God is Love

John 4:16.

DID we only give credit to the text, did we but view God as love-on this simple translation into another belief, would there be the translation into another character. We should feel differently of God, the moment that we thought of Him differently; and with the establishment of this new faith, there would instantly emerge a new heart and a new nature. For, let us attend, in the first place, to the original conception of Humanity, placed and constituted as it now is, m reference to this great and invisible Being–secondly, let us adduce the likeliest considerations, the likeliest arguments, by which to overcome this conception, and to find lodgement in the human breast or another and an opposite conception in its place–And, thirdly, let us stop to contemplate the effect of such a change in the state of man’s understanding as to God, on the whole system of his feelings and conduct

I. Under the first general head, then, let it be observed–that there are two reasons why we should conceive God to be so actuated as to inspire us with terror, or at least; with distrust; instead of conceiving Him to be actuated by that love which the text ascribes to. Him; and which were no sooner believed than it would set us at ease, and inspire us with delightful confidence.

1. The first of these reasons, which we shall allege, admits of being illustrated by a very genera experience of human nature. It may be shortly stated thus–Whenever placed within the reach of any Being, of imagined power, but withal of unknown purpose–that Being is the object of our dismay. It is not necessary for thin, that we should be positively assured of His hostility. It is enough, that, for aught we. know, He may be hostile; and that, for aught we know, He has strength enough For the execution of His displeasure. Uncertainty alone will beget terror; and the fancies of mere ignorance, are ever found: to be images of fear. It is thus, that a certain recoil of dread and aversion, would be felt in the presence of a strange animal, whatever the gentleness of its nature–if simply it a nature were unknown. And hence, too, the fear of a child for strangers, who must first make demonstration of their love by their gifts, or their caresses they can woo it into confidence. And, so also the consternation. of savages, on the first approach of a mighty vessel to their shores–more especially if in smoke, and thunder, ans feats of marvelous exhibition, it hath given the evidence of its power. It may a voyage of benevolence; but this they as yet know not. They only behold the power; and power beheld singly tremendous. And many often are the vain attempts at approximation, the fruitless demonstrations and signals of good-will, ere they can conquer their distrust ; or recall them to free and fearless intercourse, from the woods or the lurking-places to which they had fled for safety. Such, then, is the universal bias of nature, whenever the power is known and the purpose is unknown. Men give way to the visions of terror, to the dark misgivings of a troubled imagination. The quick and instant suggestion, on all these occasions, is that of fear; and the difficulty, an exceeding difficulty, for it is if working against a constitutional law or tendency of the heart, is to reassure it into confidence.

If such then be the effect on human feelings of a power that is known, associated with purposes that are unknown–we are not to wonder that the great ,and invisible God is invested to our eyes with cause great, and at the same time invisible imagery of terror. It is verily because, that we so invest Him. It is precisely because the Bing who bath all the energies of nature at his command, is at the same time shrouded in mystery impenetrable–that we view Him as tremendous. All regarding Him is inscrutable–the depths of His past eternity–the mighty and unknown extent of his creation–the secret policy or end of His government, a government ,that embraces an infinity of worlds, and reaches forward to an infinity of ages–All these leave a being so circumscribed, in his faculties as man, so, limited in his duration and therefore in his experience, in profoundest ignorance of God and his ways. And then the inaccessible retirement in which He hides, himself from the observation of His creatures here below–the clouds and darkness which are about the pavilion of His residence–the utter impotency of man, to pierce his way beyond confines of that materialism. which hems and encloses him, so as at all to fathom essence of the Godhead, or to obtain any distinct apprehension of His personality and His Being–the silence the deep unbroken silence of many centuries, insomuch that nature, however distinctly it may tell of His existence, is to our senses a screen of interception in the way of nature’s God. There is a mighty gulf of separation–an interval, a mysterious and untrodden interval, between the spirituality of the Godhead on the one hand, and all that the eye of man can see or the ear of man can hear upon the other–a barrier, which man with all his powers of curious and searching inspection cannot force; and across which God, at least for many ages, hath sent forth no direct or visible manifestation of His own person or His own character. And so, whatever the confidence or the manifested kindness may have been in those primeval days when God walked with man in the bowers of His earthly paradise and among the smiling beauties of its garden–certain it is, that now, exiled from the divine presence, all his confidence has failed. Now that the divinity is withdrawn from mortal view, man trembles at. the thought of Him; and the dread imagination, whether of a present wrath or a coming vengeance, is the only homage which renders to an unknown God.

