God Is Love
So to get started this morning I want to give you a little fun fact about my family. This is actually a fact about my wife, Melissa, and it’s something you probably don’t know about her — and just to be clear, I did ask her if I could share this information with you and she said okay. So here it is: my wife is extremely good at playing Nintendo. I’m talking about the first generation, old school “Nintendo Entertainment System.”
Yeah, Melissa is an amazing player of the Nintendo, and especially at the game Mario Brothers. A few years ago we went back to the Carolinas to visit our family, and while we were staying with Melissa’s mom Melissa found her old Nintendo, she put in Mario Brothers, and she beat the entire game in one night. She’s that good.
And speaking of Nintendo, do you guys remember how the original Nintendo looked? Remember it was the gray boxy system and it had the rectangle controllers, and on the front of that system there were two buttons — some of you might remember this. The two buttons were, first, a “Power” button … and then a “Reset” button.
And if you’ve ever played Nintendo, you know that every now and then that Reset button would come in handy. Because from time to time the game would freeze up, or maybe you’d get stuck at a level and you didn’t know where to go. And if that ever happened all you had to do was hit Reset and the game would come back to the beginning.
When there was a glitch in the system, or if things got too complicated, the Reset button would take you back to the start, back to the basics, back to the foundation, if you will.
And I think that’s what we need as a church.
Our Church Right Now
Here in the month of August it has now been one full year since the fatal explosion at Minnehaha Academy Upper School. And after that explosion last year, many of you remember, we bounced around for a little bit. We were at the Riverview Theater, and then at St. Thomas, and then we spent last fall and early this year at Concordia University, and we were really looking forward to being in this space — because it’s nearly impossible to find spaces in the cities that can accommodate us (that’s just true).
But we’re here this morning, and it’s good to be here — we’re able to squeeze in for the time being. But then of course there’s our children and the whole classroom crisis downstairs — and those challenges still make it difficult for us in to settle . . . and for what it’s worth, to be honest, a full year later, it still feels like we’re not quite on our feet. Things still feel complicated. So I think we need to hit “Reset.”
My sense is that, as a church and also as individuals, we need to come back to the foundation. What is this all about? What are we trying to do here? How are we supposed to live in this world?
These are the kind of questions that transcend our circumstances, and although we should never lose sight of the answers, sometimes we just need to step back and ask the questions all over again. Sometimes we need a gospel reset.
The Organizing Principle
And so, with the support of the pastoral team, and God willing, I have four sermons that I hope will help us, and my plan is to preach these four sermons in the month of August. We are hitting reset.
And that means — if we are hitting reset — then we’ve got to have something to come back to. We need some kind of truth or main idea or “start screen” that sets us straight and tells us where to go — and I think I’ve got one.
This is something that I wrote out one morning a little while ago, and it’s been on the whiteboard in our kitchen for months, and the pastors have worked on this with me — and so think about this as the “organizing principle” for these sermons. This is the main idea we will keep coming back to. It goes like this:
The more we are assured of God’s love for us and of how much we don’t deserve it, then the more we are humbled and filled with joy, and then the more we are poured out in love for others, which all amounts to magnifying the glory of God.
So we’re going to hear that sentence a lot over the next few weeks, and I think we can memorize it. I’ll say it again, in four parts:
- The more we are assured of God’s love for us and of how much we don’t deserve it,
- then the more we are humbled and filled with joy,
- and then the more we are poured out in love for others,
- which all amounts to magnifying the glory of God.
So God willing, I’m going to preach four sermons that unpack that sentence, and the first sermon is today and it’s about the love of God because it all comes back to the love of God. And so before we dig in, let’s pray and ask for God’s help:
Father, what we really need more than anything is to know your heart. That’s because we live in a world that is constantly busy, and then we have our own hearts that so often miss the mark and stay restless and then before long we can get distracted, and then Father, when we’re distracted it becomes too easy to forget you. It becomes too easy to lose sight of you and of your grace, and so, we need your help.
