Tag Archives: love of god

To Experience God's Love

Many Christians live at a great distance from a felt experience of the love of God. So much Christianity in the West is shallow and satisfied. It affirms a creed, but it so often lacks spiritual life. Across the country there are millions of people who have a faith, who've been brought up in the church to believe Jesus died and rose, but they have no living experience of God's love.

We need this prayer from 2 Thessalonians 3:5: "May the Lord direct your hearts into God's love and Christ's patience."

st-augustine-of-hippoThis is a prayer for Christians. Paul is writing to the church. It's a prayer that God will do something in us who believe but do not always feel that God loves us.

I don't want to be there! And neither do you. People who are not Christians endure great pain and carry great sorrows. They do it by gritting their teeth. They do it in Britain with a stiff upper lip. Paul is saying to these believers in this verse, "I want something better for you. I want your soul to be filled with the love of God."

Testimonies of Experiencing God's Love

Let me give you some real-life examples of the love of God flooding a person's soul, so that you will be encouraged to pray for more of this love yourself.

John Wesley

Wesley was a pastor. He had preached on two continents—in England and in Georgia. Something happened to him on Aldersgate Street in London on May 24, 1738, while he was listening to a man read the preface to Luther's work on Romans. Here is Wesley's description of what happened:

About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given to me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

Amazingly, Wesley had been preaching in church for years, but now he tasted the love of God. He had a new sense of its sweetness. His life and ministry were transformed.

Jonathan Edwards

In 1737 Edwards rode out into the woods for a time of prayer and wrote of his extraordinary experience: "I had a view, that was for me extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God . . . and his wonderful, great, full, pure and sweet grace and love."

He went out into the woods, tied up his horse, and saw the love of Christ in a way that he had not seen it before. He had a "view" of it. He got a glimpse of it. Its sweetness came home to his soul.

Blaise Pascal

One of the most intense descriptions of this kind of experience comes from Blaise Pascal. Pascal is especially interesting because he was a mathematician and a scientist. It would be easy for some of us to dismiss this loving call by saying that there are certain more emotional types of people who have these experiences.

Pascal had an extraordinary experience of the love of God that lasted for about two hours. He scribbled some notes of what happened to him, and then he sewed them into the inside of his coat, where they were found after his death:

This day of grace 1654
From about half past ten at night, to about half after midnight Fire!
God of Abraham, God of Isaac God of Jacob
Not of the philosophers and scholars.
Security, feeling, joy, peace
God of Jesus Christ . . .
Greatness of the human soul . . .
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy . . .
Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ
May I never be separated from him.

What happened to Pascal? His heart was "directed into the love of God and the patience of Christ."

These testimonies show an amazing work of God in the hearts of men, causing them to experience God's love and Christ's patience in a new way.

Power to Know God's Love

Recently, a seminary professor asked 120 of her students this question: "Do you believe that God loves you?" Out of 120 Christian students preparing for ministry, how many do you think said, "yes"?

Two!

The rest gave answers like this: "I know I'm supposed to say, 'Yes' . . . "I know the Bible says he loves me . . . but I don't feel it," or "I'm not sure I can really say I believe it."

How can this be? Jonathan Edwards used a simple analogy to get to the heart of this problem: "There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness."

You can know honey is sweet, because someone tells you, but you don't really know its sweetness until you've tasted it. You can know God loves you because your Sunday school teacher told you, but you don't really know God's love until you've tasted his love.

Here are concrete steps to experience more of God's love.

Become dissatisfied with your present spiritual experience.

Cultivate a holy discontent. The person who prays this prayer is looking for something more than he or she already has: "Lord, direct my heart into your love."

We live in a "been there, done that" culture, and the great danger is in developing a "been there, done that" form of Christianity: "I know God loves me, that Jesus died for me and that my sins are forgiven. So, what's next?" Then one day someone says, "Do you really believe that God loves you?" And your shallowness is exposed.