And there is nothing in the varying aspects of Creation, or in the varying fortunes oh human life, which can at all alleviate our perplexity, in, regard to the final designs or character of God. For if, on the one hand, the smile and the sunshine and the softer beauties of the landscape, would seem, to picture forth the milder virtues of the Divinity–these are alternated by other and opposite expressions, in the sweeping flood, and the angry tempest, and that dread thunder from the skies wherewith the mysterious Being who rules in the firmament above overawes a prostrate world. And if, on the one hand, the shelter and abundance and natural affection and unnumbered sweets of many a cottage home, might serve to indicate the profuse benevolence of Him who is the great, the universal Parent of the human family–on the other, the cares; the heart-burnings; the moral discomforts; often the pining sickness, or cold and cheerless poverty; more hugely and palpably still the fierce contests unto blood and mutual destruction, even among civilized men; and lastly, as if to crown and consummate all, the death, the unsparing and relentless death, which sweeps off generation after generation, and, in like ghastly triumph, whether among the abodes of the prosperous or unhappy: after the brief subsistence of a few little years, lays all the varieties of human fortune in the dust–These, on the other hand, bespeak, if not a malignant, at least an offended Deity. It is in the midst of such contradictory appearances, that the question of the divine administration becomes a profound, a hopeless enigma–at once to exercise an g base all spirits; and the lofty, the unapproachable’ Being, who presides over it, is the object of our dread because to us mantled in deepest obscurity is terrible because unknown. We have only explained one of the two reasons why nature’s conception of God, is such as to inspire terror rather than our grateful or rejoicing confidence; and, ere we proceed to the consideration of the second, we feel strongly inclined, though we should thereby anticipate the next head of discourse, to state, even now, and in immediate sequence to our first reason for thinking hardly and adversely of God, to state, and as far as we are able enforce the appropriate counterpart argument, by which reason may be met and ought to be overcome.

The argument. then that s we are in quest of, is not to be found in the whole range or within the whole compass of visible nature. It is only to be found in one of the doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ A certain distrust, nay a certain terror, will still continue to haunt and to, disquiet us–so long as any ambiguity continues to rest on the character of God. But there is no such an ambiguity; and which no observation of nature, or no experience of human life can dissipate. Whatever of the falsely or the superstitiously. fearful imagination conjures up, because of God being at a distance, can only be dispelled by God, brought nigh onto us. The spiritual must become sensible. The veil which hides the unseen God from the eye of mortals, must be somehow withdrawn. Now all thin has been done once, and done only, in the incarnation of Jesus Christ–He being the brightness of His Father’s glory, and the express image of His person. The Godhead become palpable to human senses; and man could behold, as in a picture or in distinct personification, the very characteristics of the Being who made him. Then truly did men hold converse with Immanuel, which is, being interpreted, God with us. They saw His glory in the face of Jesus Christ; and the very characteristics of the Divinity Himself may be said to have appeared in authentic representation before them, when God manifest in the flesh descended on Judea and sojourned amongst its earthly tabernacles. By this mysterious movement from Heaven to Earth, the dark untrodden interval, which separates the Corporeal from the Spiritual, was at length overcome. The King eternal a d invisible was then phc 2 within the ken of mortals. They saw the Son, and in Him saw the Father also–so at while contemplating the person and the history of a man, they could make a make a study of the Godhead.

