Benevolence and Complacence: Is Our Love For the Lost Different Than Our Love For the Church?

One of the primary challenges for pastors today is consistently cultivating a spirit of evangelism within the church, thereby fulfilling the Great Commission. (Matt. 28:19) A church that persists in this mindset usually evangelizes from more than a sense of duty. Ultimately, it’s a love for the lost that drives Christians to spread the good news. And something even more than that. But is that love different than our love for other Christians? The unique challenge for evangelistic churches is to make certain that this question is answered correctly; otherwise the church begins to forfeit its distinction from the world it’s seeking to evangelize. In order to distinguish our love for the lost and our love for born-again believers, the church must first articulate the difference between someone who is saved and someone who is not. When this difference is clarified, the church will also have greater clarity in the ultimate reason for evangelism.

Jonathan Edwards distinguished between two kinds of love: love of benevolence and love of complacence. (The Nature of True Virtue, 1765) Benevolence he defined as “that affection or propensity of the heart to any being, which causes it to incline to its well-being, or disposes it to desire and take pleasure in its happiness.” Love of complacence, on the other hand, is “no other than delight in beauty, or complacence in the person or being beloved for its beauty.” Edwards’ quest in this book was to carefully define the nature of true virtue, and he observed plainly that it is a “plain inconsistence to suppose that virtue primarily consists in any love to its object for its beauty.” In other words, a virtuous person cannot be said to love someone simply for his or her intrinsic worth or his or her value to the beholder. In this case, the person would be no different than the tax collectors in Matthew 5, who love only those who love them. (5:46) Therefore the ground of benevolent love isn’t beauty; it’s simply being. This is indeed Jesus’s love for wretched sinners. God so loved the world…in all of its depravity. (John 3:16) Christ loves us not for our inherent worth, but simply because of His great love; not for who we are, but for Who He is – a God that shed His own precious blood for the ungodly. (Rom. 5:6) Benevolent love is the love of the cross.

The ground of complacent love, on the other hand, is beauty. This kind of love includes a sweet appreciation and affection for those who are righteous and good. According to Edwards, “When anyone under the influence of general benevolence sees another being possessed of the like general benevolence, this attaches his heart to him.” This is what happens between born-again believers in the church. One cannot possess love of complacence without first possessing love of benevolence. Therefore spiritual beauty is the primary ground of complacence and the secondary ground of benevolence. Spoken another way, benevolent love is simply good will toward others because they are God’s creatures. Complacent love is then the love we have toward those who are also benevolent.

This is the difference between our love for the lost and the love for Christ’s church. Our love for unrepentant sinners is benevolent love modeled after Jesus: we love our enemies not for their beauty but for their being. (Matt. 5:44) We love because Christ first loved us. (1 John 4:19) No one is worthy of God’s benevolent love, and that’s the point. We then lavish this love upon others, in light of the cross. (Matt. 18:33) In stark contrast, complacent love is the love for the church, not because Christians are inherently beautiful by themselves, but because Christians are only beautiful by virtue of Christ dwelling in them. (Gal. 2:20) The church is made beautiful by the beauty of the Lamb. For this reason, we recognize that love of complacence is impossible without love of benevolence just like the unity and fellowship of the church is impossible without loving evangelists who first brought us the Gospel.

The love of complacence is also the love we experience in heaven in light of the benevolent Gospel. In his sermon “God Glorified in the Work of Redemption, by the Greatness of Man’s Dependence Upon Him, in the Whole of It” (1731), Edwards contemplates the love of heaven:

The glorious excellencies and beauty of God will be what will forever entertain the minds of the saints, and the love of God will be their everlasting feast. The redeemed will indeed also enjoy other things; they will enjoy the angels, and will enjoy one another: but that which they shall enjoy in the angels, or each other, or in anything else whatsoever, that will yield them delight and happiness, will be what will be seen of God in them.

In short, heaven is the eternal experience of the complacent love of God’s beauty in light of Christ’s benevolent love for sinners. And this gives us a clear picture of the difference between our love for the church and our love for the lost. We long to tell unbelievers about Jesus’s love because we desire to see the beauty of Christ in them. This is, in essence, the difference between the saved and the unsaved: the Holy Spirit. (Who Edwards would identify as Love) This is why we don’t have spiritual unity with unbelievers. This is why we cannot call unbelievers the children of God. They haven’t yet been adopted into God’s family. (Rom. 8:14-17) Their eyes haven’t yet been opened to behold the knowledge of the glory of our God. (Eph. 1:18) Therefore, in light of Christ’s love shed for sinners, we turn our selfless love toward the ungodly so that we may one day see them transformed into new creations that reflect the character and love of Christ. (2 Cor. 5:17) So what exactly drives us to evangelize? Love of benevolence or love of complacence? Both. We are granted the privilege of witnessing the beautiful perfection of the Person of Christ by gazing upon the beautiful work of Christ on the cross. And both drive us to the lost.


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