What is Unique (and Necessary) About “Practical Love”?

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System Settings

In our series called Church Reboot, we are exploring six original system settings in Acts 2:42–47 that serve as a guide for what a healthy and growing church looks like. Today we arrive at system setting number five. Number one is a devotion to having our lives shaped by apostolic doctrine. Number two is a commitment to the fellowship of a local church with number three being dependent prayer followed by number four, expectant faith.

Here is the entire text of Acts 2:42–47. We will focus on verses 44–45.

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Compulsory vs. Voluntary Generosity

Some people believe that the early community of believers provides a framework for Christian socialism or communism. As we read in verse 44, they “had everything in common.” In other places, we read that there was no one in the early Christian community who was in need. This needlessness was not due to a government assistance program but because of the extraordinary generosity expressed among the believers, who, as verse 45 says, “gave to anyone who had need.”

It really is a beautiful picture of selflessness and generosity. However, what separates this early faith community from a socialistic or communistic ideology is the difference between compulsory sharing and voluntary generosity. Socialism and communism require the distribution of wealth and possessions.

But in the Christian community, sharing is not compulsory. It is voluntary. In the text, we read of the believers selling property in order to have resources to share. You can’t sell something that you don’t own. And nowhere do we read that Christians were required to sell anything or share possessions as a rule of community law.

A few chapters later in Acts 5, when a couple named Ananias and Sapphira sell land to give to the church in order to make themselves look generous, they secretly hold back a portion of the funds for themselves, telling the apostles that they were giving all they had received. It was a deception, to which Peter responds, “Didn’t the land belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?”

The point Peter is making is this. Ananias and Sapphira were members in the Christian community. They were landowners and under no compulsion to give or share their property. Even the money they received from the sale was theirs to do as they wished. They were not under any obligation because true generosity is not forced; it is voluntary.

Their togetherness was one of spirit and holding things in common expresses the fact that they had a very light grip of their material possessions.

What we witness taking place in the early Christian fellowship is not a form of socialistic collectivism but is a response to the generosity of God toward them. Jesus had not just sold a piece of property for those in need of material resources, he gave his very life for those in need of eternal, spiritual resources. And his giving was not compulsory. It was voluntary.

His life wasn’t taken. It was given.As Jesus says in John 10, “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”

The same principle is true for the family of God. We do not take from one to give to another. We freely give because we have freely received. This is a picture of practical love, which is the fifth system setting.

Purposeful Words

When we call the fifth system setting practical love, both words are important for helping us grasp the weight of this element in rebooting a healthy, growing church. Both words may need some explaining, as the concept of love is largely misunderstood to be primarily an emotion that feels rather than an action that blesses. This is the position of the apostle John, who writes about the love of God and our response to being loved by God in 1 John 4:7–12. Several lessons will stand out in the text.

7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

Lesson 1: Practical Love is an Outward Evidence

Verses 7 and 8 show us that practical love that functionally blesses the lives of other people is the outward evidence of being a genuine, regenerate knower of God vs just someone who just professes to know him. Francis Schaeffer wrote a short book called it The Mark of the Christian, where he makes the case that the badge of the believer is love — the kind of love Jesus shows us on the cross. With the cross as our archetype, we can say that a hallmark of practical love is a willingness to die for the sake of another.

It is this dying aspect of love that moves us to the second lesson.

Lesson 2: Practical Love is a Costly Sacrifice

In verses 9 and 10, we see that True agape love is an active willingness to sacrifice one’s self for the benefit of someone else. Love is costly, inconvenient, and uncomfortable. This is what we mean by saying love is practical. Love is not passive; it is active. It is not primarily an emotion; it is an action. It is not a reward for good behavior, beauty, or accomplishment; it is a gift for the undeserving.

Love is not a virus. We don’t catch it, as if we can get over it. Because the command to love is a challenge to act, we are called to control what and whom we love.

Emotions are observable but not controllable. But love is volitional. It is something we do. Just as God didn’t just say I love you but showed it, so we to go and do likewise.

This is the focus of the third lesson.

Lesson 3: Practical Love is a Testimony to the World

Verses 11 and 12 indicate that the cross isn’t only a model for how we are to treat each other, but it is the way the world will see in a tangible way what distinguishes believers from the world as they “see” the love of God lived out in the family of God. The same apostle who wrote 1 John 4 penned the Gospel of John 13:34–35, wherein he records these words of Jesus, “34 A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The newness of the command is found in “as I have loved you.” Costly. Sacrificial. Undeserving. Practical love.

When we love like this, we identify ourselves as disciples of Jesus and get the attention of the world. Having seen our practical love, they just might begin to listen to the message about the penultimate example of love demonstrated by Jesus. In this way, love may be the ultimate apologetic for the truth of the gospel.

One way practical love for one another is demonstrated is outlined by Paul in Philippians 2:3b-4, where he writes, “3b In humility, value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Let us be honest. Putting someone else’s concern ahead of my own is excruciatingly difficult. It feels like a kind of death, where I have to kill my own preferences and opinions in order to bless someone else.

