Theological Thursdays: Knowing God: The Love Of God

It has taken us eleven chapters and two Prefaces to get to this point, but today we address what to some is the central theme of humanity’s relationship with God, not just Christianity’s core theological truth, The Love Of God. Before we begin, if you are new to this study you can find all of the previous lessons using the Knowing God category link. There are also study materials for the book available at william.meisheid.com.

While examining this essential attribute of both God’s nature and a fundamental aspect of his relationship with us, his creation, we have to ask ourselves a very important question: in the expression “the love of God” what does love mean? When John says in 3:16, the most famous of all biblical passages:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

we rightfully have to ask ourselves to define the meaning of love as it is used in this pivitol assertion. This is not an attempt at obfuscation like the famous Clinton line, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” No, because in English the word “love” covers such a broad range of connotations that its meaning can easily be distorted to support things that are not the least bit biblical. Why else would Paul have to offer the Philippians a clarifying statement on the expression of love in his prayer for them (Philippians 1:9-11).

In addition, this problem is not helped by the popular misconceptions surrounding John’s statements (1 John 4:8, 16), “God is love.” While being, as Packer says, “one of the most tremendous utterances in the Bible” it has also been so thoroughly misunderstood and misused that what should be the most wonderous view possible from the top of the world instead in the hands of many is like being caught in a valley of sticky syrup.

But before he examines the John passages, Dr. Packer begins his discussion with an important clarifying statement of Paul in Romans.

Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. Romans 5:5

As Packer notes, Paul uses the same word that Luke used of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts. It carries the idea of being flooded with God’s love, not some barely noticeable event, but a deep and overwhelming expression of love. He then goes on to point out that the tense, perfect, in Greek is a settled and completed state. God’s love poured out on us is a complete settle act. Along those lines we should also notice the agent, the Holy Spirit. It is not something we do ourselves, something we have to gin up or strive somehow to be worthy of; it just is.

Why is this infilling with the love of God so important? Well in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians Paul explains the primacy of a heart filled with love and how it acts not only to God but amongst its brothers and sisters in Christ, how the vertical defines the horizontal. It is interesting, Packer notes, how Pentecostals and Charismatics focus on gifts like tongues and healing, which Paul argues all are not meant to have, while giving short shrift to what should be every Christians primary goal, the overwhelming love of God flowing out of their hearts to everyone around them. Dr. Packer laments this “cul-de-sac of new Corinthianism.” Instead we should follow Paul’s example and remember what he told the Ephesians.

For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height–to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:14-19

So, if we are to be so filled with God’s love that it becomes an essential part of our being, we should understand what that love is, especially in light of John’s passages in which he says “God is love”.

Dr. Packer makes two important statements which act to both clarify and balance our consideration of John’s passages.

First. He reminds us that these statements, no matter how wonderful and awe-inspiring, are not the complete truth about God. Instead they are summary statements, much in the same way that Jesus summarized the law in Matthew 22:37-40.

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Packer goes on to use two similar biblical statements to illustrate John’s approach in his “God is love” passages: “God is spirit” (John 2:24) and “God is light” (1 John 4:5). He can easily make these comparisons because all of these statements are made by the same person, the Apostle John.

Second. While these declaration of John are not the complete truth about God, they are for us as Christians all we need to know. John’s statement means “that his [God’s] love finds expression in everything that he says and does.” In other words, God cannot be unloving to us, his children. So “God is love to us—holy, omnipotent love—at every moment and in every event of every day’s life. Even when we cannot see the why and the wherefore of God’s dealings, we know that there is love in and behind them, and so we can rejoice always, even when, humbly speaking, things are going wrong. We know that the true story of our life, when known, will prove to be, as the hymn says, “mercy from first to last”—and we are content.” Festal Song, W. H. Walter, 1825-1893.

How shall we meet those eyes?
Ours on Himself we’ll cast,
And own ourselves the Saviour’s prize,
Mercy from first to last.

Now that Packer has helped us to deal with the context of John’s great statements, he goes on to define God’s love, not just circumscribe it (“showing in general terms how and when it operates”). Instead Packer expands our understanding of the concept out by saying:

God’s love is an exercise of his goodness toward individual sinners whereby, having identified himself with their welfare, he has given his Son to be their Savior, and now brings them to know and enjoy him in a covenant relation.

He then proceeds to take apart his statement and explain why God’s love is an exercise of his goodness, especially of his goodness toward sinners, and how as a covenant relationship it binds together both parties in a deep and abiding relationship.

As Packer finishes the chapter by fleshing out this explanation. However, I believe I should point out a clarification, which I must admit has been influenced by my current study of the book Megashift by James Rutz. While I plan to do a review and overview of that book at a later date, let me bring out one point that Rutz makes that I both agree with and find relevant at this juncture: while God’s unfathomable love loved us while we were yet sinners, we (those of us who have accepted God’s Son as our Lord and Savior and have been born again by the action and work of the Holy Spirit) are no longer sinners, but saints.

Did you flinch at that statement? I am not surprised, I did when I first heard it. Despite that it is true. Yes, we continue to sin. We agree with the Apostle John who said, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8) But there is a significant difference, well beyond semantics, between a saint who sins and sinner in need of salvation. We are no longer sinners, defined by our continuing separation from God by our ongoing sinful rebellion, but saints, albeit struggling saints, who are “working out our salvation in fear and trembling”, but saints all the same.

I believe this is a significant distinction and helps us to better understand the love of God and why, when Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them how to pray, he began his example by addressing God as Father. As the Father loves the Son, so he loves us and since he loved us while we were yet sinners, how much more is his love shed upon us now that we are saints. We are his own adopted children, called out from our former life to be a new creation in Christ Jesus our Lord, a saint of God. Isn’t that the most wonderful, marvelous thing you could possibly imagine?

So, may your day be filled with grace and peace and may the love of God find deep purchase in your heart, filling, changing, empowering, and uplifting your life into the glorious company of the saints of God.

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