And it is thus the unequivocal demonstration has been given, that God is love. We could not scale the heights of the mysterious ascent, which might bring us within view of the Godhead. It is by the descent of the Godhead unto us, that this great manifestation has been given; and we learn and know of God, from the wondrous history of Him who went about doing good continually. We could not go in search of the viewless Deity, through the depths and the vastnesses of Infinitude; or discover the secret, the untold purposes, that were brooding there. But In no may could a more palpable exhibition have been made, than when the eternal Son shrined in humanity stepped forth on the platform of visible things, and on the proclaimed errand to seek and to save us. We can now read the character of God, in the human looks and in the human language of Him, who is the very image and visible representation of the Deity . We see it in the tears of sympathy which He shed. We hear it in the accents of tenderness which fell from Him. Even His very remonstrances were those of a meek and gentle nature for the are remonstrances of deepest pathos, the complaints of a longing and affectionate sprit, against the sad perversity of men bent on their own undoing When visited with the fear that God looks hardly and adversely towards us, let us think of Him who had compassion on the famishing multitudes; of Him who mourned with the sisters of Lazarus; of Him who, when He approached the city of Jerusalem wept over it, at the thought of its coming desolation. And knowing that the Son is like unto the Father, let us re-assure our hopes with the certainty that God is love.

2. But there is still another reason, why, instead of viewing God as love, we should apprehend Him to be a God of severity and of stern displeasure. And it is not, like the former, but a fearful imagination, a mere product of uncertainty–or resulting from a headlong bias, on the part of the human mind, to the superstitiously dark and terrific, when employed in contemplating what is vast at the same time unknown. It has a firmer basis to rest upon-not conjured up by fancy from a distant land of shadows; but drawn from the intimacies of one’s own consciousness, and suggested by one of the surest facts or findings in the homestead of man’s moral nature. The truth is that, by the constitution of humanity, there is a law of right and wrong in every heart; and which each possessor of that heart knows himself to have habitually violated. But more than this. Along with the felt certainly of such a law, there is the resistless apprehension of a Lawgiver; of a God offended by the disobedience of His creatures; of a Judge and so of a judgment that awaits us; of a governor, or king in Heaven, between whom and ourselves there is a yet unsettled controversy, and because of which we are disquieted with the thought of a reckoning and a vengeance that are to come. We cannot view God as Love, at the very time that conscience so powerfully tells us to view Him as an enemy. Even though the lights of Nature and Christianity should conspire to inform us that love is a general characteristic of the Divinity, we cannot feel the personal or practical influence of such a contemplation, so long as we are sensible of His special and merited displeasure; and that the truth and the justice and the high and holy attributes of a nature which is unchangeable, seem imperiously to require that this displeasure shall be. executed.–While haunted by the misgivings of a guilty nature, which tells us of our own danger and our, own insecurity we could no more delight ourselves with the general era1 benevolence of God–than we could luxuriate in tasteful contemplation over the beauties, which, far and wide, even to the most distant horizon, surrounded the . mountain’s base, if ourselves exposed to the menaces of a bursting volcano that was above our head. It is thus that we lose all sense of God, so long as we view God through the medium of our own troubled consciences. Even though reasoning alone were to establish this beautiful property in God, as an article of calm and philosophical conviction, the agitations of terror grounded on the consciousness of our self-deservings, would disturb this conviction or displace it altogether. This is not a mere spectral alarm as the former, but has both a definite object and definite cause; and, instead of an airy imagination, is grounded on the universal sense, which nature has of its own actual and ascertained guiltiness.

