Results tagged “Love of God” from Reformation21 Blog

The Soul Felt Its Worth

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We all wrestle with feeling worthless at some time or another. The world imputes value to individuals, whether it admits such or not, on the basis of gender, race, age, physical appearance, profession, possessions, income, intelligence, accomplishments, character traits, ability to make others laugh, and so on. Too often, Christian communities happily follow suit, making individuals within them feel valued (or not) on the basis of their standing relative to similar if not identical criteria. Fall short (as it were) in one or more of the categories just named, and you inevitably start to wonder, "what am I worth?" -- even if you formulate the question in different words, or struggle to formulate it at all.

Questions about self-worth may follow changes to our status in one or more of those categories that we, in obedience to the various cultures we inhabit, use to gauge our own value. It may be the slow process of aging and related breakdowns in physical and mental prowess that trigger doubt regarding one's worth. It may be the more sudden realization that someone else, perhaps an employer or a spouse, simply doesn't want you. Some years ago, an individual who (at that time) occupied a position of authority in my life told lies about me to persons both inside and outside our shared place of work. Consequently, I wrestled for many months with anger and a desire to take vengeance into my own hands. But more significantly I faced the temptation to believe the lies told about me, and measure my own worth by the standard of another's malicious judgment of my character and actions. I equally faced the temptation to believe the competing and well-meaning voices of friends, family, and colleagues, as well as my own internal voice, all assuring me that this individual's lies were simply that and encouraging me to gauge my worth in relation to my place on the scale of one or more of those closely cherished criteria (named above) for determining personal value. Sin savors lose-lose situations.

The gospel gives us radically different criteria for gauging our worth. In Christian theology we impute value to ourselves and others on the basis, first of all, of every person's creation in God's own image. "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Gen. 1:27). Every human being, no matter their gender, race, appearance, accomplishments, etc., is created in God's image, and as such has unique value, even if they squander every gift given to them and devote themselves to the worst imaginable behavior for the course of their lives. Scripture calls us to specific ways of living in relationship to others on the basis of their divine image-bearing status: "With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so" (James 3:9-10). Translation: Treat others, both in word and deed, with the dignity demanded by their standing as image-bearers of God.

The reality of our creation in God's own image should also and equally inform assessments of self-worth. "What am I worth?" Quite a bit, actually, as one who both in solidarity with others and in my own unique abilities and gifts, whatever those might be, reflects the Triune God who made me.

But Christian doctrine also, I think, prompts us to discover our value in the lengths that our Triune God went to in order to rescue us from sin, death, and hell. This truth is captured by that gripping line in the nineteenth-century Christmas hymn O Holy Night: "He appeared, and the soul felt its worth." The worth discovered, or felt, by virtue of Christ's incarnation is the simple yet profound worth of being simply and profoundly loved by another. It is the recognition that "he" appeared not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many, of whom, for reasons I will never fully fathom, I am one.

Of course, assessments of self-worth rooted in recognition of God's deeply loving and saving activity on our behalf must not become subtle means of smuggling the world's criteria for determining value back into our hearts and our communities. God has not loved and rescued us because we, as his elect people, have made (or ever will make) the grade in terms of gender, race, age, physical appearance, profession, possessions, income, intelligence, accomplishments, character traits, ability to make others laugh, and so on. Scripture is unambiguous on this point. "One will scarcely die for a righteous person -- though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die -- but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5.7-8). God's love for us, and saving work on our behalf, is not a product of our worth. Our worth is a product of his love and saving work for us.

