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A Note on God’s Love

 

  1st John 4:8        Exodus 34:1-9     Romans 5:1-5            

                                

I: — Maureen and I are fortunate: both our daughters live within a 40-minute drive of our home. Several years ago, however, our older daughter Catherine lived in Hong Kong . Needless to say, while she was in Hong Kong , on the other side of the world, our love for her never diminished.  We loved her as much as we had ever loved her.  Still, because she lived so very far away there was less – much less – that we could do for her. When Catherine eventually returned home we didn’t love her more.  We couldn’t love her more than we did already.  Neither did we begin to love her. We began to love her from the day she was born (if not sooner.) But it was the case that when she lived closer to us our love was able to do more for her.

God comes closest to us in the cross.  Note that: God comes closest to us not in nature (as so many people try to tell us); God comes closest to us in the Incarnation of his Son. Jesus Christ (not anything in nature) is the image of God, the apostles tell us.  You and I are made in the image of God. Then we are closest to God where God draws close to us by means of that image, his Son, in whose image you and I are made.  More specifically, God draws closest to us in the cross of his Son. God’s love for us is brought to effectual focus in the cross.  The cross doesn’t mean that God loves us more than he did prior to Christmas and Good Friday; and the cross doesn’t mean that God began to love us there. But the cross does mean that God’s love — begun in eternity and undiminished through time — did something for us there and was able to do something for us just because God himself came among us and dwelt with us in the incarnation of his Son.

This lattermost point is crucial, for in day-to-day life we are aware of people whom we love, love ardently, yet whom we are unable to help; at least unable to help precisely where most they need to be helped. Perhaps the most poignant, most piercing instance of this is the person dearest to us who is chronically ill or terminally ill.         Regardless of how much we can do and should do for her, our love can’t do the one thing that uniquely needs to be done: our love can’t reverse, can’t overturn, whatever it is that has rendered our dearest scarcely recognizable.

By contrast, when we were unrecognizable as those created in the image and likeness of God, God’s love did for us what most needed to be done.  What did God’s love for us do uniquely?  In his love, focused effectually in the cross, God made provision for us. In the cross God’s love made the provision apart from which other expressions of his love would be pointless.

Specifically God’s provision for us in the cross did three things. (i) His crucified love cancelled our guilt as God himself bore his own judgement upon us. (ii) His love reconciled us to him, bridged the abyss that our sin had opened up between him and us. (iii) His love replaced the sign before the heavenly court — “No Access!” — with a new sign — “Welcome Home!”.

In other words, where human love often can’t do for our dearest what most needs to be done, God’s love could — and did.  In the provision God made for us he overturned our predicament before him.

In all of this we mustn’t think that God “fixes” the human predicament the way a serviceman fixes a malfunctioning dishwasher. In repairing the broken-down dishwasher the serviceman suffers nothing himself. If he has to replace a part he does; he doesn’t replace a part of himself.  If he has to use a propane torch on metal joints he doesn’t sear his own heart. But in the cross God “fixed” the human predicament only at the cost of a suffering that was greater than the suffering of those he was helping.

During World War II an American troopship, the U.S.S. Dorchester, was crossing the North Atlantic when it was torpedoed. The troopship had been crammed — overfilled, really — with men needed for the war effort in Europe . As the foundering ship was about to sink it was discovered that there weren’t enough life-jackets for everyone.         Whereupon four military chaplains gave up their life-jackets to four 19-year old soldiers, and perished themselves.

Scripture constantly points to the nature of God’s provision and its cost to him. Peter writes, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.” (1 Peter 2:24) Paul writes, “For our sake God made him (his Son) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21)  Isaiah says, “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:5) Jesus himself says simply, “I came to give myself a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

Please note the verbs: “He bore; he made, he was wounded; he gave”. They are all verbs of action: God did something on our behalf. His purpose in Christ wasn’t chiefly to show us something (as if we needed an illustration) or to tell us something (as if we needed instruction).    His purpose in Christ was to do something — and he did it.  He provided the remedy for the human predicament precisely at our point of incomparable need.

