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Does Love Win?

Does Love Win?

by Matt Shrader

Recently, there has been an explosion of attention focused on Rob Bell and his new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, which was released in March 2011 by HarperOne. The buzz surrounding this book began when Bell posted an introductory video to his book which contained strong statements concerning heaven, hell, and the love of God. The blogosphere has exploded; responses have been written and given via video; conferences have had panel discussions to discuss Bell’s book and the related issues; and Bell has appeared on various television talk shows discussing his book and the huge attention it is receiving.

With the publication of Love Wins Bell has been accused of many things including being a universalist, preaching a false gospel, and ultimately serving a false god. Bell pastors in Grand Rapids, Michigan a church which averages 10,000 attendees per week. It is reported that up to 50,000 receive Bell’s sermon podcast each week. Love Wins has become a New York Times bestseller (this is not the first successful book Bell has written). Also, Bell has helped to produce a series of popular short films on issues of spirituality. Bell has considerable influence and attention directed toward him which warrant, at the least, that we take a closer look at what he is saying and make a few decisions concerning his claims.

 

Summary of Love Wins

Bell writes his book for those “who have become acutely aware that Jesus’s [sic] story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn’t interested in telling” (vii). Bell says he is writing  “for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that cause their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, ‘I would never be a part of that’” (viii). So, what is it that has been  hijacked? Bell answers:

A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear (viii). 

Bell wants to give responses to the questions that are asked about salvation. Many of these questions are real and difficult, but important. Bell wants to know what is heaven; what is hell; the kind of God who is behind that; how salvation ought to be understood; how exclusive is Jesus; and what is the gospel.

What is heaven? Bell sees the word “heaven” as a substitute for the name of God. Bell also sees heaven as the future reality of the age to come. Bell’s third conception of heaven is his focus. It is the idea of heaven as a present reality. It is “our present eternal, intense, real experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life, this side of death and the age to come” (58-9). Bell has defined eternal life in a very specific way: “Eternal life is less about a kind of time that starts when we die, and more about a quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God” (59). So, heaven and eternal life are referring to the possibility of a certain kind of experience now and in the age to come.

When Bell talks about hell he refers to the times when love, grace, and humanity are rejected, whether in this life or the next. For Bell, hell is not a place of torment, it is not final, and it is not eternal. Bell summarizes what he means by hell:

We need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.

And for that,

the word “hell” works quite well. Let’s keep it (93).

Bell asks the question: “Does God get what God wants?” (95). Bell presents a view of God which says that because God is loving, all will be reconciled to him. Without that reality, God would be less than great. Bell says that God gets what God wants and we get what we want. If we want hell or heaven, it is ours because we are completely free.

Salvation, for Bell, has to be cosmic in scope and is essentially the new creation. Bell argues that the metaphors of salvation (reconciliation, redemption, etc.) are merely ways that first century believers described the cross and the resurrection. They tried to describe the “epic event” (129) of Jesus making all things into the new creation. Jesus has started the ball rolling toward the reconciliation of all things which is a restoration of the original plan of creation.

So, if God is undoubtedly reconciling all to him and Jesus has started this at the cross, is Jesus the only Savior? Bell claims that he holds to an “exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity” (154). Bell explains John 14:6:

What [Jesus] doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him (154).

So, Jesus is the way, but you may not understand that it is Jesus you are coming though. You may come through the mechanism of Buddhism or Hinduism or anything that actually teaches any part of the truth. There is a “mystery present in all the world” (157), Christianity merely names it correctly.

What then is the gospel? Bell argues that it is not about entrance into heaven but about joyous participation in it. Bell does not want to frame the gospel in terms of entrance because this a “destructive, violent understanding of God” (183). Bell argues that when we make God to be one who determines (based on a decision) who enters where, then God becomes  a terrible slave driver who demands sin to be punished by his wrath (183). Bell says: “We shape our God, and then our God shapes us” (182-4). The gospel is not about how to gain entrance because that contains connotations that God would become all that Bell has just called bad. As Bell says: “The good news is better than that.” Grace and love, for Bell, simply are (187-91). The gospel is that all are forgiven. What we believe or do does not get forgiveness, “it just is.” Salvation is becoming aware of the forgiveness that is already yours.

Bell ends his book with this invitation:

Whatever you’ve been told about the end–

the end of your life,

the end of time,

the end of the world-

Jesus passionately urges us to live like the end is here, now, today.

Love is what God is,

love is why Jesus came,

and love is why he continues to come,

year after year to person after person.

Love is why I’ve written this book, and

love is what I want to leave you with.

May you experience this vast,

expansive, infinite, indestructible love

that has been yours all along.

May you discover that this love is as wide

as the sky and as small as the cracks in

your heart no one else knows about.

And may you know,

deep in your bones,

that love wins. (197-8)

 

A Short Response:

It is difficult to critique Bell’s writings because there is so much with whichto disagree. Kevin DeYoung has written a very helpful review of Love Wins (“God is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School is Still True,” available at: 

http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/03/14/rob-bell-love-wins-review/). 

