27 April 2015

Beginning this Sunday, we begin 3-week series regarding the love of God. Inspired by a book title by Don Carson, we’re noting that the Love of God can be a Difficult Doctrine. (You can access a free PDF of his entire book here!)

By the way, ‘doctrine’ just means ‘teaching’, e.g. in a moral, religious or political context.

And again, indebted to his book’s introduction, why is the doctrine of God’s love difficult?

You’d understand the adjective if you were talking about the doctrine of the Trinity, or of predestination, or even of God’s judgment. And the doctrine of the love of God intersects with all these topics.

But isn’t God’s love a nice, simple and hopefully happy topic?

One reason for difficulty is that the surrounding culture’s talk of ‘love’ is often very different from what the Bible means by the word. It is often about sex, or just feelings, or sentimental optimism and positivity.

If you tell the culture God loves them, they are not surprised, because they figure, “It’s his job (if he exists)!” This is because they no longer believe in ideas like God’s holiness or wrath or sovereignty. This popular view of love wants God to baptize whatever we feel is loving, without any discrimination!

Another difficulty is the different ways in which the Bible speaks of the idea of “the love of God”. Don Carson lists at least five:

  1. The unique and eternal love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father (e.g. John 5:20 and John 14:31, respectively). This ‘intra-Trinitarian love’ undergirds the claim that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) in his very essence, and marks him off as different from all other religions’ ideas of the Creator.
  2. God’s providential love for all he has made. So for example, since we know he provides for the birds of the air, we can know he provides for us humans too (Matthew 6:26). Indeed, God sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike (Matthew 5:45).
  3. God shows saving love towards the entire world in rebellion against him, by sending Jesus. This is just as the most famous verse in the Bible declares: “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” (John 3:16).
  4. Yet God also shows particular, effective, selecting love towards his elect. Jesus lays down his life specifically for his sheep (John 10:14-16, also 10:27-30) Not, of course, because they are better or stronger than others (e.g. Deuteronomy 4:37-38).
  5. God’s love is, however, sometimes appears directed towards his people in a conditional way. There is a sense in which although God’s love for his children is unchangeable, yet Jesus can still say the way to remain in his love by obeying his commands in John 15:9-10.

We can add the practical difficulty that God’s love calls us to very challenging responses. For example, we are to love our enemies, and to forgive others as we have been forgiven.

Carson says we should avoid common errors in talking about the love of God. For example, Don’t let any of these five ways of talking about his love trump all the others. And avoid evangelical clichés like “God’s love is always unconditional”.

Rather, we must hold these truths together and learn to balance and apply them in biblical proportion and personal sensitivity. I pray these sermons on love fulfill that aim.

Warmly in Christ

Sandy Grant