God Is Love School of Theology Series: Lecture 11
A few months ago we were engaged on Sunday mornings listening to a wonderful series of expositions by Dr Ferguson on 1 John, in which we saw these two parallel statements: “God is light” (1 John 1:5) and “God is love” (1 John 4:8). God is love and God is light (or purity, or even aspects of holiness). God is love and God is also light and pure. So it is not a love that is without principle. It is not a love that is without wrath. It is not a love that is without anger. It is not a love that is without discipline. So God’s love is not indulgent. It does not eliminate or operate outside of his holiness. We are focusing now and looking at one particular attribute of God. God is love in every aspect of his being; his entire essence is love. But his entire essence is also holy (as we shall see next week).
In theology, as folk in the past have thought about the love of God, they have seen it as a sub-category of a more general idea, and that is God’s goodness. And there are a number of passages that allude to the goodness of God. Luke 18:18-19: [The man says,] “Good Master,” and Jesus says, “Why do you call me good? There is only one who is good, namely, God.” Or in the Psalms, like Psalm 52:9: “I will wait for your name, for it is good.” And you remember how often, especially in the Old Testament, the name of God is synonymous with God himself. The name of God is synonymous with his character. When Moses asks God, when he is being sent back to Egypt, “Who shall I say sent me?” (he asks for a name essentially), God says, “I Am That I Am.” He reveals his name. He reveals his character. “I will wait for your name, for it is good, in the presence of the godly” (Psalm 52:9). Or Psalm 119:68: “You are good and do good; teach me your statutes.” Or in Psalm 34:8 we are urged to taste and see “that the LORD is good.” The goodness of God is the more general category.
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[Herman Bavinck] says:
The first of God’s attributes is his goodness. This is not to be understood in a relative or utilitarian sense but absolutely. God’s goodness is perfection, the sum of all goodness.Reformed Dogmatics, 2011
His goodness accordingly is one with his absolute perfection. So the goodness of God. Let’s reflect on this a little, and let us take it down several trajectories.
God’s Goodness in Creation
We can think of this in terms of God’s goodness in creation.
“And God Saw that It Was Good”
You will be more than familiar with the refrain that Moses introduces (almost like a motif) in the first chapter of Genesis, in the first creation story: “God saw that it was good,” whatever it was. He creates/makes something and it was “good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). And then finally with the creation of man in the seven-fold repetition of this (and that is very significant—seven days of creation, seven in John’s revelation—it all recurs again). There it is in Genesis 1. The repetition of God’s goodness: that creation is good; that the light is good; that the cosmos is good, that the animals are good, that the creation of plant life is good, and the creation of man is good.
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And Moses is undoubtedly contrasting that a little bit with the Ancient Near Eastern thought and Egyptian thought. Moses was an Egyptian, and was in the courts of Egypt, and so a lot of the epistemology of Egypt is before him as he is writing the book of Genesis. The Egyptians are worshipping the sun god, and Moses slips in in Genesis that God made the sun and the moon and the stars. Here are the Egyptians worshipping this deity called the sun, or the moon, or whatever. So we need to contrast here. There is a contrast here between Christianity/Judaism/the Bible—its worldview with regard to creation, with regard to the cosmos, with regard to matter, molecules, atoms, stuff, material things—and other religions in Moses’ time in the Ancient Near East.
But since Moses’ time, Hellenistic Gnosticism would be an example of a worldview that regards the material universe as essentially evil. There were views in Greek thought, for example, that salvation was basically being rescued out of the prison-house of the body (the body is essential evil, and salvation is to be delivered from the body). My Scottish friend recently got so uptight because I said that there would be animals in heaven, and she was quite adamant and vehement that I was quite wrong about this. And in my head I was thinking, “So Hellenistic Gnosticism is alive and well”—[the idea] that there is something inherently bad, unsavable even, about creation. And that is not the view of creation in Genesis 1—creation is good.
Creation is now subject to the ravages of evil, as Paul makes so clear in Romans 8. It is in bondage to decay. It is groaning, travailing in birth, waiting for the new creation—the new heavens and the new earth. But if you ask yourself, “What does heaven look like?” then you should answer, “It looks like this [but] without sin.” Imagine a universe without sin. What is in it? There are plants and animals and butterflies and redeemed people. It is the creation, the universe, the cosmos.