A. W. Tozer says in The Pursuit of God,

We have been snared in the coils of a spurious logic which insists that if we have found him, we need no more seek him. . . . In the midst of this great chill there are some who will not be content with shallow logic. They want to taste, to touch with their hearts the wonder that is God. I want deliberately to encourage this mighty longing after God.

Some of you think God is cold and aloof and harsh and demanding, and these thoughts are deeply rooted in your mind. You need this prayer: "Father, direct my heart into your love!" Ask God, and go on asking, until like the snow that melted in the warmth this week, your heart begins to thaw in the warmth of the love of God.

Gaze into the love of God in Jesus Christ.

Psalm 27:4 says, "One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple."

People who don't like each other will glance at one another. People who like each other will look at one another. People who are desperately in love will gaze at each other.

Isaac Watts used another word to say the same thing in his famous hymn "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." Survey, gaze, ponder and meditate on the love of God. May the Lord direct your hearts into God's love and Christ's patience.

Two Responses

Something in this article may awaken in you—deep calls to deep. Maybe you're thinking, I want more of what he's talking about.

Settle it today, in your heart and in your mind, that you will pursue a sweeter taste, a deeper experience, a clearer glimpse of the love of God and the patience of Christ. Go after it. And don't ever stop.

For others, this message does not so much sound like a church bell drawing you in as an alarm clock waking you up.

If you have no response to the love of God, shouldn't you be concerned about the condition of your soul? I hope you'll ask, "What is wrong with me? I have no interest in the love of God. Why am I so satisfied, when others are hungry and thirsty for God?"

Perhaps God will use this article to awaken you from the deadness of spirit in which you have been sleeping for far too long.

Is Glory God's Only Goal?

Has the glory of God become a cliché among the young, restless, Reformed crowd? The vocabulary of glory is on the rise, but certain misunderstandings and imbalances linger. Will "the glory of God" become a cliché, much like "the love of God" to the previous generation, which too often reduced love to sentimentality?

It is encouraging to hear much about God's glory as his ultimate end. I rejoice in the renewed interested in Jonathan Edwards as well as the contemporary influence of pastors like John Piper and ministries like The Gospel Coalition. I rejoice that many are captured by God's glory as the ultimate end, as it is the goal of creation; the exodus; Israel; Jesus' ministry, life, death, resurrection, and reign; our salvation; the church; the consummation; all of salvation history; and even God himself. Paul often highlights this cosmic goal: "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers" (Rom. 8:29); "all things were created through him and for him" (Col. 1:16; cf. Rom. 11:33-36; Heb. 2:10).

While there is a healthy resurgence in teaching that glory is God's ultimate end, many inadvertently equate God's ultimate end with God's comprehensive motivation (Edwards and Piper do not make this mistake, but many who read them do). As a result, we rarely hear that God often acts with multiple ends in mind.

Many Reasons

Take the exodus, for instance. Why did God redeem his people from slavery in Egypt? One might quickly reply, "For his glory." Certainly God redeems his people from slavery to glorify himself. But the book of Exodus presents God's reasons for deliverance in a multifaceted way:

  • Concern for his oppressed people (3-4)
  • Faithfulness to the covenant promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (3:15; 4:5; 6:8; 32:13; 34:6; cf. Deut. 7:6-10)
  • That Israel would serve the Lord (4:23; 6:5; etc.)
  • That you should know I am the LORD (6:7; 10:2; 13:1f)
  • To give the promised land (6:8)
  • That the Egyptians will know I am the LORD (7:5; 14:3-4; 14:15-18)
  • That Pharaoh will know the LORD as incomparable (7:17; 8:10-18)
  • To display his power (9:16)
  • That his name might be proclaimed in all the earth (9:16)
  • To pass down a heritage to the children (10:1-2)
  • That his wonders might be multiplied (11:9)
  • To get glory over Pharaoh and his army (14:3-18)
  • For Israel's sake (18:8)

So God delivered his people for a variety of reasons, not merely one. The incomparable God acts out of love, holiness, goodness, faithfulness, and jealousy. This is critical to notice because if we equate God's ultimate end with God's comprehensive motivation, we end up subsuming his attributes under his glory. But God acts according to who he is. He loves because he is loving. He acts rightly because he is righteousness. Certainly, as he acts, he displays himself; and as he displays himself, he glorifies himself. But we must not say that God acts for his glory without simultaneously stressing that God acts out of his love, goodness, faithfulness—out of who he is.