Father, I’m asking that whatever our circumstances might be, or however unideal our situation is, Father, bring us back to your heart. Give us a fresh glimpse into the glory of your love. Remind us who you are and what you have done. Father, please do this over the next four weeks, and do this today. In Jesus’s name, amen.
Assured of God’s Love
So if you have your Bible, open to 1 John 4, and there is a phrase there in verse 16 that I want to highlight, and this might sound really simple to you, but I think it’s important. Here’s the phrase in verse 16. John says: “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.”
This is an amazing verse for two reasons. First, John says here very plainly that God has love for us. John is talking to Christians here — he’s writing to the church — and he says that God loves us.
And then second, John says that this love that God has for us is love that we have known and believed. In other words, the love of God is not a sentimental idea, but it’s something that we have experienced. We can know God’s love and we can rely on it.
So in 1 John 4:16, overall, John is saying that God loves us, and we can experience his love.
And if that sounds elementary to you, I promise you it’s not. In fact, when it comes to the challenges and problems we face in our lives, at lot of it has to do with us not really knowing that God loves us.
Now of course we’ve got a category for God’s love, and we’d be able to circle the right answer on a Bible quiz, but when it comes down to our actual lived experience, when it comes down to our learned reality, many of us do not live like God loves us. We are not assured of God’s love, but we should be, and I want to give you three reasons why.
Starting here in 1 John 4, here are three reasons why we can be assured of God’s love:
- God’s love is demonstrated.
- God’s love is deep.
- God’s love is determined.
1. God’s love is demonstrated.
We can see this right here in verse 9. Check out 1 John 4, verse 9: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us . . .” — John is saying: This is how God’s love was demonstrated to us — it’s that “God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.”
That’s 1 John 4:9 and it sounds a lot like John 3:16. That’s because this is the same apostle John, and he says in John 3:16, in one of the most famous verses in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son…” God loved the world in this way — [what way?] — he sent his only Son. And John expects to know what sending the Son meant.
He tells us straightforward here in 1 John 4:10 that Jesus, the Son of God, was sent into world as the propitiation for our sins. That means that Jesus came here — the Father sent Jesus here — to be our atoning sacrifice. Jesus came into this world to die for us. That was his mission. The Father sent Jesus to take our sins upon himself and to suffer the punishment we deserved. That’s how God demonstrated his love for us.
The apostle John says that here just like the apostle Paul says it in Romans 5, which again is super clear. In Romans 5, verse 8, Paul says: “God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
So the love of God for us is synonymous with Jesus dying on the cross for us. The cross of Jesus is where we see the love of God.
We Don’t Have to Wonder
And I don’t think we get this. I don’t think we really understand what this means. What John is saying — and what the whole New Testament is saying — is that we don’t ever have to wonder if God loves us. We don’t have to scratch our heads about this.
Here we are in this world, and we’re busy and we’re tired and we’re just trying to make it, and sometimes it can seem like God is ignoring us, and we wonder if he really cares.
Now we know that we can’t completely ignore him because his fingerprints are everyone — we know there is a God and we know that we are not him and we know that he’s up there somewhere, but we don’t really know what he thinks about all of us here. I don’t really know what God thinks about me —
But God has made it so that we never have to think this way. God has shown his love for us. He has made it plain. He has spelled it out. God has demonstrated his love for you. How? Jesus died for you.
God’s love is demonstrated.
2. God’s love is deep.
Jesus dying on the cross is the most vivid display of God’s love, and it’s also the vista into the heart of the God who doesn’t just show love but is love. The cross is the demonstration of God’s love, and it’s the tip of the iceberg. John is getting at this in 1 John 4:16 when he says: “God is love.”
John has also said this in verse 8, and by saying this John means something different from saying that God shows love. God does show love, but this is more. John is not talking about an action of God here, but he’s talking about God himself, God in his essence. . . .
- Who is God as God, apart from the created world?
- Who is God in his eternal fellowship as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — the one God in trinity and trinity in unity?
- Who is the God who has named himself and has condescended to us in his covenant as the God who acts in a certain way and therefore can be trusted?