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Covenant with Noah Concentrates on Preservation
Think of the covenant with Noah. There is a curse that comes upon creation in the flood, but that is not saying that the material universe is itself evil. The covenant with Noah is a covenant of preservation. It is a common grace element in the covenant with Noah—God’s goodness to creation, concentrating on the preservation of creation. God commits himself to uphold and preserve the present order of the world so that the work of redemption can be accomplished. Genesis 8:22: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease.” Genesis 9:3-4: “Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you. I give all to you as I gave the green plant, only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” All of that is testifying to the essential goodness of creation.
I have introduced a question mark about green politics. I think that Christians have a right, and maybe a duty, to be involved in a concern for creation. And that is not being left-wing or middle-wing or right-wing; it is just being biblical. Christians should be on the forefront. Not in crazy stuff, but Christians ought to be concerned about creation and about the world and about the cosmos. I simply put it out there. I am not going to make any kind of political statement whatsoever, but I do think that Christians have a right and maybe a duty to be concerned about creation. Because the creation is essentially good. I can get concerned about the polar bears; it would be a very sad state of affairs if there were no polar bears in the world. Now, on the order of the 3000 things that I am most concerned about, polar bears is not number one, so do not misunderstand what I am saying. But is it there in the 3000 things? Yes, it is.
God’s Goodness in Providence
God’s goodness in providence. God’s goodness not just in in creation, but in his governing of creation and in his governing of the universe. We read the famous statement of Joseph to his brothers at the end of the Joseph narrative in Genesis: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” God’s goodness in providence. This is a man who was almost killed by his brothers. This is a man who was sold as a slave. This is a man who was jailed for ten years accused of rape when he was innocent. That is a terrible thing to live with: to be falsely accused and to be imprisoned. And in all of that, he looks back and he says, “In all of that, God worked it. God governed it. He ordered every aspect of it for his good purposes and for his good ends. He is in absolute control.”
Or Romans 8:28: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” “All” means all. “All” means not just that God works the good things for good, but God works all things for good. He works the good things and the evil things. Everything! In the totality of existence of everything that is, he ensures that they are orchestrated together so that his will is accomplished. The total, absolute sovereignty of God in achieving and ensuring goodness for his people, for the elect.
Goodness of God and Evil
We inevitably now go into a little bit of a quagmire. We have opened the door and suddenly we find ourselves surrounded by some difficult issues. Because if God is sovereign in ensuring the good, we have to ask ourselves: What is the relationship between God’s goodness and the existence of evil? If God is good, why is there evil? The so-called problem of evil. The Bible teaches the doctrine of providence—that God is sovereign—within which we must consider the so-called problem of evil. How can God be good if there is evil in the world? And God not only creates, but he manages the universe. He is in total control of it. His sovereignty shapes the universe and directs it toward a designed purpose/goal/end/telos.
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So what is providence? [In the handout] I give you one definition of providence:
A continual exercise of divine energy whereby God according to his own will, keeps all creatures in being, is concurrently active in all events, and directs all things to their appointed end.Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 1971
That is actually quite a sophisticated definition providence—more sophisticated than meets the eye when you examine it a little more closely. It is a notion, then, of purposive management with total control. And the doctrine of the goodness of God must embrace that idea of purposive management and total control.
The Westminster Confession Chapter 5, Doctrine of Providence, speaks to this and about God’s decree:
The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in his providence, that it extends itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as has joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering, and governing of them.
You can hear these three verbs tightening this screw tighter and tighter. It is not that God simply sits back and allows things to happen—a kind of bare permission. But his governance is bounding, ordering and governing. It is fastening really tight [the idea] that God’s control is absolutely sovereign.
…in a manifold dispensation, to his own holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceeds only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.Westminster Confession V.4, 1647 (emphasis added)
I love that, because it is stating a negative but is not actually explaining the positive. It is not answering the problem of evil—it is not telling you how God is in total control and what the exact relationship between God’s sovereignty/goodness and sin is—it is just saying that God is not the author of sin. Sin does not proceed directly from God. Whatever the answer to the origin of sin, God is not the author of it and he is not the approver of it. It states these things and simply moves on.
Goodness and Evil: Theodicy
That raises perhaps the most difficult question in all of theology historically: the problem of evil. [It is] known in theology as theodicy—the justifying of the ways of God. God is in the right and worthy of praise, and we want to clear him from any kind of allegation of mismanagement in the world. John Milton, for example, wrote at the start of Paradise Lost that the reason he wrote that book was to justify the ways of God to man and to praise him. So theodicy was the reason he wrote it. Theology is for doxology—God is to be praised in everything.
