Our God is Not Confined in a Straitjacket of Love
Posted on 9 Nov 2020 by CERC
John 3:16 is perhaps the single most famous verse in the Bible, and for good reason. It’s a verse that speaks about God’s wonderful love and touted by some as the essence of the gospel.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Wonderful, isn’t it? Countless sermons have been preached on this verse alone. It’s not an exaggeration to even say that many ministries have been started with this verse as their foundation.
But perhaps that in itself poses quite a problem: too much of our attention has been placed on this verse alone, often overshadowing or even at the expense of other verses in the Bible, even those immediately before and after it. Ministries have sprouted left and right all in the name of God’s love for us — everlasting, unchanging, unconditional, and irrespective of our faults.
Such ministries take John 3:16 as confirmation that God will never stop loving us, even if we’ve committed severe wrongs, done great evil, or other atrocities. Amusingly, it’s almost as if our sovereign God has become obligated to love us, no matter what we do. Seemingly, He’s helpless and cannot help but love us. Ironically, by trying to portray God as a magnanimous, benevolent, and appealing saviour, they have somehow, by some way, and with inexplicable audacity, confined God in a straitjacket of love. Greatness reduced to will-less. I AM… WHO?
It is therefore unsettling that this characterisation of God has been gaining popularity. As Christians of the Reformation, we should and must feel concerned. Because if we are not careful about protecting our apostolic heritage, this (or another) faulty characterisation of God’s love will one day become (some would even argue it already is) the mainstream Christianity known by the world.
Not so wonderful.
Does God love His people? Yes! God displayed His great love for us by paying the highest price — the life of His only begotten Son. But John 3:16, if read by itself without the surrounding context, only scratches the surface of God’s love. That’s one of the problems with reading only select verses of the Bible without taking Biblical Theology into account; by doing so, we fail to appreciate how the history of His story developed from Genesis up until that very moment in John 3:16. We fail to appreciate that this is, in some ways, not normal for God’s people.
Let’s rewind a bit.
And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.”
And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”
Therefore, as I live, declares the Lord God, surely, because you have defiled my sanctuary with all your detestable things and with all your abominations, therefore I will withdraw. My eye will not spare, and I will have no pity.
Let’s not forget that God is holy and set apart from all that is not. The recurring pattern of the Old Testament is Israel’s failure to walk in God’s ways as He commanded. Time and time again, God pronounced judgment on Israel for their wickedness, and we even see on several occasions that God was prepared to destroy the Israelites because of their sin and unfaithfulness. Israel made it very, very hard for God to love them. And in God’s holy eyes, there was plenty of reasons to not love them.
Should God still love them?
For someone to be loved, they must be worth loving. Even a mother’s love — incomprehensibly great as it is — has its limits. We do not impose the unreasonable standard of limitless and absolutely unconditional love on others, but somehow we expect that of God — and count it reasonable. That’s twisted.
Yes, yes! God is love. But remember: God is also holy. God is also just. While we rightfully magnify and praise God’s love, we cannot belittle His holiness; we must not forget He is just. God neither loses His holiness nor ceases to be just when He loves. He is who He is, and sovereign from time immemorial to everlasting eternity.
It therefore stands to reason that for a holy God to love His people, His people have to be worth loving — they must be holy. Throughout history, God’s people have shown themselves to be unlove-able, and we all ultimately fall short of God’s perfect standard. Why then would God love us? What hope have we?
Nothing in ourselves.
But thankfully, God is faithful. Thankfully, God is sovereign.
God remembers the covenant He made with Abraham and David and swore to fulfil. And so, God made a way for His people to be lovable and for Him to love them.
Jesus Christ is the way.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
2 Cor 5:21
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
1 Pet 2:24
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.
For those who call upon Jesus as Lord, His death on the cross not only secured our forgiveness before God, it imputed in us the righteousness of the sinless Christ. In propitiating for our sins, Jesus made it possible for God to love us. On the cross, God displayed His holiness through His righteous judgment against sin, taken up by Christ. On the cross, God displayed faithfulness and love by redeeming those who shared the same faith as Abraham. For God’s people, there is zero doubt that God’s steadfast love will sustain them for all of their days.
And so comes the crux of the matter: can we really be so bullish about our status as God’s people? The Bible has shown on several occasions that Israel so often believed in their identity as God’s people (by reason of biological lineage from Abraham) almost to the point of certainty; but in the end, many were shown to not be His people (Jer 7; Matt 3:9)! Can we then really assert our identity as God’s people, as if a birthright, by depending on a confession from once upon a time? In light of God’s whole character (e.g. love, holy and sovereign), can we really imagine that God is bound to love us?
God only loves His people through His love for His Son. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him (Matt 11:27).
Being Christian means we are forgiven, yes. Being Christian doesn’t mean we are sinless, no. But being Christian means we are contrite. Being Christian means being like Christ — His standards are now our standards; and when we sin, we are cut to the heart! We have been transported from death under the reign of sin, to life under the reign of righteousness.
Being God’s people isn’t merely about paying lip service. It’s about following God’s chosen king (Psalm 2; 110). Jesus called upon His disciples to take up their crosses and follow Him. And that’s what we should be asking ourselves: have we picked up our crosses? Are we following Him?
So the gospel really isn’t as simple as “God is love”. It’s bigger and more beautiful than that. We leave the gospel vulnerable if we allow this sentiment to propagate and take hold without any pushback. We let God’s glory be besmirched if we stand idly and say nothing of it. As John Calvin said, “even a dog barks when his master is attacked.” Are we less than dogs?
Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbi Dei — The church is Reformed and always [in need of] being reformed according to the Word of God.
The Reformation must continue. The issues we face now may be different from back in the 16th century, but the battle is far from over, and will not be over until our Lord returns.
We must not tolerate a situation where even those who call themselves Christians sound like the world. God from eternal glory humbled Himself to take on the form of man in order to dwell with us. Yet, the world put Him on the cross, and now it seeks to confine him in a straitjacket of love. We must take a stand against the domestication of God.
Christians, let us not deny God while claiming to be servants of God. Let us be good servants, taking good care of the treasure and the house that our master has left in our care. And let us safeguard the gospel and protect the church from the dangers of worldliness that creep ever closer.Yip Li Qi
A thrall of Christ, member candidate at CERC, occasional poet, and uncle to six lovable rascals.