For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Dr Don Carson has a brief but powerful book on this theme of the love of God. It is a mere 78 pages in length and it consists of four lectures that he gave. It has an intriguing title, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. The love of God does not seem difficult compared to the doctrine of the Trinity or how one reconciles God’s sovereignty with our responsibility. It does not seem difficult when all those who believe in God say that he is a loving God. But it is difficult when the word ‘love’ has been so romanticised and sentimentalised and trivialised in our society. “All you need is love” – simple! So let me say two things by way of introduction.
i] How central that divine love is to the coming and living and dying of Jesus Christ the Son of God. John was the one of the apostles whom our Lord especially loved and John could define for us from his perspective of the privileged intimate relationship he had with his Saviour that God is love, not that he becomes love, or that he possesses love, or that he does loving things, but that he is love. There is nothing anywhere in God in his being, words or actions that is a contradiction of that love. He is love in the very core of his person, in all his purposes, in all his deeds, and in the whole of his self-disclosure. God is love. You go into him and he is love, and in and in, and he is love, and in and in and in and he is love, and in and in and in and in and he is love, and in and in and in and in and in and in and he is love. God has never done one loveless thing. He has never had one loveless thought.
The climax of the biblical message is the sacrifice of God the Son on the cross and it is his love, keeping him in the darkness there because he is determined to save us, that is the supreme message of Golgotha. You recall that at Calvary there is the exercise of our Lord’s three offices. He is the King and his death is a royal death; it is the act of the warrior God destroying his enemies and ours, making a show of them openly. There he is also the Priest and he is making atonement for our sins. There he is also the great Prophet who speaks seven times on Golgotha, who supremely declares that his work now is finished.
It is on the ‘Green Hill far away’ at that point of darkness that the greatest light on God’s love to sinners is astonishingly revealed. There God shows us the very essence of his own nature. There we see the supremacy of God’s love disclosing his nature to us. “God commends his love towards us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us . . . Here is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and gave his Son as the propitiation for our sins.”
It is in the death of Christ, and in the incarnation of the Son of God and in his determination to go to Jerusalem and die there for us that we see supremely the love of God. In other words, it is not something we know instinctively. We can’t deduce it from the sun setting over Cardigan Bay, or from the hills and forests and rivers of Wales, or from anywhere else in the cosmic environment. We cannot look at such sights in the cosmos and say, “Eureka, God is love.” Neither do our consciences testify to us that God is love. It is something totally discretionary, something that comes outside what is seen and heard from the depths of God himself. We could only know with certainty that God is love because God himself has gone to such pains speaking and acting to that purpose and confirming that this is so.
We might say that this element of love is another component of the otherness of God, that God is not only other from us in his transcendence, or his holiness, or his almighty power, but God is other at this point in the sheer unexpectedness of his love. We cannot find one example in any behaviour in the animal kingdom or in the depths of outer space that declare to us this divine love, that at the cost of the anguish and dereliction of his beloved and only-begotten Son billions of his rebel people and the vast cosmos are saved because he loves them. The prophet asks in wonder, “Who is a pardoning God like Thee?” Who indeed? The prophet answers his own question when he says that God is the only being who could pardon our iniquities and pass by our transgressions. This wonderful merciful grace of God does not have an echo in natural theology, in the clouds and trees and the animals that surround us. It is not to be found in the philosophies of Greece or the existentialism of France. The love of God is known to us only because Father, Son and Holy Spirit have shown it to us in their words and deeds but most clearly in the Lamb of God who died to take away our sin. So the love of God is central in the appearing of the Messiah, Jesus.
