A deeply distressed father sat for two weeks in a pediatric ICU, watching his three-year-old son slowly die. During those two weeks he read through, quite surprisingly, a book on the Gospel. He later wrote to me, “I want to say to you the Gospel really is for real life.”
I was puzzled by his statement. How did a book on the Gospel minister to this father in his hour of deep tragedy? I’d have thought a book about trusting God in times of adversity might have been helpful. But a book on the Gospel? How could it help at such a time? I pondered this question for several weeks. Then one day as I was preparing a message on the love of God, the answer came to me. In the Gospel, this father saw the love of God.
The apostle John wrote: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9–10).
I often say, “If you want to see the love of God, look first at the Cross,” because that is the preeminent display of His love. It was to the cross that God sent His only Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Propitiation, though a good Bible word, is seldom understood by today’s Christians. Perhaps the best way to think of it is that it is the act of Jesus bearing on the cross the full brunt of the just and holy wrath of God that we should have borne.
All of us deserve the wrath of God because of our sin — not only the sin of our days as unbelievers but also the sin we commit everyday as believers. But if we have trusted in Christ, we will never experience one drop from the cup of God’s wrath. Jesus drank the cup in our place as our substitute. And John tells us that God, in His love, sent Jesus to do that for us.
There are primarily two occasions when committed Christians tend to doubt God’s love. The most common is when we are, for some reason, deeply aware of our sinfulness. Perhaps it is some persistent sin pattern in our lives or maybe the overall sinfulness of our whole being. At such times we tend to think, “How could God possibly love someone as sinful as I?”
In either instance, we need to look again at the Cross and see Jesus bearing those very sins that make us feel so guilty. And then we need to remind ourselves that “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). God took our sin — even that which causes such immediate distress — and charged it to Christ, and He took His perfect righteousness and credited it to us. God did this not because we were loveable but because of His own self-generated love. As John said in the above text, it was “not that we have loved God but that He loved us.”
The second common occasion that tempts us to doubt God’s love is in times of adversity. We might think: “If God really loved me, He wouldn’t allow this to happen to me.” At such times of doubt, we need to look again at the Cross and see God giving up His Son to die in our place (Rom. 8:32). After all, it was in that context that Paul asked the question, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” And a few sentences later he answers his own question with a ringing affirmation that “nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35–39).
The great Puritan John Owen once wrote, “The greatest sorrow and burden you can lay on the Father, the greatest unkindness you can do to Him is not to believe that He loves you.” We might have expected Owen to say that the greatest sorrow you could lay on the Father is to commit some scandalous sin that dishonors His name. Surely sin does grieve God, but Owen tells us that doubting His love grieves Him even more.
So when you are tempted to question God’s love either because of your sin or your difficult circumstances, look at the Cross, and remind yourself that on the Cross God proved His love to you beyond all doubt. In fact, don’t wait for those hard times. Take a good look at the Cross everyday to fortify yourself against those times of doubt and discouragement.
However, as glorious as is the truth of God’s love for us, John does not leave us merely to bask in that love for our own enjoyment. Rather, he makes a very pointed application: “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11). The implication is not only that we should love each other because God loved us but also that we should love others in the same way that God loves us. That is, because God loves us in spite of our sin and general unlovable-ness, we should love one another — warts and all. That doesn’t mean we ignore sin in another person’s life, but it does mean that when that sin is directed at us, we forgive as God in Christ forgave us (Eph. 4:32).
I believe the greatest demonstration of our love to one another is the readiness to forgive each other on the basis of God’s forgiveness of us. Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:21–35) is very instructive on this subject. The first servant owed his master 10,000 talents — the equivalent of 200,000 years of wages for an ordinary laborer — a sum impossible to repay. The second servant owed the first servant 100 denarii — the equivalent of about one-third of a year’s wages. In itself it was not an insignificant sum. Not many of us would want to write off a debt equal to one-third of a year’s wages, but compared to 200,000 years, one-third of a year is insignificant.
The point of the parable is that each of us is the first servant. Our debt to God, because of our own sin, is a staggering one — an amount impossible to repay. By contrast, another person’s debt of sin to me, though maybe significant in itself, is nothing compared to my debt to God. Therefore, when someone sins against me, either actually or merely as perceived by me, I try to respond, “But Father, I am the servant who owes 10,000 talents.” That helps me put the other person’s sin in proper perspective, and it enables me to forgive freely even as God has forgiven me.
Every reader of Tabletalk is familiar to some degree with 1 Corinthians 13 — the classic passage on love. But have you ever noticed how many of the descriptive terms of love in verses 4–7 have to do with forgiveness or forbearance? Love is, first of all, patient, which expresses itself in forbearance and forgiveness (see Col. 3:12–13). It is not irritable or resentful. Then, love bears all things and endures all things. These are different ways to express the same idea — forgiveness and forbearance. And we are to forgive as God in Christ forgave us.
Of course, there is more to love — whether God’s love or ours — than forgiveness. God has promised never to forsake us (Heb. 13:5), to supply our every need (Phil. 4:19), and to cause all events to work together for our good (Rom. 8:28). He has even said the discipline He imposes on us from time to time is a sign of His love because it is intended to make us share more and more in His holiness (Heb. 12:5–11).
In like manner, we are to love one another in the Body of Christ with brotherly affection (Rom. 12:10). This means we look out for one another, encourage one another, pray for one another, and, as is appropriate, help one another materially (1 John 3:16–18).
Obviously, we can never love one another in the same way, or to the same extent, that God loves us. We can forgive, but we can never atone for another’s sin. And God is sovereign in His love. He has the power to express His love to the full extent of His purpose. We cannot do this. Our desire often exceeds our ability to express our love in a tangible way. But we must never lose sight of His love for us, either as the basis of our relating to Him or to one another. John said, “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Note that the object of our love is undefined. Does John mean we love God or one another? The context suggests one another. But I think it is likely the Holy Spirit led John to leave the object of our love ambiguous because both are true. We can only love God as we bask in His love for us. And we can only love one another as we continually ponder God’s infinite love for us. Beloved, let us love one another for love is of God.