Love Wins. The theology is heterodox. The history is inaccurate. The impact on souls is devastating. And the use of Scripture is indefensible. Worst of all, Love Wins demeans the cross and misrepresents God’s character” (Ibid., 2). DeYoung goes on to spend 20 pages meticulously showing the faults of Bell’s book, and even he admits that he is selective in his critique. To pick and choose what to talk about is very difficult. However, a few general issues are worth considering. 

The Importance of Context. It is possible to pick up Love Wins and read something out of it that sounds very good. Bell is quite adamant that he is orthodox. If you read Love Wins you ought to read the entire book and understand what he is saying in light of the context of the book and how he has defined words and concepts (that advice transfers to his videos). For instance, Bell denies being a universalist. He would argue that there is a real hell that people go through if they reject Jesus. But, what he means is that rejecting Jesus is simply not realizing that you are already forgiven and not living like it. So, hell can be now or in the next life. It is not a place of torment. Also, hell is not final and does not last forever (88-93). He believes you do not have to believe in Christ in this life in order to get past hell (110). In the end, God will reconcile all things. Somehow everyone will accept their forgiveness and God’s love and will move past their self-inflicted hell. In other words: Love Wins! Bell denies that hell is everlasting for anyone. He affirms that everyone will eventually become saved (which is simply to realize you are already forgiven). While Bell contends that he is not a universalist (because he has redefined it), how can he not be considered one?

Unfounded Claims. If you read Love Wins you need to take Bell’s own advice: wrestle with it to see if it is correct. A major frustration I have is that the majority of the book makes claims which are not founded, and yet many will simply accept as true! As DeYoung highlights in his review, Bell makes unfounded assumptions on issues of evangelicalism, history, exegesis, eschatology, Christology, the Gospel, and God. Bell misrepresents positions such as the nature of traditional evangelicalism and the major positions of historic Christianity concerning the redemption of all things. Bell argues: “At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God” (109). Bell may be able to find a few who take these positions, but the reality is that Bell’s version of universalism is nowhere near the center of historic orthodoxy! Bell also provides questions which misrepresent a certain position and make it sound absurd. For instance, Bell asks: “Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?” (2). Bell questions on what basis God would choose these people and then questions what kind of God that is. Bell continues his questions page after page. Through similar questioning tactics, Bell misrepresents many viewpoints. 

Essential Beliefs. When Bell presents his views of the gospel, of Jesus, of God, and of the nature of Christianity (which are far removed from orthodoxy), he proves to be heterodox. What you believe and teach is essential because it does impact people for good or for ill. Bell’s gospel teaches an errant path to God which has massive consequences for the souls of those who accept it.

Many have been enraged that Bell is labeled as a universalist and that his teachings are called heretical and heterodox. They argue that Bell is trying to be a good Christian and love people. This response to Love Wins is not an attack on Bell as a person, it is an exercise of calling false what is not the truth. True love will tell a person the truth. The truth is that sin is real. Hell is a real place of torment. Jesus makes exclusive claims (Acts 4:12). The wrath of God does abide on those who do not believe (John 3:16, 36). There are areas of belief where charity is important, but there are also areas where lines must be drawn. When faith, God, and the gospel are redefined and re-explained the line has already been drawn. It is truth that is at stake! 

 

Why We Love The Brethren

Why We Love The Brethren

by Rick Shrader

Love is one of those things that almost all people think they possess.  Brotherly love is something that almost all believers would say they possess and practice as well as most Christians.  We know God has loved the world of people, that believers ought to love other believers, and yet we also know that there is a lot of hypocrisy hidden behind hand shaking, back slapping, and the common, “God bless you.”  

The fact is, this is a broken world!  We are very aware that it is God’s world in the sense that He is the Creator and Owner, but sin has made it a fallen world with Satan as the god of its commerce and culture, who has taken over and usurped the Owner’s position.  The longer time rolls on since that fateful day of Adam’s choice, and the longer the Lord delays His coming, the more broken it will become.

God has a plan, however, for the future of this world and for eternity.  Through redemption that is provided by faith in Jesus Christ, His Son, God is taking the world back one person at a time.  Eventually, Christ Himself will return and finish the takeover and bring in everlasting righteousness and peace where these redeemed ones will reign with Him in the “kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him” (Jas. 2:5).  The present evangelistic enterprise has both a broad and narrow scope to it.  Whosoever will believe the message of redemption and future reward may become a part of this great company of saints (Jn. 3:16).  Yet, no one may come any other way (Jn. 14:6).  Those who do come have a distinguishing mark upon them from public baptism, the confession of their new-found faith and their change of allegiance.  They also have a retreat center called the church, where they meet weekly and sometimes daily to strengthen their resolve and to make plans for the continuation of their mission.

These believers find themselves in stark contrast with their former comrades.  In an almost surprising realization, they find that their former friends resent their conversion and the change that has come over them and they “speak evil” against them (1 Pet. 2:12; 3:16; 4:4).  But no wonder!  These converts have experienced a new birth that has made them new creatures by a wonderful regeneration performed by the Holy Spirit of God (Tit. 3:5).

