The church is the mother of believers--the God-ordained school of virtue in which Christian disciples learn how to desire the good and to reject what is false. Romans 12:9ff outlines covenant life in the congregation.
“A Time to Love, A Time to Hate”
Rev. Jeff Gissing, First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“…A time to love, and a time to hate…”
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love
one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing
We are coming towards the end of our series of sermons exploring the
different seasons of the Christian life and of life in general.
Today we come to what may be the most perplexing of the couplets found
in Ecclesiastes chapter 3—at least to me—“…a time to love, and a time to hate.”
Each of us intuitively knows that love is something that is morally good, and
hatred is something that is morally bad. We’re formed by our culture to believe that
love is, without variation or qualification, something to be celebrated, desired,
Likewise we’re formed by our culture to believe that hatred is
synonymous with anger, exclusion, bigotry, and ought to be avoided like the
So why even refer to hating as though it is an option for us? The reality is
somewhere between these two opposites.
Love is only laudable when it is the right kind of love, offered to right
object of our love, and offered appropriately.
And, hatred is only appropriate where our hate is offered to an
appropriate object and offered to the appropriate degree.
For example, loving your new car in the same way and to the same extent
that you love your wife is not good—either morally or for your marriage.
Hating someone because their understanding of the world differs from
yours is good neither for you nor for your neighbor.
As Christians we are to be known not only by what we love, but by what
However, shaping oneself to love rightly and hate rightly is a job that is
bigger than an individual: it takes a church to raise a Christian.1
I like to think of the church as a “school of virtue”—the church is the
God-ordained place in which we become formed as disciples, apprentices of
John Calvin followed the pattern of the earliest Christians in referring to
the visible church—that is, the congregation—as the mother of believers:
For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us
in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she
Tod E. Bolsinger, It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian: How the Community of God
Transforms Lives. Bravos, 2004.
keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we
become like the angels.”2
The church exists to nourish, to shape, to form not only our children but
all of us into deeper conformity to the character of Jesus Christ and into a
deeper and fuller obedience to Him.
We see this pictured for us beautifully as we celebrate the sacrament of
baptism, which we celebrate this weekend.
Baptism reminds us that creating a Christian disciple is the work of a
community and not just a family.
Baptism asks a question of us:
Our Lord Jesus Christ ordered us to teach those who are baptized. Do you promise, as
God gives you opportunity, to help these parents to nurture their children in the love
of Jesus Christ?”
Every time we, as a community, speak the words, “we do,” we are
committing ourselves to be family to one another, assisting one another in living
Each of us does that in different ways.
Earlier in Romans 12, Paul reminds his readers/hearers that not all of us
have the same gifts nor do we each have an identical calling. What we each have,
however, is some gift, some strength, something that can be offered to the Lord
Jesus Christ in this community so that we collectively are enabled to become
more like Jesus Christ.
John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. IV.i.4. (1016).
Since we are a community, since we are bound together with one another
and bound, collectively, to Jesus Christ who is our head, Paul outlines what our
life together ought to look like.
The outward and the inward are aligned
Paul’s first imperative—his first command—is “let love be genuine” (9). A
simpler and perhaps more direct translation is, “let your love be without
What is hypocritical love? To be a hypocrite is to be someone who
publicly lays claim to a virtue he privately doesn’t manifest—the mouth says one
thing, but the life, or perhaps the mind, says quite another.
Perhaps you’ve seen the headlines or read the coverage of the data leak
from the website Ashley Madison.com.
Apparently—and incredibly—this is a site that allows people to arrange
extramarital affairs from the convenience of wherever they might happen to
have an internet connection.
Apparently lots of people signed up for this site and were somewhat
alarmed when a group of hackers breached the site’s security and then dumped
the data on the internet for the world to see—in a searchable database, no less.
Just look up an email address and you can tell whether or not a person using
that email created an account. That doesn’t, of course, mean that they actually
had an affair, but it’s sort of like holding a smoking gun at the scene of the crime.