For my part, I have learned the value and worth that simply being loved by another establishes from my four-year-old daughter Geneva and her most treasured possession in life, "puppy." Puppy is a stuffed animal (a "soft toy" for Brits) that originally stood about seven or eight inches tall before he (or she, depending on Geneva's mood) lost all ability to stand or otherwise compose himself. After four years of fervent affection from Geneva, puppy is a brown and white shapeless blob that, having lost both ears in the course of his love relationship, now resembles an earthworm more than a dog. No one seeing puppy lying on the ground would bother picking him up, unless it were to perform his civic duty of discarding puppy in the nearest trash receptacle. But my wife and I would move heaven and earth to protect puppy, or to recover him were he lost. With the exception of the people and dog living under my roof, puppy is the single most valuable object in our home -- the thing that, more than any other, I would go out of my way to protect and preserve from harm or loss. Puppy has no apparent intrinsic worth. He is not loved because he is valuable. He is valuable because he is loved.

So too with us. As creatures made in God's own image, we do, unlike puppy, have intrinsic worth. But we derive immense, additional value from the simple fact that, as believers, we are immensely loved by God -- loved with a depth that led our Triune God to plan and execute our rescue through the appearing, suffering, and death of the beloved Son.

"What am I worth?" Quite a bit actually, in light of God's deep love for me, love that prompted him to go to such great lengths in order to secure for me a place in his eternal presence. As you ponder all that God has done for us in Christ this season, let your thoughts inform your appreciation for the immense value his love for you imparts to you.

Jesus Loves Me, This I Know...

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On April 23, 1962, Karl Barth (the renown 20th Century Swiss-German, neo-orthodox theologian) spoke at Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago. Many have reported that, during the Q & A time, a student asked Karl Barth, if he could summarize his theology in a single sentence. As the story goes, Barth responded by saying, "In the words of a song I learned at my mother's knee: 'Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.'" Whether or not this story will ever be historically validated or not, the statement itself is one of the most profound biblical and theological truths; and, with Andy Stanley's recent outlandish rejection of this truth (take time to read the excellent critiques offered by David Prince and Mike Kruger), it is all the more important that we are settled on this issue when we come to answer the question, "How do I know that Jesus loves me?"

In recent years, myriads of books have been written to seek to convince men--and particularly women--of the love of Christ. Jesus Calling is one such example. Instead of rooting the subjective experience of the love of Christ in the objective revelation of His love in Scripture, authors and teachers often seek to root the subjective experience of the love of Christ in the subjective, immediate revelation of Christ to individuals. On the surface, doing so seems to offer people a more easily attainable experience of the love of Christ. Instead of calling people to commit to a diligent study and patient continuance in the word of God, many writers and teachers encourage a mystical experience that shortcuts the need for biblical revelation. In doing so, they actually rob individuals of the great need they have to know and to be established in the love of Christ by means of the revelation of His love in Scripture. 

The quest for a subjective experience of the love of Christ apart from Scripture also often comes in the form of superstitious readings of nature or providence. One sees a rainbow or a beautiful sunset and thinks, "This is a sign of God's love for me." Someone narrowly escapes a near-death incident and thinks, "Now I know that God loves me!" While we readily acknowledge that the rainbow (i.e. the sign of God's covenant mercy) and the magnificently colorful sky "declare the glory of God and show forth his handiwork" (Ps. 19:1)--and, while it is true that God reveals his overflowing goodness in the protection of His creatures by virtue of His kind providences--the reflection of His glory in creation and providence is insufficient to bring men to a saving knowledge of Christ, and are no sure mark of His saving love for His people. 

The problem with adopting a superstitious approach with regard to the love of God is that such an approach does not account for the hardship, trials and suffering experienced by those upon whom God has set His great love in Christ. The Scriptures are clear that those whom God loves from the foundation of the world, and for whom Christ died, are often those who suffer the most in this life. If I know and am assured of the love of God for me by seeing the beauty of creation and the kind providences of life, how will I interpret natural disasters--not to mention the dark, hard and painful providences that I experience personally? While natural disasters and personal suffering may be a sign of God's judgment, they may also be signs of His chastening love (Heb. 12:5-11)--as well as trials designed to drive me to Him more and more. We can never conclude that a sunset is a mark of God's saving love (Matt. 5:45) but physical affliction a mark of His righteous indignation (2 Cor. 12:7-10). 

