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“Why Would God Love a Sinner Like Me?”

Dec.18, 2011 1Jn 4:7-16/various


Our local school’s Christmas Concert the past Wednesday was extremely well done. It was refreshing to see a presentation which actually acknowledged the real meaning of Christmas, rather than some secular substitute. The costumes were splendid; the participants voiced their parts admirably. It was a visual feast, especially when the kindgartners and primary grades lined up across the front in their miniature “Mary and Joseph” outfits with the baby dolls; parents grabbed their cameras and moved forward to get a better shot. It was just SOO CUTE!
    The danger, of course, is that we sanitize the story and forget what a risk this whole venture was, God sending His Son to be the saviour of humanity, born in a stable, dying on a torture-cross... How many of us would volunteer to give birth to OUR babies in a barn? The first Nativity was likely far from being ‘cute’; instead it was highly costly. For instance, such a major upheaval for Joseph and Mary to suddenly be thrust from quiet village life in Nazareth to international refugees-on-the-run.
    God’s love motivated this mission to save people, even though it risked the life of His dear Son. In the movie Forrest Gump, there’s a scene in Viet Nam where Forrest outruns his comrades to safety after the Viet Cong open fire on his platoon. But Forrest realizes he’s left everyone behind. He returns repeatedly to rescue Lieutenant Dan, his best friend Bubba, and many others in the platoon who’ve been wounded by the enemy. He keeps going back into danger risking being shot or napalmed just so he can bring his buddies to safety. His love for and commitment to his friends is what drives him to such valiant action. That’s more like what was really going on at Bethlehem: God’s Son infiltrating ‘behind enemy lines’ to pull off a dramatic and costly rescue.
    But God is holy, and we’re not. We are sinners, deserving only divine wrath for our transgressions; we’ve offended the glory and honour of the Creator. Why would God even undertake such a costly mission? Why would God possibly love and rescue a sinner such as myself?


As we try to answer that question, first we’ve got to rule out a couple of inadequate answers. To begin, someone might argue that we merited saving, we deserved to be loved by God. In that case, we would have something to boast about. But that’s not how the Bible sees it. Ephesians 2:1, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins...” V3, “All of us...like the rest...were by nature objects of wrath.” V4, God “made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions...” Spiritually speaking, we had about as much potential as road kill: we were DEAD; like poking road kill with a stick, it doesn’t move, there’s no response, no life.
    Paul similarly describes our state before salvation in writing to Titus, 3:3: “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures.We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.” V5, “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy...” Not because of any claim to deserving it, any merit, any righteousness on our part. We were dead in our sins, so that makes it a real puzzle why a righteous and holy God would be at all interested in helping us.
    We were sunk in depravity, unable to help ourselves. Does that mean God just arbitrarily intervened to save some and not others, willy-nilly? Calvinists and the Reformed Church developed the doctrines summed up in the abbreviation “TULIP”: Total depravity, Unconditional election (God’s choosing), Limited atonement (Christ died for the elect only not all people), Irresistible grace (once God decides you’re going to be saved, there’s nothing you can do to stop Him), and Perseverance of the saints (once you’re saved you’re bound for heaven for sure). While this body of teaching holds together beautifully from a logical point of view, there’s one problem: in its conclusions it seems to contradict other clear teachings of Scripture. Yes we’re not saved because of our own merit or works, but it goes so far the other way as to make God the only factor, arbitrarily choosing one person and not the next, it’s all God’s predetermined decision – which leads to the teaching that Jesus didn’t REALLY die for all people, just the ‘elect’, the chosen. The “L” of Limited Atonement is particularly problematic. God says in Jeremiah 31:3, “ have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness.” Jesus likewise talks of ‘drawing’ people to Himself, Jn 12:32: “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” How many people? “All” people. Jn 3:16, “God so loved the world” not just PART of the world. 1Tim 2:4, God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
    Calvinism swings to the other extreme, creating a “God-behind-God” scenario in which God seems to be saying He wants all people to be saved but, in fact, the decision’s already been made, you’re either elect or you’re out of luck, and there’s no point in Jesus dying for the non-elect, hence ‘limited’ atonement. Essentially, TULIP implies, God has already decreed that it’s impossible for many to avoid hell. This gives rise to a view of God as deceptive, seeming to say one thing but actually the situation is quite different.
    There are other problems with TULIP; ‘irresistible grace’ makes God a bully in shoving salvation on a person; ‘perseverance of the saints’ flies in the face of passages like Hebrews 6(4-6) and 2Peter 2(20f) which warn believers against falling away from Christianity. (Bruxy Cavey at The Meeting House this fall did an excellent series ‘Chosen and Choosing’ contrasting the Reformed and Anabaptist view.) Our main point here is that, while it’s clear in the Bible we don’t become saved on our own merit, neither is the process so one-sided (monergistic) that it’s all up to God, to the point of making Him an irresistible bully, arbitrarily picking and choosing so that Jesus’ death is only for a limited few rather than a real invitation for all people. When Jesus and the Spirit invite us to take the free gift of the water of life, it’s a genuine invitation for all people, He really does ‘draw’ all people to Himself as He says (Jn 7:37f; Rev 22:17).


