Saturday, February 10, 2007

Embracing the Love of God: Part 2

[This paper was written concerning an issue facing the Church in today's postmodern world. 2006.]

For the Love of God: A Semi-Theological Rant from a Runt On the Doctrine of the Love of God

For decades our culture has been preaching “what the world needs now is love sweet love. It's the only thing that there's just too little of." However, this sort of ideology is remarkably vague. Love for whom? Motivated by what? It fails to acknowledge anything that can truly satisfy the longings of existence; namely God, let alone holiness, joy in the Lord, obedient hearts, and the personhood of Jesus Christ. The song has just enough truth that we can feel good about ourselves as we give advice to the Almighty, but not enough to reflect on what God teaches about love.

At first thought, understanding the doctrine of the love of God seems simple compared to trying to fathom other doctrines like that of the Trinity or predestination, especially since the overwhelming majority of those who believe in God view Him as a loving being. Then again, that is precisely what makes the task of the Christian witness so daunting. Why? Because this widely circulated belief in the love of God is set within a cultural milieu other than biblical theology. The trouble here should be obvious, everyone assumes right away that he knows what love is, so all he has to do at this point is to let his knowledge of it suggest to him something of what God is; nothing could be further from the truth.[1] Nowhere among the prophets and the apostles is God like that. Nowhere in human history is he that cozy and sentimental. If he were, he’d be essentially useless in an unfriendly world, and less than praiseworthy in today’s secular milieu.

Within this milieu is a postmodern culture, and to a certain extent an emergent church, where many other and complementary truths about God are widely disbelieved. The only aspect of God’s character the this culture still believes in is His love. His holiness, His sovereignty, His wrath are often rejected as being incompatible with a “loving” God. Pop culture has so distorted and secularized God’s love, even many Christians have lost a biblical understanding of it and, in turn, have lost a vital means to knowing who God is. “The result, of course, is that the love of God in our culture has been purged of anything the culture finds uncomfortable. The love of God has been sanitized, democratized, and above all sentimentalized.”[2] If the emergent church is to remain faithful to the Christ who redeemed her, she will “worry less about who is or who is not emergent and rather more about learning simultaneously to be faithful to the Bible and effective in evangelizing the rising number of alienated biblical illiterates in our culture.”[3] Preserving the truth of gospel in today’s world will require an emergent theology coupled with a knowledge of its culture. As Ray Anderson has eloquently put it, “[T]he church that is emerging today needs to remember that without a strong biblical basis and emergent theology, it will be like a sailing ship without a rudder, drifting aimlessly or even carelessly over the open waters of contemporary religiosity.”[4]

One of the most dangerous results of the impact of contemporary sentimentalized versions of love on the church is our widespread inability to reflect upon and think through the fundamental questions that alone enable us to maintain a doctrine of God in biblical proportion and balance.[5] But precisely how do we integrate what the Bible says about the love of God with what the Bible says about God’s sovereignty, extending as it does even over the domain of evil? How is God’s love tied to God’s justice and providential care for his creation? These are difficult questions that require careful attention, and as followers of Christ, faithfulness entails our responsibility to grow in our grasp of what it means to confess that God is love. As an emerging church, our language is that of the people, our message is communicated through the culture, and our presence in the world is a means to get within arms length to embrace others with extraordinary love.[6] To this end, I will attempt to weave a critical thread through today’s emerging church, deep into the soul of God.

“God is love.”[7] It is one of the shortest sentences you will find anywhere in the Bible, and certainly one of the most familiar. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most frequently misunderstood. This is why biblical theology of love, grounded in the truth of a Trinitarian-Incarnational God, is so crucial. The biblical writers knew this and treat the love of God as a wondrous thing, wholly admirable and worthy of praise, especially surprising when the objects of his love are rebellious human beings. But what does the proclamation “God is love” actually mean? And how do we conceive of a love not restricted to our own finite understanding, but rather defined by God Himself? Understanding that there are so many passages and themes and concepts to be covered, such a brief treatment of the love of God can scarcely scratch the surface. But a scratched surface is at least a start. And knowing full well that the love of God is infinite, boundless, and far greater than “tongue or pen could ever tell,”[8] we must attempt to grasp the biblical framework in which the love of God lives and the Spirit of God moves.

