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Is Love to God No More Than Self-Love?

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Mr. Christian’s neighbor had a new bumper sticker: Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty. To Mr. Christian, random and senseless acts seemed, well, random and senseless, so he asked his neighbor what it meant. His answer was startling and disturbing. “Selfish acts of doing something to get something are not virtuous; therefore, random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty are truly virtuous acts.” Moreover, “Christianity cannot be virtuous because Christians love God to get rewards and avoid pain.” Mr. Christian replied that believers love God because He first loved us by saving us by the work of Christ on the cross,” to which his neighbor quickly countered, “That’s my point, just as my dog loves me because I feed him, so Christians love God because He gives them good things.” At a loss for words, Mr. Christian smiled, bid his neighbor adieu, and made a quick exit, stage left.

Setting aside the insult to man’s best friend, how do we respond to the shrewd critique of Christian love to God? Of course, it’s not a new or even uncommon view; Satan accused Job of the same thing, telling God that Job would curse Him to His face if He withdrew Job’s earthly blessings. But, is love to God really no more than love of self, or a mere love of the gifts of God? And if not, what, then, comprises a true love to God?

Proper Gratitude for Abundant Gifts

Christians have received marvelous gifts. United to Christ by faith, we have justification by the voluntary and perfect righteousness of Christ satisfying the requirements of God’s justice on our behalf, including sinless obedience and the penalty of death for sin, earning the infinite merit imputed to us. In Christ we are covered in His righteousness. His resurrection life is our life. His victory over sin, death, and Satan is our victory. Adopted into God’s family, we cry, “Abba, Father!” by the Holy Spirit of adoption within us. In Christ we have security, assurance, love, joy, peace, hope, comfort, purpose and meaning in life, etc. And “when He appears, we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2).

We have immeasurable blessings for which we should be thankful. Gratitude for God’s goodness honors God. “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:18). Thanksgiving should characterize the life of every saint in Christ. In fact, God judges ingratitude as a great sin, worthy of condemnation (Rom. 1:21).

The Contempt of Mere Gratitude

At the same time, mere love to God for gifts received insults God. Just ask Job. He suffered to counter Satan’s cynical accusation that his love to God was nothing more than a love of God’s benefits (Job 1:6-11; 2:3-5). Christ tells us that such a love rises no higher than that of unbelievers (Luke 6:31-34). Moreover, to say that love to God involves nothing more than a love of God’s benefits implies that God, by Himself, is not worth loving.

What, then, constitutes the essential ingredient of a true love to God? According to Edwards, “The first foundation of a true love to God is that whereby He is in Himself lovely, or worthy to be loved, or the supreme loveliness of His nature...God’s nature or divinity is infinitely excellent; yea it is infinite beauty, brightness, and glory itself.”1 This beauty we see when God opens our spiritual eyes: “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who had shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). Thus we “praise Him for His mighty deeds; praise Him according to His excellent greatness” (Ps. 150:2). We love His blessings, but a true love to God loves Him for who He is, first and foremost, in addition to gratitude for His blessings. To love God is to love God.

Can You Love God’s Blessings and Not Love God?

Yes. Consider the crowds rejoicing at Christ’s miracles when later some called for the release of Barabbas when Jesus stood bleeding and humiliated before Pilate. They “loved” him as long as they thought He would give them their desires, but abandoned Him when their hope for deliverance from Rome was dashed. Even today, stadiums fill to capacity by promises of great worldly blessings, with little consideration of the beauty of God’s attributes.

But, doesn’t 1 John 4:19 teach that the blessings of God produce our love to God when it says, “We love because He first loved us”? Yes, in a sense, but we also love Him for the character displayed in His benevolence. Moreover, He first loved us “because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5). We love God because He gave us new life and hearts of love for His intrinsic excellence. We love Him for His great benefits, including salvation, but His greatest gift to us is Himself.

Beauty in the Gift

As every blessing from God reveals the goodness of God, our proper response includes gratitude for the gift and love to character of God revealed in the giving of it. Thus, by Christ’s saving work we receive infinite benefits and, more importantly, we see the greatest display of the ultimate object of our love, the infinite excellence of God. We see the beauty of God’s attributes in His purpose to save us and in Christ’s perfect life and voluntary obedience that endured the punishment for our sin upon the cross. In the ministry of Christ we see the boundless and holy love that endured infinite wrath for His condemned and undeserving bride, the righteousness that could not save without the satisfaction of God’s perfect justice, His power in defeating death and the devil; His wisdom in saving the unsavable, loving the unlovable, and producing the best from the worst, and all in a manner consistent with His holiness. We see His grace, patience, truthfulness and faithfulness, mercy, and immutability, etc.

True Love of Loveliness

God’s love toward us and our love toward God form the foundation of our joy, the supreme motivation of our life (1 Pet. 1:3-9). The mere love of blessings without a true love to God not only dishonors God, it flows hot and cold as the blessings come and go. A mercenary love evaporates when benefits dry up or persecution strikes. But, the love founded on God’s excellence abides, for the object of its affection remains infinitely lovely, forever.

The true saint participates in God’s ultimate purpose to display and communicate His glory by responding to the sight of His excellence with a love for His loveliness and gratitude for His blessings. Therefore, as we sing, “count your blessings, name them one by one,” give glory to God who gives them, because the gifts and the giving display the infinite excellence of the Giver. To Him be all praise through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE, © Copyright The Lockman Foundation 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1988, 1995. Used by permission.

1 Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, Banner of Truth, 168; Yale, WJE, 2:242.

Related Topics: Apologetics, Love

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