It’s absolutely devastating to a relationship. It’s hypocritical in the
Hypocritical love is the sort of love that outwardly does all of the right
things, but inwardly is plotting and conniving and intent upon deception,
dissembling, and ultimately betrayal.
We easily see what’s wrong about this in a marriage—what about in a
In urging that our love be genuine, Paul is warning about making our love a
mere pretense., an outward display or emotion that does not conform to the
nature of the God who is love and who has loved us.3
With authentic, genuine love there is alignment between its public and
private expression. This isn’t to say that genuine love is perfectly expressed at all
times—we all wrestle with a complex constellation of motives and impulses that
as often pulls us off course as shows us the right way.
We’re invited to share this love with one another in the community of the
Has its source in God and returns to God
Authentic love comes from God himself—it’s a gift from God and shaped
in us by transforming ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Douglas Moo. TNICNT. The Epistle to the Romans. Eerdmans, 1996. (775).
God is its source—and ultimately has God as its object of desire.
According to the Church Father Origen:
If the soul loves something other than God and what God wants, this love
is said to be artificial and invented. And if someone loves his neighbor but
does not warn him when he sees him going astray or correct him, such is
only a pretense of love.4
Here we are forced to return to the purpose of the church.
We as a congregation exist to express this sort of God-focused, God-
oriented, God-given love in the lives of one another and in the life of the world.
It’s this miraculous type of love that shows the world the peculiarity of the
That means that our ultimate motivation, the ultimate question behind
everything that we do is: is this what God wants for us and for our community?
Not… Is this what best serves my own interests?
Not… Is this what looks best to our city and to the world?
Not… Is this easiest way forward?
No. The question ever and always must be does this decision, does this
initiative, does this call, align with the will (the counsel) of God?
And how do we discern the will of God?
In our Reformed tradition we point to the Bible as the supreme source of
any knowledge we possess of God’s will.
Origen, quoted in Gerald Bray, ed. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Vol. VI:
Romans. IVP, 1998. (303).
We can know the things that God wishes us to do, the things he wishes us
not to do, and the principles behind these commands that cover virtually every
eventuality if we are willing to engage in a careful reading of the Bible in
conversation with Christian history.
We start in the Ten Commandments, which contains a summation of
God’s moral Law and God’s will for his spiritual offspring.
We move from the Ten Commandments into the rest of the Old Testament
where we see in the life of Israel the foreshadowing of a greater Adam, who will
save his people from his sin, which is defined as a violation of God’s law.
Then we see in the New Testament the full revealing of God’s promise of
grace to his people in the person of Jesus Christ.
We see that Jesus does not abolish the law. Rather, he shifts the means of
salvation from our sin from obedience to grace. We obey in light of the grace
given to us rather than obey in order to receive grace.
Our obedience becomes the mark of transformed lives rather than the
cause of our transformation.
Not only must our love be authentic, but we are commanded to “hate evil”
(NRSV). The word for hate in verse 9 is actually a superlative and so it’s more
than simply hating, it is “utterly hating,” “abhoring,” “loathing,” “despising.”
Perhaps this is alarming to our modern ears. Yet, throughout the
Scripture we’re told that the righteous person strongly rejects what is evil:
Psalm 119:104 - “Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I
hate every false way.:
Amos 5:15 - “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate…”
According to Romans 12 “hating evil” and “holding fast to good” are the
expressions of authentic love. Genuine love does not toy with evil—it flies from
it knowing what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews knew, “sin easily
Paul gives us this command because we are, by our fallen nature, inclined
generally more toward evil than toward good. And this is compounded by our
ignorance of what is good and what is evil which often comes from a lack of
attention to the word and prayer..
We’re often told that we should let our conscience be our guide. The truth
is, however, that our consciences are not infallible, our consciences are not
unaffected by sin.
Our conscience is simply an internal, error-prone voice that is shaped by a
variety of forces including our culture, our ethnicity, our sub-culture, our peer-
group, and can easily lead us astray.
It’s for this reason that we—Christians—were given the Scripture: in
order to learn what God calls good and what God calls evil.