And this apprehension is not more general than it is strong and not to be overcome by a mere eloquent or sentimental representation of the Deity–as if He possessed but the one characteristic of excellence; or as if this were the single excellence of a moral nature, signalized by all that is high and all that is holy.–There is a meager theology that would fain resolve the entire character of God into the one attribute of kindness; but there is a theology of conscience that maintains the ascendancy notwithstanding, and keeps its ground against this frail imagination. To Him who is seated on the throne of the universe, me, in spite of ourselves, ascribe the virtues of the sovereign as well as the virtues of the parent; and, however much it might have suited our convenience and our wishes, that we could at all times have taken refuge in the general and indefinite. placability of God, there are certain immutabilities of truth and nature that cannot thus be disposed of. For, attempt it as we will, we cannot find repose in the imagination of a law without enforcements, of a lawgiver without authority, of a government without sanctions, of a sentence without effect, and so of guilt without the execution of its proclaimed and threatened penalty. And thus the ever-meddling conscience within, as irrepressible as it is importunate, keeps men in perpetual fear of God; and it tells him, with felt authority too, that it is a well grounded fear. We cannot rid from our apprehension a jurisprudence, a , strict and guarded and awful jurisprudence, which enters into the relationship between Heaven and earth; and the honor of which cannot be let dona, without despoiling the sanctuary of God of all that is great and all that is venerable.–We cannot think of God with confidence or hope, whilst we think of ourselves as delinquents at the bar of that august and inviolable tribunal where He sitteth in judgment over us. We cannot even see Him to be love, through the troubled medium of remorse and fear; and far less rejoice or take comfort in it as a love directed to ourselves.

Now, as in counteraction to our first reason for viewing God with apprehension and thus losing sight of Him as a God of love, we adduced one peculiar doctrine of Christianity–so, in counteraction to our second reason we now adduce another peculiar doctrine of Christianity; and that by far the noblest and mast precious of ib articles. The one was the doctrine of the Incarnation. The other is the doctrine of the Atonement “Herein is lore, not that we loved God, but that God loved us, and sent His Son into the world to be the propitiation for our sins.” B the former, a conquest has been made over the imaginations of ignorance. By the latter, a conquest has been made over, not the imaginations, but the solid and well-grounded fears of guilt. By the one or through the means of a divine incarnation, we are told of the Deity embodied; end thus the love of God has been made the subject, as it were, of ocular demonstration By the other, or through means of a divine Sacrifice, we are told of the Deity propitiated; and thus the love of God has been made to shine forth in midst of the law’s sustained and vindicated honors. It is this conjunction of mercy with truth and righteousness; it is this harmony of all the divine attributes in the scheme of reconciliation; it is this skillful congruity established in the gospel, between the salvation of the sinner and the authority as well as justice of the Sovereign-which so adapts the mediatorial economy under which we sit, to all the wants and exigencies of our fallen nature. A naked proclamation of mercy could not have set the conscience at rest, could never have effectually hushed those perpetual misgivings wherewith the heart of the sinner is haunted,–who, by the very constitution of his moral nature, must, when he does think of God, think and tremble before him as a God of justice. This it is which letteth; and, ere peace and confidence can be fully or firmly restored to the sinner’s distempered bosom, that which letteth must be taken out of the way. And it has been taken out of the way–for now nailed to the cross of Christ. In this glorious spectacle do we see the mystery resolved; and the compassion of the parent meeting in fullest harmony, with the now asserted, the now vindicated prerogatives of the lawgiver We there behold justice satisfied and mercy made sure. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a halo of all the attributes; and yet the preeminent manifestation there a of God as love–for it is love, not only rejoicing over all the works, but shrined in full consent while shredding, enhanced luster amidst all the perfections of the divine nature. And here a should be especially noticed, that the atonement made for the sins of the world, though its direct and primary object be to vindicate the truth and justice of the Godhead–instead. of casting obscuration over His love, only gives more emphatic demonstration of it for instead of love, simple, and spontaneous, and finding its unimpeded way, without obstruction and without difficulty to the happiness of its objects–it was a love, which, ere it would reach the guilty millions whom it longed after, had to face the barrier of a moral necessity, that to all but infinite strength and infinite wisdom was insuperable It was a love which had to force aside the mountain of those iniquities that separated us from God. The high and holy characteristics of a Being who is unchangeable stood in its way; and the mystery which angels desired to look unto, was how the King Eternal who sitteth on heaven’s throne could at once be a just God and a Savior. The love of God, in conflict with such an obstacle and triumphing over it is a higher exhibition of the attribute, than all the love which radiates from His throne on the sinless families of the unfallen. And then we are taught, that, for the achievement of this mighty deliverance, not only had the Captain of bur salvation to travel in the greatness of His strength, but to sustain a deep and dreadful endurance. The redemption of mankind was wrought out, in the midst of agonies and cries and all the symptoms of a sore and bitter humiliation. He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; on Him the chastisement of our peace was laid; and when bowing down His head unto the sacrifice, He had to bear the full burden of a world’s expiation. The affirmation that God loveth the world is inconceivably heightened in significancy and strength of evidence, to him who owns the authority of Scripture, and has treasured up these sayings–that God so loved the world as to give His only begotten Son; or, that He spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all; or, that herein is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent His Son into the world, to be the propitiation for our sins. There is a moral, a depth and intensity of meaning a richness of sentiment that the Bible calls unsearchable, in the cross of Christ It tells a sinful world that God is righteousness; and it as clearly and emphatically tells us that God is love.

