The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached on Good Friday, 2022*
Sermon Audio: The Love of God (1 John 4:10)
7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 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. 10 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. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. – 1 John 4:7-12
Perhaps you have heard the popular tautology: Love is love. The assumption behind that statement is that love is self-evident, and though it may take different forms, we all know what love is—love is love. John, however, assumes that we need help in defining love. That for us to accurately be people of love we need to see what love looks like. We can all think of the overbearing parent who thinks they are being loving, when really they are smothering their children, or the husband who thinks they are loving their wife by lying to them. No, we need to see what love is. On Good Friday we gather to commemorate what verse 10 of this passage reminds us of: God sent his only Son to be the payment for our sins through his death on the cross. Herein, John tells us, is love.
And this love, the surrounding verses tell us, creates a fundamental change in us. Those who have received from God His divine love now become dispensers of divine love. We should love one another because we have now come into a relationship with the God who can describe himself as the God of love; God is love. Love flows from God’s heart so abundantly that it creates in us what it gives to us—a superabundant love. God’s love did not merely bring the debt of our bank account back up to “0”, but deposited such an abundance that we are now rich in love, freely giving it to others. He did not send the showers of love to merely moisten the dry soil of our hearts, but to transform them into an oasis themselves.
How do you become a person like that? Most of us, regardless of our spiritual commitments or perspectives, would like to become loving people. But, most of us, regardless of our spiritual commitments, can also admit that in many ways being a selfish person is just easier than being loving. Other people can be annoying and exhausting and hurtful. We may be loving to a small circle of people that we like, but even there we can quickly grow frustrated. We like the idea of being a loving person, but struggle to actually do it. How does that happen? Picture your life as a satellite floating through space, drifting through the cosmos till you are caught in the gravitational pull of something much, much larger than yourself. We are drawn in by our ambitions, our dreams, our self-centeredness—this is what comes to us naturally. But then John tells us that suddenly God shows up. And, wonder of wonders, it is not the immensity of the power of God, or the judgment of God, or the omniscience of God that pulls us in. Rather, it is the love of God that steps onto the fabric of our lives and pulls us in like nothing else does, it transforms us into someone who can’t not love others.
And this love is revealed, according to John, in one act: the death of Jesus Christ. “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 4:10).
The great English preacher of the 19th century, Charles Spurgeon, explains: “There is love in a thousand places, like the scattered drops of spray on the leaves of the forest, but as for the ocean, that is in one place, and when we reach it, we say, “Herein is water.” There is love in many places, like wandering beams of light, but as for the sun, it is in one part of the heavens and as we look at it, we say, “Herein is light.” So, “Herein,” said the Apostle, as he looked toward the Lord Jehovah, Himself, “Herein is love.”
Let’s consider three things that God’s love does here: love that initiates, love that gives, and love that atones.
Love that Initiates
“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us.”
Here John is inviting us to consider something: what motivated God to send His Son? Or, rather, what didn’t motivate God? It was not because we first loved him. We did not apply for membership in God’s family and supply examples of our devotion, piety, and love for God in the hopes that we would qualify for admission, hoping it would bend God’s eye towards us. No, God Himself had to first come down to us and initiate love when our hearts were loveless. We were indifferent, bored, and frankly uncomfortable with God. God interrupted our life, and we would rather be left to ourselves. And yet, like a parent whose heart cannot help but love their wayward child, in the face of our apathy and antagonism, God loved us.
If God had made a preemptory love for Him the condition for us to receive His love, in many ways that would make sense. When someone is sick, their pain and lack of knowledge leads them to a doctor. When someone is is ignorant, they find a teacher. When someone is hungry, they find one who can give them food. And here we are today, looking for love, longing for acceptance, and desperate for peace. Bruce Springsteen reminded us back in 1980 that everybody’s got a hungry heart. And St. Augustine back in 400 AD that our hearts are restless until we find our rest in God. So, it would make sense that, like the sick man driven to the doctor or the hungry man to the cook, our soul hunger would lead us towards God in love, and then in response God would pour out his love upon us. But that isn’t what the verse says. It is the exact opposite. NOT that we loved Him, but that He loved us! God is the doctor who goes to the streets to provide medicine to the sick who don’t think they need it, to teach the fool who thinks he knows it all, to give food to the starving man who thinks he lacks nothing. God’s love towards sinners is not a love that waits, but a love that initiates.
In this is love.
Love that Gives
“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son”
What does God’s love lead Him to do? So there we are, mired in our sin, blind to the things of God, headed towards destruction—and what does our God whose heart is filled with love do? Let’s consider what He doesn’t do.
He doesn’t blink us out of existence or walk away and say, What a shame, I’ll guess I’ll need to go make another world now.
He doesn’t leave us to our own misery, giving us whatever we want like an exhausted parent who lacks the energy to parent well. As long as their happy right now, I don’t care.