So, is there a perfectly satisfying logical answer? If theologians have argued about it for centuries, it would seem the Bible reserves the right to cloak this in some mystery. What does it say outright about reasons why God might love us to the point of rescuing us? Ephesians 2:4-5, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions— it is by grace you have been saved.” Great love, mercy, and grace. Titus 3:4-5, “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy...” Kindness, love, mercy (again) - these are key qualities deep in God’s make-up, deeper than pure logic goes.
    There’s a miracle of giving life, rebirth: Titus 3:5 continues, “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit...” Ephesians 2:5a, He “made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions...” 1Jn 4:13, “We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” Being reborn makes us God’s children, by His Spirit’s midwifery: 1Jn 3:1, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”
    So God loving us sinners results in some receiving new birth, a spiritual supernatural miracle. Our believing, perhaps as a result of the re-birth (remember our spiritual ‘deadness’ beforehand) - our believing is a key fact in this awakening. Jn 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Jn 16:27, “the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.” 1Jn 4:15, “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.” If you trust Him, you will acknowledge Him for who He is.
    Blaise Pascal, the great French scientist / mathematician, pointed out how relationship with God goes beyond pure logic: he said, “Human beings must be known to be loved, but divine things must be loved to be known.” And, “It is the heart which experiences God and not the reason.” God births within us a capacity to both understand with our mind the truth of Scriptural principles and its historical presentation, and go beyond logic to trust and love this God-in-Jesus the Bible presents.
    Maybe there’s a parallel here somewhat to ‘falling in love’ as humans do. You can be logical to a point, filtering potential matches through a grid, checking off things where that member of the opposite sex fits your expectations or doesn’t. But even if they satisfy your ‘grid’, your ‘checklist’, there still needs to be that element of ‘chemistry’ (I don’t mean ‘sex appeal’ here but being your ‘type’), relating to your temperament and personality; you ‘click’. It’s hard to explain, but real nonetheless.
    Psalm 42:8, “By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me— a prayer to the God of my life.” His song is with me - isn’t that an apt way of expressing true love? In music there’s what’s called ‘sympathetic vibration’, a resonance between one voice and another’s configuration, you’re moving in harmony without actually being the same. The mystical writer Julian of Norwich observed, “He is not to be gotten or holden by thought, but only in love.”


