Christ’s Love for Us.
God has given us a mission of showing and telling the good news about Jesus to others, and he has also provided resources to help us do so. One important resource is motivation. It is so much easier to do what we are motivated to do than what we merely think we ought to do.
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.2 Corinthians 5:14-15 (ESV)
The phrase “love of Christ” could refer to his love for us or our love for him. Both are certainly true. We are called to love him (Ephesians 6:24), and if we do, it will lead us to obey his commandments (John 14:15), including his commandment to tell others about him. In this way, our love for Christ is a motivation for telling others about him. I believe this is true and legitimate, but I don’t believe that’s what Paul is referring to in 2 Corinthians 5.
Instead, the context indicates he is referring to Christ’s love for us. Specifically, his words later in v. 14, “one has died for all,” show he is referring to the great love Christ demonstrated for us by dying for us (cf. John 15:13). Thus, the translation of NIV and some others is accurate—“Christ’s love compels us.” This love he has for us can, should, and does affect us deeply, including motivating us for the mission.
Four phrases in the rest of the 2 Corinthians 5 passage describe what a profound affect Christ’s love for us has. First, it “controls us” (v. 14). This word can have several nuances but the one here seems to be that his love “hems us in, urges us, presses upon us, exerts a constraining influence” over us. The same word is used of Paul being “occupied” with the word and testifying that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 18:5). In fact, Acts 18:5 is a real life example of the principle of being controlled by Christ’s love that Paul states in 2 Corinthians 5:14.
Second, another phrase that describes the profound affect Christ’s love for us has on us is “all have died” (2 Corinthians 5:14). When we embrace Christ and are baptized in his name, we die to sin (Romans 6:2) and also die with Christ (Romans 6:3-4). This entails dying to ourselves as well:
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.Colossians 3:2-4
Having our lives “hidden” with Christ is sometimes understood to mean something like “protected” by him. In context, however, the idea is that our lives are put into the background. The “for” at the beginning of v. 3 shows that our lives being hidden is an explanation of why we should set our minds on things above not things of the earth mentioned in v. 2. That reason is that we have died. We are not here for ourselves and what we might desire on earth. Rather, we set our minds on his things, the things above.
Having already died with Christ and died to ourselves, we also continue to die to ourselves daily (Luke 9:23; 1 Corinthians 15:31) and are even ready to literally die for him if needs be (Acts 21:13). And according to 2 Corinthians 5:14, all this stems back to Christ’s sacrificial love for us.
Related to this, a third way Christ’s love for us affects us is that we “no longer live for ourselves” (2 Corinthians 5:15). We noted this above in Colossians 3:2-3. The reason we set our minds on things above instead of things on earth (Colossians 3:2) is that we have died and our own lives have been put into the background behind Christ (Colossians 3:3). We no longer live for ourselves.
Fourth is the opposite of this. Instead of living for ourselves we live “for him” (2 Corinthians 5:15). We could think of many ways we live for him, but the particular one Paul has in mind in this context is his ministry of reaching out to others. The larger context of 2 Corinthians 2-6 is Paul’s missionary ministry, and the immediate context of the passage we have been considering (2 Corinthians 5:14-15) is his sometimes extreme actions to “persuade others” (2 Corinthians 5:11). He continues on this subject in the verses that follow immediately afterward (5:16-21). Thus, the way of living “for him” Paul had in mind here is sharing the message of reconciliation (v. 19), seeking to persuade others (v. 11) and imploring them to be reconciled to God (v. 20). In fact, Paul so completely lived for him that he could say he was compelled or controlled by Christ even to the point that some considered him to be “out of our mind” (vv. 13-14).
So, in this passage Paul described four ways Christ’s love deeply affects us, namely, it controls us, leads us to death, makes us stop living for ourselves, and moves us to live for him instead, especially in regard to his mission. Compared to how self-centered we tend to be in our natural selves, this is a profound effect indeed.
Understanding the effect, however, does not reproduce the effect. If we want the love of Christ to affect us similarly, we must place as much or more emphasis on the cause as we do the effect. That is, we must emphasize Christ’s remarkable love for us. So let’s explore his love.
Real love includes feelings of love, a deep commitment of love, and sacrificial actions of love. This is true of the love we are to show as well as the particular love we are discussing currently, Christ’s love for us. Yet we have sometimes emphasized the distinctive actions of love so much that we omit the other two aspects, feelings and commitment. These are germane to real love also. One clear example of this, having to do with our love for others, is the distinction Paul makes between sacrificial actions and “love” in 1 Corinthians 13:3. It is not enough for us to merely do the deeds of love. We must also feel the feeling of love.
I’m convinced the love God and Christ have for us includes feelings. They are not dutifully and mechanically showing us the actions of love without really caring. I believe they love us deeply from the heart. Love is more than a feeling but not less.
Not only do they feel love for us, however, God and Jesus also have the deep commitment of love for us. One major nuance of the key Old Testament word for love (hesed) is that it is steadfast and enduring (Lamentations 3:22-24). It is often paired with his faithfulness (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 25:10; 40:10). The complimentary responsibility on our side is to love him with an undying love (Ephesians 6:24). So love is a feeling but also a commitment.
Having said that divine love includes feelings and commitment, the profound love God and Christ have for us does indeed also include that third aspect of true love, sacrificial actions on our behalf. Paul refers to the supreme example of this in the 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 passage when he says “one died for all” and “him who for their sake died and was raised to live again.” Similarly, Jesus himself said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). And again, Paul wrote:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).
God and Jesus, then, love us dearly, devotedly, and demonstratively (in the sense of providing conclusive evidence by their actions). Paul says this love controls him, motivating him for the mission. Perhaps you already realized that it is extremely important for us to grasp God’s great love for us, but this gives us yet another reason for seeking to do so.
I tend to be more analytical than emotional. In my opinion, either extreme is unhealthy. I have worked hard over the years to attain a better balance between the two, but I still lean logical. I think that makes it harder for me to truly appreciate God’s great love for me and for us, especially at an emotional level. I realize that his love, like his peace, “surpasses all understanding” (Ephesians 3:19; cf. Philippians 4:7), and I know none of us can totally grasp it. Still, I want to keep growing in it. I think this is in keeping with the great prayer in Ephesians 3 says:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.Ephesians 3:14-19
I want to commend to you the practice described here—praying to comprehend the enormity of Christ’s love for us, even though it surpasses knowledge (vv. 18-19). Because of the remarkable power of God’s Spirit (vv. 16, 20) and the collective insight and actions of “all the saints” (v. 18), God can indeed enable us to grasp the love of Christ much better. He can do way more than we ask or imagine (vv. 20-21). And the better we grasp his extravagant love, the more we will be “filled with all the fulness of God” (v. 19). According to 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, grasping his love better will, in turn, result in us loving the world so much that we, too, will sacrifice ourselves so that others may believe and have eternal life (John 3:16). In this way, the great love of God and Christ for us will compel us to reach out to others.