Out of love, these converts speak to their former comrades of a coming day of wrath and judgment from God upon those who refuse to accept the proffered salvation.  But this only brings more resentment and even retaliation from these former friends.  They do not believe that a God of love can also be wrathful, even over outright sinfulness and unrighteousness.  They are usually the same ones who have a hard time with the “rule of law” in their own civil society.  For them, law and love just don’t go together.

So the feud between families continues, sparked by Satan himself who has “blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them” (2 Cor. 4:4).  Satan is “the accuser of the brethren” (Rev. 12:10) and keeps this war stirred up, even to a fever pitch at times, while the saints continue to speak what the worldlings consider “hate speech.”  Though this “gospel” continues to make Satan angry and many of his worldlings hateful, many are also converted by its wonderful message of redemption and they return to their rightful Owner.  With children and future generations at stake, believers continue their weekly retreats and the waging of their holy war to rescue more of Satan’s captives.

The preceding is a depiction of spiritual life for the believer while still on this earth.  It is a reminder of how badly we need the local church and how we need local churches to remain faithful to their purpose in Scripture.  While doing some reading recently I was reminded of a Barna survey in which he found that Christians don’t live any differently than non-Christians.1 The problem is that Barna assumes that anyone who says he’s a Christian really is a Christian, and if that person doesn’t live differently because of his faith, then evidently the Christian faith doesn’t really change people.  Barna should have concluded, of course, that if a person makes a profession of faith in Christ and his life doesn’t change, he should seriously question whether his faith is real.  That would be the Biblical way to look at it because the Bible definitely tells us that salvation changes a person.

 

 

Some Immediate Changes

One of the major changes that takes place in a person’s life when he becomes a believer is his view of other believers.  The immediate common thread that exists among believers is that they have all come out of darkness into light (1 Pet. 2:9).  If they understand the Bible at all they realize that they were under the condemnation and righteous wrath of God, and now have been delivered by God’s grace.  They have become members one of another in the family of God (Eph. 4:25).  This love for the family of God is shed abroad in the hearts of believers  from the moment of spiritual conception (Rom. 5:5).  This new love of God’s family is called “love of the brethren” (1 Jn. 3:14), the “brotherhood” (1 Pet. 2:17), or just “brothers” and “sisters,” “fathers” and “mothers” (1 Tim. 5:1-2).  Jesus first called His followers “brethren” on the day of His resurrection (John 20:17) and early in the church’s life the whole group is addressed the same (Acts 6:3).  Acts 15 has eleven references to the same wording.  It is a family relationship.

A second major change that takes place when anyone is converted from Satan’s lordship to Christ’s is that they are no longer part of the old way of life, or what the Bible calls the “world.”  Immediately the Holy Spirit begins changing them from the inside out.  Because they are “new creatures” (2 Cor. 5:17) in Christ, Holy Spirit conviction and instruction from the Word of God begins changing their mind and heart.  They are uncomfortable in the old worldly settings.  The very language that used to flow so easily from their mouth now offends themselves!  The sins that were so easily committed and enjoyed by the flesh now bring conviction and a desire to be removed from them entirely.

A third change comes especially on Sunday.  This used to be a day off, or a day to sober up, or a day to sleep in.  Now the new believer learns that this is the day when, from the very beginning (John 20:19, 26), believers have met together, yes, are commanded to meet together (Heb. 10:25; 1 Cor: 16:2; Acts 20:7).  In fact, these believers love and enjoy these meetings so much that they meet twice on Sunday and then again on Wednesday evening, and fill their calendar with various other meetings!  The new convert cannot miss the fact that he should be in church with the other brethren, especially on Sunday.

Some Expected Changes

As the new believer grows in Christ and time allows him to observe a few things, he learns for the first time what many of us take for granted.  He learns that the church is made up of Christians, that is, people who have been converted as he was.  It is not just a place for religious-feeling people who like to make a show of religion on Sunday.  These are truly born again people who have been changed from their old lives also.

He also finds that the church has two obligations (we like to call them ordinances) to which he is being orientated.  He finds that baptism is not only  a pattern in Scripture (Acts 2:41, 8:36; 9:18; 10:47; etc.) but it is something he must do immediately for the sake of his own conscience (1 Pet. 3:21).  The other ordinance, the Lord’s Supper, now becomes a significant and rewarding experience, and something graciously shared among other believers.

The new believer also begins an immediate but life-long study of the Bible.  In fact, his hunger for the Word of God is like a baby who desires milk (1 Pet. 2:2), he cannot get enough of it.  Yes, he is discouraged by the time wasted in his life, and he realizes how far behind he is from other believers.  But the great advantage he finds is that the Bible is a book!  His knowledge is only limited by himself.  He can read to his heart’s content and study so that he is no longer ashamed by his lack of knowledge (2 Tim. 2:15).  Best of all, he finds that the Bible is a powerful sword in his struggle for the mastery of his own life and passions (Heb. 4:16).