  • This might mean refraining from alcohol at dinner with a friend who is in recovery.
  • It might mean staying up late with a sick child when you have an early morning meeting the next day.
  • It might be something as simple as a thank you to the checkout clerk at the grocery or an encouraging word on Facebook to someone serving on the front lines of the COVID crisis.
  • It might mean wearing a face covering to protect the most vulnerable to COVID.
  • I might mean doing the dishes, cutting the grass, or taking out the garbage.
  • It might mean selling a possession in order to have funds to help someone in need, just like we see taking place in the Acts 2 community.

There are unlimited applications. But now we have an idea of what practical love looks like. It actually looks a lot like a cross. Voluntary, sacrificial, costly, and undeserving.

A Present Active Participle

In verse 44, the phrase “the believers” (hoi pisteuontes / οἱ πιστεύοντες) is a present active participle in the original Greek phrase. Participles may be translated with an “-ed” ending, and “-ing” ending, or may be translated as “verbal nouns,” which is the preference of the NIV. Other English versions such as the ESV use the “-ed” ending, “all who believed.” The NASB says, “all those who had believed.”

These are all appropriate translations. However, there is a nuance with a present active participle that may help us unlock how the early disciples in Acts 2 were so unusually generous.

While it may not read very smoothly in English, a very literal rendering of the grammatical nuance in the Greek text would have us read, “All those who were believing…” Do you see why the “ing” is important? Just like love is intended to be active, so is faith. In fact, active love is dependent upon an active faith. The issue is not, have I believed before, but am I believing now? Believing the gospel is not something we do once in the past or just at one time in history. It is an ongoing, now thing. It is an “ing” thing.

Here is the theological significance of the present active participle.

The way we are filled with the transforming, empowering presence of the Holy Spirit is by consciously abiding in Jesus’ perfect righteousness as my own through faith. The reason the Acts 2 community of disciples was able to display such radical generosity as practical love is because they had not only believed in the past, they were believing in the present.

In my opinion, the most important book the late Francis Schaeffer wrote is True Spirituality. His thesis is that for Christians to experience life transformation, we must consciously, actively, moment-by-moment embrace the present value of the blood of Christ to cover our sins and make us beautiful in the sight of God our Father. It is the present value of the blood that supplies the power for living as a disciple.

My waterproof raincoat does me no good in a downpour if it is back home in the closet. I need to wear it. The same is true with the blood of Jesus.

The Quarantine That Saves

There is a small, English village called Eyam that is remembered by history for its sacrifice during a resurgence of Bubonic Plague in the mid-17th century. While the Black Death is best known for ravaging Europe during the 1300s, symptoms resurfaced in September 1665 when a tailor’s assistant brought flea-infested blankets from London to the small town. It wasn’t long before many residents began manifesting symptoms and dying of the deadly bacterium known as yersinia pestis. One woman, Elizabeth Hancock, buried six of her children and her husband within a month of the plague’s arrival.

Eyam’s rector, William Mompesson, convinced the citizens to quarantine their village in order to contain the disease. Eyam was positioned on a much-traveled trade route between two major population centers. If the plague was carried to those cities, many more would become infected and die.

According to eyewitness accounts:

A quarantine barrier was established with a one-mile radius marked by a ring of stones. Nobody was to go in or out of the village. Food was left at the boundary stone by nearby townspeople in exchange for gold coins submerged in vinegar, which villagers believed would disinfect them.

To limit infections within Eyam, church services were held outdoors and some villagers left their homes to live outdoors nearby. By the plague’s end, two-hundred and sixty of Eyam’s estimated eight-hundred residents died. Fourteen months later, in November 1667, the quarantine was lifted.

An Eyam survivors’ descendant wrote in a history of the village that succeeding generations of Eyam villagers should admire their ancestors’ “unparalleled resolution to give up their lives — dooming themselves to pestilential death in order to save the surrounding country.” (Sources: Zach Purser Brown, “Bubonic plague was so deadly an English village quarantined itself to save others,” The Washington Post, 3–2–20; David McKenna, “Eyam Plague: The Village of the Damned.” BBC News, 11–5–16)

Being willing to sacrifice their lives to save others was an act of selfless, sacrificial, costly love. But their commitment to give up their lives to save others was not unparalleled. We know that such a resolution was exponentially superseded by Jesus, as his sacrifice didn’t only save the physical lives of those in surrounding communities but saved countless eternal souls among every nation on earth. Upon a cross, Jesus doomed himself to pestilential death to save us from the contagion of our sins.

The self-quarantine of the cross is the standard of agape love. This is the love we are invited to receive. This is the love we are commanded to give. But we can only give what we ourselves possess.

This means that your next step is not to love. It is to be loved by looking in faith to Jesus as the lover of your soul, who gave himself unto death that you would be forgiven, reconciled to God. When you begin to see yourself as the beloved of God, you will begin seeing needs all around you. Although you will not be able to meet every need you see, having received the practical, sacrificial, costly love of God in Jesus, you will begin loving as you have been loved. In this way, you will show yourself to be a true child of the Father — to the praise of God’s glorious grace.

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