A contemporary approach to this is John Piper’s little book Don’t Waste Your Cancer. John Piper himself, having suffered from a form of cancer, addresses this issue. Don’t waste it; see it as something in God’s providence that he has brought into your life. Cancer is an evil, but God can use it. His governance is total and his management of it is such that out of it God can bring extraordinary good—things that otherwise could not be brought about. We should give thanks, Piper says (and perhaps going over the top in the explanation), praising God for the badness of the bad things. At that point I am not sure I am quite on the same page as John Piper—it is for me not so much about praising God for everything but perhaps praising God in everything. I am backing up just one step from John Piper (and what I suspect is his reading of Jonathan Edwards at that point).
Evil Is an Umbrella Word
Evil is an umbrella word for a number of things, and at least two things. One is: morally bad persons (personal wills in action; bad people doing evil). And another thing is: the waste of good through human badness, tragic accidents, or experiences of pain.
C.S. Lewis’ twentieth-century book The Problem of Pain is a classic treatment of it. One of the things that C.S. Lewis is quite helpful on in that book is to say that pain is not always a bad thing. Lepers, he says, do not have nerve endings that work in their extremities, and therefore they are able to put their hands on extremely hot things and can do themselves damage without knowing it. The fact that when you touch something that is hot, you instinctively pull your hand away, because it is hot, is a good thing. That sort of pain is a good thing. So not all pain is a bad thing.
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The fact is that some of the great leaders and great Christians in the past have grown and been our teachers as a consequence of pain. One thinks of Calvin, who was a walking encyclopedia of almost every disease known to man, and Spurgeon, who suffered with gout, and so on. Sometimes I think that all of our painkillers do make us weaker—experientially weaker and spiritually weaker. Because I think we are prone (and churches up and down the country will prove this) to think that God never intends us to experience pain because of the ease with which we can alleviate it. We are in a different world to our predecessors on that point.
The Terms of the Problem of Evil
Now, the terms of the problem of evil stem from three things: that God is LORD, and that he is perfect, and that evil is real. Those are the three things. God is LORD. God is perfect (God is good). And evil is real. Now, if you remove one of those tenets, the problem goes away.
If God is not LORD (process theology would be an example of that) and if God is not absolutely sovereign and if he is not in charge, his character is good but his power won’t enable him. Rabbi Kushner, of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, says that when bad things happen, God is not there. God is not in control, so don’t blame God. He has removed the tenet of God’s Lordship, so the problem of pain is taken away.
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If you deny, as in Islam, that God is perfectly good (God’s moral perfection in Islam is questionable; it is not a given) and you do not know anything really about [Allah]’s moral character, the problem is resolved. Allah is happy with bad things happening.
Or Christian Science denies evil. It says it is a fiction; it is something that you think in your mind. So you think it away. It is a Mary Baker Eddy approach to the problem of pain: you just think it away and it will trouble you no longer.
I love this little limerick that sort of summarizes the Christian Science approach to evil:
A Christian Scientist of Deal once said,
Although pain isn’t real,
When I sit on a pin
And puncture my skin
I dislike what I fancy I feel.
There are some biblical principles here that we need to hold together: God is sovereign; God in sovereign goodness permits evil; he punishes evil with evil; he produces good out of evil; he protects his people amid evil; and he purposes victory over evil.
There is, then, a fairly sophisticated approach in Scripture to God’s relationship as fundamentally good and perfect to the existence of evil. It is an issue that is raised by Asaph in Psalm 73: Why do the wicked prosper? Why do wicked people seemingly prosper and God’s people seemingly do not? Why do good people suffer? Why do the Lord’s people suffer? Why do the elect suffer? Why do those whom Jesus has died for and forgiven suffer? And Asaph almost loses his faith, until (as the Psalm reminds us) he goes to the sanctuary and he begins to think about Scripture and what God has taught in Scripture, and then realizes what is the ultimate end of those who are evil and those who despise God. We may experience evil and the ramifications of evil in this world, but there is coming a day when all evil will be banished in the new heavens and in the new earth.