 

II: — Yet we must be honest in all things. God’s provision benefits us only as we own it for ourselves in faith, only as we seize it and glory in it and accord it a huge-hearted “Yes”.

Think again of the four military chaplains on the U.S.S. Dorchester who gave up their lives.  The soldiers into whose hands the life-jackets were pressed still had to put them on. The sacrificial act of the chaplains was certainly necessary to save the soldiers, but just as certainly it wasn’t sufficient: the soldiers themselves had to own the life-giving gift.

And right here’s the problem, for right here the analogy breaks down. So sunk in spiritual inertia are we that we can’t “put on” Jesus Christ in faith.  The soldier could put on the proffered life-jacket just because the soldier wasn’t inert, wasn’t already dead.  But fallen humans are spiritually inert; spiritually dead.  If we doubt this or dispute it we need only recall our Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus. Says Jesus, “Truly I say to you, unless one is born anew, born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God .” (John 3:3) We can’t even see it, much less enter it. Since we can’t see it, aren’t even aware of it, how could we ever want it?   How shall we ever know of it?

On the one hand we must embrace our Lord in faith, or else the provision God has made for us is of no benefit to us.         On the other hand, we can’t so much as recognize our Lord’s approach, much less seize him. And not being able to recognize the provision God has made for us, we can’t recognize our incomparable need before God.  The worst aspect of spiritual blindness is that we are blind to our blindness; we are ignorant of our ignorance, deluded about our self-delusion. With his characteristic pithiness John Calvin remarks, “What can a dead person do to attain life?”

According to the written gospels Jesus spent much time throughout his earthly ministry assisting the deaf and the blind.   He did so for two reasons. One, deafness and blindness are disfigurements of God’s good creation, instances of evil, and therefore ought to be remedied.  Two, physical deafness and blindness are parables, metaphors, of our spiritual condition. Sin-vitiated men and women, of themselves, cannot hear the word of God or see the kingdom of God . Of ourselves we can’t hear the word of God as word of God; we can only hear religious words about religious opinions suggesting religious notions of greater or less credibility.  But recognize the truth and reality of God’s address when he speaks to us? Recognize our Lord’s approach when he visits us?   No. Calvin knew whereof he spoke when he said, “What can a dead person do to attain life?”

Then how will God’s provision for us ever become a benefit to us? There has to be a secret, stealthy visitation of God’s Spirit.  God must steal upon us and rouse us at least to the point where we can see, hear, recognize and respond. God must infiltrate us by his Spirit (the Spirit being God’s secret agent) and awaken us to our need, his provision, its availability, and the urgency of it all.

This subtle, imperceptible work of the Spirit John Wesley called “prevenient grace”. Pre-venient grace is grace that “comes before.”  Comes before what? Comes before that flood of grace, that flood of God’s love which floods the hearts of all who welcome him who is God’s provision for us.  A needy woman reached out in faith to touch Jesus.         As she made contact with him he said to her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” When she reached out to him she exercised faith.  But before she reached out to him why did she think he could help her? How did she recognize him as God’s provision for a capsized world?  Before blind Bartimaeus cried out to Jesus, “Son of David (i.e., Messiah), have mercy on me!”, what gave Bartimaeus to understand that Jesus was the Son of David?  When Jesus called fishermen to leave their nets and begin fishing for men and women, what rendered Christ’s word believable and compelling? Prevenient grace is the hidden movement of God’s Spirit within us moving us towards that moment when we consciously embrace the grace of the crucified and find God’s love flooding our hearts.   Prevenient grace renders faith possible; we render faith actual as we welcome him who has already welcomed us; whereupon God’s love is lavishly spread abroad in our hearts. (Romans 5:5)

 