(quote source: William Norman Ewer) For a case-in-point of how God’s love works, consider the factors in the Old Testament around God’s choosing or election of Israel, the Jewish nation. Was it their power or intelligence or beauty or wealth that prompted God to select them from all other nations to be His witnesses? Deuteronomy 7:7-8, “The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples.But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” So it wasn’t because of their impressiveness, their size or strength; not their fitness, but God’s faithfulness - He’d made a promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Psalm 89(33), “but I will not take my love from [David], nor will I ever betray my faithfulness.” God is careful to live up to His promises, to be faithful to the oaths He made to the patriarchs.
    God delights to show love to the least. Abraham was a solitary wandered; the Lord made him into a nation. Israel was a small tribe, rebellious at times and stiff-necked: yet God still worked with them to make them His messengers in the world. God’s love isn’t based on how much we can impress Him. Deut 10:18, “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.” Our need (our un-impressiveness) becomes God’s opportunity to display His awesome goodness.
    Love is the essence of God’s very nature – not eros love that is attracted to the appealingness of the other, but agape love that seeks to support and help the other without any element of getting any benefit or pleasure for oneself. 1Jn 4:8,16: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love...And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.God is love.Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.”
    Jeremy Taylor notes, “Love is the greatest thing that God can give us; for He Himself is love: and it is the greatest thing we can give to God.”
    Ultimately, why God chooses to love a sinner like me - or to love anyone - is a mystery known only in the heart of God. Chapters 9-11 of the book of Romans ponder the mystery of God’s choice of the Jews, and Jacob over Esau. It’s significant that Paul closes this section with a doxology extolling the mystery in God’s design: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!”


Perhaps it’s more beneficial to ask ‘how’ instead of ‘why’ God loves you or me – at least that seems to be the question the Bible wants us to ask, because it has much more to say on the subject.
    God’s love has an aspect of treasuring us: Isaiah 43:4, “Since you are precious and honoured in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life.” Precious, honoured - you’re special to God: He knows you intimately, when you sit and rise, the hairs on your head. Treasured. Fulton Sheen said, “God does not love us because we are valuable.We are valuable because God loves us.”
    With God’s love comes blessing: Deut 23:5, “However, the LORD your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the LORD your God loves you.” The main blessing is eternal life: Jude 1:21, “Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.”
    God saves those He loves – that’s why Joseph gave Jesus the name He did! Deut 4:37, “Because he loved your forefathers and chose their descendants after them, he brought you out of Egypt by his Presence and his great strength...” Isaiah 38(17), “In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my sins behind your back.”
    The Bible makes it clear that God’s love is a GIVING love. In this sense, the question this sermon asks (Why would God love a sinner like me?) could be re-phrased, “Why Christmas?” Why did God give His Son for me? Jn 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” 1Jn 4:9-10 (note the repetition for emphasis here), “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” When Jesus obediently goes to the cross as an adult, we see God intervening sacrificially on our behalf to bear the punishment for our evil deeds, ‘taking the hit’ as it were for us.
    God’s love protects us: Deut 33.12, “About Benjamin he said: "Let the beloved of the LORD rest secure in him, for he shields him all day long, and the one the LORD loves rests between his shoulders."” And Jesus gave this great picture of security in Jn 10:28f, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”
    Also, because God loves us, He shows things to us. Jn 5:20, Jesus said, “For the Father loves the Son and shows Him all He does.” Then in chapter 14(21) Jesus promised, “He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.” God shows or reveals Himself to those He loves.


What sermon would be complete without an ‘application’ section?! We’ve seen how wonderful God’s love is for us sinners He’s redeemed; what response shall we make to such costly love, One who proves He cherishes us dearly?
    We can glorify Him: Psalm 63:3, “Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you.”
    We can obey Him: John 14(21a,23), “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me...[and 2 verses later Jesus adds, in case we missed it!] If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (COOL!)
    And, we saw how God in love GIVES; in return, we too can give. 2Cor 9(7), “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” And 1John 3 draws a direct link between God’s love-gift and ours: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”
    God loves the world - so we love others, too. St Catherine of Siena notes, “The reason why God’s servants love creatures so much is that they see how much Christ loves them, and it is one of the properties of love to love what is loved by the person we love.”
    A Christian barber one week noticed that there was a good increase in his business. When he tried to find out why, he discovered that his competitor, another barber in the village, was ill. When the week ended, he took all that he had made above his average earnings and, in Christian love and sympathy, carried it to his competitor. Let’s pray.