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It is a strange gig, being a book reviewer. There are times when I spend weeks or months in anticipation of a new book only to find it a great disappointment. And then there are times when a book just shows up–a book I didn’t even know existed–and it takes my breath away. Such was the case with Love or Die by Alexander Strauch. While the book is large in dimensions (8.8 x 5.9, so slightly larger than an average paperback) it is short in length, coming in at just 112 pages (which includes a study guide, indexes and a couple of appendices). But despite its length, it packs quite a punch. I can think of few books I’ve read recently that have had so immediate an impact on me and have given me so much to think about. I trust, that with God’s help, the implications of this book will be with me always.

Love or Die is subtitled Christ’s Wake-Up Call to the Church and is an exposition of sorts of Revelation 2:2-6. In these verses, Christ praises the church at Ephesus for their works, their toil, their endurance and their discernment. But he also rebukes this church, saying “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” He calls them to repent, lest He is forced to “remove your lampstand from its place.” This church, it seems, had once been marked by love; but somehow, in the intervening years, the love had been lost. The sound doctrine remained but the love had waned. Christ gave them this simple admonition: love or die.

Strauch divides his exposition into two parts. In the first, he reminds the Christian that it is possible to have sound doctrine, to be faithful to the gospel, to remain morally upright and to have the appearance of godliness, even while lacking in love. To lack in love is to ignore some of Christ’s clearest, most urgent admonitions. And yet many Christians are marked more by an appearance of sound doctrine than by a true love for God and love for one another. When Christ saw this in the church at Ephesus, He reminded the church to “Remember therefore from where you have fallen.” In Christ’s assessment, the only assessment that truly matters, this church had fallen, and this despite Christ’s commendations of them. “Remember, there is always one who walks among the churches, unseen but seeing all. How do you imagine Christ might evaluate your local church body?” Love is to be the distinguishing mark of the Christian.

No ancient or modern philosopher–Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Russell–ever taught such far-reaching ideas about love. No political figure, from Julius Caesar to Winston Churchill, has made such demands upon his followers to love. And no religious teacher, whether Buddha, Confucius, or Mohammed, ever commanded his followers to love one another as he loved them and gave his life for them. No other system of theology or philosophy says so much about the divine motivation of love (and holiness), or expresses love to the degree of Christ’s death on the cross, or makes the demands of love like the teaching of Jesus Christ and his apostles.

Christ offers a three-fold remedy to the lack of love in this church at Ephesus. He commands them to remember the love that had once marked their church; he tells them to recall “past joys, deeds, attitudes, and experiences in the life of the church in order to repeat them and act upon them.” He commands them to repent, by restoring the love they once possessed. And He commands them to do the works they did at first. They are to “reengage in the deeds of love they had once done but had abandoned.”

In the second part of this book, Strauch teaches how we can cultivate love. “Although God ultimately is the one who keeps us in his love and motivates us to love, there is also a human side of the equation. Scriptures directs all believers to pursue love, keep ourselves in the love of God, abide in Christ’s love, walk in love as Christ loved, and consider how to stir up one another to love and good deeds. Thus it is vital to our church communities and to the spiritual health of individual believers that we know how to cultivate love and protect love.” He dedicates a chapter to each of these topics: study love, pray for love, teach love, model love, guard love, practice love.

Following the Bible’s model, Strauch grounds love in the local church.

Love requires both a subject and an object, thus love is a corporate learning experience. We grow in love by engagement with other people, not in isolation from them.

Christians cannot develop love by sitting at home alone on the couch watching TV preachers or by attending a weekly, one-hour church service. It is only through participation in “the household of God,” the local church (1 Tim, 3:15), with all of its weaknesses and faults, that love is taught, modeled, learned, tested, practiced, and matured. By dealing with difficult people, facing painful conflicts, forgiving hurts and injustices, reconciling estranged relationships, and helping needy members, our love is tested and matures.

One simply cannot grow in love without the stresses and strains of life together in the household of God, the local church. The local church truly is “a spiritual workshop for the development of agape love” and “one of the very best laboratories in which individual believers may discover their real spiritual emptiness and begin to grow in agape love.” If you are not a participating member of a local church, then you are not in God’s school of love.

We know how the church at Ephesus responded to Christ’s rebuke. Some time around the beginning of the second century, Ignatius, one of the Apostolic Fathers, wrote a letter to this church at Ephesus. He had been arrested for his faith and was being taken to Rome to be executed. As he and his guards passed near Ephesus, a delegation of Christian brothers was sent to encourage him as he faced a martyr’s death. After this visit, Ignatius sent them a letter thanking them for their care. And in this letter he specifically praises their love, commending them as a church “characterized by faith in and love of Christ Jesus our Savior.” He rejoices that they “love nothing in human life, only God” and he comments on their church’s overseer saying he is “a man of inexpressible love.” He says that in the love shown to him by the delegation he could see the love of the entire church at Ephesus. These Christians heard and heeded the loving rebuke of Jesus Christ.

I know beyond any shadow of doubt that many of our churches–and perhaps your church, and perhaps mine–would hear this same rebuke from the lips of the one who walks among us unseen, but seeing all. This passage from Scripture is a gift from God that we might “hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Though Love or Die is but a short book, it is an excellent one and I commend it to you. It would not be out of place in any church library or personal collection.

(It looks like the book has not yet been widely distributed, even though it was published last month. I can find it only at Amazon. They have only a couple of copies available but have more on the way.)

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