In a short letter to the church in Ephesus, Jesus told them, “You have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev 2:4).
1. What does it mean to abandon your first love?
It means that at one time in the past you had greater love than you do now. You aren’t necessarily running on a completely empty tank, but you’re on fumes. That original fullness of love has been diminished.
Think back to your conversion and the kinds of spiritual experiences you had at first. Maybe your had some poorly formed understanding of the gospel, not really a developed knowledge of God. Yet while the mind wasn’t fully informed, the heart was beating fast, passionate.
For me that early period was my high school and college years. I was excited about discovering new things about the faith. I stayed up late nights in my room reading Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology and any book by John Piper I could find. I memorized Scripture. We had a group of guys that met each week and read books together and kept each other accountable for growing in the faith and prayed together. We were going to downtown Madison to talk about the gospel with university students. There was vitality and zeal.
You can probably think back to some of those early formative experiences in the faith. Maybe some of you are going through that period right now. It’s like a budding romance, the honeymoon phase, the newborn. And Jesus says that first love should be our always love. And so we have to honestly ask…
2. How do you know if you’ve lost it? How do you assess that? Here are five warning signs.
Warning sign #1 is that you talk about spiritual growth in the past tense. When you think about transformative truth you’ve learned, or dominating sins you’ve defeated, they aren’t recent things. Maybe God has done some amazing things in your life, but that was in prior years or decades. If you aren’t learning new truths and taking new steps in following Jesus, then maybe your first love is long gone.
Warning sign #2 is that you have a hard time loving others. You’re easily irritated with those around you. Criticism of other people is a steady part of your conversation. Or when you think of those who disagree with you politically or doctrinally, all you feel is disdain and disgust. John says to you, “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20-21). Or else he is a liar. You may be able to explain the Trinity with precision, but does your own family, or whoever you live with, do they really believe you love God wholeheartedly, and do they see that love reflected in the way you treat them? If you have a hard time loving others, then maybe your first love is long gone.
Warning sign #3 is that you can’t remember the last time you shared the gospel with a non-Christian. Christians can do all our evangelism in an echo chamber. We talk about doing evangelism but never actually do it. And that slowly morphs over time to the point that we love the fact that we’re right about the gospel and care little about the fact that others don’t know it. We have a zeal to be right, but not a zeal for Christ to be known. If you haven’t talked about Jesus with a non-Christian lately, maybe you’re low on love.
Warning sign #4 is that your love for the world is stronger than your love for the Father. John says, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). God gives earthly gifts to be enjoyed. Paul said, “Everything created by God is good…and should be received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim 4:4). The question isn’t whether you enjoy earthly things, but whether you’re enjoying them more than God.
Warning sign #5 is that you are harboring some known sin. David’s secret adulterous sin with Bathsheba was corrosive to his love for God. He thought he could continue as God’s king without honoring God’s laws. When David finally repented of that sin, he pleaded with God, “Renew a right spirit within me…Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” A lot of people try to worship heartily on Sunday morning and harbor sin all week long. You can’t grip God and sin with the same fist.
3. How do you get it back? If you’ve lost your first love, how do you recover it?
If you have in your head an initial diagnosis of having left your first love, don’t ignore that thought. Paul says “the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Gal 5:17). What the Holy Spirit wants is the death of your sin. The Spirit’s interest revolves around revealing your sin, and leading you to put it to death. Don’t ignore that diagnosis if that’s what you’ve come up with.
But don’t go to self-condemnation over that either. Psalm 103 says that God knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. Jesus was divine righteousness. We are dust from the earth. And God doesn’t expect divinity out of humanity. He forgives our failings and is sympathetic with our weaknesses. So don’t respond with neglect, but don’t respond with despair either. Instead, consider how to recover that first love. Here are five suggestions.
First, repent of known sin and reconcile where needed. Let’s go back to that known sin we were just talking about. We all know that there is a lot under the surface of life, and the reality is that we all are walking in forms of hypocrisy, where our belief is better than our conduct. But are you hiding and covering sins, or are you actively dealing with them, repenting? The Christian is not marked by perfection, but by repentance. And if your sin requires relational healing with someone, attend to it immediately. Love toward God grows along with love toward others.
Second, after repenting of sin, ask God for growth in love. Follow the example of David in Psalm 51, go back and read that passage, where after repenting from sin, he pleads with God, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” Where does love for God come from? Where do we go to get it? 1 John 4:7, “Love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” To love God is a gift that he gives. Ask him, and don’t stop asking. Repent of sin, then ask God for growth in love.
Third, apply the gospel to yourself every day. A mature Christian is one who applies the truth of the gospel regularly to their heart and life. John Newton said the word that is most descriptive of the mature Christian is “contemplation” (Newton, Select Letters, 14). Because the mature Christian has tried to maintain obedience for a long time, and has realized the inevitability of our failure, and the insufficiency of our self-effort, and thus the absolute necessity of the forgiveness that is offered through Jesus Christ. And the more our self-understanding is shaped by the forgiveness of the cross of Jesus, the more we will love God and others. To have the “first love” is to be constantly aware of the forgiveness that has come to you through Jesus Christ. Apply the gospel to your sin.
Fourth, share the gospel with others. Remember, Jesus intended for the church in Ephesus to be a lamp stand (1:12, 20, 2:1). To remedy the loss of love, Jesus says, “remember from where you have fallen, do the works you did at first.” He calls them to renew their status as an effective gospel lampstand. Let your light shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to God (Matthew 5:13-16).
Fifth, do all this as part of the church. This letter to the church in Ephesus addresses the church as a whole: “You all have left your first love.” We should each examine ourselves individually, but it is also true that just as you have individual flaws and virtues, so also your church has distinctive flaws and virtues that reflect patterns among its many members. Every Christian has to own the responsibility of their church as a whole. No one wants to be blamed for the sin of others, but here in Revelation the church is addressed as a whole. And so we must think not only of our own individual health, but also of the health of our church.