Early Anabaptist history records the incredible story of Dirk Willems, martyred for his faith in 1569. Willems is exemplified for the incredible love he showed toward his captor, whom fell through thin ice while pursuing him over a frozen river in Asperen, Holland. Willems turned back toward his pursuer and pulled him out of the frozen river, saving his life. In return, the man recaptured him and led him to his death at the stake (The Martyrs Mirror Online: www.homecomers.org/mirror/dirk-willems.htm).
This event has since been iconic of the Anabaptist faith, and remains an example of what grace to love one’s enemies looks like. At its onset, Anabaptism has stood for peace and harmony toward its opponents and does still in the twenty-first century. Considering our nearly five-hundred-year history as a peace-loving people, we Anabaptists share a legacy with ancient and contemporary martyrs alike. Willems’ picture of grace connects us with the two hundred and fifteen million Christians the world over undergoing persecution today.
It is worthwhile for us to know about those martyred for their faith, but essential for us to understand the depth of grace inspiring them to love their enemies as Christ states in Matthew 5:45-48 (New International Version):
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Grace to love our enemies this way comes from recollecting our relation to God prior to salvation, continued understanding of our current status with God, and a holy response to it.
It is necessary for the believer to develop an authentic expression of love, regardless of worldly inclinations of animosity toward oppressors. The following are a few elements toward this authentic love for our enemies:
Recognizing Our Reconciliation
The Apostle Paul reminded early believers in Colossae, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation,” (Colossians 1:21-22, NIV).
Reconciliation for believers means to be brought out of hostility with God. Recognizing our original opposition to God and His affectionate acts to make peace with us ought to incite in us a deep compassion for those who exercise hostility toward God and His people, as we too were once in that state. We must reject the faulty notion that by virtue of preserving Christian fundamentals, we must regard antagonists of the faith as our enemies. Let us be sober-minded enough to recognize our past state was born from our own hostility to God and not by God’s election. Likewise, we must not make enemies of anyone in our minds, but in humility identify with oppressors.
When we can identify with our oppressors by recognizing our own original sin, we should find a refreshed awareness of God’s grace over us. Instead of returning hostility to those regarding us as enemies, we can pray for them and petition God to bless them as Christ blessed us with the grace found in our reconciliation.
Understanding Our Undeserved Inheritance
Furthermore, we must refuse to give in to a sense of entitlement. (Unfortunately, according to a 2016 Barna Group poll, more than half of self-identified Christians in the U.S. believe in salvation based on works (https://www.barna.com/research/state-church-2016/.)i This tendency comes easily to those with a faulty understanding of the Gospel, not grounded in God’s Word.
We must recognize that ours is an undeserved inheritance, only possible through the gracious works of Christ Jesus on our behalf. This is where altruism (selfless works) differs from authentic love. Ours is not an exercise of works that will hopefully bring blessing to our lives, rather it is a response to the blessings springing from the works of Christ on our behalf.
It is true appreciation for the undeserved inheritance of God’s people that inspires authentic love toward our antagonists. For Christ “gave [us] the right to become Children of God” (John 1:12, NIV). Regular acknowledgement of this gracious appeal befits us to extend compassion where altruism falls short. Because we have received abundantly through Christ what the world still seeks, we can respond with the same undeserved favour to oppressors as we have received.
Upholding the Call to Love Others
Our response to God’s grace is not only a result of knowing its unconditional nature, but a holy response to the call in Matthew 5:45-48. Of course, the call is to show no discrimination in whom we love, out of reverence for the same love demonstrated by Christ (John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus).
The plight of the western Church is the unfortunate fact that we adhere to this calling if it remains convenient to do so. When our comfort is suddenly compromised, we often backslide toward worldliness. As Christ reminds us in verses 46-47, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you
doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” But, in showing love indiscriminately, we adorn ourselves with the image of the Lord Jesus.
Johnnie Moore writes:
“Though persecution may come, I know my battle is not against flesh but against the forces of evil. I will not hate those whom God has called me to love. Therefore, I will forgive when ridiculed, show mercy when struck, and love when hated. I will clothe myself with meekness and kindness so those around me may see the face of Jesus reflected in me…” (Johnnie Moore, The Martyr’s Oath: Living for the Jesus They’re Willing to Die For).
Loving Our Enemies: A Condition of Grace
The remarkable, indiscriminate love demonstrated by Dirk Willems and the many millions of Christians presently persecuted is paramount in its testament to the unconditional grace of Jesus Christ. However, these authentic expressions of love are demonstrative of the condition of the hearts of each one exuberantly responding to the grace given them. Each one changed to the likeness of Christ, resulting from reconciliation from hostility and receiving an eternal inheritance filled with purpose.
Indeed, this unconditional grace is conditioning all of us who honor Christ, especially amid oppression, to love our enemies as Christ first loved us.
i In contrast to the mere 23% of Canadian Christians in 2013 that believe the Bible is culturally relevant (Rick Hiemstra, Confidence, Conversation and Community: Bible Engagement in Canada, 2013).
-Matt Giesbrecht (B.Th.)