Brian McLaren said it well when he said that what we need is “not a new Spirit, but a new kind of spirituality.”[9] I share in his sentiment, however, I also agree with Ray Anderson when he writes, “[W]e must take care that emerging churches do not become just another form of spirituality but a movement of God’s Spirit on the creative edge of the kingdom of God breaking into the various cultures of our present age, often in conflict with existing forms of spirituality.”[10] It is true that the glory of the Lord Jesus comes to us by way of the Spirit, who is the Lord.[11] The love of God is creative.[12] And the Spirit of God is love, joining together with the human spirit “in order to produce a Godly spirituality,”[13] one that is not so much a formula, but a test. A relationship. Spirituality not centered upon competency, but on intimacy; not about perfection, it is about connection.[14]

This framework is the truly historical, ever-present Jesus. He is the expression of God’s love for this world.[15] This is no watered-down, white bread, quiet and tamed Jesus; this is the very Spirit of God who comes to us clothed in the humanity of Christ. “Every feeling and every sensation that Jesus experienced as a complete human being became an expression of the divine being, revealing the truth of God through the humanity of God.”[16] He is “literally the exegesis of the soul of God. The character of God’s being as well as the contours of God’s love are disclosed to us through the humanity of Jesus.”[17] No amount of words could ever describe the depth of grace and truth and love that came through the person of Jesus Christ. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “Every idea of Him we form, He must in mercy shatter.”[18] This is why he came. This is why he is. He is the way, the truth, the life, and love. There is no other theology than Jesus Christ. The life and love of the emerging church “depends on a personal knowledge of Christ. . .Everything depends on Christ being present to his church as a person in space and time.”[19]And dealing with theology, we must be “more than merely making the Word of God relevant to modern culture,” we must see our theology as “servant to the Word of God,” who is Jesus Christ.[20]

There are many ways the Bible speaks of the love of God, five of which I will attempt to establish here. The first being, the atypical love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father.[21] This intra-Trinitarian love of God not only separates Christianity from the rest of the monotheistic religions of the world, but is bound up in surprising ways with God’s revelation and redemption. It displays God’s work as being one with who he truly is, “and so to praise his work is to praise him. To acknowledge the Spirit of Christ is to acknowledge Christ, and to acknowledge Christ is to acknowledge the Father, one God in all his works.”[22] It is this divine self-love, manifested in the relation of the Son to the Father, that is the basis for God’s love for the world.[23] As Thomas F. Torrance writes,

“What the Father is and does, Jesus is and does. And what Jesus is and does, the Father is and does. There is in fact no God behind the back of Jesus, no act of God other than the act of Jesus, no God but the God we see and meet in him. . . Jesus Christ is the open heart of God, the very love and life of God.”[24]
Yet, if we begin with the intra-Trinitarian love of God and use that as a model for all of God’s loving relationships, we will fail to observe the distinctions that need to be maintained. As awesome and precious as the intra-Trinitarian love of God is, an exclusive focus in this direction takes too little account of how God manifests himself toward his rebellious image-bearers in wrath, in love, and in the cross.

Another way the Bible speaks of God’s love can be seen in His providential love for all that He has made. The Bible does not typically use the word love in making the connection between God and His creation, but the principle is not hard to find. Before the Fall of Man or a whiff of the stench of sin could be sensed, God pronounced all that he had made to be “good.”[25] We are the products of a loving Creator. “The Lord Jesus depicts a world in which God clothes the grass of the field with the glory of wildflowers seen by no human being, perhaps, but seen by God. The lion roars and hauls down its prey, but it is God who feeds the animal.”[26] The birds of the air find food, but that is a result of the providence of God, and not a sparrow falls apart from the sanction of the Almighty.[27]

On the contrary, if God’s love seen as nothing more than a providential ordering of everything, it is not far from the “force” seen in George Lucas’ silver-screen masterpiece, Star Wars.[28] Removed from the Jesus Christ revealed to us in the Incarnation, all manmade philosophies and crack-pot theologies crumble under the weight of a disturbingly man-centered world.

