Sense and Nonsense About God’s Love
1 John 4:8
April 27, 1997
I’d like to begin my message with a simple observation. No attribute of God is so widely believed as the love of God. This observation is quite easily testable. Take a microphone to the streets of Chicago and ask them to tell you what God is like. I will assert without fear of contradiction that the word “love” will be mentioned more than any other word. People who never go to church, never read their Bibles know that God is love. Unbelievers know that God is love. Atheists know it, followers of other religions know it. They may not fully believe it but they have heard it said so many times that when they think of God, they think of his love.
However, that’s not the whole story. I would like to suggest that no attribute of God has been so badly misunderstood as God’s love. After all, this sermon is called Sense and Nonsense About God’s Love. In putting the matter that way, I’m not arguing that God’s love is the least-known attribute, only that what most people believe about God’s love is quite simply not true at all. Because they know part of the truth, they assume they know it all. In this case, a little knowledge is definitely a dangerous thing.
Let’s begin our journey to understand something about what it means to say that “God is love.” J. I. Packer uses a wonderful image to speak of God’s love. It goes something like this:
When we study God’s wisdom, we learn about his mind.
When we study God’s power, we learn about his arm.
When we study God’s knowledge, we learn about his eyes.
When we study God’s Word, we learn about his mouth.
When we study God’s love, we learn about his heart.
“We shall stand on holy ground; we need the grace of reverence that we may tread it without sin” (Knowing God, p. 119).
Four Wrong Ideas About God’s Love
Although it may sound jarring to the ear, let’s talk about four common but wrong ideas about God’s love. First is the idea that God loves every person in exactly the same way. I think we all assume this is true, but it is not. A moment’s thought will show us how unreasonable the notion is. We often use the word love in many different ways—and we in fact love in different ways and to different degrees. Here’s a little doggerel that makes the point very effectively: “I love my wife, I love my baby, I love my biscuits dipped in gravy.” There you have three different uses of the word “love” in the same sentence. Married love is not the same as love of your children, and loving your food is something entirely different. Yet the same word is used of all three. From a biblical point of view, we may say that God loves the world, but lavishes love on his children. Theologians use the word “sovereign” to describe God’s love. By that they mean that God shows love as he chooses to show love. Since no one has a claim on God’s love, no one can complain if God chooses to express his love toward someone else differently than he has shown it to you.
Second, some people mistakenly believe that God’s love somehow cancels his holiness. Unbelievers often think this. Many people have the idea that when they reach the gates of heaven, God will smile and say, “You don’t deserve it, but aw, come on in anyway.” Unfortunately, that view has nothing at all to commend itself to us. Whatever else we may say, this much is certain: God’s love is not benevolent softness because God cannot overlook sin. He will never contradict his own nature.
Behind this wrong idea is a perverted view of love that says, “If you love me, you’ll accept anything I do.” Wrong! Love makes judgment calls. Love cares about right and wrong. That’s why parents spank their children. That’s why God spanks his children.
God’s love is holy love. His love is built upon his holiness and could not exist apart from it.
The third wrong idea is growing more and more popular, even in some evangelical circles. It’s the idea that God’s love means that everyone will one day be saved. This is the heresy of universalism. While it sounds attractive, it is completely at odds with the Bible. Not everyone who says “I love the Lord” or “I’m a believer” is going to heaven. Hell will be filled with religious people of all varieties. The idea is contradicted by Jesus himself in Matthew 25:46, “They will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
The final wrong idea is that God is Love means the same as Love is God. The first part is certainly true. God is love, as 1 John 4:8 plainly states. Love is at the core of God’s being. It is that which causes him to reach out to save guilty sinners. But the second part—”love is God”—is manifestly untrue. Not all love is of God. Men love darkness rather than light—that is not of God. Some people love murder and rape—that is not of God. Some people love deception and violence—that is not of God. To say that “love is God” is at best misleading, at worst a brand of New Age pantheism.
God’s Love: How Sinners Are Saved
What is the love of God? This week I read a number of theologians on the subject and came away confused and depressed. But on reflection, I decided that just because we can’t define it simply, that doesn’t mean that God’s love doesn’t exist. After all, who can properly define the love between a man and a woman or between a parent and a child?
I am tempted to say that I don’t know what God’s love is, but I know it when I see it. Perhaps that’s not far from the truth. Here’s a little chart that may help our thinking in this area.