ii] How crucial is the love of God to the desperate and urgent needs of mankind. Somebody has said, “Love is the greatest thing in God or about God.” We gather in our creaturely frailty, conscious that this year, or this week or even that this hour could be our very last. We sinners gather in our guilt, conscious of the great chains that join us to our past and all the pollution of our sins. The love of God is our only hope in our creatureliness and particularly in our sinful failures. That divine love is the totally effective answer to our enormous needs. We think today of members of our family whom we know well, and we hear of their sense of isolation living in this vast universe. They regard the cosmos simply as some impersonal macrocosm formed by chance and lacking any purpose whatsoever. They are conscious of their own finitude and mathematical insignificance. Then how stupendous it is that this little Christian girl – in the same family as they belong to – can say, “I am poor and needy, but the Lord, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, thinks about me;” Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. So many of our fellow men feel utterly and totally alone in this world, in the midst of disrupted, personal relationships, surrounded only by the empty cisterns of what this world has offered them, while we who work alongside them in the same office and hear the same news and study the same world – we are living in the joy of Christian fellowship, in the household of faith and the family of God, in the awesome consciousness that the Lord has loved me and given himself for me. I am so glad that Jesus loved me, Jesus loves even me!
- WHAT IS THE NATURE OF THE LOVE OF GOD?
I have said to you that the love of God is central to the whole of God’s dealings with us. Then we must ask what is the nature of that love? Let’s begin by looking at some words for love. Now as some of you probably know, C.S. Lewis the Christian apologetist wrote a book called The Four Loves. There are four Greek words for ‘love’ and each one makes its own distinctive contribution to the idea.
i] eros. This is married love; love between the sexes, between man and wife. It is a word that the New Testament never uses.
ii] philia. This is friendship, the love of friends. ‘Philadelphia’ means brotherly love.
iii] storge. This word also does not occur in the New Testament except twice in a more elaborate form translated ‘natural affection.’ It is the word for family love, the affection of parents for their children, a love which also applies to us in the household of faith, a pure yet passionate love.
iv] agape. This is a fascinating word that prior to the New Testament had no important background or etymology. You can visit the data base where every piece of the Greek language of classical Greek and Koine Greek is recorded, and you can give the summons to the base to print out all the sentences where the word agape is to be found. There are few before the end of the first century. The word had no particular history of usage; it was an empty word, yet this is the word that becomes distinctive in the New Testament to define the love of God. It is found 48 times. That is incredible. Why should the writers of the New Testament use this word? Why does it appear that they rejected those other three choices of words open to them?
Of course we mustn’t drive too firm a wedge between agape and those other words. There are times when philia and agape seem to be interchangeable, for example, when Jesus repeatedly asked Peter did he love him he used philia – but also he used the word agape. The Lord Jesus puts those two words on the same level in that context. There was no intensification in switching from one milder word to a stronger word for love in that particular dialogue.
Certainly you will never find in the New Testament the word eros, but we must bear in mind that the primary language of theology was not New Testament Greek but Old Testament Hebrew, and the Old Testament does unashamedly use the Hebrew equivalent for eros to define the love of God for his church. There does not seem to me to be anything improper in defining the divine love as a passionate and intimate and warm and tender love from the heart of God to us as his beloved bride.
Let me reinforce that by reminding you that in the book of Hosea, for example, there is great emphasis upon the bond between God and his church, as a marriage bond between Jehovah and his people. In Hosea he sees the conduct of his church behaving as an unfaithful wife. Again, we have the same thing in Ephesians 5; “Marriage is a great mystery” says Paul, “but I speak of Christ and his church.” We are to love our wives precisely as Christ loved the church giving himself for her and that was with a deeply emotional and affectionate love. We have the same emphasis in the book of Revelation where again the church is the wife and bride of Christ the Lamb.
So I am saying, let’s not drive too large a wedge between agape on the one hand and eros on the other. When we do that agape becomes too exclusively a moral and cerebral and intellectual attitude. It comes from the will, and theologically that is chillingly unacceptable. I am only probing the ways we can apply the concept of marital and affectionate love to God’s attitude to us who are his people, and I am saying that we must always remind ourselves of the passion and the totality of God’s commitment to his people. In Hosea we see precisely that agony involved in the love of God. “I am a jealous God,” he says. Love is as strong as death and jealousy is as cruel as the grave. So in God’s love for his people there is a specific possessiveness and sensitivity. There is a divine demand for the people of God to love him exclusively and loyally. There is a passion in the love of God, not only in the sense of his jealousy but in the sense of his commitment. Jesus Christ rejoices in his people. He prays for his people. He tells us that he does not pray for the world, He longs for the salvation of all those whom God has given to him to have and to hold, his bride whom he loves as much as God loves them. He gave not his body or his obedience or his sufferings or his last breath for them. He gave not a part but he gave himself, the God-man, for rubbish like ourselves. Now that is not platonic love. It is clearly and deliberately passionate. It is not the love of cold, abstract decision. It is the love of total commitment, a love that will not let us go. “I will be your God for ever and ever, and you will be one with my Son, and I will love you as I love him.