But, for the purpose of making thin doctrine available to ourselves personally, we must view the love of God, not as a vague and inapplicable generality, but as specially directed, nay actually proffered and that pointedly and individually to each of us. It is not sufficiently adverted to by inquirers, nor sufficiently urged by ministers, that the constitution of the gospel warrants this appropriation of its blessings by each man for himself

This all-important truth, so apt to be lost sight of in lax and hazy speculation, may be elicited from the very terms in which the gospel is propounded to us, from the very phraseology in which its overtures are couched. It is a message of good news unto all people–to me therefore as one of the people, for where is the scripture which tells that I am an outcast Christ is set forth as a propitiation for the sins of the world; and God so loved the world as to send His Son into it. Let me therefore, who beyond all doubt am in the world, take the comfort of these gracious promulgations–for it is only if out of the world or away from the world, that they do not belong to me. The delusive imagination in the hearts of many, and by which the gospel is with them bereft of all significancy and effect, is, that they cannot take any general announcement, or general invitation that is therein to themselves, unless in virtue of some certain mark or certain designation, by which they are specially included in it. Now, in real truth, it is all the other way. It would require a certain mark, or certain designation specially to exclude them; and without some such mark which might expressly signalize them, they should not refuse a part in the announcements or invitations of the gospel. If the gospel have made no exception of them, they either misunderstand that gospel, or by their unbelief make tho author of it a liar, if they except themselves. The demand a particular warrant, for believing that the are comprehended within the limits of the gospel call to reconciliation with God. Now the call is universal; and it would rather wed a particular warrant, to justify their own dark and distrustful imagination of being without its limits. When in the spirit of a perverse or obstinate melancholy, they ask their Christian minister-what is the ground on which he would bid them in to the household of God’s reconciled family?–well may he ask, what is the ground on which they would keep themselves out? He stands m a triumphant vantage-footing for his own vindication. His, commission is to preach the gospel to every creature under heaven, and that takes them in–or to say that whomsoever cometh unto Christ shall not be cast out, and that takes them in–or behold I stand at the door and knock, if any man will open I shall enter into friendship and peace with him, that also takes them in–or look unto me all ye ends of the earth and be saved; there is no outcast spoken of here, and that too takes them in–or, every man who asketh receiveth; and surely, if language have a meaning, that takes them in–or Christ came into the world to save sinner; and, unless they deny themselves to be sinners, that takes them in. In a word, although they may cast themselves out, the primary overtures of the gospel recognize no outcast. They are not forbidden by God–they are only forbidden themselves. There is no straitening is only with Him. The straitening is only in. their own narrow and suspicions and ungenerous bosom. It is true they may abide in spiritual darkness if they will–even as a man can, at his own pleasure, immure himself in a dungeon, or obstinately shut his eyes. Still it holds good, notwithstanding, that the light of the Sun in the Firmament is not more open to all eyes, than the light of the Sun of Righteousness is tor the rejoicing of the spirits of all flesh The blessings of the gospel are as accessible to all who will, as are the water or the air or any of the cheap and common bounties of nature. The element of Heaves’s love is in as universal diffusion among the dwelling-places of men, as is the atmosphere they breathe in. It solicits admittance at every door; and the ignorance or unbelief of man ere the only obstacles which it has to struggle with. It is commensurate with the species; and may be tendered, urgently and honestly tendered, to each individual of the human family.

