A Helpful Distinction

I am currently preaching a sermon series on the Gospel of John.  There are some passages in that Gospel that appear to betray the grace of the gospel by presenting a legalistic view of salvation.  Since Scripture cannot contradict itself, we know that these passages don’t teach legalism. How then are we to interpret them?  The temptation, especially for Reformed folks, will be to explain them away by imposing upon them a theological interpretation that doesn’t fit the context.  Reading true doctrine into the wrong text, however, is not exegesis but eisegesis.  In this article, I want to look at these texts and show how a common scholastic distinction used by the puritans is helpful in exegeting them.    

Jesus says that he and his Father will love those who love him (John 14:21, 23).  He makes a similar point in the following chapter, where he says that you need to keep his commandments in order to abide in his love and to be his friend (John 15:10, 14).  Still further, Jesus says that the Father loves the disciples because they have loved him (John 16:27).  Take your time to read these verses carefully.  Jesus is saying that his and the Father’s love is conditioned upon our love.  The Father loves us because we love Jesus.  Do these verses startle you?  Do they perplex or trouble you?  

One Reformed theologian was evidently uncomfortable with the patent meaning of these verses.  He recently wrote with respect to John 15:9-10, “[Jesus] was actually saying, ‘If you stay in My love, you will be obedient. His love is not a result of our obedience; rather, our obedience is the result of our love for Him.’”  This writer is correct, of course, to say that our obedience flows from our love for Christ. Jesus made that point in John 14:15.  But he is wrong to read John 14:15 into John 15:10.  Jesus is not repeating himself.  The context makes it clear that he is saying something different. And what he is saying isn’t something new but that which was emphasized in the Old Testament.  Moses told Israel that “because you listen to these rules and keep them and do them, the LORD God will keep with you the covenant and the steadfast love…He will love you (Deut. 7:12-13).”  The second commandment says that God shows steadfast love to those who love him and keep his commandments (Ex. 20:6).  Jesus is essentially saying the same thing.  I would be remiss not to point out that this observation serves to confirm the Reformed view that the old and new covenants are in substance the same covenant.  In other words, Jesus is republishing the covenant of grace that Moses had delivered to Israel.

The scholastic distinction between the love of benevolence and complacency is useful for understanding how God’s love can be conditioned upon our love.  Benevolence refers to good will and complacency to good pleasure.  God loves sinners and saints despite their sin with a love of benevolence, and he loves his saints for their righteousness and righteous acts with a love of complacency. We love God because he first loved us with a benevolent love (1 John 4:19; Deut. 7:7-8).  God loves us with a complacent love because we love him and keep his commandments (John 14:21, 23; Deut. 7:12-13).

In their exchanges with the antinomians, Thomas Gataker, and Samuel Rutherford used this distinction to uphold and explain the connection between God’s love with our righteousness and righteous acts in passages such as Psalm 146:8, 51:6, 147:11, 11:7; Prov. 8:17; John 14:21,23, 16:27. Rutherford said that our own good works “cannot make our Lord love us lesse or more, with the love of eternall election,” however, John 14:23 teaches that they “may make God love us more with the love of complacency, and a sweeter manifestation of God in the fruits and gracious effects of his love.” Commenting upon John 15:10, the 19thcentury Scottish minister Charles Ross wrote that “the love of Jesus, which we secure to ourselves, by the keeping of his commandments” is not “the love of pity and compassion” but that of being “under the sunshine of his smile and approbation.”    

Someone recently wrote on twitter: “God doesn’t love me because I repented.  I repented because He loved me.”  The tweet received 370 likes and was retweeted 95 times.  My response is to ask, “Why not both?”  God loves (complacency) me because I repented.  I repented because God loved (benevolence) me.

When I preached through the aforementioned passages in John, I didn’t dare utter the words “benevolence” and “complacency,” although I did use the concept behind the distinction to explain them.  To do so, I talked about the love a father has for his son.  Gataker did the same.  He wrote: “God is in somethings as a natural father.  Himself saith it.  As a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth those who fear him.  Yea in this particular he is like a discreet parent; who tho he love his child dearly, as wel when he doth amisse, as when he doth well; yet he is not so wel pleased with him; nor can take that delight in him, when he seeth him take some evil course, as otherwise he might and should; yea therefore is he then angry with him, because he loves him; and chastieth him for this end, to reclaim him from the same.”

The Bible is crystal clear that there is a positive connection between God’s love and our obedience.  God loves us because we love him by keeping his commandments, including the command to love one another. There is no reason to explain the Johannine passages away in defense of God’s sovereign grace.  The scholastic distinction between the love of benevolence and complacency, at least in part, helps us to see how God’s love is the result of our obedience.