As a believer begins studying the Bible with the help of the Holy Spirit, he is going to find an intense urging toward holiness.  From the fact that his Heavenly Father is holy (1 Pet. 1:15,16), to the fact that His Savior is holy (1 Pet. 2:22), to the fact that the Spirit within him is holy (1 Thes. 4:8), this believer knows he is also called to holiness (1 Thes. 4:7).  This intense desire to be like the One who saved him will grow naturally within him like a branch which reproduces the qualities and fruitfulness of the vine (John 15:1-8).

Some Gradual Changes

As anyone grows in Christ and becomes mature in his Christian walk, certain realities of the Christian life become clear.  Sin is real, and forgiveness is real.  Deciphering how sin remains in the believer even though Christ has justified him from all sin, past, present, and future, can become a daunting, even discouraging task.  It can be a defeating experience if the new believer falls under bad theology.  But gradually the believer learns that he is secure in his salvation by the blood of Christ and yet his sin can be confessed boldly at the throne of God because he is God’s child (1 John 1:6-2:2).

Sooner or later the new believer will realize that there are tares among the wheat, wolves among the sheep, false belief among the true.  Hypocrisy is not primarily the failure of Christians (he already has learned about his own sin) but is the presence of unbelief among true belief.  How is it that someone could make a claim of being born again and not really be born again?  With a little thought, however, this can be a liberating new truth, not a discouraging one.  It is not that the claims of Christianity are not true (as Barna mistakenly concluded) but that the false claims about Christianity are truly false.  An unbeliever cannot live as a Christian and a Christian cannot live as an unbeliever.  Sooner or later the oil and water will separate.

The new believer may be surprised at his new desire to see his old friends saved.  He still remembers the anger he felt when Christians tried to witness to him and how he despised them for pushing their religion on him.  Now he feels the need to do the same!  This comes partly out of his new understanding of their spiritual condition, but also out of his natural love for people who are in danger (Jude 22-23).  This will probably be a school of hard knocks.  His first attempts at sharing his faith will be rough.  But then he will find a most satisfying feeling come over him.  He will realize that he is engaged in the most wonderful work in the world.  There is nothing he could be doing that would be more helpful to his fellow man in this world or the next (1 Tim. 4:8-10).  This understanding will cause him to withstand the most brutal opposition, such as he himself used to dish out.  What if those believers had given up on him!

A true believer will also learn to love the brethren.  This is not just an empathy for some individual believer who is having a rough time of it, though that is a vital part also.  Loving the brethren means to love who brethren are.  It means to love what brethren ought to be.  It is to learn from the Scripture what Christians would be like if they lived totally for God and to want to be like that!  It is this love that brings the believer to church.  It is this love that causes the backslidden, discouraged believer to come back into fellowship.  The love of the brethren is the love of Christ.  The brethren were first called “Christians” at Antioch because they were like Christ (Acts 1:26).  Brotherly love is Christian love.

And So . . .

“Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold all things are become new.  And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:17-18).

Notes:
1. D.A. Carson (The God Who Is There) reminded me of this old survey and made the same comment about it I’m making.
 

 

 

The Disinterested and Complacent Love of...

The Disinterested and Complacent Love of God

by Rick Shrader

The older writers often used terminology in a way that sounds odd to us.  Two common theological descriptions of God’s love include “disinterested benevolence” and “complacent love.”  They sound odd to us only because we tend to think of both of these terms in a negative way.  To be “disinterested” to us would be to not be interested.  To be “complacent” to us would be to be indifferent.  But in standard theological books of not many years ago, “disinterested” meant to be discreet and lacking in self-acknowledgement while  “complacent” meant to be satisfied and lacking in selfish desires altogether.  There is a scene in an older novel where a rich man discreetly lends a poor family his carriage.  When another discovers the good deed she replies “what disinterested benevolence!”

Is not this attribute of love described by our Lord when he instructed, But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly (Matt. 6:3)?   The same is applied to our practices of prayer and fasting.  We are instructed to do these secretly and discreetly, “disinterestedly” if you will, knowing that our reward is not in this life but in the next!  In Luke 14:12-14 Jesus instructs us not to invite guests to dinner who are able to repay us by returning the invitation, but rather to invite those who cannot repay us at all so that we shall be recompensed at the resurrection of the just (Luke 14:14).

These two attributes of God give a unique addition to our thoughts at Christmas.  God has given His Son to us disinterestedly, without thought of either pain or applause, because it was the just and holy thing to do.  Jesus found, in obedience to the Father, a complacency of love so that He neither desired nor needed men’s approval but was wholly and completely satisfied in His fellowship with the Father.

Charles Finney gives the most complete definitions:  “This love is disinterested in the sense that the highest well-being of God and the universe is chosen, not upon condition of its relation to self, but for its own intrinsic and infinite value.”1 He also defines complacency, which as “a phenomenon of will, consists in willing the highest actual blessedness of the holy being in particular, as a good in itself, and upon condition of his moral excellence.”2 Long before Finney, John Gill had objected to these terms being used of God,

“Some talk of a love of benevolence, by which God wishes or wills good to men; and then comes on a love of beneficence, and he does good to them, and works good in them: and then a love of complacency and delight takes place, and not till then.  But this is to make God changeable, as we are: the love of God admits of no degrees, it neither increases nor decreases; it is the same from the instant in eternity it was, without any change.”3

The objection to God’s love having a “feeling” or an “ought” was that this would attribute to God a “passibleness” or the position of being in a passive mode and therefore being influenced by something outside of Himself.  Such would mean that God had changed.  Therefore it could not be an attribute of an immutable God.

