When thinking about all the attributes of God, there is perhaps none more focused on than God’s love. After all, we are constantly reminded, both by those within the church and those without, that God is love. This is true, of course, and it is one of the most beautiful truths that the universe has ever had the pleasure of containing. I’ll say it again out of awe: “God is love.” Sure, we would probably surmise this fact on our own if we examined the words and actions of God throughout history, but the fact that John states it plainly for us in 1 John 4:8 make it all the sweeter. There’s no guesswork: God is love. This reality is loaded with an immense amount of implication, especially when considering the manifestation of God’s love relative to the many other attributes of God, so we wont even attempt to cover the whole topic in this article. What will be discussed is what the love of God means for the believer. In other words, now that we are saved, what do we do with the love of God and what does it do for us?
In all honesty, it sometimes feels like God doesn’t love us. This is purely a human failure, but we are human after all, and so to some extent it can’t be helped. The reality of the world and its hardships and trials often appear to us so tremendous that the love of God seems doubtful or improbable. Or perhaps it may seem to us that we have somehow transgressed the love of God, and in so doing have disqualified ourselves from the sphere of his love. The fragility of the human heart compels us to apply the same quality to the heart of God. Have you ever thought about this? That in as much as you are able to love another person, or even yourself, is the extent to which you quantify the love of God. Ephesians 3:19 says that the love of Christ surpasses knowledge. It is so difficult to comprehend the infinite and perfect that we default to human terms. But how dreadful it would be to have a human god. Praise God that even Jesus, who was fully human and wrapped in weak human flesh, was fully divine and native to the infinite and perfect. In fact, if the love of God was limited to that quantity which we as humans are able to conjure, it is surely the case that we would be utterly without hope. For likely no one would die for an enemy as despicable as us, and certainly no one would willingly die and suffer the eternal damnation wrought by the wrath of God for such vile foes.
Which brings us to one of the brightest passages in all of Scripture. Paul describes the love of God in Romans using two parallel passages: Romans chapter 5 and Romans chapter 8. This section in the heart of the epistle outline exactly how and why we were justified through Jesus Christ in the way that we were. On the bookends, though, Paul gives us insight into the heart of God. Paul says in Romans 5:8 that. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This is easily the most well-known verse in Romans chapter 5, and for good reason. Here we see both our previous status before God, as well as God’s disposition towards us. In this epistle, Paul puts things in legal terms, so it may be useful as well for us to also discuss with that vocabulary. The scenario is a courtroom, and we have been brought before the judgement bench of God to be tried. This is not a modern trial where we are judged by a jury of our peers. No, this is a trial where the judge alone will determine our fate, and we just to happen to have lived our whole lives in total opposition to him. We are his enemy, and now he gets the opportunity to condemn us. From his bench, he leans down and names us all condemned, and that’s it. We are given no chance to defend ourselves or sway his judgement, not that it would have helped. The evidence was laid out, our own lives testified against us, and the judge has found us guilty. Our sentence is handed down: an eternity of hell. Yet before we are thrown into our just condemnation, the judge steps down from his bench and declares that he himself will serve the sentence on our behalf, and that his sacrifice will mean our innocence. Now, we are declared innocent by the judge, and if we are declared innocent by the judge himself, then who could charge us otherwise?
It is important to keep this mental scene (although I say mental, there is a very concrete sense in which this is reality) in your head as we discuss Romans. See the love of God in his decision to suffer for us.
“For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a generous person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
It is not that we were simply neutral towards God, or that we had somehow committed only a minor offense against him. The reality of our depravity is that we were once enemies of God. “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” This description of Paul’s from Ephesians 2:1 is apt. Romans 5 says it this way, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death with sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” The dominion of sin and death holds jurisdiction over all of humanity, and so all who are not saved by Christ are dead. Our previous citizenship was also among the dead. This death is the wrath of God. So, we can restate the above as “For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation,” as Paul does in Romans 5:16. See how our opposition to God is so severe that we are already condemned by God! There are two powers in Romans chapter 5 that are at war with one another; the reign of God and the reign of sin and death. Prior to our reconciliation, we are proud citizens of the kingdom of sin and death, and we wage war with God through our active disobedience.