The only objective evidence of the saving love of God and Christ for His people is the cross on which Jesus died. The Apostle Paul made this abundantly clear when he wrote, "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8) and "The Son of God loved me and gave Himself for me" (Gal. 2:20). As Augustine illustratively put it, "The cross was the pulpit in which Christ preached His love." The doctrine of special revelation teaches us that we can only know of the crucified Savior, and the meaning of His crucifixion, by means of the Scriptures. It was by means of the Scripture and the sacrament that the risen Jesus opened the eyes of the two on the road to Emmaus to know and understand what He had accomplished in His death and resurrection (Luke 24:13-35). It was by means of the Old Testament that the resurrected Jesus taught these things to His disciples (Luke 24:44-47). 

As a pastor, I long to see the men, women, boys and girls of our congregation established in the revelation of the love of Christ in the Scriptures. While multitudes are searching for immediate mystical experiences, or looking to creation or experience, to lay hold of the knowledge of the love of Christ, we must run to the Scriptures to lay hold of Christ crucified. As we do, we will begin to understand the profundity the statement, "Jesus Loves Me This I Know, for the Bible Tells Me So." 

We tend, perhaps, to think of divine love as something akin to, albeit much greater than, human love. We tend, in other words, to assume that God's sentiments towards us are much bigger and stronger than, but fundamentally similar to, the sentiments we feel towards our most cherished friends and family members. And, in part, we are right. Theologians typically identify love as one of God's "communicable" attributes; the communicable attributes of God are, by definition, those which, by virtue of our creation in God's image, we recognize in ourselves in diminished and inferior form (e.g., power, knowledge, presence, goodness, justice, mercy, etc.).

Nevertheless we must remember, even when speaking of God's communicable attributes, that we predicate 'love' and other traits of God and man in common analogically. In other words, divine love and human love might be like one another, but they are not identical in kind (regardless of their difference in quantity). God's love is not only greater than, but also fundamentally different than, human love in significant regards. Exploring specific points of difference between divine and human love can serve to increase our appreciation of divine love (and thus of the divine Lover), perhaps even more so that mentally multiplying human love by a million whenever we hear God's love referenced.

Luther helps us in this regard, by highlighting at least one fundamental point of difference between God's love and human love in his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. "The love of God," he writes, "does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it."

Luther deems the second half of that thesis rather obvious, and spends little time defending it. Human love, he observes, is responsive. It answers to something attractive or desirable in the object it apprehends, whether that object be another person, an animal, or some inanimate entity. To put it another way, we love that which is, at least to our perception, lovable. Even parental affection conforms to this principle.

By way of contrast, God's love (extra se) does not necessarily answer to something attractive or desirable in the object it apprehends. Rather, it creates something attractive or desirable in (or about) the object it apprehends. "God... loves sinners, evil persons, fools, and weaklings in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong. Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive." God does not love that which is lovable; God loves, and in loving, renders the object(s) of his affection lovable.

It's doubtful that any good analogy to the way in which God's love creates, rather than responds to, that which is ultimately pleasing to God can be discovered in human experience (any more than good analogies for the Trinity can be discovered in human experience). That, in fact, is rather the point of Luther's thesis -- that God's love is un-like our love in this regard.

Nevertheless, I couldn't help thinking, as I re-read Luther's Heidelberg Disputation earlier this week, that my two-year old daughter Geneva's affection for one particular object (named "Puppy") in her ever-growing menagerie of toys and stuffed animals sustains at least some affinity to God's love as described by Luther. Geneva set her affections on Puppy, a gift from a friend of the family, at a very young age, and she has never looked back. Puppy accompanies her everywhere she goes, and he bears on his body the marks of her constant regard. He was never particularly attractive at any stage in his career, but after two years of receiving almost obsessive adoration, he is literally hanging together by a thread.