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God’s Goodness in Covenant
Let me move on to consider God’s goodness in covenant. I am thinking of those ways in which the Bible often speaks of God’s goodness in terms of his covenant or in terms of his steadfast love (“hesed” in Hebrew, which is a particularly covenantal word). Ezra 3:11: “He is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever toward Israel.” Or Asaph again in Psalm 107:1; see also verses 8, 15, 21, 31: “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” God’s goodness in remembering his covenant. God’s goodness in persevering with us. God’s goodness in that, having begun a good work, he completes it unto the day of Jesus Christ. His goodness in putting up with us from day to day. His patience. His long-suffering with us. How fickle we are, how poor we are as disciples, and yet we are bounded by this covenant of grace and his steadfast love. So Calvin says in a wonderful statement in book three of The Institutes that “the proper object of faith is God’s goodness, by which sins are forgiven.” The goodness of God.
The Love of God
Now, the love of God is a kind of subset of that.
God’s Intra-Trinitarian Love
And when we think of the love of God, I think we need to begin within God himself. God is love, because God loves himself. That is a little tricky, isn’t it? Who is the guy that looked into the mirror and loved himself in Greek mythology? Narcissus. That may sound narcissistic. But you see, God is more than One. There is more than One who is the one God. There is the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. There are three Persons and one God. The Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father, and the Father loves the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit loves the Father and the Son, and so on. So there is this intra-Trinitarian love.
Look at the high-priestly prayer, John 17:21: “That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you.” Imagine that! There is only one God, but Jesus says, “I am in you, Father, and you, Father are in me,” almost as though interpenetrating each other. The Church fathers had a word for it: in Greek, perichoresis, and in Latin, circumincessio (there was a Latin section to the Church and there was a Greek section to the Church in West and East, so they had different words, but they are speaking about the same thing—this intra-Trinitarian love).
I think that is what is being expressed at the baptism and the transfiguration, when the Father speaks audibly to the incarnate Son reminding him of his identity: “You are my Son, and I love you.” That was for Jesus’ benefit more, I think, than it was for the disciples. I do not think it was first of all for the disciples so that they could see that Jesus is the Son of God. This is for Jesus’ own benefit. He is being baptized with the baptism of John—a baptism for repentance. Jesus, the sinless One, is receiving the baptism of repentance. Baptism which (as he himself will let us know) is a symbol of his death of crucifixion. “I have a baptism with which I must be baptized.” And at the transfiguration: just before he takes that road that leads inexorably to Golgotha, the Father sort of steps in and says to his Son, whom he has always loved (in eternity he has loved him!), “You are my Son, and I love you.” So there is an intra-Trinitarian love.
I think that is why Augustine lost his cool a little when he was asked the question, “What was God doing before he created the world?” You have these people who think that God was lonely, so God had to create because he was lonely. Like you get a dog or a cat because you are lonely, and God creates the world because he was lonely. His famous answer was, “He was creating hell for people who ask questions like that.” Augustine is revealing something of his irritability maybe at that point. But of course, God was always in fellowship within himself—a perichoretic fellowship, a coinhering fellowship, an interpenetrating fellowship of love within himself. I don’t know what I am saying, I am just repeating words here, but the concept is beyond your grasp. The infinite affection of God within himself—the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father, and the Father for the Spirit and the Spirit for the Father, etc.
And you know, we always want to look at it from the point of view of, What is in it for me? That is the American national anthem: What is in it for me? We want to know what the payoff is for me. John is overhearing Jesus praying the High Priestly prayer about a fellowship that is altogether between the Father and the Son, and that he wants us to be a part of that fellowship, and your mind boggles at what Jesus is saying—the depths of it and the incomprehension of it! As Augustine said, “I see the depths, but I cannot see the bottom.”
The Four Loves
Greek has four different words for love, three of which are in the New Testament.
Philia: friendship love (Philadelphia being “the city of brotherly love”). Storge: family love. Eros: marital/sexual love. And then a very particular word on the New Testament: Agape.
Now, agape was already in existence, but it lay kind of dormant. It did not have a particular meaning; it was not used in any particular sort of way. And I think what happens in the New Testament is that the Holy Spirit, through John and Paul, pours into this hardly used Greek word “agape” oodles of meaning, depths of meaning, profound meaning that can only be explained in terms of the cross and of the love of God in giving his Son.