But other theologians have disagreed with Gill, maintaining that for God to feel sympathy or good will toward His creatures is not out of keeping for an immutable God.  Strong  asks the question and then answers,

But does God feel in proportion to his greatness, as the mother suffers more than the sick child whom she tends?  Does God suffer infinitely in every suffering of his creatures?  We must remember that God is infinitely greater than his creation, and that he sees all human sin and woe as part of his great plan.  We are entitled to attribute to him only such passibleness as is consistent with infinite perfection.  In combining passibleness with blessedness, then, we must allow blessedness to be the controlling element, for our fundamental idea of God is that of absolute perfection.4

Therefore for God to see our plight within the time and space of this world and to love us in the sense of feeling holy sympathy toward us, is truly a “disinterested” benevolence.  In disagreeing also with Gill, Charles Hodge is even more bold,

Here again we have to choose between a mere philosophical speculation and the clear testimony of the Bible, and of our own moral and religious nature.  Love of necessity involves feeling, and if there be no feeling in God, there can be no love.  That He produces happiness is no proof of love.  The earth does that unconsciously and without design.  Men often render others happy from vanity, from fear, or from caprice.  Unless the production of happiness can be referred, not only to a conscious intention, but to a purpose dictated by kind feeling, it is no proof of benevolence.  And unless the children of God are the objects of his complacency and delight, they are not the objects of his love.5

Thiessen also says, “But immutability does not mean immobility.  True love necessarily involves feeling, and if there be no feeling in God, then there is no love of God . . . . By the benevolence of God we mean the affection which He feels and manifests towards His sentient and conscious creatures.”6 Finally, Buswell gives a fitting conclusion,

Unless we wish to reduce the love of God to the frozen wastes of pure speculative abstraction, we should shake off the static ideology which has come into Christian theology from non-biblical sources, and insist upon preaching the living God of intimate actual relationships with His people.  God’s immutability is the absolutely perfect consistency of His character in His actual relationships, throughout history, with His finite creation.7

A note should be made at this point to caution us against any attempt to make this attribute of the love of God into some kind of support for the novel view of the “openness” of God.  As Strong points out, God’s blessedness or perfection becomes the controlling factor in His moral attributes.

A Christmas Application

As Christmas is increasingly under attack in our country, Christians are implored even more to display the unique attributes of God’s all-giving love.  God’s agape love asks nothing in return but rather gives of itself entirely for the sake of the one in need.  Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10).  But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8).  In a real sense, sinners do not want to hear of God’s agape love.  Other loves that involve a give-and-take at least say to the sinner that he has something worthy to give in return.  But agape love is truly “disinterested” in any gain to self.  Indeed, as we have seen, God does not need anything in return and cannot accept the sinner’s recompense for His love.  He has given us His love in an all-giving manner.

We may speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) and find that the world hates us, as it did Jesus, because we testify of it that its works are evil (John 7:7).  But since we did not speak of the agape love of God in order to receive anything in return, it does not affect us in any way.  We have learned to be “complacent” with the love of God that  is shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5).

David wrote of this dilemma in the Psalm, They rewarded me evil for good to the spoiling of my soul.  But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth: I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer returned into mine own bosom.  I behaved myself as though he had been my friend or brother: I bowed down heavily, as one that mourneth for his mother (Psa. 35:12-14).  The apostle Paul wrote, I have coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel.  Yea, ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me.  I have showed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:33-35).

I suppose it is a “natural” thing for us to give that someone may give to us in return.  Sometimes we give because we have been made obligated to return someone’s charity.  There is no doubt that “giving” has now become a matter of cataloging, returning, upgrading, exchanging, and even registering so that no intention is left to anonimity.  Perhaps, rather than growing  disinterested and complacent in our attributes of benevolence, we have grown self-interested and conceited.  For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? For sinners also love those that love them.  And if ye do good to them which do good to you, what thank have ye?  For sinners also do even the same.  And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye?  For sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again (Luke 16:25).

Where would we be if God had not loved us with a disinterested benevolence and a complacent love?  We ought, therefore, to strive for what James described:  My brethren count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.  But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing (James 1:2-4).  To “want nothing” is to have a complacent love of the Savior and to say with the Psalmist, The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not want (Psa. 23:1).  This is where we may begin to love as He loved and to desire to give entirely for the benefit of others without thought to our own situation.  So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me (Heb. 13:6).  This is the quality we gravitate to in Christian leaders:  Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.  Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and for ever (Heb. 13:7).  Perfect complacency in the One that gives when it cannot be given unto Him again (Rom. 11:35)!  How refreshing that would be in this day of corporate successes, personal vision statements, leadership seminars, how-to-do-it formulas, that we might humble ourselves in true servant ministry as our Lord did.  For though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich (2 Cor. 8:9).  For though he was crucified through weakness, yet he liveth by the power of God.  For we also are weak in him, but we shall live with him by the power of God toward you (2 Cor 13:4).

