What does it mean to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength?
In Matt Jenson’s book, The Gravity of Sin he traces, among other things, how Martin Luther portrayed sin as a centripetal force in the soul. It drags all of life back to self. So that everything—including vocation, religion, and God’s gifts—are converted into means for self-fulfillment.
This, of course, reverses the direction of God’s centrifugal work of love. We are, after all, invited to love God and others from the heart, even as he has loved us. So that we become venues of God’s goodness, pouring out his love to others. And he created us with skills, and honored us with gifts, to do just that.
Here’s a snippet of what Jenson writes: “Our enjoyment of these gifts in themselves and the consequent divorcing of them from the context of meaning found in being gifts of God, forces them to play a role as final ends in themselves which they can never fulfill” (p.83).
So let’s take up the positive question of what God’s gifts offer. How do they operate—in Luther view—without being entangled in our sinful self-concerns?
Let’s take Paul’s list in Ephesians chapter four. He cites apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers as a set of gifted figures who are called to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (vs. 12-13).
These industrial strength words all call for a progression culminating in Christ’s “fullness.” The “equip … work … ministry” triplet presses readers to engagement. One person equips another in passing along a unique skill. The “work” is elaborated as “ministry”—which presumes another group of people meant to receive this ministry. The outcome is the living presence of Christ in the hearts and actions of communities moved by his Spirit. The many and various human parts form a complete and functioning whole.
The spreading goodness of God’s love is certainly present in this pattern. He equips some believers to help other believers to help other believers. Paul restated this pattern in 2 Timothy 2:2—“what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.”
Life in this context is a river rather than a reservoir. We don’t receive a spiritual gift in order to accumulate greater Christian substance but in order to extend our gifting to others. Christ propagates his growth in and through us as his beloved ones who get to love others with him.
Yet if this isn’t both the ambition and the product of a gifted soul it reveals the flaw of self-focus. So that even sound religious knowledge, by Luther’s measure, can be turned in on itself to become sin.
This sort of holy selfishness may show up in a pastor’s references to “my ministry” or “the degrees I’ve earned.” The training and titles are ends in themselves that, while still shared with others as a condition of employment, aren’t seen so much as a servant’s resources but as a professional’s tools. And the pastor is not trying to find and develop other pastoral leaders as much as he is seeking to maintain a secure status for life.
Enjoyment of God’s gifts, then, comes about through repentance. When a soul turns away from self-concerned living and embraces an other-concerned life that reveals Jesus at work in them and through them. John captured this in 3 John 4—“I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.”
We began with the still-unaddressed question, “What does it mean to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength?” Let me offer a partial answer, with Luther’s lesson in mind, that it means finding the joy that comes by asking Jesus, “As I discover and respond to your love for me, Lord, how can I build up others? How can I share with everyone around me some of what you’ve shared with me?”
I’m just a beginner at this myself but even so it sure is satisfying. It’s like swimming in the purest, most refreshing river we can ever imagine: the River of Life.