Note also that God delivers his people for his glory, for their good, for judgment on Egypt, and for the continuance of his covenant people. Recognizing and stressing these multiple ends does not detract from an emphasis on God's glory but actually underlines it. Indeed, in the exodus, God displays his love, covenant faithfulness, jealously, providence, and power through his wonders, salvation, and judgment, in which he manifests himself and thus glorifies himself.

Why Does God Save Us?

Or we can consider the doctrine of salvation and ask, "Why does God save us?" One might hastily retort, "For his glory." Again, that is right and critical. But the Bible provides a wide range of reasons. Powerfully and regularly, God himself explains his motive for saving. John 3:16 states, "For God so loved the world that he gave . . ." (cf. 1 John 4:9-10). Ephesians 1:4-5 extols, "In love" God predestined us (cf. Deut. 7), and Ephesians 2:4 ties our salvation to God's love, mercy, and grace (cf. Titus 3:4-5). John 17 records Jesus' high priestly prayer, interweaving God's glory and the good of his people, praying and acting in part, "for their sake" (17:19). Romans 8:28 also makes it clear that redemptive history is, in large part, for the good of God's people.

So why does God save? For many reasons, but in and through all of them, God displays who he is and thus glorifies himself. God manifests his glory because in saving us he displays his wisdom (Rom. 11:33-36; 1 Cor. 1:18-31; Eph. 3:10-11), righteousness, justice (Rom. 3:25-26), love, mercy, kindness, (Eph. 2:4-7; Rom. 9:20-23), freedom, wrath, and power (Rom. 9:20-23).

When Mother's Day Is Hard

Several of my friends have recently suffered miscarriages. They endure the anguish of feeling their bodies begin to change to make room for a growing baby only to lose the child. I, too, have experienced it—four times. At first we thought perhaps I had a problem with fertility. It took us a year to get pregnant and then seven weeks to lose the baby. I got pregnant quickly again and miscarried at ten weeks. Eventually I had a sweet baby boy. After him I miscarried two more times and then had my girl.

This Mother's Day may come as yet another reminder to women everywhere that they don't have something they desire. Another year of miscarriages, infertility, or even waiting for a child through the adoption process. Whatever the unfulfilled desire, it tugs at your heart and plagues your mind.

When I thought about writing this article, I recalled a new friend who recently asked me for advice. So instead of an article, I wrote a note to my friends and anyone else God may want to read in on the conversation. So I pray you would be blessed by this note as well.

* * * * * * * * * *

Dear Friend,

I am so sorry for your wait. It is hard. I'm not going to pretend it isn't. I'm not going to tell you that everything will be better if you take these five steps. The only thing I know for sure is that Christ loves you. He really does sympathize with you. You can read God's words to you in Hebrews: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:15-16).

I know you've probably seen this verse many times, but I think God has a lot to say to you in these verses. He is reminding you that he isn't far-off. He has entered into the ugly and hard places that you see your heart going as you struggle with worry or anxiety or fear or anger. He knows it. He knows your temptation. Jesus reminds you that he walked this earth perfectly for you. And in your weakness he invites you to draw near to him. He wants to comfort you and uphold you with his righteous right hand. Come to him, weary friend, and receive grace and peace and rest. This is your time of need. Mother's Day is your time of need, and he does not turn away from you during your time of need; he wants you to find grace to help.

Friend, I pray that you would receive his good grace today. As you look to Mother's Day know that he has you in mind and intercedes even now on your behalf.  "The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit" (Psalm 34:18).

