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Is God’s love simple or complex?

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What does it mean to say, “God is love?” In what way does God love the whole world? Human love is the most confounding and mystical of our earthly experiences. How then shall we understand the love of God? Is His love the easiest thing to understand about God, or possibly the hardest?

Early in our sermon series on Malachi, Pastor Chuck pointed out that a scholar named D. A. Carson had actually written a book entitled, “The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God.” You should read it sometime; it’s only 80 pages long. Still, this is an Internet blog, so you’d probably like something even quicker, right? Maybe a five-point list? Here then, from his book, are what Carson calls “five distinguishable ways the Bible speaks of the love of God.”

  1. “The peculiar love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father”
    Part of a man-centered view of God is the notion that God had to create mankind so that He had someone to love! But the Bible reveals God as triune and able to experience love within Himself. Jesus said, “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand” and “the world [must] know that I love the Father” (John 3:35, 14:31). In fact, creation is the outworking of the love within God – all our loves are derivative of God’s own love for God.

  2. “God’s providential love over all that he has made”
    By “providential love,” Carson means God’s love demonstrated through providing for us, and for all creation. In the beginning, all creation was proclaimed “good.” Even after the fall, God’s orientation toward all things is one of lovingkindness. So much is wrong in this world, but the marks of God’s loving touch can be found everywhere: in the most ordinary things, as well as the stunningly majestic. Your beating heart is an expression of God’s providential love. God need not provide you one more breath – only by His great love for you will you last through the end of this post.

  3. “God’s salvific stance toward his fallen world”
    The word “salvific” means “of or relating to redemptive power.” God’s orientation toward the whole world is that, despite the depth of this world’s rejection of its creator, God still seeks to save the lost. Not all will be saved, but God’s attitude toward the unsaved is not simple hatred. Though all Scripture confirms that God rages against the nations (Isaiah 34:2), He does not delight in the destruction of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23).

  4. “God’s particular, effective, selecting love toward his elect”
    In forming a people for Himself, Carson says, “God sets His affection on His chosen ones in a way in which He does not set His affection on others.” Those on whom God has chosen to shower His saving love share all else with everyone else who has ever lived. We are just as unworthy as those outside of this special love of God. Apart from His own work in opening our eyes to see God as wonderful, to see our sin as abominable, to see God’s provision in Christ as irresistible, and to see God Himself as lovely and infinitely valuable, we would have been blind forever like the rest. Returning, though, to what we’re learning about the love of God here: He chooses to love the unlovely and transform the wretched into a more perfect reflection of His image. Which leads us into the last of our list of ways the Bible speaks of God’s love…

  5. “God’s love is sometimes said to be directed toward his own people in a provisional or conditional way – conditioned, that is, on obedience”
    Christian culture in our place and time has become fixated on God’s love being unconditional. But there is much in Scripture that makes no sense if God’s love is exclusively unconditional, as if He cannot tell, or does not care, whether we are living in a godly or ungodly fashion. What kind of relationship do we have with God if God is incapable of showing us more of His love at some times than at others? Is God’s love really less complex – less interesting – than the love between human lovers, or between human parent and child? A true child knows she forever has the status of being a true child, even as the ebb and flow of her relationship with her parents brings her to experience more or less love from her parents. Jude 21 is written to believers, but admonishes these believers to “keep yourselves in the love of God.” Evidently we who are true sons and daughters of God can somehow be outside of the love of God; otherwise we would not be told to remain inside His love.

Carson cautions us to avoid thinking of these ways of speaking of the love of God as “independent, compartmentalized, loves of God.” He is one God, even one God in three persons. We cannot and should not attempt to carve Him up into digestible pieces. We must always consider God as both infinitely complex and completely unified. This is where we throw our hands in the air and simply worship Him as incomparably beautiful – more than worthy of our eternal adoration!

Next, let’s consider a few of the connections between the five ways of speaking of God’s love.

  • The bruising of “the peculiar love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father” is the great eternal cost of the Son of God being stricken for the sins of the elect. The Heavenly Father loves His Son with infinite depth, and yet He “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32).

  • The love of God the Father for the pure and perfect only begotten Son of God is what draws us Godward, transforming the elect into the purer image of His Son, that we might somehow participate in that love that has been forever shared between the Father and the Son. “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17:20-24).

  • And God’s promise to us of eternity with Him in a new Heaven and new Earth is connected to His yearning love for the whole world, whereby “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).

There is much more to the “difficult doctrine” of God’s love, so please find and read the book. You can get it in many ways:

Read it slowly, and meditate on the lessons it teaches. But most of all, dive into and revel in this love. Examine it in all its complexity. It is our great privilege to know His love, and be filled with all His fullness. From Ephesians 3:17b-19:

[I pray] that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Amen! Let’s strive with all our might to “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge!”

Author: Tom Reilly

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