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 4:10-12
While all of Scripture is God’s authoritative Word, and it is all profitable and beneficial to life and eternity in knowing Christ, there are various Biblical topics that individuals get more passionate about than others. What I mean is that we each have varying biblical subjects that we have a particular excitement about. I think that is quite fine and natural, so long as it doesn’t degrade the rest of Scripture. But it ought to be for every single Christian that the subject of the love of God particularly awakens the affections of our heart. The love of God is a subject that ought to excite every single believer to the highest of excitements. For the love of God is the very reason we have a gospel at all! If it were not for the love of God that did what it did to save sinners then we are not Christians here today! In one sense, God’s love is what makes us Christians. Not some sentimental, generic, abstract type of love, but a love that did something, and manifest itself in such a way that has never and will never be done again. That is the love of God that makes us Christians. So may the love of God be near and dear to our hearts.
God’s Love is First
“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us…” Here we have our lack of love contrasted with the plenty of God’s love for us. This is one of the extraordinary things about God’s love – that he loved us, while we had no love for him, further still, while we hated him. That is what love is. Love is not dependent upon receiving love in return, it just loves because it loves. Think about how hard it is sometimes for us to love those who love us in return. And yet for God, there was not a single human who loved him first, but his love was set upon sinners that hated him. Imagine that just for one person, and then to think, that for God, it was millions and millions of people who hated him, and yet he loved them all despite their lack of love. That’s love. That’s love! God’s love is wrapped up in the fact that he did it first! His love is wrapped up in the fact that he loves despite a lack of love from the beloved. He initiated the love, from eternity past, his love was set upon his people.
To many, this doesn’t even make sense. How could God love those who did not love him in return to the great extent to which he loves them!? He does so, because the very nature of God’s love is that it is divine. It is not like fickle human love. It is not of the flesh. It is divine. It is otherworldly. It is foreign to our flesh. When our love is lacking, God’s love is overflowing; and when our love seems full, it is still less than a drop compared to the vast ocean that is the love of God; indeed, an ocean is yet still too small too describe the love of God, for however vast the ocean is, it still only a portion of the planet, which is only a spec of dust in the galaxy, which is dwarfed by the heavens, which is all but a small overflowing of God’s love.
“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us…” If God had waited to love us once we loved him, 1) he’d still be waiting, and 2) it wouldn’t be love. Because if God does not love us first, then we would never love him. And God’s love is wrapped up in the fact that he did it first. That is what distinguishes divine love from human love. And those who would try to rob God of his initiating, one-way love, would try to rob love of it’s divinity, and seek to define it in human terms, thus diminishing it to nothing at all. Love loves despite a lack of love from the beloved. This is divine. God’s love loves irrespective of the feelings or actions of the beloved. It comes into the life of the beloved, it sheds itself abroad in their hearts when they come to Christ, and it then takes their actions and emotions and informs them and changes them from on high. The Love of God does the work and takes the action in the heart of the believer, imparting itself to us, that we might then love God in return.
This ought to make us the most humble of all people – knowing that we have done nothing but sin and rebel and hate God, yet, he has loved us, and he has done something about it, and he has changed us. And he didn’t ask our permission, because he doesn’t need it and we would never give it to him. He does it because he loves us. Indeed, our lack of love helps to show how great God’s love is. If we had loved God first then it would be nothing unexplainable or divine that God would love us – after all, humans can love those who love them in return. But that we were not even neutral, but that we were enemies of God, yet he loved us, is nothing short of divine, and shows how great God’s love is. It can only begin to be explained by understanding that it is coming from a God who is love and who is the source and fountain of all love. It can only be because love is a very part of who God is, as we saw last week.
God’s Love is Best
Propitiation describes the idea of turning away the righteous anger of God toward sin, a satisfying of the wrath of God, by the sacrifice of Christ. This is what God sent his son to be and do for us.
Now, in thinking about propitiation, which is a glorious doctrine, we can sometimes fall off on one side of this, in thinking that we are loved by God because Christ is our propitiation. We can sometimes think that that is what makes God loves us. While it is absolutely true that we are justified, accepted, and made right with God because of Christ’s person and work, including propitiation, it is not true that we are loved because of propitiation. But rather, it is in fact, because God loves us that he sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins. Propitiation does not make God love us, but it is God’s love that makes propitiation for us! Propitiation does not make God love us, it is proof that he does! In this we see just how great the love of God is! It was because of love that Christ went to the cross, not in order to earn love, for that would go in the face of the very definition of God’s love – it is not earned or accomplished, but it is freely given.
You must notice that God’s love came before the cross. In the sending of his son, and at the cross, God’s love was made manifest, it was shown to us in that, but it did not begin there. It was revealed to us there. It was love that sent Christ to the cross. The cross did not make God love us. The cross happened because God loved us. God sent his Son to be a propitiation for us BECAUSE God loved us already! Love made the propitiation.
Romans 5:8, “but God SHOWS his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us…” How do you know God loves you? Because he sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins.
But also in this we see a very important aspect of true love, of divine love, of God’s love: and that is that love doesn’t ignore sins; it deals with them. Because God loves us, he cannot ignore our sins. Because He loves us, God must deal with our sins.