The Counterintuitive Calvin

So what did I do last summer vacation? I continued to do something that I started January 1 of this year. Late last fall I came upon a plan for reading through all of John Calvin's Institutes---his four-volume, 1,500-or-so-page systematic exposition of the teachings of the Christian faith---in one year. Calvin and Martin Luther together were the two leading lights of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Today, however, Calvin has a dismal reputation as a pinched, narrow-minded, cold, and cerebral dogmatician.

I knew much of this image was caricature, and, while over the years I had read a good deal of the Institutes, I treated the books like an encyclopedia or dictionary that one dipped into to learn about specific topics. I had never read it straight through, consecutively, until this year when I began the program, which allots an average of six pages a night, five nights a week, for an entire year. Almost immediately I was amazed by several things.

True Work of Literature

First, it is not just a textbook, but also a true work of literature. It was written in Latin and French and is a landmark in the history of the French language. Calvin was a lawyer and seems at time to relish debate too much (a flaw he confesses in his letters). But despite such passages, even in English translation it is obvious that this is no mere textbook, but a masterpiece of literary art, sometimes astonishing in its power and eloquence.

Second, it is nothing if not biblical. Even if you don't agree with what Calvin is saying, you will always have to deal with one or two dozen texts of Scripture, carefully interpreted and organized as he presents his case to you. To describe these volumes as "theology" or "doctrine" is almost misleading---it is mainly a Bible Digest, a distilled readers' guide to the main teachings of the Scripture and how they fit together.

Third, the Institutes are, I think, the greatest, deepest, and most extensive treatment of the grace of God I have ever read. I was struck by how many times Calvin tells us that the foundation of real Christian faith is both grasping with the mind and sensing on the heart the gracious, unconditional love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Over and over again he teaches that you are not truly converted by merely understanding doctrine, but by grasping God's love so that the inner structure and motivation of the heart are changed.

So in Institutes I.3.1 he argues that, while you may know a lot about God you don't truly know God until "reverence [is] joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces. . . . Unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him." In other words, you don't have true saving knowledge of God until you long to obey him, out of a desire to please and delight him because you are pleased and delighted with him for his grace. Calvin adds that in a Christian soul "this restrains itself from sinning, not out of dread of punishment alone; but because it loves and reveres God as Father. . . . Even if there were no hell, it would still shudder at offending him." (I.3.2 )

When Calvin comes to his three chapters on what it means to live a Christian life (III.6-7), again grace is at the forefront. He taught that the briefest statement of the Christian life is this---"You are not your own; you were bought with a price." (1 Cor. 6:19-20) Because you were saved by sheer grace ("you were bought with a price"), now your new principle of life is "you are not your own." You no longer live for yourself, but for God and for your neighbor. All of the Christian life is the working out of that verse, that grace, and that new principle of joyful self-donation.

When Calvin applies this principle of gracious self-donation to our relationships with other people, he argues that we should treat even those who deserve nothing but disdain as if they were the Lord himself.

Say [about the stranger before you] that you owe nothing for any service of his; but God, as it were, has put him in his own place in order that you may recognize toward him the many and great benefits which God has bound you to himself. . . . You will say, "He has deserved something far different from me." Yet what has the Lord deserved? . . . Remember not to consider men's evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them." (III.7.6)

When Calvin comes to his well-known doctrine of predestination, it is important to see where he places it. He does not deal with the doctrine under Book 1 where he treats God, or even Book 2 where he addresses sin and Christ. He waits until Book 3, which is about "How We Receive the Grace of Christ" through the Holy Spirit. Calvin insists that the opposite of the doctrine of predestination is not the idea of free will but the teaching that we are saved by our good works. He argues forcefully that, unless you see your saving faith is a gift from God to you, not from you to him---you have not yet grasped how free his grace is. You will ever so slightly believe that you are a Christian because you were more humble, open, and repentant than those who have not believed. But, Calvin reasoned, if you see your salvation is 100 percent by grace you will embrace and be both humbled and comforted by the truth of predestination.