Were thieves to enter our house tonight, I'm fairly sure Puppy would be the last thing they'd want to steal. I'm also fairly certain that, barring the persons and (real) dog living under our roof, Puppy is the item my wife and I would be most keen to protect in our home. On more than one occasion my wife and I have feared that Puppy was lost. He always turns up (often in places no stuffed animal should frequent), but we have spent a few frantic evenings thinking he was lost for good and searching for a Puppy replacement online, wondering whether or not we'd be able to trick Geneva into believing something (or someone) other than Puppy was in fact her beloved. On such evenings, my admittedly absurd strategies for replacing Puppy and tricking Geneva into accepting the replacement have typically involved plans to lay replacement Puppy on the road in front of our house and repeatedly drive over him, in the hopes that what might miraculously emerge from such abuse would be something similar to the tattered brown and white dog currently touted here, there, and everywhere by her.

Geneva's affections for Puppy were initially triggered by some inherent virtue that she, at least, perceived in him. In that regard, her responsive affections for Puppy are not like God's creative love for us. But we can, I think, gain some insight into the value which God's love for us confers upon us from considering the value which Puppy has come to own in our home by virtue of Geneva's affections for him. The fact that I would much sooner turn over my wallet, my computer, or the keys to my car to someone than Geneva's Puppy in no way reflects Puppy's monetary worth vis-à-vis those other objects; it reflects, rather, the worth he has accrued by virtue, quite simply, of being loved.

So, too, our value rests not, in the final analysis, upon our intrinsic worth (even as creatures made in God's image), but in the fact that God loves us, and is at work creating in us those qualities he deems most desirable. Recognizing that God's love creates, rather than responds to, something God deems desirable in us is a rather freeing and exhilarating truth. However much we must labor to make ourselves lovable, and so sustain the love towards us of even those who are closest to us, we need not work to sustain God's love towards us or the value which God's love imputes to us -- no more than Puppy need work (as if he could) to sustain the affections of my daughter or the value which her affections imputes to Puppy in our home.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL.

Augustine's second homily on the Gospel of John offers one of the richest commentaries on John 1.12 that I have read. His explanation of what it means for God to give us "the right to become children of God" is worth quoting in full:

What did he bestow on them? Great kindness; great mercy. Singly born, he did not wish to remain one and only. Many couples who have had no children adopt some when advanced in years and realize by choice what nature was unable to provide; that is what human beings do. But someone who has an only son rejoices in him all the more, because he alone will take possession of the whole inheritance and not have anyone else to divide it with and thus turn out the poorer. Not so God; he sent the very same one and only Son he had begotten, through whom he had created everything, into this world so that he should not be alone but should have adopted brothers and sisters. You see, we were not born of God in the same way as the only-begotten Son of his, but we were adopted through the Son's grace. For the only-begotten Son came to forgive sins, those sins which had us so tied up that they were an impediment to his adopting us; he forgave those he wished to make his brothers and sisters and made them co-heirs... No, he was not afraid of having co-heirs, because his inheritance is not whittled down if many possess it. They themselves, in fact, become the inheritance which he possesses, and he in turn becomes their inheritance (Homilies on the Gospel of John [New City Press, 2009], pp. 64-65).

The beauty of Augustine's description of adoption speaks for itself. A few observations are nevertheless worth making.

(1) Augustine's homily is a helpful reminder that faithful biblical exposition did not begin in the modern era. Patristic sermons and biblical commentaries will inevitably strike evangelicals as strange territory. Nonetheless, it is territory that repays patient exploration.  

(2) Much of the power of the doctrine of adoption lies in the disanalogy that obtains between human adoption and divine adoption. Human couples often adopt because they lack natural offspring. Human couples with an only child (at least in Augustine's day) often rejoice in the fact that their offspring can be the sole heir of their inheritance (and thus can avoid the poverty that might accompany dividing their inheritance). "Not so God": He sacrificed what he had--his eternally begotten, eternally beloved Son--to enrich his enemies by making them joint-heirs with Christ. 