Human Love God’s Love
We may boil it down this way. Human love generally is a response to conditions and circumstances around us. We love because someone pleases us or because they seem attractive or because they pay attention to us or because they make us laugh or because we feel fulfilled around them.
By contrast God’s love is utterly uncaused. He loves because that’s the kind of God he is. Nothing in us causes him to love us. Not our beauty (most of us have very little), not our wealth (what we have came from him), not our wisdom (the same), not our good deeds (we have done nothing to recommend us to the Almighty), not our promise to love him back (we can make no such promise without his enablement). Our love is conditional and often temporary. God’s love is unconditional, uncaused, and eternal. It is utterly unlike human love, even though our love may be a dim reflection of his.
Perhaps the central passage in the New Testament on God’s love is Romans 5:6-8. Here Paul focuses on the death of Christ as the supreme manifestation of God’s love.
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
We discover two vital truths in these verses:
A. The Truth About Who We Are
Verse 6 says we were “powerless” and “ungodly.” To be powerless means we couldn’t change our basic nature. Ungodly means we had no desire to change in the first place. Verse 8 adds that we were sinners, meaning we were desperately in need of a change that we couldn’t effect and didn’t want anyway. No more hopeless situation could ever be imagined.
Powerless … ungodly … sinners. Not a very pretty list, is it? But those three words describe what you were by nature from the moment you were born. They also describe the spiritual state of every person in the world apart from Jesus Christ.
This is God’s judgment on the entire human race. No one is excluded. Search the four corners of the globe and you find no exceptions to the truth. Not only are all men sinners, but all men by nature are powerless, ungodly and the enemies of God.
And may I say that it doesn’t matter whether you accept this truth or not. These things are true without regard to your personal opinion. You may say, “I’m not ungodly” or “I’m not God’s enemy” or even “I know lots of people who are worse sinners than I am.” But God’s Word simply washes away your limp objections. This is the truth about you as you stand on your own before God apart from divine grace.
This truth leaves us with no hope in ourselves. You might somehow reverse one or two of these facts but no one could escape all four. As a result, you are utterly unable to save yourself. Your condition is hopeless apart from Jesus Christ.
We may therefore draw one major conclusion from all this: God’s love is not dependent on anything in you because there is nothing in you worth loving. That is, there is nothing in you that forces God to love you. It’s not that you are such a naturally lovable person. You aren’t. And neither am I. Sin has infected your life so that it has distorted and destroyed even the parts of you that you believe to be beautiful. Sin “uglyfies” everything it touches. Sin has made us so ugly that God finds nothing in us that forces him to love us.
There is, then, no reason for God to love us. No reason except this: That’s the kind of God he is. He loves you and he loves me because God is love and he can’t help loving us even when we are his enemies. His love is both greater than our sin and in spite of our sin. God shouldn’t love us … but he does. This is the wonder of the ages. That God would love his sworn enemies.
(I pause to interject this point. Someone might find this point very discouraging because we all like to think of ourselves as naturally lovable. I would reply that God is actually very comforting. If God loves you only when you are lovable, then when you stop being lovable, God would have to stop loving you! Where would you be then?)
No, it’s better to admit the truth. God loves us in spite of our unloveliness. That means that God’s love is sure and certain because it doesn’t depend on anything you say or do.
Second, these verses reveal to us …
B. The Amazing Extent of God’s Love
Now we turn to God’s incredible solution to man’s impossible problem. Verses 7-8 reveal the unearthly nature of God’s love. His solution to our problem is so unusual that it goes far beyond human reason. We would never think this up on our own. Only God could conceive of this solution. Two statements summarize this truth:
1. He Went Far Beyond What We Would Do. 7
“Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.” Here’s a good question for you to discuss over lunch tomorrow. How many people are you willing to die for? If the chips were down, the moment came, and in a split second you had to make a decision, how many people would you be willing to lay down your life for—with no hesitation or reservation?
So how many people would you die for? Only a few. A handful and no more. Your parents, your children, your husband or wife, and perhaps one or two very close friends. But that’s about it. As I thought about it, my list is very small. In the first place, you never know until the moment comes, and you pray never to be put in that agonizing position. But what if you were?
Our text is telling us that all of us would die for a few other people—close friends and family members, people we greatly admire—but even that is very rare. The circle is very small. To be honest, there are many people you love dearly but you’re not sure you’re ready to take a bullet in the back for them.