That is the supreme message of Hosea, that Gomer his wife prostituted herself with many men, and finally ended up on sale as a slave to be employed in some brothel. There she stands in the slave market on the block. Her name and statistics are announced and the auctioneer starts the bidding. It’s ‘Bargain Hunt.’ Then Gomer hears a voice she knows! It is the voice of the one she once loved but betrayed, and he is bidding for her, “A hundred shekels . . . two hundred shekels . . .” he outbids all the others and he buys her. She is now his! God is conscious of his bride’s infidelity and of what she deserves. He should drive her away; he could drive her away, or simply ignore her and say, “That was my old life. I’ve never had any contact with her these days. I can’t remember when I last saw her,” and everyone would nod their heads and understand. It is the natural rational response, but it is not God’s response. He cries out instead, “How can I give thee up, Ephraim?”
I am conscious of some of the dangers involved in thinking of God’s love for us in terms of the love of a husband for a much loved wife, but that is the chosen biblical image, that God loves jealously, and God loves exclusively, and God loves passionately, and God loves unreservedly. Agape was not chosen by the apostles because it was the love of the intellect and the love of the will, because it was not that, but because it was the love of sovereign affection and desire, a love not constrained by the attractiveness of the beloved. All the other words for love had one great disadvantage; they all presupposed some quality in the loved one making her desirable, and making her loveable. It levelled out the love of God and man by lowering the astonishingly irrational love of God. The effect of that was to remove the difficulty from the love of God, to make it an understandable love and a rational love. “Yes God is love, and so what?” But the Bible and the Christian doxological response does not see the love of God like that. Rather it says this, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” It drives men possessed by that love to accept the gallows, and the execution block, and the stake, and prison for up to twelve years, like Bunyan experienced. He gave his soul and life and all in response to God’s love to such a worm as himself. I am saying that that is the fruit of agape love, the unbelievable love of God. Let me take you again through the other words for love in order to show you their deficiency.
i] There is eros. What does it presuppose? Physical attraction, hormones, a longing and desire for another person who appears ‘fair’ or beautiful to the other. That judgment is in the eye of the beholder and it is earthed in a natural affection that one feels for another attractive person. Now there are no such elements in God’s people – virtues or beauties that constrain God when he looks at them to say, “Wow!” There was no wow factor in us at all. Every imagination of the thoughts of our hearts was only evil continually. Men live in enmity against God; they are rebels and disobedient. While we were yet sinners Christ died for us. We have no beauty that he would desire us. God’s love for us doesn’t rest on something commendable to God, as though it would be unjust and harsh of him not to love us. Nothing like that. Again let us look at the next word . . .
ii] There is philia. The same thing applies here too. We are talking about the love of friendship, and friendship is based on knowledge, and esteem, and compatibility. There is an attraction to another. David to Jonathan and Jonathan to David. There are certain affinities so that we become good buddies with common interests. We call each other every week, and we take vacations together. Our children grow up with one another. Now once again that could not exist between God and man. We were by nature children of wrath. We were enemies by our wicked works. There was no attractiveness in us that made God think to himself, “I can get on with those nice guys very sweetly. I’ll ask them to become my special friends.” That is why philia is used only in definable circumstances. It is inadequate as the exclusive translation of God’s love for us sinners.