God alone is indeed Lord of the conscience and God rules and guides the
conscience through the Bible.
At the end of the day, for the Christian, our moral judgments must align
with the Scripture because this is the principle means by which we discern
The conscience can only BE a guide of the conscience HAS a guide.
We need a book from God that points to God and reveals God.
According to the Westminster Confession the Bible—that is, the Old and
New Testaments—has been given to us “by inspiration of God.” 5
That is, the
Bible is God-breathed. In an ultimate sense, the source of the Bible is God.
Yes, there are a variety of authors.
Yes, there are a variety of types of literature.
Yes, parts of the Bible emphasize different aspects of faith.
Despite all of this, Christians have confessed for millennia that the Bible is
the Word of God—it reveals God to us.
Further, the Bible is our “rule of faith and practice.”
What does that mean???
A rule is a standard against which something is measured or tested. We
test our experiences of God, we test our experience of self and others, we
measure our beliefs and our instincts against the Bible because the Bible is the
Christian’s ultimate standard.
Westminster Larger Catechism Q/A 3, cf. Westminster Shorter Catechism Q/A 2
By all means follow your conscience. However, if your conscience has not
demonstrably been shaped and formed by the Bible then it’s unlikely to be a
guide worthy of following.
Allow careful reading of the Bible to shape your understanding of God.
Allow careful reading of the Bible to shape your understanding of your self and
your neighbor. Allow careful reading of the Bible to shape your views on current
issues. Christians are to be shaped by the Bible and there is no excuse for a
Christian who neglects to read it.
Hold Fast to Good
It’s not enough to recognize what’s negative and seek to eliminate it—
Most counselors will tell you that simply rejecting something isn’t enough to
make a positive change in your life.
Many couples go through their remarriage counseling sessions swearing:
“this is not going to be like my parents’ marriage!”
You know what? In the absence of a positive alternative, it’s virtually
guaranteed that history will repeat itself. That’s why Paul suggests that we
cannot simply hate evil; we must actively seek that which is good.
Some of your Bibles will say:
“hold on,” or
“hold tightly to….”
What is being communicated here is no some slight preference for good
over evil. Rather, Paul is urging his readers to “be glued to” the good.6
same word that appears in Jesus explanation of marriage found in Matthew
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his
wife and the two shall become one flesh.”
The idea is of joining two things together in a permanent and indissoluble
The Christian is wedded to the good because the church is the bride of
Christ and Christ’s purpose for the church is, according to Ephesians 1:4—
“To be blameless and pure before [God].”
Living it out…together
Each of us, at this time in the life of the First Presbyterian Church of
Bethlehem, has the opportunity to faithfully live out this sort of life—one that is
marked by true love, which hates evil and clings to that which is good.
Thankfully Paul offers some very concrete examples for us to emulate in
our life together:
⁃ “Love one another with mutual affection”
⁃ “Outdo one another in showing honor”
⁃ “Be zealous”
⁃ “Rejoice in hope”
⁃ “Be patient in suffering”
⁃ “Persevere in prayer”
⁃ “Contribute to the needs of others”
⁃ “Extend hospitality to strangers”
At root of this is the example of the self-giving, self-emptying love that
Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God
something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he
humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death
on a cross.7
In his spiritual classic Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that
Christian fellowship doesn’t exist because of unity.
‘Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in
unity’—this is the Scripture’s praise of life together under the Word. But
now we can rightly interpret the words ‘in unity’ and say, ‘for brethren to
dwell together through Christ.’ For Jesus alone is our unity, ‘He is our
Geoffrey B. Wilson. New Testament Commentaries. Vol. 1. Romans to Ephesians. Banner
of Truth, 2005. 153.
Philippians 2:6-8, NRSV
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: A Discussion of Christian Fellowship. Trans., J W
Doberstein. Harper, 1954. 39.
Our unity is in Christ, and as long as Christ as He is revealed to us in Holy
Scripture, is the center of our identity and of our ministry we will continue to be
a community whose witness brings honor and glory to the savior we love.