(3) We cannot appreciate the full depths of the gospel apart from the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us about the kind of love that is on display in the gospel. The Father eternally loves the Son, and this love is the measure of what the gospel cost: the Father loved us by sacrificing his beloved Son to forgive those sins that "were an impediment to his adopting us." Moreover, the Father's love for the Son is the measure of what the gospel bought: the Father loved us by bequeathing to us an inexhaustible inheritance, which is nothing other than the right to become an heir of the Father's love in and with Jesus Christ, his beloved Son. Truly this is "great kindness; great mercy."
I've been working of late on the doctrine of the pactum salutis, i.e., the eternal covenant between the Father and the Son concerning the redemption of elect sinners. Here, as in so many places, John Owen is instructive. Although it is not central to my own project, Owen's discussion of the particular delight that God takes in the eternal covenant of redemption strikes me as a particularly wonderful topic for contemplation. 

In chapter four of his Christologia (Works, vol. 1, pp. 54-64), Owen addresses a question that received quite a bit of attention in his day, namely, the question of what it means to say that Jesus Christ is the "foundation" of God's decree regarding the salvation of his people. Owen's answer to this question is clear. To say that Jesus Christ is the "foundation" of God's saving decree is to say that God's eternal plan of salvation was laid in Christ to be accomplished by Christ. God chose us "in him" to redeem us "through him" (Eph 1.4-5), and this sovereign decree is the foundation of all God's saving counsels regarding his children.

In discussing Christ's status as the foundation of God's saving decree, Owen makes the remarkable claim that God takes more delight in making his eternal decree of salvation than in executing said decree. Such a claim is not only hard to understand. On the surface at least, it is also hard to swallow. Is Owen saying that God delights more in the idea of us than in our actual existence as redeemed siblings of Jesus Christ? Is Owen's God perhaps like the person who loves the idea of marriage more than his or her actual spouse? Certainly not. What, then, does Owen mean in saying that God's "principal delight and complacency ... is in his eternal counsels"?  

Fully unpacking Owen's point would require setting it within the broader context of seventeenth century Reformed orthodox discussions of the divine decree, to which we may have opportunity to return at a later time. For now, we may put the matter this way: According to Owen, God takes more delight in his eternal counsels than in the temporal execution of those counsels for the simple reason that God takes more delight in himself than he takes in his creatures. God's works only manifest "the outskirts" of his sublime nature (Job 26.14). However, God's decree, because it is God's decree, is the occasion wherein God rejoices in the unfathomable depths of his triune perfection. According to Owen, God's decree is the principle expression of his infinite wisdom, goodness, love and grace, and the eternal occasion whereby the Father and the Son engage in mutual, ineffable delight through the Spirit. Owen takes Proverbs 8.30-31 as a description of the intratrinitarian delight that characterizes God's eternal decree of salvation: "then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man."

Reflecting upon Owen's discussion of this topic reminds me of the oft-quoted statement from Geerhardus Vos: "The best proof that [God] will never cease to love us lies in that he never began." Translating this statement in an Owenian register, we might say: The best proof that God will never stop loving us lies in that he has always loved the idea of loving us. And this too helps us see that Owen's remarkable point is not misanthropic. God's eternal plan to save us in and through Jesus Christ is not a plan that he engages reluctantly or as the result of external compulsion. It is a plan directed by infinite divine wisdom, whose fountain is the infinite goodness of God and whose womb is the eternal, ineffable delight of the Father and the Son in the fellowship of the Spirit. God's eternal delight in the eternal covenant of redemption is a source of comfort to poor sinners because it reminds us not only that the eternal plan of salvation is God's idea. It also reminds us that God loves his idea with a love whose spring is utterly and wholly divine.