iii] There is storge. That is, you remember, natural affection in a family, in blood relationships. You love your spouse, your children, your relatives, and they love you, but that is not a good picture for God’s love for us. God sees our hearts and they are not simply unattractive; they are deceitful and desperately wicked, and yet God loves such people deeply. Out natural attractiveness has been destroyed by utter indifference and even enmity against God. There is none that seeks after God. Our natural affection can only be informed and empowered and warmed by a supernatural birth from heaven, by divine resurrection, or by being made a new creation. Then and only then we can start to love God, after God has breathed upon us, then I may love what Thou dost love and do what Thou dost do. Storge is unfitting to describe the sovereign love of God for us.
iv] There is agape. This love does not speak of some magnetic quality or virtue in another so that God would look and respond by saying, “To know, know, know you is to love, love, love you.” It was not because of a fierce intelligence and wondrous charm and magnificent head-turning beauty in his people that God chose them. So the apostles got away from all the other words and filled this naked word with all the glory of God’s grace, his love for the unlovely and the undeserving. It was a fabulous new word for love that entered world literature. None of the other older familiar words were fit to describe the amazing grace of God. He loved ‘a wretch like me.’ The whole rational for the love came from God alone unassisted by us, making us lovely people quite effectually and irresistibly, all because of sovereign love. So we understand the love referred to in a great text like John 3:16 not by word studies and dictionaries, but particularly by one unique action that God had planned and set in motion, and that the Son of God had accomplished on Calvary, and how the Holy Spirit applies its glorious accomplishment to our lives. Crucifixion declares, “Here you see the love of God.” Thus God loved . . .
2] WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS FOR US OF THE LOVE OF GOD?
Now we are told that the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Romans chapter 5 and verse 5, “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” You understand what he is saying? It is not that God warms up and improves and strengthens our love. That certainly happens, but that is not the thrust of those familiar words of Romans 5 and verse 5. God is pouring out his own love into us. Love divine, all loves excelling, the love of heaven is being fixed in us to become its dwelling place. In other words, the love that the Father has for the Son and the reciprocating love of the Son for the Father and the love of the Spirit for them both, that infinite, eternal and immeasurable love has been poured into these dirty, cracked receptacles of our hearts, where all sorts of ugly lusts and foul imaginations can suddenly erupt. There the love of God, irrigating and washing and life-giving and purifying, comes to stay!
i] We are to love one another like that. When the church gathers together with all its limitations, and its creaturely failings and shortcomings then that body of Christ has the bounden and heaven-given duty and heaven-given ability to show that love, to approximate as closely as possible to the depth of affection that the angels have for God, and that the Son has for the Father, and God has for his only begotten Son. There is to be pure fervent love in each gospel congregation in a depth of affection, and an outgoingness, and a delight in witness, and a generosity of stewardship, and simply in its being together, and its having each other as eternal brothers and sisters – just as now in heaven the Trinity are displaying such love at this moment. “That they may be one” says the Son to the Father,” as we are one.”
That is what every Christian congregation must be, a fellowship of loving believers, that we are one with one another as the Word is with God. There is that great assertion of the apostle, “We are citizens of heaven,” says Paul. In other words, since God loved us we are extra-terrestrials; we are heaven’s colonists on earth. Our churches are outposts of heaven in this kingdom of darkness, this fallen world, and we are to approximate as closely as possible in our lives, and our ethos, and our lifestyle to that heaven of love which is our eternal home. We plant its outposts everywhere in this world.
In the church there is sometimes ugliness. In a congregation there can be outbursts of disappointment and frustration. Please do not think for a moment that you won’t possibly be hurt in the church, or that other Christians can’t hurt you, bearing in mind always that for the most part it is we – it is I – who do the hurting. But my immediate concern is this, that when these jarring relationships occur within the church let us then find renewal by all looking up and setting our affections on things above, on the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost and determine to emulate their love. Let that mind which was in Christ be also in us, the one who forgave so much. One of the saddest things to hear in the world is the sentiment, “I could never forgive him.” There is no way that that could live with Calvary. There is no species or degree of human infidelity or selfishness or abuse that could justify my responding in that way. As I take my pain to Calvary I emulate the love that there took my guilt and there forgave me for all my trespasses.