This condition is Romans 5:6, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Dead people can’t help themselves, it is beyond the capacity of their nature. Neither can the ungodly survive the judgment of God. We were both helpless and ungodly. For those of you who are now thinking, “Well, I’m not that bad,” that self-vindication is exactly the weakness described here in Romans 5:6, as well as Romans 8:3. Even so, despite our enmity, God loves us, and proved that love for us by dying on our behalf. We previously discussed the quantity of God’s love relative to our own. Now we see that though the vast chasm between enemies swallows up human love, it is far too small to contain the love of God. Paul is also aware of this, and says in Romans chapter 8, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other creation will be able to separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord.” It is necessary for proper understanding of the love of God to constantly have human depravity and sin nature in mind. You will never grasp how wide that gap is until you start to see how far from God you started off. Then, once you have seen your own corruption, you can begin to wrap your mind around the perfection of God’s love. This is what Romans 5:8 is telling us. Even we ourselves, in our hellbent determination, weren’t enough to separate us from the love of God.
Romans 5:8 tells us one more thing that is actually incredibly profound for the Christian life. Paul proposes that the love of God is shown to us in Christ’s sacrifice itself. You may be thinking, “Well, duh,” but this is actually more encompassing than we usually consider. To put it another way, the love of God applied to humanity is Jesus Christ. Let’s connect the dots. Turning to Hebrews chapter 11, we read that, “And all these, though commended though their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” So, the writer of Hebrews is showing us how the Old Testament saints were saved by their faith in expectation of Jesus’ coming, and that they are saved with us by grace. Those promises they didn’t yet receive are described by Paul in 2 Corinthians 1, “For all the promises of God find their yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our amen to God for his glory.” Let’s through another proof verse into the pot with Ephesians 1:3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” I hope you’re beginning to see a pattern, because it’s definitely there. The love of God in the Old Testament can be spoken of in terms of ḥesed, which is commonly translated as, “steadfast love.” Spit-balled examples include Exodus 34:6-7, Psalm 136, Isaiah 63:7, and dozens of others, all adding up to a total of 246 usages in various contexts throughout the Old Testament. The issue with this word, however, is its common translation. The word ḥesed really means something more like, “loyalty,” or “favor.” So, in the context of God showing ḥesed towards humanity, the word really should be translated as, “covenant loyalty,” and doing so provides a much more robust translation cohesion throughout the Old Testament. Translating in this way, though, would imply that the ḥesed of God is in his fulfillment of his covenant, and according to our argument, the fulfillment of that covenant is Jesus Christ. This implication is exactly correct. In fact, this concept is a major theme of the book of Hebrews, but if you need more proof, consider Jesus in Luke 24, “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Therefore, we can be fairly confident in our claim that Jesus Christ is the love of God displayed towards humanity.
So, what does all of this mean in application? How does this affect the Christian life? To see this, we must return to Romans, specifically chapter 8 starting in verse 18.
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but through him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the guarantee of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with perseverance.
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints before the bench of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also marked out as conformed ones to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he marked out he also summoned, and those whom he summoned, he also justified, and those whom he justified he also will glorify.”
Now, to complete the argument, look back to Romans 5:1-5.
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
I hope you are starting to see the application. Life is hard, and throughout it, we will face constant trials and hardships. In these times, it can be easy to ask, “Does God really love me? Because this really doesn’t feel like love.” This is why Romans 5 and 8 are so important! These passages are written for us so that we are reminded that even when we are suffering, God loves us and has demonstrated that love. When we are in the depths of our struggles, the Spirit of God groans within us, intercedes with the Father on our behalf, and testifies in our hearts that we are God’s children and he loves us.
Since, then, Christ already died and the Holy Spirit has already been given to us as a guarantee of our justification, there is nothing that can change that love. The love of God towards his chosen humanity certainly is an ongoing event, but there is a real sense in which it is a completed action. Christ “died,” not “is dying.” If you are a believer, then you “have been justified,” not “are in the process of being justified.” God “has proven” his love for us, not “is proving”. The completed action of God’s love frees us to drink deeply of a love that is not contingent on us or anything else in creation. This is what Paul means when he says in Romans 8:35-39:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than victorious through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other creation will be able to separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord.”
