Can God's Love for Us (and Christ) Increase?
Likeness is the ground of delight; God loves himself for his own holiness, and they are best loved and liked that are most holy. - Manton
Can God's love for us increase? We can answer this question - as indeed we can regarding most theological questions - with both a "yes" and a "no".
There are different ways of understanding God's love. There is a difference between the intra-trinitarian love of the triune God and the love God has for his creatures. God's intra-trinitarian love is eternal and therefore natural and necessary. However, the love of God in relation to his creatures is not necessary, but rather voluntary.
According to this outward, voluntary love, there is a threefold distinction:
1) God's universal love towards all things;
2) God's love towards all human beings, both elect and reprobate;
This third aspect of God's love - towards the elect - "belongs to the category of affection, arising inwardly and extending outward, and is not to be understood as a passion, arising because of some outward good that it apprehends and desires" (Richard Muller).3) God's special love towards his people.
God's voluntary love towards his people (#3 above) has three major components:
1) God's love of benevolence, understood in terms of God's election and predestination;2) God's love of beneficence, whereby God wills to redeem his people;
3) God's love of delight or friendship (i.e., complacency), whereby God delights in his people according to their holiness/Christ-likeness.
According to the third category (i.e., love of delight), this is a love that is not static, but may increase as the creature becomes more and more conformed to the image of Jesus. How does this look?
God is good in himself. He thus delights in himself. He delights that he is infinitely, eternally, unchangeably, powerfully, abundantly, and majestically good. This personal delight provides the basis for his delight in his creatures:
"If he loves himself, he cannot but love the resemblance of himself, and the image of his own goodness" (Charnock).
In short, God loves all things according to the degree of loveliness in it. The Son of God is the special object of the Father's delight and love because of the degree of loveliness in him. Christ's attractiveness cannot be compared to any created person (see Ps. 45)."When he loves others, he loves himself in them: his own virtues, works, and gifts" (Bavinck).
Even before the incarnation, the Father speaks of the prospect of Jesus, the God-man: "Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights" (Isa. 42:1). The Father's delight undergoes renewal after the incarnation at Christ's baptism (Matt. 3:17) and transfiguration (Matt. 17:5), and I would also say, in a qualified sense, at Christ's crucifixion.
Christ tells us that "the Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand" (Jn. 3:35; see also Jn. 5:20). Jesus himself desires and prays that believers may know of the love the Father has for the Son (Jn. 17:23, 26).
So, taking our doctrine of God's love, we can say, as Charnock does below:
"The more likeness we have to [God], the more love we shall have from him....If God loves holiness in a lower measure, much more will he love it in a higher degree, because then his image is more illustrious and beautiful, and comes nearer to the lively lineaments of his own infinite purity....(Jn. 14:21)....he loves a holy man for some resemblance to him in his nature; but when there is an abounding in sanctified dispositions suitable to it, there is an increase of favor; the more we resemble the original, the more shall we enjoy the blessedness of that original: as any partake more of the Divine likeness, they partake more of the Divine happiness."
This is a remarkable quote in today's context where one frequently hears the very opposite of what Charnock affirms. These words from Charnock can even be applied to Christ during his earthly life, where "Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man" (Lk. 2:52) (emphasis mine).
Christ learned obedience; he became perfect (Heb. 5:8-9). He remained in the Father's love because he kept his Father's commandments (Jn. 15:10). He was and is the delight of the Father. As he obeyed the Father's will, to the point of death, he grew in the delight of the Father. Because the finite is not capable of the infinite, this was possible for the God-man, who could "grow" and thus please more and more his Father in heaven. If this is true for Jesus, may it also be true of us in our union with the Savior?
Yes, in this sense:
When speaking about God's love or favour or pleasure towards believers - those who are in Christ - there is both an unconditional love asserted in the Scriptures as well as a conditional love. John 14:21, 23, 16:27 speaks to the latter type of love in the clearest manner: "if" (ean) and "because" (hoti) refer to conditional language.
These texts are strikingly similar to the language whereby Christ speaks of how he remains in the Father's love (Jn. 10:17; 15:9-10). Again, this is not to deny the unconditional, necessary love that exists - eternally - between the Father and the Son, but we also have to affirm what the Scriptures actually teach, namely, that Christ speaks about the love between him and the Father in conditional terms.
Melchior Leydekker addresses this doctrine with great clarity:
"God's love is either of benevolence or of complacency. The first is the love by which God shall do well to the elect, before there is anything in them that could give Him complacency, John 3:16, Rom. 5:8. And therefore, it can be regarded either as predetermining in God's decrees, or as actually effecting in time. The second, the love of complacency, is the case where God approves the good which is in the elect, especially as being commanded by him and caused, Heb. 11:5-6; John 14:21; 16:26-27."
That is a perfect summary the statement of the question. Francis Turretin refers to John 14:23 and notes, like Leydekker, that this love is not referring to the beginning (i.e., affectively), but to its "continuance and increase" (i.e., effectively).
On the "negative" side, the Westminster Confession makes the point that there is such a thing as God's fatherly displeasure, just as there is such a thing as his Fatherly pleasure. The justified can never lose their justification; "yet they may, by their sins, fall under God's fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of his countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance" (WCF 11.5).
If Christians are able to displease their Father, we must also affirm that Christians can please God. Because of our union with the risen Savior, Christians are frequently urged to please God and Christ. Sometimes Paul speaks of pleasing God, as in Philippians 4:18 (see also Heb. 13:21; Rom. 14:18; 1 Thess. 4:1). At other times, Paul speaks of pleasing Christ: we make it our aim to please him (2 Cor. 5:9). Our conduct may result in being described as "fully pleasing" to Christ (Col. 1:10). Christians need to discern what pleases the Lord (Eph. 5:10).
This applies to Christ, according to his human nature: "... though [Jesus] loved all his disciples, yet he chose out some for intimacy and special converse... he had a special inclination to them, or, for their sincerity and eminency in grace, he delighted in them more than in the rest ... if I love all that are godly, I love those most who are most godly" (Manton).
Returning, then, to the question at the beginning of this post: Can God love his people in increasing measure? Yes and no.
In our glorified state that this principle will continue. As we come to know God more and love God more he will manifest himself to us more and more, and we will in that sense experience an ever-heightening awareness of God's love for us in glory as he continues forever to shower us with more and more love from the inexhaustible fountain of love that is himself.
reformation21 is the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting reformation21 and the mission of the Alliance. Please donate here.