III. Let us now suppose, in any instance, that to the tender on the one side there is an acceptance upon the other; that God is taken at His word; and, instead of being regarded with jealousy or terror as a distant and inaccessible lawgiver, that He is beheld as a reconciled Father in Jesus Christ our Lord; that the dark and before impenetrable veil, which hitherto had mantled. the benign aspect of the divinity is withdrawn; that the mercy-seat is seen in Heaven, not the less to be relied on in its being mercy met with truth; that disclosure is made of the love with its smiles of welcome which beams and beckons there, not the less but the more to be trusted and rejoiced in, that it is a love in full conjunction with righteousness–a love consecrated with the blood of an everlasting covenant, and shrined conspicuous and triumphant amid the honor of a vindicated law. Only imagine a translation of this sort, a translation truly out of darkness into the marvelous light of the gospel; and do you not perceive, that with the light of the gospel I the mind, the love of the gospel in the heart will follow in its train? and that the love of goodwill in God,, when once seen and recognized by us, will surely draw our love of gratitude back again? If we had but the perception, the emotion would come unbidden, or, in the words of the apostle, if we knew and believed the love which God hath to us, we should love God because He first loved us.

And here we may understand the regenerating power of Faith . One of its functions is to justify. But its higher and greater function is to sanctify men. Let but the cold obstruction of unbelief be removed; and from that moment, the emancipated heart, as if by the operation of a charm, will beat freely and willingly in love to God, and love for. all His services. This new faith were the turning-point of a new character; and in the difference between God viewed as an object of terror, and God viewed as an object of confidence–on that single difference, a complete moral revolution is suspended. Let me be made to know and to believe that God loves me; and, by a law of my mental constitution, I shalt be made to love Him back again. The intellectual precedes the moral change. It is doctrine, an article of doctrine, not in the place which it occupies as the dogma of a theological system, but as actually seated in the heart and the article there of a substantial and living creed–it is this which subdues the whole man into a new creature. The executive power of working this great transformation lies in the truth. In other words, let the faith of the gospel enter the breast of any individual, and it will renovate the man. Let the faith be universal, and we shall have a renovated world.

We might here indulge in the brilliant perspective of a regenerated species, and that through the practicable stepping-stone, of a declared gospel–seeing that if its doctrine of God loving the world were as generally accepted as it might be heralded through all our pulpits, a nation would be born in a day. But let us rather at present urge a lesson, which each of you might carry personally and practically home; and tell how it is, that one might animate his own heart with the love of God, and keep this sacred affection glowing there. It is not to be summoned Into being or activity at a call. It is not by any simple or direct effect, that you can bid it into operation within you. You can say to the hand, do this, and it does. But we have no such mastery over the intractable heart–nor can any of its movements be thus subjected to a volition or to a voice. We cannot, by a mere inward, and undirected lunge among the recesses of our mental constitution, conjure up any of the emotions at our pleasure. The true way of bidding an emotion into being, is to bid into the mind its appropriate and counterpart object. If I want to light up resentment in my heart, let me think of the injury which. provokes it–or to be moved with compassion, let me dwell, whether by recollection or fancy, on some picture of wretchedness–or to be regaled with a sense of beauty let me look objectively and out of myself on the glories of a summer landscape to stir up within me a grateful affection, let me call to remembrance some friendly demonstration of a kind and trusty benefactor to rekindle in my cold and deserted bosom the love of God, let God’s love to me be the theme of my believing meditations. I shall never evoke this affection by looking inwardly upon myself; but by looking upwardly to the gospel manifestations of the divine character, I may bring it down from the sanctuary that is above me. In other words it is the faith which elicits and calls out the feeling; and thus both the lessons of the Bible, and the findings of the experimental Christian, are at one with the strict philosophy of the process–when they attest that the may to keep our hearts in the love of God, is to build ourselves up on our most holy faith. Thomas Chalmers, Sermons and Discourses by Thomas Chalmers, Now Completed by the Introduction of Posthumous Sermons, (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1877), 1:159-166

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