For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).
I think and talk often about having a passion for God, a passion for Christ, and a passion for the gospel. And I hear and read often about having a passion for God, a passion for Christ, and a passion for the gospel. For the past decade, “passion” has been the word of choice in my circles when talking about devotion to Christ. But what does this mean?
Paul gives one major answer in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15. He declares that “the love of Christ controls us.” The verb is sunéchei. The RSV, ESV, NAS, and NLT translate it “controls.” The ASV and the KJV translate it “constraineth.” The NIV and the NKJV translate it “compels.” The NRSV translates it “urges us on.”
This verb is used twelve times in the New Testament — once by Matthew, twice by Paul, and nine times by Luke (often quoting others). And while it would be the height of exegetical fallacy to read the entire semantic range of sunéchei into Paul’s usage in 2 Corinthians 5:14, a survey of NT usages of the verb is instructive.
- The crowds brought Jesus those who were oppressed by demons and he healed them (Matthew 4:24).
- Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law who was ill with a high fever (Luke 4:38).
- The Gerasenes were seized with fear after Jesus cast a legion of demons out of a deranged man and allowed them to enter a herd of pigs (Luke 8:37).
- Crowds surrounded Jesus and pressed in on him (Luke 8:45).
- Jesus is distressed at the thought of his impending suffering (Luke 12:50).
- Jesus predicts that threatening enemies will one day surround Jerusalem (Luke 19:43).
- Jesus was held in custody the night of his trial (Luke 22:63).
- The enraged Jewish leaders plugged their ears when Stephen testified his vision of the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:57).
- Paul was intensely occupied with preaching the message of the gospel in Corinth (Acts 18:5).
- Publius’ father lay sick with fever and dysentery when Paul and his companions providentially shipwrecked on the island of Malta (Acts 28:8).
- Paul was hard pressed between his desire for fruitful apostolic labor on earth and his desire to be with Christ in heaven (Philippians 1:23).
Again, the point is not that Paul is picturing all of these actions or activities when he uses the verb sunéchei in 2 Corinthians 5:14 to say that “the love of Christ controls us.” It’s simply bad exegesis to cram the broad semantic range of the verb into this single usage. However, these other occurrences of the verb do indicate that this verb has a semantic center — the idea of being controlled, compelled, constrained. People are constrained when they’re demon-possessed or seriously ill or seized with fear. They’re compelled when they’re physically surrounded or emotionally distressed or under arrest. They’re controlled when they’re intensely occupied with an activity or squeezed between the rock and hard place of two desirable options.
This is the effect that Christ’s love had on Paul’s life. He and his missionary companions were “controlled” by the incarnate, self-sacrificing, atoning agape love of the God-Man Jesus Christ. Paul found himself hemmed in on all sides by this love; he was inescapably directed and channeled by this divine, cross-bearing love. The faithful, sacrificial, unchanging, atoning, covenantal love of the Son of God motivated him, constrained him, and even restricted him.
True gospel passion is more than this, but it is never less. To be controlled by earthly ambitions, no matter how religiously deep or missionally broad, is not true gospel passion. To be penetratingly insightful and intellectually deep is not true gospel passion in and of itself. To be accurately critical and articulately relevant can be very useful in God’s purposes, but these are not in the same foundational category as a sincere gospel passion. Even the desire for ministry, the wild-eyed pursuit of radical living, and a full schedule of spiritual activities — while often being wonderful things — do not inherently spring from the genuine, undiluted spring of true gospel passion.
I do not mainly want to be perceived as passionate, or thought to be spiritual, or reputed to be dedicated to the gospel and the church. Nor am I content to be identified according to my ministry position or personal gifting or degree of experience. At times (hopefully most of the time) these will be reflections of a true affection for Christ and a sincere devotion to Him, but they are not necessarily so. Most of all, above all, and in all, I want to be controlled, gripped, and unquestionably driven by the love of Christ. May it be so, though it take a miracle each day. May it be so for us all.