III: — God’s love, spread abroad in our hearts, issues in glad and grateful hearts; issues in faith; issues therefore in our answering love for him.  As faith develops, his love for us and our love for him interweave ever more profoundly. A bond is forged that becomes the instrument whereby God works for good, for our good and others’ good, in the midst of much about us that isn’t good. Paul writes, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)   We must note the strong conviction in Paul’s declaration: “We know; we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him.”  Paul himself was living proof of his conviction.  Think of his two-year imprisonment (house arrest) in Rome . In itself this wasn’t good. Yet think of the good that God “worked” from it. For two years Paul declared the gospel to visitors who could get to him readily just because he was in the largest city in the Roman Empire . Imprisoned in Rome and unable to travel, he pondered and then wrote the “prison epistles”: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon, letters that breathe the sufficiency of Christ.  Then again, the suffering that his imprisonment forced upon him authenticated his ministry; everyone knew he wasn’t an apostle because it was a “cushy” job. In fact his ministry cost him dearly; and the price he was willing to pay magnified the truth of the gospel and his vocation to the gospel.  Paul’s experience confirmed his conviction: in everything God does work for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.

I have long been convinced of the truth of the apostle’s word: in everything — even the bleakest and the blackest — God does work for good with those who love him. I have long been convinced of something else: one day we shall be permitted to see what good God wrought from so much that wasn’t good, and see as well how God wrought it. I have long been convinced of all this just because I have seen enough of God’s work already that I can’t doubt what he’s doing now, and seen enough of God’s work already that I can’t doubt he’ll one day let me see it all.

At the same time we must note the full measure of Paul’s statement. He doesn’t say, as a general principle, “In everything God works for good.”  He says, “In everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”

Let us make no mistake. There is a fork in the road. To speak of those who love God is to admit that there are those who do not love God but are indifferent, even hostile.  To speak of those who are called according to God’s purpose is to admit that there are those who prefer the “call” of another purpose; these people have their own agendas and schedules, their own priorities and preoccupations.   But their spiritual obtuseness in no way impedes the work of God in the “everything” of those who do love him, those whom his oceanic love has brought to life and freed to love.   For to know ourselves the beneficiary of God’s love is to sense the throb of our own heart’s love for him.

 

IV: — The outcome of such interwoven love is glorious.  Because nothing in God himself can interrupt his love for us, and because nothing outside God can separate us from him, his love is going to see us home, and see us home gloriously. “Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”, the apostle exults.         We must be sure to note the future tense.  “Nothing will be able to separate us — ever”. We already know that nothing can separate us from God’s love in the present; we know this because God’s love is shed abroad in our hearts now, flooding us at this moment. Just because God’s love drenches us now, and just because we know God himself is steadfast, constant, undeflectable, we know therefore that no future development will ever pry us out of God’s love.         It all means that God’s love, vivifying us now, sustaining us now, is going to be the vehicle that carries us home triumphantly to the glory that awaits us.

I was only a child when I became fascinated with the story of Elijah. According to the old Hebrew legend Elijah , Israel ’s greatest prophet, was taken up to heaven by a chariot of fire pulled by horses of fire. As Elijah was taken up in flaming splendour his successor, Elisha, cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” (2 Kings 2:11)   By this Elisha meant that Elijah, equipped with the Word and Spirit of God, was more formidable than all the armoured divisions of the Israelite army; more formidable than any hostile army.  Twenty-five hundred years later, in the year 1546, when word of Martin Luther’s death (he died in Eisleben) reached his friend, Philip Melanchthon, in Wittenberg, Melanchthon burst into the classroom of startled students at Wittenberg University and cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” Melanchthon meant that Luther, equipped with the Word and Spirit of God, was more formidable than all the forces arrayed against Luther that had battered him for years yet had never broken him.  It can be said — and will be said — of any Christian, of any person equipped with the Word and Spirit of God, “My Father, my mother. The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” For any Christian, equipped with the Spirit of God by definition, is more formidable than all that assaults us and tries to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  In other words, God’s love is the chariot of flaming splendour that bears us home triumphantly to the glory that awaits us.

 

V: — Bring us home?“Us”?   Who are the “we”? Who are the “we” of whom Paul speaks when he says, “Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”?   He is speaking of “those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  He is speaking of those who have owned for themselves that love which made provision for them at the point of their incomparable need.  These people have “put on” the Lord Jesus Christ in faith as surely as four young men on foundering troopship put on the life-jacket pressed upon them by those who gave it up at enormous cost.

                                     Victor Shepherd    

October 2006