Astonishing Doxology

Last (and here our modern evangelical terminology fails us) Calvin's writings are astonishingly "doxological." We might be tempted to say "inspirational" or "devotional" or "spiritual," but to use such Hallmark greeting card phrases doesn't do them justice. Calvin's writings don't read at all like a theological treatise, but like a man's meditating on the Scripture before God. The language is filled with reverence and awe, and often tenderness. That means that, despite the close reasoning of so many parts of the material, Calvin was all about the heart.

Indeed, he taught that our biggest problem is there. "For the Word of God is not received by faith if it flits about in the top of the brain, but when it takes root in the depth of the heart . . . the heart's distrust is greater than the mind's blindness. It is harder for the heart to be furnished with assurance [of God's love] than for the mind to be endowed with thought." (III.2.36)

To furnish our hearts with more of that assurance is the ultimate purpose of the Institutes, and I can say, personally, that it is fulfilling its purpose in me this year.

This article originally appeared in Redeemer Presbyterian Church's monthly Redeemer Report.

God: Abounding in Love, Punishing the Guilty

Prompted by recent events that have cast doubt on evangelical teaching about the love of God, Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, and judgment for sin, Don Carson delivered a special address, "God: Abounding in Love: Punishing the Guilty," at The Gospel Coalition's 2011 national conference in Chicago. You can now download audio from this talk.

After Carson finished, he was joined for a panel discussion moderated by Kevin DeYoung that also included Tim Keller, Stephen Um, and Crawford Loritts.

You can also read Jonathan Parnell's recap at the Desiring God blog.

Update from Japan: How You Can Pray

With the rest of the world I have been watching footage of the devastation in Japan with my hands over my mouth. Videos and pictures have shown us the awful destruction and only make us wonder at how many lives are lost or now impoverished in ways beyond our ability to comprehend. Maybe you felt the same, but my prayers have only been groanings, hoping the Holy Spirit can give content to the needs I haven't been able to articulate for Japan.

Two days ago, my wife rushed into my office and asked, "Do you think Keiko is alright?" Keiko Takahashi is a Japanese woman who was in our small group at church before she left less than a year ago to go work with Michael Oh at Christ Bible Seminary in Nagoya, Japan. After some investigation by email and Facebook, we found out she was fine, but working tirelessly, as you can imagine. I emailed Keiko to see if she could provide information on how the disaster is affecting Christians, local churches, and missionaries. Basically, I just wanted some information to help inform our prayers.

God's Faithful Presence

Keiko's response was thick with an awareness that God is present in Japan and that his providence, however mysterious, is good. But there are efforts, dark and spiritual, sowing the seeds of disorder, confusion, and anxiety. "When this kind of massive confusion occurs, some malice spirits spread dark malicious rumors," she writes. "Evil demagogues on the Internet stir up the dark human desire, normally hidden at the bed of the original sin."

Thankfully, the majority of Japanese people seem to be trusting the official reports from the authorities about the nuclear plants, aftershocks, and power outages. In fact, Keiko remarks the Japanese people have submitted to the authorities with orderliness and patience. She writes:

Even in the total power outage, nobody robs shops or rapes or anything, except for those who are normally committing such crimes. . . . There are no riots where we have to line up for several hours in the train station waiting to get into a packed-full train cart. They answer to the interviewer, "Compared to those who died or survived the tsunami, this long line is nothing. We want to help them by saving our electricity consumption for them."

Let's be thankful to God for this unusual order during a time of such devastation. There seems to be a common grace from God to the Japanese people that, as Keiko puts it, "They know that the power of love overcomes their sense of inconvenience to the extent of suffering." But she reminds us, "Christianity must show far beyond." Our love and kindness, Keiko writes, must be rooted in our faith in the atoning cross of Jesus, so that our acts of mercy will give honor to the "God who created and gives unceasing mercies and comforts."

