Faith and Disappointment
The life of faith is not immune from the disappointments and heartaches of what Paul calls “the sufferings of this present age” (Roms.8v18). God does not exempt his children from unexpected, sorely wounding providences. In 2 Cor.1v8, Paul tells us that the hardships and pressures he and his friends were experiencing were so severe, that “we despaired even of life”! Even in the model life of faith, we find our Lord Jesus Christ experiencing disappointment, opposition, hardships, and bereavement. Nowhere does God imply that his believing children will be cocooned from the struggles, disappointments and perplexities of living in a fallen world. On the contrary, in addition to this the Lord tells us that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2Tim.3v12). Without this spiritual realism, our lives will become the prisoners of circumstance, rising and falling depending on the kind of circumstances that touch our lives.
But the Lord has given us infinitely more than the grace of spiritual realism in order that we might cope with the heartaches, disappointments and mysteries that inevitably touch our lives. First of all, he promises us his unfailing presence in all our times of need: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebs.13v5). More than that, he promises to be the indwelling Helper of his children. In the Upper Room, as he faced the Cross, the Lord Jesus assured his disciples, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (Jn.14v18). He was speaking of his coming in his Spirit to be their abiding indwelling Sanctifier and Friend. Whatever difficulties and disappointments you face, however sore God’s unexpected providences, of this you can be sure, you are never alone! All the resources of the Godhead are for you and in you! Believe this!
More than this, God assures us that not one unexpected providence that touches his children’s lives is fortuitous. Our God is the One “who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph.1v11). Here we come face to face with God’s unconditional sovereignty. But this truth is revealed in Scripture not as a puzzle to unravel, but as a comfort to embrace! Who is this God who is unconditionally sovereign over all things? He is the God who “spared not his own Son, but gave him up for us all” (Roms.8v32). He is “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2Cor.1v3). It is our loving heavenly Father who does whatsoever he pleases. Who God is to us in Christ is our assurance that “Our Father’s hand will never cause his child a needless tear”. Believe this. By faith draw out the comfort of being a dearly loved and precious child of a sovereign and loving Father.
There is another strand of encouragement that God gives to us in his Word. In 2 Cor.1, where Paul recounts the great pressures that were causing him to despair even of life, he tells us that “this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” God was pleased to bring his servant into such straitened circumstances in order to strengthen his trust and confirm his obedience. Samuel Rutherford made the same point: “Faith is the better for the free air and the sharp winter storm in its face. Grace withereth without adversity.” God always has our eternal as well as our present good in mind in his relations with us. John Newton’s celebrated hymn, “These Inward Trials”, captures the grace of God’s dealings with his hard-pressed children. Having asked the Lord for growth in “faith and love and every grace”, the child of God finds his life assaulted on all sides by unexpected and sore providences. In response to the Christian’s perplexity at what has happened, the Lord replies: “These inward trials I employ, From self and pride to set thee free, And break thy schemes of earthly joy, That thou mayest seek thy all in me.” The Lord always and ever has our best before him. He is “the gardener” who lovingly prunes the branches united to his Son so that they will bear “even more fruit” (see Jn.15v1-2).
Until we go to be with the Lord, we will find unexpected, and sore, providences touching our lives. It cannot be otherwise, for the servant is not greater than the Master! But, though we might well be hard pressed on every side, we are never crushed. Though we might well be perplexed, we are never in despair. Even if we are persecuted, we are never abandoned. (see 2Cor.4v8-9). God will not exempt us from the tears or the pains; but he will be with you, and in you, every step of the way, bringing the infinite resources of the Godhead graciously to sustain you and make you “more than a conqueror”. He who promised is faithful.