As great as Star Wars is, this world is still fallen and corrupted, stained with sin, but God’s love is still seen, shining through in His salvific stance toward his fallen world. For God so loved the world that he gave his son.[29] “The humanity of God as expressed through Jesus Christ makes God an ally of those who are bereft of love, who are betrayed and who are stricken and oppressed.”[30] This is an amazing act of a loving God that should never be downplayed or forgotten! However, it should be noted here that usual connotation given to this passage is seen as exemplifying the vastness of the earth and the bigness of God’s love; while inadvertently deemphasizing the badness of man, and the grace that flows from forthwith from God’s right hand. “God’s love in sending the Lord Jesus is to be admired not because it is extended to so big a thing as the world, but to so bad a thing; not to so many people, as to such wicked people.”[31]

The tendency we face today is to push into a theology of insecurity: a sort of “God needs me” mentality. If the love of God is exclusively portrayed as an inviting, yearning, sinner-seeking, rather lovesick passion, we may please those more interested in God’s inner emotional life than in his justice and glory, but the cost will be massive.[32]

God’s love is free. Whether in the entire nation of Israel, the church as a body, or as individuals, God manifests his love in a particular, effective, selecting love toward his elect. In the fortunate case of the elect, God sets his affection on his chosen ones in a way in which he does not set his affection on others.[33] However, this is not a license for hubris and boasting, but rather one of humiliation and gratitude. When Israel is contrasted with the universe or other nations, the distinguishing feature has nothing of personal or national merit; it is nothing other than the God’s amazing love. As Swiss theologian Karl Barth has stated,

“[S]o sovereign is He in His electing love that He loves this hostile man who is
unworthy of His love. He loves him notwithstanding his own unworthiness and hostility. He loves him just because of it. He loves him in his pride and fall. He loves him in his sloth and misery. He loves him as He takes pity on him as the sinful man.”[34]
Granted, this facet of the love of God is different than those previously mentioned, it is still precious and must be kept if we are to maintain the shape and contour of a biblical understand of the love of God.

Likewise, in the New Testament, Christ “loved the church and gave himself up for her”.[35] Over and over again we read of God’s love for his church, the Bride of Christ. In stating this, it is easy to drift toward a simple and absolute division: God loves the elect and hates the reprobate. Rightly proportioned, there is truth in this assertion; stripped of contours of complementary biblical truths, that same assertion has engendered hyper-Calvinism.

Finally, God’s love is sometimes said to be directed toward his own people in a provisional or conditional way—conditioned, that is, on obedience. This has nothing to do with the new birth into God’s family, but rather a part of the relational structure once we do come to know Him. The covenant relationship God has established with his people is a covenant of love and stipulation, blessing and curses. Nevertheless, divorced from complementary biblical utterances about the love of God, texts outlining the conditional love of God will drive us backward toward merit theology, and endless fretting about whether or not we have been good enough to enjoy the love of God.

These five specific illustrations of love are interwoven and awesomely grounded in God and the gospel—God is the gospel. They are given principles, found in Scripture, and so interwoven that pulling one will destroy the whole. Bound up with the truth that God is love, they are grounded in God's intra-Trinitarian love. We must be careful in not viewing these ways of talking about the love of God as independent, compartmentalized, loves of God. “Attempts to formulate abstract concepts of God’s being and nature apart from what can be known of God through his actions lead us astray and even into error.”[36] If we are to think of the love of Christ aright and convey the gospel to this postmodern world, we must hold these truths together and learn to integrate them in biblical proportion and balance.

Today—as in every generation—it is stunning to watch the shift away from God as the all-satisfying gift of God’s love. It is stunning how seldom God himself is proclaimed as the greatest gift of the gospel.[37] But the Bible teaches that the best and final gift of God’s love is the enjoyment of God’s beauty.[38] The best and final gift of the Gospel is that we gain Christ.[39] This is the all-encompassing gift of God’s love through the gospel—to see and savor the glory of Christ forever.

In place of this, we have turned the love of God and the gospel of Christ into a divine endorsement of our delight in many lesser things, especially the delight in being made much of. The litmus test of biblical God-centeredness—and faithfulness to the gospel—can be summed up in this: Do you feel more loved because God makes much of you, or because, at the cost of his Son, he enables you to enjoy making much of him forever? Does your happiness hang on seeing Christ as a witness to your worth or as a way to enjoy God’s worth forever? Is God’s glory in Christ the foundation of your gladness? These are questions the bride of Christ must ask herself if she is to be faithful to her groom.