There are those who would like to pit God’s love and his wrath against each other, as if they are warring passions. Or there are those who will say that God is love and only love, and there is no more wrath in him. But you see, you really cannot understand the love of God apart from the wrath of God. You cannot really understand the love of God apart from propitiation. Not fully. Knowing the cost that was paid and the lengths that were gone to save sinners like us, shows us to a greater degree the love of God for sinners. If sin is not sinful, if holiness is not holy, and if justice is not just, then the cross is stripped of its purpose and the love of God means nothing.
In propitiation, we see that God loves both us and his justice, or holiness. And instead of either compromising his justice, or rightfully sending us to hell, God, out of his great love for us, took our punishment on himself, in his Son, in order to deal with and take care of our sins.
In ancient, pagan religions, worshipers would make sacrifices seeking to appease or propitiate the anger of some god they believed to be angry with them, for whatever reason. This however, is not an accurate picture of biblical propitiation. Biblical propitiation teaches that God has righteous wrath against unholy sinners, and sinners do not and cannot make propitiation to appease the wrath of God, but instead, God himself makes propitiation, his Son gives himself up to satisfy divine justice and make sinners, who cannot satisfy divine justice, right with God.
John Stott says, “For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be.”
Jesus is our substitute in life and death, and that is what he does in propitiation. We cannot make propitiation with God ourselves, we need someone to do it for us, and only Christ can and only Christ has.
God’s Love is Motivating
We love one another from the foundation of how God has loved us. What’s interesting is that verse 11 isn’t really constructed in the form of a command. John is just telling us that if this is how God has loved us, then we also ought to love one another. You experience this type of love, then you ought to respond in this way. Loving one another is the obvious response to God’s love for us.
Christianity is not merely doctrine to be contemplated and studied – it is doctrine that changes your life, that affects the way you live – it is very practical. Christianity is not merely truth to be contemplated it is a life that is given. As Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts it, “…according to the New Testament, love is not a feeling only. It is not something even that you contemplate philosophically. Love is the most active and practical thing in the world, and it shows and manifests itself in action.”
Since this is how God has loved us, we ought to love one another. I talked a little bit last week about how it is sometimes difficult for us to love another. We offend each other, we are unlovely to one another, we are sinners, etc. But I love how simply Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts this, he asks, How do Christians love one another? “They remind themselves of this truth: ‘God so loved us.’” That really is the antidote to so many things in life, just remembering, “God so loved us.” And this is how we are to love one another, as a response to the love that we have received and experienced. We have been loved freely by God, thus we ought to love one another freely. Matthew Henry says that the logic of verse 11 “should be an invincible argument.” All of our reasons we might have for not loving this person or that person is shut up and put to shame at that phrase – “God so loved us.” I find it interesting that the apostle John writes so much about the love of God and our command to love one another. You see, this is the same John who was a disciple of Jesus who, in his gospel, calls himself the beloved disciple. The disciple whom Jesus loved. You see John knew how loved he was by Jesus, and it couldn’t help but flow out of him!
God’s Love is Abiding
No one has ever seen God, but we can see God’s love in other believers as we love as He has loved. “By this the world will know that you are my disciples: if you love one another.”
Indeed, as I’ve mentioned briefly before, when we love one another like this it can work toward our assurance and joy in the Lord, as is the aim and theme of John’s letter. Matthew Henry says that “Christian love is an assurance of the divine inhabitation.”
We know that it can be so difficult to love one another sometimes. And we are just convinced that there is no way I can love that person. And you are right, you can’t, you can’t love them out of your own willpower or flesh. It takes the love of God, indwelling your heart, as God’s Spirit abides in you, and overflows toward others. Loving the unlovable is of God, and comes from the fact that he is abiding in us and loving others through us, and giving us a love from on high.
“His love is perfected in us…”
This would mean that his love is worked in us, or matured in us, or sanctifies us, or completed in us, like it accomplishes its purpose – to save us, to make us new creatures that love one another, as we have been loved.
In this we see that God’s love abides or continues in us. God’s love is not a one time gift that he has given to us at the cross or in propitiation, but then we can lose it. No, it continues and abides in us. It is enduring and everlasting. Jeremiah 31:3, “I have loved you with an everlasting love!” You cannot lose God’s love. You cannot out-sin God’s love. You cannot out-disappoint God’s love. You cannot out-live God’s love. You cannot overstay your welcome in God’s love. It endures. It abides. From everlasting to everlasting. In this, we also see just how great the love of God is. It doesn’t fizzle out like human love. God never gets over loving his children.
So, God’s love for us is not only something of the past that happened at the cross, but it continues and is presently active in our lives, shaping us, forming us, sanctifying us, and being perfected in us.
So let us resolve to go forth from here, setting the love of God ever before us, that we might love one another as God’s love abides in us and does its work in us. Let us love one another as God so loved us: freely, despite a lack of love in return, despite the unloveliness of the beloved, and continually. And when we fail may we repent and take comfort in the fact that is not our love for God by which we are saved, nor is it by our love for others that we have salvation – but rather it is by God’s love for us, which manifested itself in the sending of His precious Son who gave himself for us, to be our propitiation that we might have life.