The Focus of faith
One of the most deeply moving, and constantly recurring, features in the Bible is God’s unyielding commitment to his covenant people. It is altogether breath-taking to see God’s enduring faithfulness to a people who were in turns rebellious, disobedient, forgetful and plain ungrateful towards him. This unyielding faithfulness is graphically illustrated in the Israelites‘ confession of sin in Nehemiah 9. As they survey their spiritually checkered history, and especially their wilful defections from their covenant Lord, the people plead the enduring faithfulness and grace of his character: “But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them, even when they cast for themselves an image of a calf and said, ’This is your god, who brought you up out of Egypt', or when they committed awful blasphemies.” These are astonishing words. Of course, as Paul discovered, such unfettered grace can be used an excuse for living antinomian lives ( read Roms.6v1ff). To the child of God, however, the grace of God’s character, far from being an excuse to go on sinning, is the greatest incentive to hate sin and with the Spirit’s help to put sin to death in our lives.
It is true, however, that God reveals the grace of his character not merely for our admiration, but also for our emulation. What Paul writes to Christians in Ephesus brings us face to face with the life believers are called to in our union with Jesus Christ: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children...” (Eph.4v32-5v1). We are to treat one another with the same patience, forbearance, generosity and kindness, as the Lord has treated us. We are to mirror and reflect in our lives something of the “family likeness”. This is daunting, to say the least. And yet, this is the life that every Christian is called to.
This high and holy calling to be imitators of God in the way we treat one another (face to face and when speaking with others!), is pressed upon the Ephesian Christians by Paul (read Eph.4v1-2). What is so important for us to grasp is the reason why Paul so passionately urges Christians to “bear with one another in love” - do so, he says, to “Maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Christian unity was not a marginal doctrine for Paul. Nor was it something that was of peripheral concern for him. Christian unity, for Paul, was of paramount importance. It was his concern to guard Christian unity, the unity that all believers have through our union with Jesus Christ, that prompted Paul to urge God’s people to “be completely humble and gentle (and) be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Eph.4v2). As he lies chained in a Roman prison, the apostle’s heart pleads for God’s own people to cherish their unity in Christ and to do all they can to preserve and beautify that Spirit-wrought unity.
Never has the Church more needed to hear and heed these words. We live in a world obsessed with its own rights. The “pick and mix” character of consumerism has invaded the life of the Church, and all but absolutised the “rights” and desires of individual believers to pursue their own concerns with little regard for other Christians. The slogans of society’s gurus are increasingly heard within professing Bible-believing churches: “Be true to yourself!” “Find your own space!” “Develop a positive self-image!” “Recover self-esteem!” It is little wonder that if Christians are listening to society’s “self-image gurus”, that the evangelical church is so fragmented, self-absorbed, and increasingly a stranger to the objective, abidingly true, and life-enriching doctrines of Holy Scripture. Didn’t our Lord Jesus Christ tell us that we would find our life only if we lost it; that only if we denied ourselves and took up our cross could we follow him? (read Mark 8v34-35).
Self-absorption lies at the root of much that scars the life and witness of our Saviour’s Church today. Forgetting ourselves and seeking the good of others is not only healthy, it is a spiritual grace that helps to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” So, let me conclude with three watchwords that a good friend (sadly too often) would say to me: “Ian, is what you intend to say TRUE, KIND, NECESSARY?” Guarding the unity of the Spirit for Christ’s sake, is a calling every Christian is called to. So, says Paul, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander (and he is writing to Christians!), along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children.”
Faith Must Sometimes Look In
There was a time when spiritual self-examination was considered an essential part of the Christian life. Paul encouraged the Corinthians , “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves” (2Cor.13:5). There is, of course, an ever present danger in spiritual self-examination: we can become overly introspective, even morose. More importantly, we can forget that the Christian’s greatest encouragement and assurance does not lie within himself, but in the Lord Jesus Christ. It can hardly be denied, however, that by neglecting self-examination, Christians neglect one of Gods gracious ways to lead us on in the life of faith and obedience.