A Far Greater Struggle

In a nation with such a small Christian minority, the pressure Keiko endures from unbelieving family members is common to Christian workers in Japan. She explains:

My unbelieving family say in "love" that I should leave Japan for the United States because I have some contacts there. They assume that our goal for life is to physically preserve ourselves. But we know that our true goal is to die to the idol of self-preservation, and to be raised into God's preservation, which is destined to victory.

She explains that what her family "cannot understand or accept is the fact that I see and taste the happiness that is given through the atoning cross of Christ. I came to Japan to die to all my self-dignity to live for Christ who loves to rescue his enemies, who alone can make me filled with all that I could hope for and far more."

Kieko and her co-workers hear stories of "those who were swallowed by fast, dirty waters, yet never lost hope in the deadly struggle to survive for their loved ones." But she knows that there is a far greater struggle, an eternal one, that compels her to stay in Japan. She explains:

Yet as we pray with missionaries from John Piper's Bethlehem Baptist Church, we vividly see that even those spectacular survivors still do not know anything about the far more dreadful struggle they must deal with at the end of their lives here on earth, which will be final.

Pray for Christians, who, like Keiko describes it, "shine by showing our full confidence in Christ."

Devastated 'Rengo' Christians

Portions of Keiko's email were especially heart breaking. One in particular was her report of the "Rengo" Christians. She writes:

Among those killed [were the] many churches planted by the missionaries sent by the same denomination as John Piper's denomination, called "Rengo" in Japanese. Their church planting efforts have been predominantly focused on these east coast areas that were just swept all away!!!

According to Keiko, biblical Christianity thrived in these eastern regions that were devastated by the tsunami waves. She writes, "People in this area have been traditionally known for poverty and enduring patience due to the severe weather. [They were] well prepared for the God of all mercies and comforts (2 Cor 1)." They were "precious believers" in a country that is less than 0.2 percent Christian.

She asks, without doubting God's goodness or perfect wisdom, "Why does God do this?" Along with rebuilding churches and ministering to mourning communities, Christians in Japan will be faced with similar questions. Pray for wisdom and clarity.

How Can American Christians Help?

Keiko is clear that it's not yet the time for material and human resource help. There is simply too much "traffic confusion and congestion due to the scheduled power outage in downtown Tokyo and because of the shattered roads in the areas hit." But there are "460, 000 survivors who lost everything in a few minutes, including their loved ones, and are impoverished in every possible sense." So as we wait and pray, let's pray that when the time comes to help, the means will be ready and effective.

The deep need in Japan from American Christians is prayer. Keiko writes, "Please pray and encourage us to fight a good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith until the Lord makes us home with him." She is keenly aware that there will be temptations on every side in this fight for faithfulness. She reminds us, "I cannot choose to die to my flesh at all by myself, but only by the Spirit and by the power of his divine grace and his perfect righteousness. That is why prayer counts so much."

The challenge for Christian workers is the significant biblical illiteracy in Japan. "Most Japanese people," Keiko explains, "have never heard of the true meaning of God's grace given through the cross of his Son." So especially now, when some are offering false hope or claiming apocalyptical doom, many "cannot tell the Spirit from the spirits of evil cults, which are out to be the wolves in sheep skins. So we should not just send Bibles and tracts to the survivors at refugee shelters."

The temptation, then, is for Christian to labor in their own strength. But let's pray that they believe and act on what Keiko articulates so clearly:

We sow and water but God is the one who actually brings them to growth, not to death. . . . We shine by showing them our full confidence in Christ, not on our character or our wisdom or even our faith, etc., but in our conviction that there is no sin that he cannot atone for his own pleasure. We must reflect such miraculous generosity of God solely by the living Spirit.

That is why our and your prayer counts so significantly. It makes so much theological sense to pray and express our dependency on him who sanctifies us and saves the lost beyond our imagination.

Pray for the suffering and the mourning. Pray for local church communities to be faithful lights of the gospel. Pray that the hope of God's grace in Christ will rest upon many hearts in Japan over the coming months.