Imagine a wife walks up to her husband and says, “You know, in our marriage we should be all about love. We’ve spent too much time focusing on fidelity. It shouldn’t really matter if I sleep with other men. What really matters is that we love each other. For us to have a healthy marriage, if we had to choose between being faithful to each other and loving each other, we should choose love from now on. And we need to ask forgiveness for all the times we focused on being faithful to each other rather than loving each other. I’ve been hurt by all the times you talked to me about being faithful to you alone. It’s hurtful. It’s not very loving. So if you want me to stay in this marriage, I need you to just love me and stop talking about fidelity.”
What would we say to that wife? I think we’d say that her understanding of love is deficient. We’d try to help her understand that what she is saying is nonsensical because one of the ultimate expressions of love in marriage is fidelity. To speak of fidelity is to speak of love. Likewise, her continual infidelity is the opposite of love.
If she’s “hurt” by talk of fidelity, it is the kind of necessary pain that comes from healing something that is broken. Surgery hurts. Physical therapy hurts. Addressing issues in counseling can hurt. This kind of pain is the pain involved in healing. Not all instances of being “hurt” are from injury. Some pain comes because a broken bone needs to be set in our souls.
Unfortunately, many in the American Church today, especially in more progressive circles, are saying something very similar to what the wife is saying here. Often today people are divorcing talk of holiness with talk of love. Because many view holiness as only “adherence to God’s law” (which is a very legalistic, Pharisaic understanding of holiness), people are saying things like, “If I have to choose to focus on holiness or love, I choose to focus on love. Too many people have been hurt by talk of holiness. I’d rather the church just focus on love.” But this sort of double talk just reveals their poor understanding of both holiness and love.
Holiness is fidelity to Jesus. Holiness in our marriage relationship with Christ is one of the highest expressions of love. A life full of sin is a life of infidelity and spiritual promiscuity. Talk of love cannot be divorced from talk of holiness or it ceases to be love. When we urge people toward holiness, we are calling them to a marriage of fidelity with Christ. We are calling them to the highest expression of love.
Paul had to address something similar in Ephesus. He starts this conversation by reminding the Ephesians to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received”(Ephesians 4:1). Then he describes what that looks like:
So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.
That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.Ephesians 4:17-24
Inviting people to step out of their lifestyle of sin and into holiness is an invitation to step into love. This is real love. Justifying and pandering to sin is the opposite of love.