Paul’s counsel to the church in Rome is one that the church today needs to be re-acquainted with: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is - his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Roms.12:1-2)
These are deeply searching words! Paul first of all appeals to us to grasp the essence of true worship. Before it is anything else, worship, acceptable worship, involves the offering of my body to the Lord as a “living sacrifice”. Worship is the Christian’s great and glorious priority. But if our worship does not flow from a life that is unreservedly and wholly yielded to the Lord, our worship is not worship! Worship is the overflow of a crucified life, of a life that has been invaded by God’s astonishing love in Christ. How easy it would be to forget that as we engage in the “worship wars” of today. Here is something for all of us to consider: Is my worship truly worship? Does my Scripture-contoured worship flow from a life where Jesus Christ has exclusive rights? Does the Saviour truly reign unrivalled in my heart?
Paul secondly appeals to us to practice the essence of true discipleship. Paul’s encouragement to us not to be “conformed any longer to the pattern of this world”, is particularly challenging to us as we look out into a new millennium. The Church today gives the impression of only too happily falling into step with “this world”. But Christ calls us to spiritual non-conformity. This means thinking differently : “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. How differently do Christians think? What is so non-conformist about the way you think and live? This is not simply about going to church and attending prayer meetings (Though, tragically, it would seem that attending prayer meetings may soon be a mark of non-conformity in professing evangelical churches! And we wonder why our witness is so easily dismissed by the world). Rather, how differently do we live? How differently do we raise our children? How different are our ambitions? We can be orthodox in our theology and world-conforming in our thinking. How prepared are we to go where God’s Word takes us? Once evangelicals could answer that question with conviction, but no longer. We have such little confidence in God’s unadorned truth. Here is an area where we must “test and examine” ourselves. Not least because our spiritual contentment depends on this: “Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is...” The spiritual blessedness we long for is the fruit of Christ honouring living. Never doubt that.
One final thing needs to be said. Before Paul appeals to us to live consecrated, non-conformist lives, he provides us with the greatest of all incentives for doing so : “..I urge you, in view of God’s mercy (mercies) ...”! Here is why we should live consecrated, non-conformist lives. God has lavished on believers the riches of his grace: forgiveness, adoption, union with Christ, the hope of glory. How else would such blessed men and women want to live? Consecrated living is not for the “holy few”, it is to characterise every blood-bought child of God.
A new millennium. What an opportunity for us to covenant afresh with our God to begin to live to his praise and glory; to test and examine our own hearts; to live differently.
Faith and Doctrine
One of the most significant growth points in the believer’s life is the dawning realisation that Christian doctrine matters for Christian living. How we live as God’s children will be shaped by the impact of God’s truth upon our minds and hearts. This is so basic; and yet it can hardly be denied that many Christians languish in the shadows of God’s love when they should be basking in the noon-day sunshine of his love, and all because they fail to make the connection between believing the truth and enjoying the truth.
This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the lack of assurance that blights the lives of many Christians. Lack of assurance is due to many reasons. But is it not true, that for many, if not all, lack of assurance that we are truly Christ’s is due to a failure to think through the implications of the gospel’s foundational doctrine, justification by faith alone? Consider Paul’s glorious conclusion to his exposition of God’s justifying righteousness in Roms.5v1; “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Having put our trust alone in Jesus Christ, “the Lord our righteousness”, “we have peace with God”. It is a once for all, eternally settled fact. God is at peace with us. No longer does he count our sins against us - he has counted them all against Christ! No longer are we under God’s wrath - Christ exhausted his wrath against us by his sin-bearing death on the cross! No longer do we face the nightmare prospect of being forever banished from God’s presence in hell - Christ took our banishment upon himself, he went into “the far country”, that we might never be separated from God! This is what it means to be “justified”, to be, by faith alone in the saving work of Christ, eternally and irreversibly right with God. This means that the weakest, most stumbling believer is no less justified than Paul or Calvin or Edwards or Carey! Is this not the sweetest and most reassuring of truths? Of course, it can be abused. But the abuse of it does not detract from the truth and glory of it.
Now, do you see the connection between Christian doctrine and Christian living? Every believer is at “peace with God”. Augustus Toplady put the issue memorably in his glorious hymn “A Debtor to Mercy Alone”:
“More happy, but not more secure, the glorified spirits in heaven.”