There are some people we would die for. There are many more we admire but we probably wouldn’t die for. There are others we barely know that we would never consider dying for. There are millions and billions of others whose lives don’t even figure into the equation.
We’ve all read those heroic stories where someone gives his life to save a stranger. This week I read a story about a mining disaster. Two men were trapped in a mine. They had two oxygen masks but one had been broken in the collapse of the walls. One man said to the other, “You take it. You’ve got a wife and children. I don’t have anybody. I can go. You’ve got to stay.” The one man voluntarily died so the other might live. When we hear a story like that, we feel as if we’re standing on holy ground. And indeed we are, for such sacrifice is rare indeed.
Or we can imagine a situation during the Vietnam war. It’s late at night and a Marine sergeant is talking with his men. They are far into the jungle, deep in enemy territory. It’s cold and the men huddle around a tiny fire to keep warm. Suddenly a grenade flies in from the darkness, landing at the sergeant’s feet. Without thinking, he throws himself on the grenade, taking the full force of the blast with his body. He is blown to pieces, but in his death he saves his men. He gave his life for his friends.
But listen carefully. Romans 5:7 is telling us that God’s love is not like that. Those examples show us friends dying for friends and loved ones dying for loved ones. As great as that is, God’s love is much greater. We can at least understand what those people did when they sacrificed themselves for those they loved. But God went far beyond what we would do. We would never think of doing what he did.
2. He Did What We Would Never Do. 8
“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” When we read it, we like to emphasize, “Christ died for us,” but the emphasis is clearly on the first phrase—”While we were still sinners.” The wonder is not that Christ should die for us—though that would be wonderful enough. The wonder is that Christ died for us while we were still sinners, still ungodly, still powerless and still enemies of God! He didn’t die for his friends. He died for his enemies. He died for those who crucified him. He died for those who hated him. He died for those who rejected him. He died for those who cheered as the nails were driven in his hands.
Let’s go back to Vietnam, only this time the Marine sergeant has been captured and is taken up the Ho Chi Minh trail to Hanoi. Because he is a sergeant, he is beaten unmercifully. His teeth are broken, his cheekbone shattered, his legs disfigured, his ribs cracked, his back permanently stooped from hanging upside down in mid-air. His captors torment him day and night, trying to break his will.
At length a rescue operation is mounted. As the American forces move in, his captors surround him. Suddenly out of nowhere comes a projectile. It’s an American grenade. It lands in the middle of the group. Two seconds, one second. Just before it explodes, the Marine sergeant throws himself on the grenade, taking the full force of the blast, dying in the process but saving his Viet Cong captors. Blown to bits, he dies so that those men who savagely beat him might be spared.
He Didn’t Die For His Friends
You say, “Who would ever do anything like that?” I know only one person who would do something like that. His name is Jesus Christ. He did something like that when he died for us while we were still sinners 2000 years ago.
He didn’t die for good people. He died for bad people.
He didn’t die for saints. He died for sinners.
He didn’t die for his friends. He died for his enemies.
He didn’t die for those who loved him. He died for those who hated him.
We would never do anything like that! We might die for our friends but never for our enemies. But that’s what Jesus did for us.
The death of Jesus is the final proof of God’s love. Sometimes in this crazy, mixed-up world, people say, “Where’s the love of God?” We see so much killing, so much heartache, so much tragedy, so much pain, so much anger. Where is the love of God?
Look to the cross. Gaze upon the bleeding form of the Son of God. There you will see the love of God.
See from his head, his hands, his feet.
Sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
And I said, “Lord, how much do you love me?” “This much,” he said. Then he stretched out his arms, bowed his head, and died.
Let no one who reads these words ever doubt that God loves you. Does he love you? Yes he does. He proved it when Jesus died on the cross for you.
God’s Love: Our Guiding Principle
“You take up the subject of love in the Bible! You will get so full of it that all you have to do is open your lips, and a flood of the Love of God flows out.” — D. L. Moody
The New Testament is filled with verses that tell us what the love of God should mean in practical experience. Here are ten of the most famous statements on the subject:
It is the visible mark of genuine Christian faith.
“By this all men will know that you are my disciples.” John 13:35
It is the means by which forgiven sinners can live together in harmony.
“Love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”
1 Peter 4:8
It is the standard by which Christian husbands will be judged.