“Ahavah” in Hebrew is a word for love that is used of sexual love (it is a word that is used in Song of Solomon, for example), it is used of family affection, but it is also used of the love of God. The New Testament word “agape” seems perhaps (if it is drawing, as some seem to think, from the Hebrew word “Ahavah”) to be drawing from all concepts of love and then ratcheting it up several degrees.
Love Divine All Loves Excelling
John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (that is the word “agape”). God so loved the world—what does “world” mean? World can mean different things in different contexts in the New Testament. I rather think that “world” (or “cosmos”) here in John 3:16 has a sort of moral meaning. It is not that John is saying that God loved every single individual in precisely and exactly the same way, I do not think he is thinking in terms of individuals; I think he is thinking of it in terms of a moral nature. God loved this world—this fallen world. Not an ideal world. Not a platonic concept of a world. He loved this world, this fallen world.
And as B.B. Warfield says:
The world is just a synonym for all that is evil and noisome and disgusting. There is nothing in it that can attract God’s love, nay, that can justify the love of any good man. It is not a think to be dallied with, or acquiesced in.Biblical and Theological Studies, 1952
“He loves the lost. He gives the best. He asks the least”—that would be one way of unpacking John 3:16.
Do you remember what John says in his first epistle? “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the children of God” (1 John 3:1). He uses a word in “what manner of love” that literally means that this love is from out of this world. It is out of this universe. It is a love that you cannot quite find in a dictionary or a book of synonyms or a thesaurus, because it comes from another universe. It comes from another existence. God’s love in redemption, God’s love in sending his Son, God’s love in calling the likes of you and me into his family and saying, “You are my children, and I am your Father, and Jesus is your elder brother,” love divine all loves excelling, the love that sends his only Son and did not spare him—that kind of love for us is “agape.”
God’s Love for the Elect
God’s love for the elect—for those whom he foreknew, those upon whom he set his affection. Foreknowledge does not mean there what Arminians said it meant: that God can see into the future. God can see into the future, but that is not what Paul is thinking of here. He is using “knowing” here in the same way that the Hebrew text would use knowing: Adam “knew” Eve. He loved Eve. “God set his love upon” and “God set his affection upon” in eternity those he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son. So there is a particular aspect of the love of God for the elect that brings us all the way home. Philippians 1:6: “The One having begun a good work in you will complete it unto the day of Christ Jesus.”
God’s Love for the World
And then there is a love of God for the world—the whole world. This is what we sometimes call common grace. It is what Jesus is speaking about in Matthew 5, that “he sends rain to fall upon the just and the unjust.” It is the benevolence that he asks of us: that we love our enemies and “bless those who curse you” (Luke 6:28). God (to a degree) shows benevolence to the world in a general sense.
And [it is] the love of God that will have all men to be saved. 1 Timothy 2:4: God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” There is a love in God that yearns for the salvation of all. Even though I do believe in election and preterition, Paul seems to be suggesting here that there is a desire.
I remember coming across this sentence of John Murray probably thirty years ago when the book first emerged, and highlighting it and repeating it to myself and wondering, “What in the world did John Murray mean?”
This means that there is a will to the realization of what he has not decretively willed, a pleasure towards that which he has not been pleased to decree.John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, 1982
That is something you just have to think about and ponder. It is very deep, and I am not sure that I understand it, although I do think that it is true. There is a desire in God that he has not actually decreed and that is not actually fulfilled.
And that gives us the right to preach the gospel to every creature. We do not know who the elect are; they do not have a mark upon their forehead. We preach to all the world. We go and tell whoever they are, no matter who they are, that Christ has died. That there is a gospel there. That whosoever believes, if they believe they will be saved. That is true for every single individual. That offer is true and that offer is genuine.
So the love of God and the particularities of the love of God and (especially in Paul) the love of God that manifests itself in the giving of his Son. Romans 8:32: “He did not spare his own Son, but freely delivered him up for us all. How shall he not also with him freely give us all things?” We are loved. We are loved generally—we are loved with a love of benevolence; we are loved with a love of goodness; we are loved with a love of kindness—but we are loved with the love of “agape.” We are loved with a Jesus love. We are loved with a cross love. We are loved so much that he was prepared to anathematize his Son: to curse him, to put him to open grief, to hide the light of his countenance from him, so that we might be saved! So that he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 1 John 4:10: “Herein is love: not that we loved God but that he loved us and gave his Son to be a propitiation for our sins.”