- Who is this God and what is he like?
He is love. God is love. And that doesn’t mean that love defines God, but that God defines love. God is the one who gives love its meaning, because that is who he is.
God has always been love and will always be love. And this is another topic that the apostle John has written about in the Gospel of John. Jesus actually talks about this in his prayer to the Father in John 17. This is a prayer that Jesus prayed with his disciples the night before he was crucified, and in the prayer he is asking God the Father for the disciples to see his glory. Jesus wants his people to know him more deeply and so he says, “Father, make them see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).
Before the foundation of the world, then, before there was ever anything outside of God, when there was only God himself, there was love. That’s because God is trinity. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Therefore God is irreducibly relational, and that relationship, which is himself, is love. The Father loves the Son; and the Son loves the Father; and the Holy Spirit is that love and the bond of that fellowship.
That’s what I mean when I say that God’s love is deep. God’s love is deeper and older than the universe, and in fact, the whole reason there is a universe is because of God’s love. God did not need creation. He was perfectly satisfied in himself. He had no lack.
God created the world because the love that is himself overflows. That’s the way the theologian Jonathan Edwards explained it. It’s that God’s love is so full and so abounding that it continues to extend itself and be shared. And so with that, as God’s love extends itself, God made the universe, and he made this planet, and he made us.
God Tells Us His Name
And then there was that moment when God told us his name. This is in Exodus 34. God came to Moses because Moses had just led Israel out of slavery in Egypt, but their future looked uncertain because they were a sinful people, and Moses has his doubts about whether they would make it, so he prays to God and wants to know if God can be trusted. Moses says: How do I know that you’re going to be with us and help us? Show me your ways. Please, God, show me your glory.
And God answers his prayer. God comes to Moses in Chapter 34, verse 5:
The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. 6 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness …
This is a big moment in the Bible. This is God’s chance to set the record straight! He can tell us who he really is! He can tell us what he’s really like! And so he does. God tells us he’s merciful and gracious. He’s slow to answer. God is abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
That’s his name. That’s who he is most essentially. God is love at the heart, and he is so much love that he does nothing but by love. Everything that God does is in reference to his love, including his judgment.
Even in Judgment
And so you might be asking how does this work? And this needs to be said so that we don’t get the wrong idea and imagine that God’s love means he’s a giant Teddy Bear in the sky. That’s not what love means. The Bible tells us that God is righteous, and that he judges sin. Psalm 7 says that God feels indignation everyday (verse 11). God is angry toward sin — so how does that add up with his love?
Well it’s that anger is actually a form of love. Anger is love on defense. Anger is what happens when what we love is threatened or harmed or offended. And we can totally see this in our human relationships.
The easiest example for me is how I feel when people come speeding down my street. When cars come flying down my street, in front of my house — guess what? — I get angry. Why?
Well it’s because my kids play in the front yard, and I love my kids. And cars are speeding down the street around where my kids play puts my kids in danger — it threatens the object of my love — and so my love gets defensive. I get angry. [So I start throwing rocks at them — j/k.] I get angry because my love and my allegiance is offended.
And cars speeding is the most civil example. Most of the time we get angry because we love the wrong things. (In fact, if you want to know what you really love, just pay attention to what makes you angry.)
So what about with God? God is love, not anger, but God feels anger when his love is offended — and that’s what sin is. Sin most basically is the despising of God and his love. It is the willful, personal snub of the God who is love, and who made us by his love. And so God judges sin. God is angry toward sin, and every sin, every wrong, will be punished, because God’s love is that valuable. God’s love is worth defending.
God does nothing but by love because God is love.
So God’s love is deep.
3. God’s love is determined.
Okay, and this is the part where I think we need it to sink in the most. We’ve seen that God’s love is demonstrated at the cross; and that his love is deep; but how do we bring that into the details of everyday? How can his love really be known and relied upon and experienced?