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church.”
It is the great principle of Christian conduct.
“Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” Galatians 5:13
It is God’s counterbalance against harsh words.
“Instead, speaking the truth in love …” Ephesians 4:15
It is the supreme motive for sharing Christ with others.
“For Christ’s love compels us.” 2 Corinthians 5:14
It is proof positive that we know God.
“Whoever lives in love lives in God.” 1 John 4:16
It is the path to confident, victorious living.
“Perfect love drives out fear.” 1 John 4:18
It is the sum total of what God demands from us.
“Love is the fulfillment of the law.” Romans 13:10
It is the supreme virtue and will last for all eternity.
“Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13
Love is truly the language of heaven. It comes from the heart of God and is poured out into the heart of every believer. Love fulfills the law because when we live in love, we are truly living in the essence of God himself.
Two Closing Comments
Let’s wrap up this message with two closing comments about God’s love.
1. All of God’s blessing to us flows from his love for us.
Can you be certain that you are going to heaven? Is that possible or is it just wishful thinking? You can be absolutely, positively, beyond any shadow of a doubt certain that you are going to heaven when you die. Why? Because of Jesus Christ.
This week I read of an Irish saint who loved to testify this way: “I often tremble on the Rock, but the Rock never trembles under me.” You may tremble but the Rock of our salvation is secure. You may be weak—that’s okay—Jesus is strong.
2. All of our deepest problems are solved at the Cross.
For the helpless, he died.
The ungodly, he justified.
The sinner, he saved.
His enemies, he reconciled.
Our impossible problem has been completely solved through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Our sins have been forgiven, our debt completely paid, our record wiped clean, and righteousness has been imputed to our account. The gap that separated us from God has been completely bridged. We who were once far away have been brought near. We who were sinners have now become the friends of God.
Bill Hybels and the President
It was just over 100 days ago that Bill Clinton began his second term as President of the United States. On the day of his inauguration I happened to watch the last few minutes of the ecumenical prayer service from a church in Washington, D.C. There were representatives from all the major Christian denominations, a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim cleric, and many different musical groups. They sang, read scriptures, and prayed for the president and for the nation.
Near the end of the program Bill Hybels, pastor of the Willowcreek Community Church in South Barrington, came to the podium. It has been well-advertised that he and the President meet every few weeks for Bible study and prayer together. Evidently they have become good friends because Bill Hybels spoke movingly of his admiration and respect for the President. He said that he wanted to give the president a gift and couldn’t decide what to give him. Then he decided to bring along a singing group from Willowcreek and have them serenade the president as part of the prayer service. I thought to myself, “They’ll probably sing a contemporary song.” And I assumed that there would be taped accompaniment. But I was wrong on both counts.
In short order about six men and women came out, and stood before the President and First Lady who were seated on the front row along with Chelsea. With no accompaniment whatsoever, and in perfect pitch and harmony, they began to sing a song written in 1917 by F. M. Lehman. It’s a song I heard often years ago but not very much in recent years. The song is called “The Love of God.” The first verse goes like this:
The love of God is greater far than tongue or pen could ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star, and reaches to the lowest hell;
(At this point the TV camera came in close on President and Mrs. Clinton.)
The guilty pair, bowed down with care, God gave his Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled, and pardoned from his sin.
The second verse speaks of the eternal nature of God’s love versus the temporary nature of all earthly wealth and power:
When years of time shall pass away,
And earthly thrones and kingdoms fall,
When men, who here refuse to pray,
On rocks and hills and mountains call,
God’s love so sure, shall still endure,
All measureless and strong;
Redeeming grace to Adam’s race—
The saints and angels song.
The third verse is notable because of a legend attached to the writing of it. There is a story—which I am calling a legend, but it might be true—that the words to the third verse were found scribbled on the wall by a man held in an insane asylum. Supposedly the words were not discovered until after his death. The story seems fantastic yet I have seen it in print in a book of songs in our music library at church. In any case, the words are most dramatic, especially considering that the Willowcreek group sang them acapella standing four feet from the President of the United States in a service televised to the nation.
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.
Then comes the famous chorus, beautiful in its majestic simplicity:
O love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure
The saints and angels song.
We will let those words stand as the end of this message. How great, how vast, how amazing is the love of God. When all other sounds have been stilled, we will join the saints and angels throughout the eons of eternity in singing of the love of God for sinners like you and like me.