There are two applications for us here. First, there is rest in the love of God. When we are rich the love of God guides us, and when we are poor the love of God sustains us. When we are healthy the love of God moves us, and when we are dying the love of God receives us. When we are joyful the love of God leads us to doxology, and when we are sorrowful the love of God comforts us. In every situation, the Holy Spirit wraps his arms around us and whispers in our hearts God’s infinite and unconditional love for his children, and that testimony is our salvation. The other reality of Romans 5 and 8 is, of course, that we can certainly expect to suffer. This should come as no surprise to the Christian, as we can see the reality of it on nearly every page of the New Testament. But it is here in Romans that we see the love of God actively comforting us in our suffering. For, if while we are suffering, the Spirit testifies that we are his children and he loves us, then we are reminded of Hebrews 12:7, “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” But the love of God gives us hope for the glory of God. We know from the truth of God’s work that our suffering now will be glory later, and so we endure.
Too often, however, our weak human hearts convince us that we cannot endure hardship, and so we don’t endure. Instead of relying on the perfect love of God to satisfy us, we substitute it for the lie of lesser loves. Instead of finding worth in the love God, we seek worth from relationships. Some turn love into a service and seek it through morality-driven activism. Many have turned to self-love as a coping mechanism. Sometimes the love of God is substituted not by a lesser love, but rather some other action. Excessive drinking, substance use, the pursuit of wealth or power, the immersion into fiction via TV, books, or video games, or even the total shutdown of just not getting out of bed; these are all escapes from hardship. And when these escapes inevitably fail us, we become jaded and hateful. Some of you are worshiping your kids, others your spouse, your job, your religion, or most likely yourself. This idolatry is the very thing that causes Creation itself to groan in expectation of the coming glory of God that his love gives us hope for. Many of you today hate everything. You hate the world, you hate people, and most of all you hate yourself. It is to you that the love of God pleads with the most.
Is your marriage struggling? Learn to satisfy yourself with the love of God. Are you lost in how to interact with your kids? Allow the love of God to change your own heart. Is your heart callused towards the lost and apathetic about evangelism? See how God loved you in your hostility towards him. Are you substituting the love of God for something lesser? Meditate deeply on the Gospel and the hope of God’s love for us. “For God so loved the world, that he gave is unique Son, that those believing in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Your ability to endure, or even be more than victorious in all these things begins with the love of God. As John says in 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.”
There may be some of you who are very sarcastically thinking to yourselves, “Wow, thanks. I’m cured.” And while I would consider that a horrible attitude birthed from that weakness of heart that seeks to avoid hardship, such as the hardship of discipline, the meaning is not too far off reality. The truth is, finding complete satisfaction, insurmountable joy, and perfect peace in the love of God is incredibly hard for our weak human hearts. In fact, it is entirely beyond our capability. But praise God, who has poured his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. And the Spirit helps us in our weakness, interceding for us with groanings too deep for words. Just as it was not ourselves, but the love of God that saved dead men, it is not ourselves, but the love of God that sustains those who are alive in Christ.
In conclusion, God is love. And God’s love is demonstrated that while we were yet dead in our trespasses and sins, enemies of God, Christ, though “he was in the form of God,” “emptied himself, by taking the form of a slave.” “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” “So, walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” “For 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.” Christians, quiet the distractions around you, and hear the whispers of Gods love as the Spirit testifies within you. Perhaps, today, you are doubting the size of God’s love. Apart from God proving his love for you in what he has done for you, we can see the size of God’s love in the Church. Honestly, shame on me for spending so little time here at the end discussing the corporate implications of this theology, but my purpose today focused on the individual. Paul tells us in Ephesians 3 that the size of God’s love is seen in the Church. In other words, if you want to know how big God’s love is, just look around. Once you’ve looked around you, look around the world, then look through the ages. The breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love is seen in all those enemies that he died for, including you and me. Perhaps you fear the love of God for the discipline that it comes with, then perhaps also your heart is still dead. Jonathan Edwards writes in his convicting work Religious Affections, “Who is there that will bless God that he is affected enough with what he has read and heard of the wonderful love of God to worms and rebels, in giving His only begotten Son to die for them, and with the dying love of Christ; and pray that he may not be affected with them in any higher degree…” If any of you do not know Jesus, I encourage you to pray fervently, and ask that he make known to you the love he has for you.