The first-century church in Ephesus did many things right. The risen and ascended Jesus Himself commended the church for its arduous work for the Gospel, its faithfulness to Him in the face of persecution, and its commitment to the truth (Rev. 2:2–3). But despite all this high praise, the task-oriented, tough-minded, truth-telling fellowship at Ephesus lacked a crucial element. In His letter to the Ephesian church in the book of Revelation, Jesus said, “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev. 2:4).
The measure of a church isn’t its reputation, its achievements, its programs, or even its doctrinal orthodoxy. It is love. If you have a piece of paper with nine zeros written across it, you still have zero. But put a one in front of it, and all the other zeros change into a billion. And when you take all that is commendatory about a church, it amounts to nothing without the all-important “one” of love.
So what does it mean for a church to leave its first love?
The Lord’s Warning
Christian faith is, at its heart, an explosive power of new affection. It is a falling in love with Christ. It is a sense of the immensity of His pursuing, energizing grace. In view of our discovery of God’s love for us, our hearts sing,
I’ve found a Friend, oh, such a Friend!
He loved me ere I knew Him;
He drew me with the cords of love,
And thus He bound me to Him.1
Much like Jesus in His letter to the Ephesian church, God in Jeremiah compared the affection that Israel felt for Him to the affection of a young bride for her husband: “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride” (2:2). But, as sadly happens in many marriages, Israel’s devotion grew cold: “What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness, and became worthless?” (v. 5).
The measure of a church isn’t its reputation, its achievements, its programs, or even its doctrinal orthodoxy. It is love.
It’s a tragic thing when married people grow cold to one another. There’s a formality to it. You can see it in their eyes. You understand it in the way they express themselves. There are no fresh discoveries. There is no vibrancy. It’s ho-hum. Often, their relationship is sustained simply by fear of change rather than by any genuine sense of affection.
The sad truth is that in their marriage to Christ, churches often create this situation in their well-intentioned quest to guard the truth of the Gospel. The Ephesian church apparently guarded itself from worldliness and outright apostacy—but in doing so, perhaps they created a climate of suspicion. When they couldn’t squeeze the right kind of clichéd articulation of faith out of fledgling believers, perhaps they erred on the side of becoming cold, metallic, refrigerated, and formalized—all under the banner of their commitment to truth.
As G. R. Beasley-Murray has written, “If the price paid by the Ephesians for the preservation of true Christianity was the loss of love, the price was too high, for Christianity without love is a perverted faith.”2 And because when we love God, we keep His commandments (John 14:15), failure to love God will ultimately mean disobedience. We can exercise all our efforts to maintain orthodoxy and holiness in our churches and in our lives. We may even appear to be faithful. But diminution of our love for Jesus inevitably will lead us to waywardness and a lack of love for all others.
The Lord’s Solution
If we recognize ourselves or our churches in this dismal description, we are not without hope. In his letter, Jesus graciously provides an answer for those on this path to spiritual bankruptcy: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first” (Rev. 2:5).
Forgetting our first love is an emergency. We don’t need a prayer meeting to seek guidance. We don’t need to sit and meditate or strategize. We simply need to repent.
Here, Jesus calls us first to remember. Many good marriage counselors will say similarly to a husband and wife who have lost their love for each other: “Remember when you first met. Remember why you fell in love.” Our lives are built on memories. And so Jesus calls us to use our ability to recollect as a stimulus for forward motion. When we find our love growing cool, we must go back to the point of our departure and call to mind a memory of our early love for Christ that we can foster, cherish, and hold up as our objective. This love for Christ can become an ongoing, cultivated mentality.
Jesus calls us next to repent—to make a clean, decisive break with our current sinful ways and deeds. Forgetting our first love is an emergency. We don’t need a prayer meeting to seek guidance. We don’t need to sit and meditate or strategize. We simply need to repent. Some people have the impression that repentance is something that opens the door to faith in Jesus but is not needed beyond that. For others, repentance has become routine and formalized, but their hearts are not engaged. But Jesus’ call is to regular, heartfelt repentance that softens our hearts to our first love.
Finally, Jesus calls us to do the works we did at first. In other words, when following Christ begins to feel wearisome and humdrum, it’s the perfect time to reestablish our commitment to the basics: to Scripture, to prayer, and to the Gospel message. It may seem silly for some who are (or think themselves to be!) more advanced in their spiritual walk—but the early lessons in faith, the ones that were so primary and compelling to us, never lose their savor. It is there where Jesus is waiting for us and where love is rekindled.
The Lord’s Prospect
When we first came to faith, each of us was drawn by the sense of the immensity at Christ’s pursuing, energizing grace, and we fell in love with Him. But many of us have lived long enough to see once-vibrant congregations descend into darkness and ineffectiveness; to see fellow believers, once alive with God’s presence, become unresponsive; and to see ourselves, once motivated by love, become frigid and calloused of heart. Yes, we may be all-in on doctrinal clarity and diligence in worthy endeavors—but the love of the Lord has ebbed out.
Yet Jesus presents a wonderful prospect for us when we return to our first love: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7). Before the fall, Adam and Eve were in Paradise, walking and talking with God. In Christ, we have access to a new and better paradise. As we are enabled to persevere in loving, obedient faith in our good God and Savior, we look forward to all of the benefits and the blessings of communion with the risen Christ and with all of the saints through all the ages.
This article was adapted from the sermon “Loving Community” by Alistair Begg.