The Love of God
In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 1 John 4:9-10
How important is it to know the love of God in Christ? In my reading of church history, I can tell you that the men and women who have accomplished most for the cause of God and truth in this world have done so out of a compelling sense of the love of God towards them. They weren’t moved by legalistic motives. Rather, they would say with the apostle Paul, “The love of Christ constraineth us” (2 Cor. 5:14). A true sense of the love of God does not lead to spiritual lethargy. It doesn’t make indolent Christians. People who say they know the love of Christ and yet lead spiritually barren and fruitless lives don’t really know what they are talking about.
Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3 underlines the importance of knowing the love of Christ. He prays that the saints would “be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God” (ver. 18-19). I cannot imagine a greater blessing than to be filled with all the fullness of God. We are all seeking to be filled – satisfied – and yet satisfaction in the soul remains so elusive for so many of us. Perhaps it is because we are seeking satisfaction in things that cannot ultimately satisfy. God alone can do it. And yet, the language of being filled with all God’s fullness seems like it ought to be off bounds and beyond our reach – and impossible hope. And so Paul ends his prayer this way: “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think [like knowing the love of Christ which is beyond knowledge – like being filled with all God’s fullness], according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen” (ver. 20-21).
We need to understand that Paul was praying this for all the believers. This should be the goal of every follower of Christ. And the early Christians did know something of this: “Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Pet. 1:8). In fact, has it ever struck you how often believers are described in the NT as being “full?” (See, for example, Acts 6:5, 8; 9:36; 11:24; Rom. 15:14; Jam. 3:17.) The key was that they knew in a real, experiential way the love of God in Christ.
You cannot of course be faithful to Christ if you do not love him. “If you love me,” our Lord said, “you will keep my commandments.” In fact, all of God’s law is summed up in terms of love: love the Lord you God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. But you cannot love God if you know nothing about his love. Love begets love. “We love him because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19).
So I think we can consider no greater subject than that of the love of God in Christ. It is not important from a merely theoretical standpoint; knowing the love of God is the key to the Christian life. The question then is, how do we know it? How can we become like the early Christians, like Paul? How can we become the kind of person who finds the love of God irresistibly compelling?
Surely the first step is truly understanding this love of God. We must beware of approaching this subject from a purely subjective standpoint. Paul prayed for the Ephesians to “comprehend” – to take hold of with the mind – the love of Christ. This is what the apostle John helps us to do in our text. He tells us how the love of God has been manifested and made known. In other words, God’s love is not necessarily what we want it to be, or what we imagine it to be. God’s love is made known to us through Jesus Christ, and explained in the writings of his apostles. And nowhere is there a clearer exposition of God’s love than in our text.
How is God’s love manifested? It is manifested in the place to which God sent his Son, in the fact that God sent his Son into the world. Now we are all aware of how painful it can be to walk into the heat of summer from an air-conditioned house. But that is nothing to the difference between the glory of heaven and the blistering desert of this lonely world to God’s Son. Some of you know how shocking it can be to go from your home into a third world country. But this is nothing compared to what it must have been for the Son of God to leave heaven and come to earth. There is no culture shock that even compares to what the Son of God must have experienced. The apostle John tells us that “the whole world lieth in wickedness” (1 Jn. 5:19). This is what the Son of God came into. He came from a country in which God’s will is perfectly and only and always done into a world which is ruled over by the Prince of darkness. It must have been sickening to him. We are used to it, because we have always lived in this environment. But our Lord was a stranger – he surely never got used to it. And yet he came – not for his sake but for ours. That is love. He came into this world and it received him not. He was despised and rejected of men – in order to save sinners. That is love.
This being sent into the world is what theologians have called the “humiliation of Christ.” We need to remember that. The Shorter Catechism describes it perfectly: “Christ’s humiliation consisted in his being born, and that in a low condition, made under the law, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the cross; in being buried, and continuing under the power of death for a time.”
How is God’s love manifested? It is manifested not only in the place he had to come but also in the people he came to save. John tells us that he came “that we might live through him” (I Jn. 4:9). Now that implies that we were all dead. We were not, like Westley in The Princess Bride, “mostly dead.” We were completely dead. Paul writes, “For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead” (2 Cor. 5:14). The apostle expands upon this thought in his letter to the Ephesians: “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). He goes on to explain that this means that they were under the dominion of the world, the devil, and their own lusts (ver. 2-3). We were dead to God but enslaved to Satan. And we were born this way, because Paul says that we “were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.” We were born with the poison of sin in our hearts. Is there anything less lovely than this portrait of ourselves in Scripture? Anything more revolting? And yet these were the people that Christ came to save – people like you and me.
But not only were we dead, we were hostile to God. Christ did not come to save those who were in a bad condition but who at least loved him. No, he came to save his enemies. The apostle hints at this when he writes, “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us” (I Jn. 4:10). That is remarkable grace. It’s no mistake that in Ephesians 2, immediately after spelling out our dreadful condition in sin, Paul goes on to say, “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ” (Eph. 2:4-5). The reason is not in us; God’s will to save lies solely in himself, in his love toward us. “We love him because he first loved us.”
How is the love of God manifested? It is manifested not only in the place he had to come, not only in the people he came to save, but also in the propitiation he came to give: “he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (ver. 10).
This is an interesting word, “propitiation.” No one uses it anymore, and most modern translations have dropped it. But it is an important word. It refers to the work of Christ in reference to the wrath of God. There are four words which the NT uses to describe what our Lord did on the cross. They are redemption, reconciliation, sacrifice, and propitiation. And they all point to specific needs that we have which are met by Christ’s atoning work. Just as the word “redemption” points to our need for salvation from slavery to sin, and just as “reconciliation” points to our need for salvation from alienation from God, and just as “sacrifice” points to our need for salvation from the guilt of sin, even so “propitiation” points to our need for salvation from the wrath of God.
It’s interesting that such a word is used when the point being highlighted is the love of God! Why would we need to be saved from God’s wrath when it is his love that sent his Son to die for us? Isn’t this a contradiction? No. God’s love does not cancel out his holiness. He cannot but be angry with us on account of our sins. The fact of the matter is that it is not just we who are hostile toward God. God is hostile toward us because of our sin. As Paul put it, we are by nature children of wrath – “wrath” there is not our wrath but God’s holy anger and hostility towards sin.
The reason for Christ being sent into the world was to avert the holy and just wrath of God. Yes, God is love. But God’s love is a holy love, and he cannot save sinners without dealing with their sin. This is the reason for the cross. The cross is the place where God’s sovereign love and holy wrath coalesce in his mission to rescue the spiritually dead. Christ had to bear the wrath of God in our place in order that we might have God’s smile instead of his hand of judgment. But the fact that it is the Son of God bearing the wrath of God and not us is the definitive display of the love of God.
How can we experience the love of God? We must first know of it as the Scripture reveals it to us. That is, we must know and understand the claims of the gospel. We must understand who Jesus is. And then we must believe on him. To put your faith in Christ means that you entrust yourself to him as your Savior and Lord. Can you do that? If so, you are saved, forgiven, justified, adopted, sanctified, and one day you will be glorified.
There is no one beyond the reach of his grace. Recall our text: God’s love does not find its impulse in our goodness, but rather in his sovereign initiative. Do what Martin Luther is said to have done when Satan showed him his sins: he told the devil to write at the bottom of his long list of sins, “the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all unrighteousness.” May the Lord enable all of us to do so.