We can see it in a phrase back in 1 John 4. It’s when John says, in verse 10, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us…” John is saying: “This is how we know it’s love: it’s that we haven’t loved God, but God has loved us.
It’s the same thing Paul is saying back in Romans 5, verse 8. God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. This means that God’s love is love because we don’t deserve it.
God’s love is not a reaction to something in us. God’s love is not him paying us back what he owes us. Instead, God’s love is wholly determined by himself. God’s love flows from his heart — it’s not in reference to our goodness and it’s not restricted by our badness. But God loves us because he loves us.
And this is one of the most life-changing, breakthrough truths in the Bible.
The Bible is clear about it. It goes back to the Old Testament and God’s choosing of Israel. When God rescued Israel from slavery and was telling them how to live in the Promised Land, he tells them, at the foundation, why he saved them. Moses says in Deuteronomy 8, verse 7:
It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers . . .
In other words, God loves you not because of you, but God loves you because he loves you.
God says this three more times in Deuteronomy Chapter 9. He says that my love for you, my giving this promised land to you, is not because of your righteousness. It is not. It is not because of you. But it’s because I love you.
We see these same truths in the New Testament. Jesus himself says in John 15: “You did not choose me, but I chose you…” (verse 16). And “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37).
Paul says in 2 Timothy Chapter 1 that God has “saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (verse 9).
Paul says again in Ephesians Chapter 1 that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:4–5).
Look, right now, if you are here and you trust in Jesus — if you are united to Jesus by faith — I want you to know that God loves you. He does. He loves you more than you can comprehend. God loves you, and it’s not because you’re great, it’s because he is.
He Brings Us and Keeps Us
And the implications here are glorious — it’s what we’re going to talk about over the next three weeks — but let me give you two here in closing.
Because God’s love is determined, not owed, it means he’s the one who brings you to himself, and he’s the one who keeps you.
And I hope you feel how relevant this is. I know there are some of you here who are kind of on the fence about God and church and all that. You’ve kind of got one foot in and another foot out, and before you really take that step and give your life to Jesus, you think you need to clean up a few things first. I know what that’s like because I’ve been there. We think that before we can really be committed we first need to get a few things right, put a few things in order, and improve ourselves. This is the kind of thinking that says: before I can really know the love of God I need to make myself more lovable.
Stop it. That’s not true.
Listen: wherever you are, God loves you there — and it is God’s love that will bring you from there to himself.
God’s love is not waiting on you to get your act together. God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Jesus died for us (see Romans 5:8). This means: God doesn’t love us because of the cross; but there is the cross because God loves us.
So wherever you are, you can know that God loves you, and it is a determined love. The cross shows us that. So, come to him. Trust God. Put your faith in Jesus.
Jesus Loves Me, This I Know
And then for those of us who have come to him, I want you know that he is not going to let you go. It’s God’s love that brings you, and it’s God’s love that keeps you. And the more we are assured of that, the more it will change us.
And Church, this is where we need the love of God to wash over us.
To be honest with you, and just to be real and personal for a minute: over the last year there have been moments when I have been very discouraged — and I’m not prone to discouragement, it’s not something I’m used to — but I’ve felt discouraged, and it’s kind of lingered, and it’s been tough. But somehow, in those moments, or at least at night when I tuck my kids in bed, I can sing:
Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, we are weak but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.
I sing it, and I believe it. You know why? It’s because Jesus does love me, and he keeps me. Circumstances do not get the final say. Your successes and your failures do not matter. Look, when it comes to the love of God, this is a love that pursues us, and this is a love that we are never going to be separated from (see Psalm 23:6; Romans 8:38–39).
So the love of God is not an “accessory truth” to the Christian life; the love of God is the only way we’re going to make it.
And that’s what the Table is about.
When we take the bread and cup each week, we remember: This is how it’s love, not that we have loved God but that God loves us and sent his Son to die for us.
And when we eat the bread and drink the cup, we are saying “Thank you.” Thank you, God, for your love. Thank you, Jesus, for dying in my place. So if you would say that this morning, we invite you to enjoy this Table with us.