And So . . . .

The Christmas season is the time for the recipients of God’s love to  renew their commitments to His service.  How could we do less than return the same unselfish love that has been shown to us!  Spurgeon, in his Morning and Evening, records this entry.

Christian, pause and ponder for a moment.  What a debtor thou art to divine sovereignty!  How much thou owest to His disinterested love, for He gave His own Son that He might die for thee.  Consider how much you owe to His forgiving grace, that after ten thousand affronts He loves you as infinitely as ever.  Consider what you owe to His power; how He has raised you from your death in sin; how He has preserved your spiritual life; how He has kept you from falling; and how, though a thousand enemies have beset your path, you have been able to hold on your way.  To God thou owest thyself and all thou hast—yield thyself as a living sacrifice; it is but thy reasonable service.

Notes:
1. Charles G. Finney, Systematic Theology (Minneapolis:  Bethany House, 1994) 144.
2. Finney, 148.
3. John Gill, Body of Divinity (Atlanta: Turner Lassetter, 1965) 81.
4. Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan:  Fleming Revell, 1970) 266.
5. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol I (Grand  Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977) 429.
6. Henry C. Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968) 131.
7. J. Oliver Buswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980) 56.
8. C.H. Spurgeon, Morning and Evening (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1948) 44.

 

Loving The Brethren: an additional persp...

Loving The Brethren: an additional perspective

by Rick Shrader

There is no more difficult command in the Bible than for each one of us to love the brethren.  This isn’t just a worldly love in the family or emotional sense, it is agape love that gives of itself because it is right to give.  Perhaps there is no more direct application to G.K. Chesterton’s statement than in this area of the Christian life, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting.  It has been found difficult; and left untried.”1

My mother used to say that it is hard to love the unlovely.  Churches and individuals have been guilty of this failure and I think more so as America celebrates an opulent life-style where unlovely people just don’t fit it.  It is a dangerous trend for churches to “target” audiences to which it wants to minister, and not at all surprising that too often such audiences turn out to be the upper classes of society.  Even the “millennial” kids with their lap-tops and trust funds are only a small percentage of all of our nation’s young people.

But with that said I want to turn the attention of this article toward another neglected area of biblically mandated love.  That is the Bible’s command to love the brethren that are in the church!  I don’t mean the ones that are on the fringes of Christian living (and neither do I sleight that worthy and proper attitude), but the ones that are holy and pure and have hungered and thirsted after a biblical righteousness.  I find, especially in John’s first epistle, the consistent command for the errant believer to love the obedient believer.

It has been a trend in our current society to make heroes out of those people who fail.  And of course failure is never their fault, always the fault of the rest of society.  Failure is celebrated as victimhood and therefore deserving of both applause and redistribution of resources to make things even.  I am simply making a comparison that has drifted into the church and caused us to forget how God in His Word admonishes failing brethren to love those who have not failed.

As a pastor I have often seen and felt the love of good Christian people for the sinning and disobedient within the church, but I have also seen and felt the antipathy of the erring brethren toward those who would encourage and even admonish them to do right.  Of course we know that sin blinds the perspective and obedient believers are to continue ministering to the disobedient.  But we must not forget that those who are in sin and disobedience lie under great obligation from scripture to repent and change.

The cure for our sin is to look upon Christ and see the difference in our lives and His and then to confess our failure to meet that holy standard.  Kyle Yates wrote, “No stronger cord can ever bind us than the cords of love so clearly seen as we look upon the incarnation, the life, and the death of our Lord and Saviour.”2 I find several ways in which the sinning Christian is admonished in scripture to follow this pattern toward Christ and also toward the brethren.

The erring are to love the righteous

In his third epistle, John admonished believers to love one another and not be like the world which hates believers because believers are righteous.  For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous (1 John 3:11-12).  John does not bother us with whether or not Abel loved Cain.  True Christianity will be like Abel and not like Cain.  But when brethren fall out of love with one another, the attitude of Cain has crept in and caused the sinning brother to react in the same way (as the whole lost world).  Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer (vs 15) John says of him, and has called into question his own salvation: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.

Who is called upon for action here?  The sinning brother!  And what is he to do?  Love the “righteous” brother!  The righteous brother has remained true to his Lord, loving in spite of the lack of return on his investment.  He cannot do more than he has done any more than Abel could change his righteous actions at the altar of God.  But Cain could have and should have changed his attitude toward his brother!  John has merely drawn the parallel to believers within the church.

Long ago William Wilberforce observed, “John Owen has made an apt comparison:  Religion in a state of prosperity is like a colony that is long settled in a strange country.  It is gradually assimilated in features, demeanor, and language to the native inhabitants, until at length every vestige of its distinctiveness has died away.”3 This happens as much in the matter of brotherly love as in any matter.  We have let the world dictate how the sinning brother should respond and we have encouraged him in it rather than admonished him to love the brethren.

