Category Archives: John Owen

Tax Collector Love

“If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” Matthew 5:46.

In this verse, Jesus describes “tax-collector” love. What is “tax-collector” love? It’s love that is natural. It’s love that loves its own kind. It’s natural for mothers to love their own babies. It’s natural for the English to love the English (though, it’s also natural for us not to show it!). It’s natural for West Ham fans to love other West Ham fans. It’s natural for Hindus to love Hindus. It’s natural for tax collectors to love tax-collectors. This “tax-collector” love can be sincere and sacrificial. “Tax-collector” love can be willing to put itself out for fellow tax-collectors, when it sees them in need. “Tax-collector” love can be produced by team-building exercises, and by socialising together. It’s built up over time, as you experience the highs and lows of life together. There’s nothing wrong with “tax-collector” love.

But, in this verse, Jesus wants Christians to show a love that is higher than “tax-collector” love. In the context, Jesus call us to love our enemies (v.44). But this raises the question: is the love we have for one another as Christians just another version of “tax collector” love? Is it any different to the way members of the local chess club could start to care for each other, if they tried? I think it’s important to recognise the real danger that believers’ love for one another can, at times, be nothing more than “tax collector” love. It can be based merely on going to shared meetings, singing the same songs, and socialising lots.  So, how do we stop our love being merely “tax-collector” love? The puritan, John Owen, answered that question like this in a catechism that he wrote: we need to be committed to the true worship of God. He points out that the real origin of Christian love isn’t natural but supernatural (or “evangelical”, as he calls it). It comes from our adoption by the same Father, our union with Jesus our elder Brother, and our indwelling by the same Holy Spirit. John Owen says:

“that love which is not built on these principles and foundations [of worshipping the Triune God] is not evangelical, whatever other ground it may have, or occasion it may pretend unto” (p.462, vol 15, Works).

Isn’t that a challenge? What ground is our love for each other built on? Let’s aim to show Ilford a love that is worlds apart from “tax collector” love. How? Well, it won’t be by drumming it up from inside ourselves. It won’t come from simply concentrating on each other, and learning about each other. It won’t come from team building exercises. No, the source of “evangelical” love is God himself. So, let’s give our all to worshipping him. Turn up on Sunday ready to engage with him. Sing your heart out to him. Adore Christ’s grace to you. Be filled with the Holy Spirit. The way to love our brothers and sisters with something higher than “tax collector” love is to give ourselves to God.

Why is there love in the world?

Why does the widower miss his wife so badly? Why does the mum love her children? Why does the infant desperately want his mum more than anything? Why do you love that particular food, cooked in that particular way? Why does that piece of music give you that spine-tingly feeling? Why do you feel elation at the winning wicket or goal? Why does the fireman run into the burning building to rescue the little girl? Why will a soldier give his life to rescue a comrade?

Why is there such a thing as love in the world? I wonder what answer you’d give.

It’s a question which the atheist has to explain away. “Love is just a chemical process in the brain, that has evolutionary advantages”; “Love’s an illusion”. “Our experience of love makes it look more significant than it really is”. But as Christians we can give a much better answer than that. Here is how the puritan John Owen answered that question, which if you were there on Sunday you’ve already heard (I’ve updated the language slightly):

“the only reason why there is such a thing as love in the world among creatures… was that it might shadow and represent the indescribable, eternal love that the Father had for the Son, and the Son for the Father, by the Spirit” (John Owen vol. 9, 613).

Put that in your pipe and smoke it! I’m not sure it’s possible to come up with a better answer than that. That answer means that we haven’t over-estimated how significant our experience of love really is; we’ve underestimated its significance. Our highest, most powerful experiences of love are just the weakest scent, the most diluted versions of the reality of God the Father’s love for the Son.

And just to remind you what we saw on Sunday: John 1:12 invites you and me into the circle of that love! “To all who did receive [Jesus]… who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God”.