existence can be very difficult. I speak from experience. The first church I served as a student was the Woodruff ARP Church. It closed a few years ago. The next church I served was Iva ARP and they struggled in terms of size and it broke my heart.
Statistics show that once a church drops beneath 50 attenders it just doesn’t come back, membership wise. It’s a statistical impossibility, in fact. But while God invented mathematics, He has always been in the business of beating the odds. Many of you know that Devenger Road, where I currently serve, experienced a terrible time just a few years ago. Our attendance dropped down very low, beneath 50 in worship. To say the least, times were very difficult. But something happened. People became focused. The Lord changed our priorities, and people started coming and some started joining. Even more are coming that haven’t yet joined. God has defied the odds. By God’s grace we climbed out of such low attendance and continue to grow.
People that know have asked me how this has happened, wanting to know what has Devenger Road has done. The answer is simple. There wasn’t some program. There wasn’t some equation where we plugged in the right worship style and then the right programs. The way we have grown is by the people of Devenger Road loving God, loving one another, and loving other people by understanding that love isn’t an emotion but instead is an action and by understanding that love isn’t about just loving in concept but instead is about being real neighbors to anyone God sends our way, no matter what.
People also want to know how we in the ARP are going to grow and what we need to do as a denomination. Some have said the key is church planting. While I am certainly a proponent of planting new churches I cannot help but wonder if we can plant enough churches to replace the churches that will inevitably close if they do not begin to grow. In addition, as churches close and giving decreases will we even have the monetary resources to continue planting churches? I do not know the answer for certain but my suspicion is that we will not. So then, what must we do as a denomination? Again, the answer is simple: we must get serious about loving God, loving people, and about actually doing something. There’s no grand secret. As I encouraged the Fathers and Brothers at the General Synod, I also want to encourage you, the reader, right now—let us be hearers of the word and doers.
As Presbyterians we say that we do things decently and in order but sometimes we get so concerned about the decent part and the order part that we forget the doing part. Decent and in order can be translated into nice and status quo. I believe I can say this because I came under care of Second Presbytery 12 years ago as a student of theology and I’ve been watching since then. In a book my wife and I were reading together recently, the author writes about churches that get absolutely stuffed with theology and grow fat and stagnant on a steady diet of doctrine without any real spiritual exercise.
Is this us in the ARP? If so, the exercise we need is truly loving one another, loving our neighbors, and loving God in action and not just in word. Jesus’ command to the lawyer at the end of the passage, and by extension, his command to “Go and do likewise” us is only fitting because Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem to do likewise, on Calvary. Luke 9:51 says that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Let us, in turn, set our face toward laying down our own lives through loving God and one another, thus showing the whole world what it means to truly love.
Rev. Patrick Malphrus is pastor at Devenger Road ARP in Greenville, SC. He and his wife Amanda have one daughter, Isabella, who is 8 years old. Rev. Malphrus is currently the Vice Moderator of General Synod and Parliamentarian of Second Presbytery.