We’ve been working our way through Christian doctrine for the last 9 months, examining Christian teachings about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, creation, providence, sin, salvation, the atonement, the church, baptism, the Trinity, and many more. A catechism (our theme for this year) usually treats doctrines about God and God’s acts first. Afterward, it considers the appropriate human response to divine truth. The human response to divine truth can be further divided into religion and morality.
Religion concerns human action and affection directed primarily toward God. God is the object of religious acts.
Morality focuses on human action and affection directed primarily toward other human beings. Other people are the objects of moral acts.
Note: Theology is disciplined thought about God whereas religion is practical action directed to God. Ethics is disciplined thought about human moral action.
Christianity distinguishes these two kinds of human acts but does not separate them. It embraces them along with all other Christian teachings within our overall relationship to God. Jesus considered the duty to love God the most basic human responsibility and the obligation to love our neighbors as second in priority (Matthew 22:34-40). The character of our relationship to others is determined by our relationship to God. And the quality of our relationship to God is revealed by the way we treat others (1 John 4:7-21). Held in their proper relationship there can never be a contradiction between loving God and loving others, between being religious and being moral. The need to fulfill a religious duty can never excuse evil acts or enmity toward another human being. Nor should we neglect the love of God in the name of helping other people. Morality must not be reduced to religion or religion reduced to morality.
The Christian’s Religion
As we move into the practical teachings of our “catechism,” let’s first consider religion, that is, our acts and affections in relation to God. Today I want us to think about what it means to love God. It’s already clear in the Old Testament and it’s central to Jesus’ teaching that right outward actions, whether religious or moral, must be motivated by proper affections. Jesus cited the duties of loving God and neighbor as “the greatest” commandments. They are the “greatest” because they concern the root and foundation of all human action, the heart or the inner person or the will that determines the true worth of all our outward acts. However praiseworthy or helpful our religious and moral acts may seem to be from an external point of view, they are worthless before God if not motivated by love (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
What does it mean to love God? As far as I can tell there are two basic Christian models: (1) profound gratitude for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and (2) passionate desire to experience and enjoy God as the highest good. Most often, New Testament writers follow Model (1) and ground our motivation for loving God in God’s demonstration of his love for us in Jesus’ sacrifice. Paul emphasizes God’s love for us more than he does our love for God. He exercises caution about professing the purity of his love for God. That’s a matter for God to judge. But he is deeply moved by God’s love for sinners, enemies, and the godless (Romans 5:1-11). We are full of hope because “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (verse 5). Nevertheless, he is clear that our fitting response to God’s love for us is our love for God (Romans 8:28, 1 Corinthians 2:9 and 8:3).
John, in 1 John 4:9-19, grounds our ability and motivation to love God and others in God’s love for us:
9 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. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins…. 19 We love because he first loved us.”
According to model (1), then, to love God is to experience the unexpected, undeserved, and unfathomable love of God for us in the self-giving of Jesus Christ and to feel an overwhelming desire to give in return our whole being in service to God. I say “desire” but perhaps Paul’s expression “compulsion” is a better word:
“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died (2 Corinthians 5:14).
If you’ve seen what Paul saw you know something of what he felt.
Model (2)—the love of God as “the passionate desire to experience and enjoy God as the highest good”—is a subordinate but still important theme in the Bible. God is the Source of every good gift. He is beautiful, praiseworthy, great, glorious, and perfect. If each of God’s gifts are “good” and all of them together are “very good” (Genesis 1), the Giver must be surpassingly good. However, the love of God as desire for the highest good became prominent only in the patristic era under the influence of Platonic thought. Perhaps the most famous expression of the love of God as desire is Augustine’s Confessions, especially that often quoted line in the first paragraph:
“Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Every healthy, enjoyable, beautiful, truthful, and excellent thing in creation possesses those qualities because it participates in the highest of all goods, eternal perfection itself. Created goods were not designed to satisfy us completely. Their goodness evokes desire but their imperfections disappoint and drive us higher, beyond all creatures to the perfect Good from which all things flow.
According to model (2), then, to love God is to have experienced the amazing goodness and beauty of creation as a mere foretaste of the infinite perfection of God and to be set ablaze with desire to see and experience directly that divine perfection.
I think we can see that within a Christian framework these two models are perfectly compatible. Model (1) focuses on the generous, merciful, and kind acts of God in creation and salvation. In these acts we experience the undeserved love of God and are compelled to love God in return. In Model (2), we also experience the goodness of God in creation, but the emphasis falls on the perfection of God’s being rather than on the loving character of his actions. In Model (1) we experience the kindness and in Model (2) we experience the excellence of God. Model (1) is Model (2) articulated in personal terms. Apart from the biblical revelation, we might think of God’s perfection in impersonal terms, that is, as a distant ideal or an unattainable state. But in Jesus Christ we see the perfect being of Model (2) turn toward us and freely invite us weak and sinful creatures to share in his perfect life. Profound gratitude is combined with passionate desire in a perfect union!
I enjoyed this post a lot. It’s inspiring and humbling to think about how God loves us first, and how he continues to draw us into a real and transformative life.
Hope all goes well with you, Matt! It’s hard to articulate in words both aspects: that God loves us and that this love far from being permissive is transformative! But we have to try.