The prosperous are to love the poor

Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. 17 But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? (1 John 3:16-17).  In an affluent society, it is common for the church to cater to the rich and famous and to overlook their obvious sins.  It is always easier to admonish the lower class to respect the higher class than to admonish the wealthy.  James called this “respect of persons.”  My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons . . . . Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts? (James 2:1, 4).

In this case, it is the wealthier brother who needs to find it within himself to love the poor brother as an equal.  The very lack of it is to admit to his sin.  Perhaps it is the repulsive thought of shaking hands and embracing; or the loathsome task of having such an one to the house for dinner; or just the pridefulness of thinking oneself better because of possessions.  And we ought to avoid all humbuggery like “I love him as a brother”  which, of course, is to admit that you do not at all!

Chesterton wrote once, “Love desires personality; therefore love desires division.”4 It is the world that tries to put everyone on equal footing so it can bring itself to love everyone.  The early churches seated slave and master on the same pew, and rejoiced that God had made such an arrangement possible through the cross of Calvary!  He that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord’s freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ’s servant (1 Cor 7:22).

The deserters are to love the loyalists

It is one of the sad realities of church life that when a sinning believer needs the church the most he slips away, almost hiding and waits for his brethren to discover what has happened and come and find him.  John says that’s the attitude of the world, not believers!  They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: (1 John 2:19).  The book of Hebrews was largely written to keep the true believers from deserting the fellowship and going back to the temple worship:  But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul” (Heb 10:39).

I was given a book by a good friend of mine who had gone through difficult times and found great help in the book.  In it, the author, David Jeremiah, writes,

“We’ve missed you in church.”  “Well, the truth is that we’re having trouble in our marriage.”  If that’s true, get up early and go to both services!  You need all the church you can get in such a time.  Our faith isn’t a luxury intended for periods of smooth sailing—neither is our fellowship.  When trouble comes along, that’s when it’s wonderful to be part of a faithful, Bible-believing body of people who will rally around you.  They’ll pray for you, support you with their resources, encourage you, and counsel you in the tough decisions.  The devil is the only one whose opinion is that you should take a sabbatical from church in the hard times.5

Who is commanded to love the brethren during those times?  The ones who have remained have not ceased to do so.  It is the one who has left who needs to love the brethren!  (Note: Even if he has been wronged, separation only adds insult to injury.  I am writing of those who sin and then leave).  When Peter developed a wrong attitude, he separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision (Gal 2:12).  Jude says this is the action of the lost, not the saved, These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit (Jude 19).

The unbelievers are to love the believers

This is not redundancy but warning.  When John says, He that saith he is in the light and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now (1John 2:9), he means, of course, that such an one claims to be a brother but in reality is not.  Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him (1 John 3:15).  Sinning “brothers” may be sinning because they are not brothers at all and therefore have no brotherly love in them.  Such hypocritical ones need desperately to experience the love of Christ so they can truly love the brethren.  We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren (1 John 3:14).

And So . . .

I hope this can be taken as an additional view of what it means to love the brethren.  It should be a subject for introspection.  As Francis Schaeffer wrote,  “We must not get angry.  If people say, ‘You don’t love other Christians,’ we must go home, get down on our knees and ask God whether or not they are right.  And if they are, then they have a right to have said what they said.”6

Notes:
1. G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With The World (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 1994) 37.
2. Kyle Yates, Preaching From The Psalms (New York: Harper, 1948) 168.
3. William Wilberforce, Real Christianity (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997) 99.
4. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Wheaton: Harold Shaw, 1994) 142.
5. David Jeremiah, A Bend In The Road (Nashville:  Word Publishing, 2000) 97.
6. Francis Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1972) 13.

 

Loving The Unlovely

Loving The Unlovely

by Rick Shrader

I suspect that many of us, in our quest after holiness, have imagined that being filled with the love of God would flood our consciousness with a kind of contemplative rapture, or a sense of infinite satisfaction.  That is why many have developed a ‘holiness’ turned inward instead of outward; mystical instead of practical; self-centered rather than God-centered; sentimental rather than evangelistic; and egoistic rather than altruistic.  The love of which John means when he writes, ‘God is love,’ is the most self-forgetting otherism in the universe, and when it is indeed ‘shed’ within us (Rom. 5:5) it lifts us right out of ourselves into a magnanimous solicitude for the well-being of others.

J. Sidlow Baxter1

All of my life I have heard the phrase, “It’s hard to love the unlovely.”  It is not only hard, it is almost impossible, at the least very difficult, to love in the sense of agape love.  What to us is unlovely has nothing to reward our effort and therefore can hardly solicit our love.

In his famous work on love, C.S. Lewis described the four Greek words defining love.2 The first three are human and demand a return on our investment as well as containing “congenital maladies.”  Lewis calls them “need-loves.”  Storge (Rom 1:31, “natural affection”) is parental or family love, driven by the need to belong as well as the need to be loved.  Loving the unlovely fulfills a deep need within us to belong and to nurture.

Eros (Esther 2:17, LXX) is the sensual or “erotic” desire.  It can be expressed properly in marriage, improperly outside of marriage, but is always need-oriented.  Eros is simply the Greek counterpart to the Roman Cupid and was never imagined to be an innocent little imp spreading candy and good-will.  In eros, the giver may devour and abuse the unlovely for its own sake.