He also doesn’t just get fed up with our arrogance and say That’s it! I’m going to just incinerate all of you ungrateful worms!
He doesn’t even do what nearly every other religion gives: He doesn’t leave us with abstract set of ethical teaching and then expects us to master it so that we may purify ourselves and earn our salvation.
No, He gives. He responds to our sin and our lovelessness with generosity. And what does He give loveless, coldhearted sinners like us? What would you give? He gives His Son, His only Son, the most precious gift He has. “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son.”
But what is most astounding is to consider the identity of the Son. The Son of God is not merely a created being, like an angel (as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and LDS church claim); he is not merely a prophet (as Islam claims); he is not merely an enlightened teacher (as Buddhism and modern secularism claims); nor is he an emanation of the cosmic divine energy which we all are apart of (as Hinduism and New Age Spirituality claims). Were He any of those things, his death on the cross would still be stunning. A merciful gift from the Father to create a being to die for us; a heroic model of courage and conviction.
But if Jesus is God? If he is the one who spoke from the fire at Mt. Sinai, the one who parted the Red Sea and poured out the plagues upon Egypt, the one who spoke this world into creation and sovereignly governs its affairs, the one who sits on the throne of heaven and whom myriads upon myriads of angels fall before in praise and fear and trembling—what kind of God is this? This God comes down, becomes a man to die. This God feels the thorn, the splinter, the nail, the whip. This God tastes the blood, the sweat, the bitter wine. The God who holds all things together by the power of His word who in glory is covered in praise and majesty is stripped naked and humiliated before the crowds he came to save, mocked and accused as a liar and lunatic. God gives Himself for us.
In this is love.
Love that Atones
“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.”
Why did Jesus have to die? Couldn’t God have simply forgiven us without the death of His Son? Couldn’t He merely say, Yes, what you did was wrong, but think of it no more, I have forgiven you. This brings us to question what this word “propitiation” means. Propitiation means to satisfy someone’s righteous anger. It is similar to the word “atonement”—when we atone for something wrong we have done we do something to make it right. But here we see that it is not us who make atonement or propitiation, but Jesus, the Son.
Here is what the Bible teaches us: when you and I fail to live up to God’s Law, we sin. But sin is not merely a mistake; it is a transgression; a willful denial of God’s authority. And that offense has earned us a debt of death: the wages of sin is death. Jesus tells us, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins,” (John 8:24). So, Jesus lays out for us two options: we can die in our sins, or our Savior can die for our sins. Why did Jesus have to die? Because the seriousness of our sin required that blood would be spilled, for “without the spilling of blood there can be no remission of sin” (Heb 9:22). The cross of Jesus is a vivid picture of how heinous our sins are in God’s eyes. “The cross of Jesus displays the most awful exhibition of God’s hatred of sin and at the same time the most august manifestation of his readiness to pardon it,” Octavius Winslow. And so Jesus, the God against whom we have sinned, took our place to suffer the punishment as a substitute.
In this is love.
More than that, the death of Jesus now provides a concrete, objective reality that we can look to that reminds us that the debt our sins had earned has been paid in full, that there remains now no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Rom 8:1). Listen to the confidence that Spurgeon has in light of the atonement of Christ: “I feel that I am absolutely safe! I am a sinner, but there is no reason on earth, or under the earth, or in Heaven, itself, why I should be sent to Hell.” What a mind-blowing statement! How can you both know that you are a sinner and that there is no reason that you should be going to Hell? The Son of God has bled and died, He has satisfied justice’s demands—your sin that makes you shudder, the guilt that gnaws at you and whispers in your ears that you deserve something bad to happen to you, that can be slain by the cross of Christ. Here is your payment in full, here is the punishment I had earned; it has been satisfied, now be gone!
If God had merely passed over our sin, forgiven us, but not sent His Son to suffer and die, we would be left constantly wondering: how do I know? Am I really forgiven? Our assurance of salvation would ebb and flow with our own subjective apprehension. We would be left in a state of utter despair when the condemnation of the Devil arose. But notice what Paul says when the charge who shall bring any charge against God’s elect arises: “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died,” (Rom 8:34). The death of Christ stands like a placard of the love of God who makes full atonement of our sins—when we are blind, unfeeling, lost, wayward, uncertain, doubtful, and weary, when we look inside ourselves and don’t find surges of Christian assurance but despair and doubt; when Satan tempts me to despair, and tells me of the guilt within, upward I look and see Him there who made an end to all my sin! Because a sinless Savior died, my sinful soul is counted free, for God the just is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me.
In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins.
The love of God initiates, the love of God gives, and the love of God atones. Dear friend, God is love—and He summons you to heed His love, to submit to Christ and the free offer He extends to you. Have you brought your sins to Christ? Have you taken shelter in His death? Have you trusted in the love of God? You can do so today.