The sad thing is that a radically man-centered view of love permeates our postmodern culture and churches. From the time they can toddle we teach our children that feeling loved means feeling made much of. We have built whole educational philosophies around this view of love—curricula, parenting skills, motivational strategies, therapeutic models, and selling techniques. Most modern people can scarcely imagine an alternative understanding of feeling loved other than feeling made much of. If you don’t make much of me, you do not love me.

But when we apply this definition of love to God, it weakens His worth, undermines His goodness, and robs us of our ultimate satisfaction. If the enjoyment of God himself is not the final and best gift of love, then God is not the greatest treasure, his self-giving is not the highest mercy, the gospel is not the good news that sinners may enjoy their Maker, Christ did not suffer to bring us to God, and our souls must look beyond him for satisfaction.

This distortion of divine love into an endorsement of self-admiration is subtle. It creeps into our most religious of acts. We claim to be praising God because of his great love for us, but if his love for us is at bottom his making much of us, who is really being praised? We are willing to be God-centered, it seems, as long as God is man-centered.[40] We are willing to boast in the cross as long as the cross is a witness to our worth. We must ask, “Who then is our pride and joy?” Are we preaching and teaching and leading in such a way that people are prepared to hear that question and answer with a resounding No? How do we understand the gospel and the love of God? Have we shifted with the world from God’s love as the gift of himself to God’s love as the gift of a mirror in which we like what we see? Have we presented the Gospel in such a way that the gift of the glory of God in the face of Christ is marginal rather than central and ultimate? Can we really say that our neighbors are being prepared for heaven where Christ himself, not his gifts, will be the supreme pleasure? When we celebrate the Gospel of Christ and the love of God, and when we lift up the gift of salvation, let us do it in such a way that people will see through it to God himself. Not mainly, “Salvation is great,” but “God is great!”[41]

[1] Paul Ehrman Scherer, “Love That God Defines,” Theology Today 21, (1964): 159-160.
[2] D.A. Carson. The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, (Illinois: Crossway Books, 2000) 11.
[3] D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications, (Michigan: Zondervan, 2005) 234.
[4] Ray S. Anderson, An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches, (Illinois: IVP Books, 2006) 71.
[5] Ibid. 23-24.
[6] An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches, 17.
[7] John 4:8, 16 (English Standard Version)
[8] Frederick M. Lehman, The Love of God, 1917.
[9] Brian McLaren, Reinventing Your Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), p.13.
[10] Emerging Theology for Emerging Churches, 64.
[11] 2 Corinthians 3:18
[12] G.W. Bromiley & T.F. Torrence, eds., Church Dogmatics, Volume IV, Part 2, by Karl Barth (Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd., 1958, 1985) 776.
[13] Emerging Theology for Emerging Churches, 67.
[14] Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality: God’s Annoying Love for Imperfect People, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2002) 13.
[15] John Vikstrom, “God’s love for this world,” International Review of Mission, (1983): 519-520.
[16] Ray S. Anderson, The Soul of God: A Theological Memoir, (Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2004) 94.
[17] The Soul of God: A Theological Memoir, 23.
[18] Ibid. 61.
[19] Emerging Theology for Emerging Churches, 43, 46.
[20] The Soul of God: A Theological Memoir, 58.
[21] John 3:35; 5:20; 14:31
[22] Emerging Theology for Emerging Churches, 47.
[23] The Soul of God: A Theological Memoir, 71. (John 17:26)
[24] Thomas F. Torrance, A Passion for Christ: The Vision that Ignites Ministry, (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1999) 8.
[25] Genesis 1
[26] The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, 17.
[27] Mattew 6
[28] I’m not trying to be relevant. I genuinely enjoy Star Wars.
[29] John 3:16. I know that some try to take kosmos (“world”) here to refer to the elect. This is not what I am trying to accomplish, nor is this my personal position. God’s love for the world cannot be collapsed into his love for the elect.
[30] An Emerging Theology for Emerging Churches, 94.
[31] The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, 17.
[32] Ibid. 22
[33] Deuteronomy 4:37; 7:7-8; 10:14-15
[34] Church Dogmatics, 767.
[35] Ephesians 5:25
[36] Soul of God: A Theological Memoir, 59.
[37] John Piper. God is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself, (Illinois: Crossway Books, 2005) 11.
[38] Psalms 27:4
[39] Philippians 3:8
[40] God is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself, 12.
[41] Psalms 70:4

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