Six Characteristics of Gospel-Shaped Love

Jesus said the most defining characteristic of his church should be its love. Your love for each other, he told his disciples, is how the world will recognize that you belong to me.

What convinces the world of the truth of the gospel is simply not our defense of the faith; it’s our love for each other. Francis Schaeffer said, “Love on display in the church is Jesus’ final apologetic to the world.”

There are six characteristics of gospel-shaped friendship from Romans 12 that, if the church adopted well, would attract people more than great music or special services. In fact, people would be beating down our doors to hear more.

1. Our love should be without hypocrisy (Romans 12:9).

One of the worst Southern phrases is “Bless his heart.” That means, “What I just said is really mean, but I’m going to make it OK by seasoning it with some Southern politeness.” For example: “That woman is a snake … bless her heart.”

Paul says our love should be different. It shouldn’t just be seasoned; it should be love all the way down, from our words to what we wish for others in our hearts.

That’s an easy thing to say, but sometimes people are difficult to love—and that’s where Romans 12:1 kicks in: “Therefore, brothers and sisters, in view of the mercies of God …” (CSB). The gospel enables you to love someone despite their flaws because it puts you in touch with the tenderness of God for you.

2. Our love should be grounded in God’s truth (v. 9).

Have you ever seen parents who don’t discipline their child, even when it is necessary? They just can’t bear the tears or anger of their kids, so the moment their child pushes back, they cave—even if it’s not good for the child.

Parents who do this (and that’s all parents at some point, by the way, myself included) aren’t loving their children too much, but too little. They love being liked by their child more than they love their child.

The same thing applies to our relationships in the church. We have to love each other enough to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable, because love that is not based in the truth is ultimately not love at all.

3. Our love should feel like family (v. 10).

The love at work within the body of Christ should resemble the love at work in our families.

In a healthy family, for instance, if your sibling develops a problem, you don’t give up on them. If your parents become needy in their old age, you don’t say, “Well, I just don’t have space for this in my life.” No—you rearrange your life to take care of them, even if that means they move in with you.

Your relationship to the church should be like family—a family where you show up for your brothers and sisters not because it’s convenient or benefits you, but because gospel love means when one member of the family has a problem, the rest of the family makes it their own.

4. Our love should recognize the inherent worth God has placed in every person (v. 10).

The gospel teaches us to think differently about people, to recognize and acknowledge the value someone has because he or she is made in the image of God.

C.S. Lewis wrote,

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.”

Go out of your way to lift up others. As Paul says, “Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10 ESV).

5. Our love should brim with the inherent optimism of God’s promises (vv. 11–12).

Romans 12:11–12 says, “Do not lack diligence in zeal; be fervent in the Spirit; serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer” (CSB).

You are never working in a circumstance too difficult or talking to someone who is too far gone because our God brings life back from the dead. We can rejoice in the hope of God’s good promises, knowing he is relentless in his commitment to his children.

When someone is afflicted severely, we can help them bear it with patience because we know God is working all things together for good (Romans 8:28) and that what Satan and others mean for evil, God will overturn for good (Genesis 50:20).

We can be persistent in prayer because we have a God who hears and answers prayer (Psalm 103:17).

These are gospel promises that brim with optimism and on which we stand. As William Carey said, “The future is as bright as the promises of God.”

6. Our love should express itself in tangible actions (v. 13).

In Romans 12:13, the order of commands is important: “Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality.”

Taking care of each other in the church comes first because we’re family. We should be committed to each other in such a way that we bear each other’s burdens together. But it should never end there. Our love and commitment to each other should then spill out into the streets in the form of hospitality and bringing in the outsider.

The early church is our best example of how to love in this way. They did not multiply because of great musicians, snappy teaching, or impressive buildings (remember buildings?). They multiplied because of how they loved.

A church (1) marked by love without hypocrisy, (2) grounded in God’s truth, (3) that feels like family, (4) that recognizes the inherent worth in every person, (5) that is optimistic because of God’s promises, and (6) that expresses itself in tangible actions—isn’t this the kind of community you want to be a part of? Isn’t this the kind of community the world yearns for?

Paul connects all these “shoulds” to being renewed in and saturated with the gospel: Therefore, in light of the mercies of God, you can be transformed into these kinds of people.

It’s only through faith in what God has done that we are empowered in what we ought to do. The fire to do in the Christian life comes from being soaked in the fuel of what has been done.

“We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). The only way to love like this is to see yourself as a recipient of great love. Rooting yourself in the love of God for you is how love for God and others grows in you.