A former TV evangelist ended each program with a salesman’s smile, a persuasive stare into the camera and an assuring chant: “God loves you. He really does.” No matter how sincere his heart, though, his words sounded hollow. I wasn’t convinced.
In his fine Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem lists love as one of God’s moral “communicable” attributes. “God’s love means that God eternally gives of himself to others,” writes Dr. Grudem. “This attribute of God shows that it is part of his nature to give of himself in order to bring about blessing and good for others.” A theology book isn’t intended to inspire. Though Grudem’s is a most readable theology, he doesn’t disappoint. A theology book is too encyclopedic to be inspirational.
I’ve heard preachers so dissect a text about God’s love I felt like I was back in high school biology identifying parts of my dismembered frog. Add all that to unanswered prayers and here’s my problem: I believe the doctrine. I confess the creed. But too often the Good News of God’s love doesn’t reach my heart.
So at the start of a new year I go back to the most familiar verse in the Bible.
For God so loved the world
that he gave his only Son,
that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
No “frog-dissecting.” Just a few thoughtful observations.
The world. On January 1, 2015 that’s 7 billion people. Somewhere in that human ocean floats one tiny jellyfish—me. To say God loves the whole world is a bit like thanking the Lord for full grocery bags after shopping, instead of thanking him at the table for each meal. But John didn’t intend to indicate the magnitude of God love, rather its inclusiveness. No single individual is excluded. To read that God so loved the world is to read that God so loved me too.
So. The word doesn’t imply degree but means. This is how God loved the world.
Loved. Past tense, notice? That doesn’t mean God doesn’t love the world (and you and me) now. It means there was one single act by which God ultimately showed his love to the world.
That he gave his only Son. John begins this Gospel calling Jesus “the Word” and writes: ” . . . the Word was with God and was God” (John 1:1). Welcome to the mystery of the Trinity! In the beginning God’s Son was with God (an individual “Person”), yet was God (the same “Person” in essence). I think it was Jonathan Edwards who explained that the Son was the reflection of God the Father, not like in a mirror, but in another actual being. So at Christmas we correctly remember that God became flesh. Here is how God loved the world (and you and me). This is the one single act by which God supremely showed his loved: he gave his only Son to us. To say that was the greatest gift is to diminish its magnitude; human language falls woefully short.
The whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. God the Father gave us his Son in love not to entertain or fascinate or communicate to us, but to rescue us. The Father gave his only Son to save us from perishing. A soldier throws himself on a grenade to save his buddies from being killed. In love the Father gave his Son to save us from what our sins deserve— perishing forever in hell. And to save us for eternal life. “And this is eternal life,” Jesus prayed, “that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Eternal life is more than everlasting. It’s forever knowing the Father and the Son in a personal, intimate relationship. It’s experiencing the full extent of God the Father’s love without end through his only Son. It’s enjoying eternally the greatest single act of God’s love in his Son. It’s being satisfied to the full for endless ages what we’ve only tasted briefly in today’s transient time. And because this is love, we receive it by faith, by trusting his love shown in the historic giving of his Son.
The cross. We must go there. We can’t remain at the manger’s warmth; we must move on to Golgotha’s violence. For this is where God’s Son-giving leads. To the rejection. To the cries of “Crucify him!” To the nails. The darkness. The “It is finished!” cry. To the lifeless corpse nailed to the wood. “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation (the sacrifice that turns aside from us God’s just wrath) for our sins (1 John 4:10). Here at the cross I must linger with the full knowledge of what really happened on this hill. And I must give God the Holy Spirit opportunity to tell me, “God loves you. He really does. This is God’s nature to give himself to you for your blessing and good.”
With feeling. Could love like that be just a sales pitch? Just a creedal statement of theological doctrine? Just a “truth” dissected from a black-and-white text? This is how God loved you and me. And there’s no way the Father could give his Son to us without feeling. Am I still not convinced? Then I must turn to this full-of-wonder prophetic passage from Zephaniah. A theology professor might call it metaphorical; God really wouldn’t act like this. But, I think C.S. Lewis might urge us to be a child. To take it literally. To let our imagination run wild with the scene. So that God’s wonder-full love can reach past the TV evangelist, past the theology book, past the impersonal and professorial preacher and past our stubborn doubts all the way to our heart.
The LORD your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing (Zephaniah 3:17).