Philia is friendship, a give-and-take sort of relationship.  It is the biblical word for “kiss” because it so naturally pictures the necessary partnership.  Friendship does not exist where only one companion makes an effort to give.  Whereas eros is pictured face-to-face, philia is pictured side-by-side, two walking in mutual agreement.  In friendship, the unlovely may not measure up.

Agape is the only “gift-love.”  It is wholly disinterested in itself and desires only the best for the beloved.  But in sinful humans, this selflessness is impossible without a divine transfusion.

Now whether anyone agrees with or likes Lewis’ description of the first three loves, all are agreed as to the divine nature of agape.   Of human loves, the Lord Jesus declared, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).  The Apostle Paul echoed the same by writing, “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die” (Rom 5:7).  There is something to be gained by dying for a friend, a country or a family member.  We gain back the companionship, the freedom or the filial relationship that our soul craves.  But Paul’s amazing point follows, “But God commendeth his love (agape) toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us . . . when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (8,10).  Agape alone can give when there is an impossibility to receive anything in return.

Agape has none of the maladies of the other three loves. It finds its expression (if not its very history3) in the theology of the New Testament.  Kyle Yates wrote, “No stronger cord can ever bind us than the cords of love so clearly seen as we look upon the incarnation, the life, and the death of our Lord and Saviour.”4 Then why are there so many who refuse the agape love of the Savior?  Because the unlovely does not want to be loved with agape love.

As strange as this sounds, it is not only true but perfectly consistent with our theology.  Man is not just a sinner, but a selfish sinner.  The root of his rejection of salvation is his unfailing insistence that there is something worthwhile in him that God won’t condemn.  That is why he gravitates to the three human “need-loves.”  In each of these someone rewards him, or at least responds to him so as to acknowledge his worth.  But agape, by its very nature, says frankly, “you are unlovely and have nothing of worth.  That is why I am your only hope.”  While no other love is capable of such selfless expression, the sinner is offended by its frankness and its declaration of his worthless condition.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “But the love of Christ for the sinner in itself is the condemnation of sin, is his expression of extreme hatred of sin.”5

In a favorite gospel song, the words say, “There is not a brother, sister, friend or mother, loves the way that Jesus can.”  That is exactly right.  However, the following words miss the mark: “Jesus wants to love you, there is none above you, you are precious in his sight.”  That is what a sinner would like to believe; that there is something in him worthy in God’s sight.  If that were true, divine justice would be enough.  The “good news” is that God’s agape love does love the sinner because it needs no reciprocation, it does not merely want to love him as if it needed to be loved in return.

As believers, having received such agape love, we are asked the near impossible task of displaying it in the world around us.  Being Adam’s children, it is not our nature to live selflessly, even as Christians.  The sanctification process going on within us is teaching us to practice the agape, so contrary to our thinking, that we reluctantly received.  It is still very difficult.  So often our expressions of love, our worship experiences, our stand for truth, have selfish strings attached that bring back something congratulatory and satisfying to our ego.

The Apostle Paul said, “above all these things put on charity (agape), which is the bond of perfectness” (Col 3:14), the goal of our sanctification.  L.S. Chafer said, “A human heart cannot produce love, but it can experience it.  To have a heart that feels the compassion of God is to drink of the wine of heaven.”6

Notes:
1. J. Sidlow Baxter, A New Call To Holiness (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1977) 111.
2. C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: HBJ, 1988).
3.  Kittel calls its etymology “uncertain” and its meaning before the NT “weak.” (Theological Dictionary, I, p. 36).
4. Kyle M. Yates, Preaching From The Psalms (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1948) 168.
5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost Of Discipleship (New York:  Touchstone Books, 1995) 184.
6. L.S. Chafer, He That Is Spiritual (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972) 48.
 

 

The Four Loves

The Four Loves

by Rick Shrader

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I read this beautiful book by C.S. Lewis while teaching on love last month. The book was originally published in 1960 and was republished in 1988. There is an audio version of this series that is, I understand, the only recording of C.S. Lewis.

Lewis calls storge ‘‘affection’’ and defines it as the normal love among family members. The Bible only uses the word compounded to another (Rom 1:31, 12:10, 2 Tim 3:3). Philos is called ‘‘friendship’’ and, of course, appears often in the New Testament. This is a splendid chapter on a concept which should be renewed in our churches and yet kept separate from agape. Eros is a most interesting word coming largely from Greek mythology (the Roman Cupid). Lewis calls the evil side Venus (the lover of Cupid) and the neutral side (as in marriage) Eros. For agape Lewis likes the old English word ‘‘charity’’ because this is truly a giving love. Not used before the New Testament, this word is defined solely by God’s use of it. It is Lewis’ contention that few believers experience true agape (in 2 Peter 1 it comes last in the list).

The value of the book to our generation is that we tend to lump all four meanings into one word ‘‘love’’ and then try to apply any Biblical reference any time we want. All four concepts are taught in the Bible but they are unique and should be kept that way. I have a greater appreciation for all four loves after having read the book.