ii] We reciprocate the love of God. How do we respond to the love of God – as John tells us we must in his words, “We love him because he first loved us.” How tremendously searching this is! Today I might know the whole content of this marvelous inerrant word of God, from beginning to end. I may grasp all its truth. I can define its system and assert and maintain and defend its doctrines, and yet that is not what is supremely important! I can have the most tremendous gifts and speak with the tongues of men and angels and tell mountains to leap into the depths of the sea. I can have the most ecstatic experiences of spiritual hedonism and mystical communication, and depths of encounter, and heights of religious delight, and yet those things also are not what is supremely important. The chief commandment confronting me and all of us is to love God with all my heart. This was the great thing that challenged Peter; “Simon son of Jonas, do you love me? Do you love me?’ And again, “Do you love me.”
I wish today I could get your minds away from preoccupations with experiences. Some of you sit in defiant inertia passively waiting for God to save you, evidencing your sluggard’s hearts. Could I ask you one great question, “Do you love God?” And if you don’t, what right have you not to? To what is your love being directed? We are to respond to our Maker and Provider and Protector and Good Shepherd. We love him because he first loved us, and we are to love him with heart and mind, with our whole soul, we are to lay it on the altar before him. We are to love him with our strength, with our resilience and our energy. We love him with an affection that beats for his glory. We love him and long to enjoy him more and more. We are Christian hedonists in our love for him. Do I know that? Do I love God the Father, the one who gave his only begotten Son? That is the greatest thing. It is not whether I know the Christology of the creeds, but whether I love him, that I love Christ as God the Father loves him. Do we stand in the fellowship of God and do we stand in the fellowship of the Father’s love for his only-begotten, and are we transfixed before the moral grandeur and before the sheer beauty of Jesus of Nazareth, fascinated and enthralled by him? Do we know something of that?
That is all my salvation and all my desire. I want to be with him. I want to see him. I want to share my life in every part with him. I want to be close to him. I want him to forgive me. I want him to be with me, moment by moment. I want him to keep me. I want him to hold me. I want to take my stand on his life, and build on him, and hide in him. I want to smell the fragrance of the Rose of Sharon and bear the scent of the Lily of the Valley. I want to spend my eternity in his presence. I want to glorify him. I want to enjoy him.
That’s what it is at the last, to love the Lord Jesus Christ. I understand . . . I long . . . I want . . . that’s the test . . . I must have him. That’s all my desire. Not a principle, and not a system and not a body of truth and not an idea. I want that altogether lovely Christ to be my all in all.
Jesus my Shepherd, Husband, Friend, My Prophet, Priest and King.
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End, accept the praise I bring.
You remember that solemn searching word of Paul’s as he closes his first letter to the Corinthians – the epistle full of teaching on the gifts of the Spirit? “If anyone does not love the Lord . . .” Then what? Is he merely showing he is a weak Christian, and he will forfeit rewards in heaven? No. “If any man does not love the Lord – a curse be on him” (I Cor. 16:23). “Let him be anathema,” says Paul, because that’s the great sadness, the tragedy of a religious life but is rejecting the love.
Today there are some of you, and God is speaking to you, God is pleading, God is beseeching, God is on bended knee, and God is saying, “I love you so much. I have blessed you richly for many, many years. I have given my only begotten Son. I am offering eternal life to you in all my sincerity and all my earnestness and I am beseeching you to stop saying No! There are some of you saying, “Not today but later.” There are some of you saying, “I want more light. I want the tingles up and down my spine. I want the hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end. I want the goose pimples and then I will respond.”
Each one of you with such excuses is incurring that peril, “Let him be anathema,” and in many ways, isn’t that the ultimate in terms of loneliness and the ultimate in terms of hell’s outer darkness, the rejection of Christ, and the God who is the meaning of the universe, who is its very soul and who is its only hope, the one by whom alone burdens can be borne, and temptations can be overcome, and duty accomplished, and service rendered, the one by whom there is hope and there is salvation and there is eternal life.
Believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ alone! Believe today! Believe now! For whosoever believes in him shall now perish but have everlasting life.
8th June 2014 GEOFF THOMAS