This is the truth every Christian needs to ponder and suck the deepest encouragement from. It is little wonder that Martin Luther called justification by faith “The article of a standing or falling church”. He could equally have said that it is the “article of a standing or falling Christian”.
This is why we should be deeply concerned about the near eclipse of doctrine in modern day evangelicalism. The spiritual fallout from doctrine-less Christianity (if such a thing exists at all) is, and cannot but be, immense. When our Christian life is not securely anchored to the mighty, unrepeatable, saving acts of God, we become a prey, not only to “every wind of doctrine”, but to the deceits of the devil and the fluctuating moods of our temperaments. We begin to look for signs of assurance in our experiences, in our feelings, in happy providences. Our spiritual gaze becomes narcissistic: what I am, not what God has done in Christ, becomes the controlling focus of my life. Assurance becomes almost a quest for self-validation, not a rejoicing in the finished work of Christ and the grace of justifying righteousness.
It is a constant ploy of the devil to absorb us with ourselves; to turn the Christian faith into an exercise in the acquiring of self-esteem. Our great weapon against his insidious self-promoting, Christ dishonouring tactics, is to live out the connection between God’s justification of the ungodly through faith alone in Jesus Christ, and the relationship every believer now enjoys with God because of that: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Christian doctrine matters for Christian living. That was once an evangelical commonplace. Is it a truth that shapes and styles how you live? Are you learning to suck the sweet marrow of blessedness from gospel doctrines? The proof that we are will not be a swollen head, but an enlarged heart!
Faith and the Trinity
What would you say is the fundamental doctrine of the Christian Faith? For many of us, the instinctive answer would be, “justification by faith alone, in Christ alone”. There is no doubt, or should be no doubt, that this is a biblical and evangelical fundamental. Martin Luther famously and rightly described justification by faith alone, in Christ alone, as “The article of a standing or falling church”! We surely understand what Luther is saying: could anything be more important than knowing how God brings judgement deserving sinners into a right and reconciled relationship with himself? This is why we cannot in any way endorse collaboration of evangelicals with Roman Catholics in this vital area of biblical truth. Justification by faith alone, in Christ alone, is too precious by far to compromise in the interests of ecumenism. True church unity is never served by fudging God’s truth!
Equally surely, however, we cannot say that justification by faith alone is “the” fundamental doctrine of the Christian Faith. That honour rightly and surely belongs to the doctrine of the Trinity. God himself is the fundamental truth of the Christian Faith. He is Truth itself. He is the Creator, Sustainer, Initiator and Sovereign Lord of all that is. God does not exist for us, we exist for him. Paul’s declaration in Roms.11v36 wonderfully makes the point: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever! Amen”.
The pre-eminence of God’s Triune being is heralded in a number of ways in the Scriptures. In Gen.1, we see the Triune God in creation: God, his Word, and his Spirit, together bringing into being worlds and star systems out of nothing, and creating man and woman in their own image. Who we are is a personal and visual reminder to us every moment of our existence, of the priority of the Triune God. It is surely not without significance, to say no more, that God should disclose the Triunity of his being to us in the Bible’s opening chapter. All that is, has its being from, and is a reflection of, the Triune God. In the New Testament, we see the Triune God working in harmony to effect the salvation of sinners: the Father purposing, the Son saving and the Spirit applying (though all actively at work at every moment and at every phase of redemption). Our salvation flows from and owes everything to the eternal fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The writer to the Hebrews wonderfully highlights the trinitarian quality and character of Christian salvation when he speaks of Christ offering himself through the eternal Spirit to God (Hebs.9v14). Further, we see our Lord Jesus in John 17v21, praying that his church will be patterned after the harmony and inter-dependent unity of the Trinity. God’s Triunity, his essential harmony and “inter-penetratedness”, is what the church is to be modelled on. If nothing else, living more consciously of God’s essential disclosure as Triune, will in some measure (surely!), compel us to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” - which is precisely Paul’s argument in Eph.4v3-6. We could go on at length, showing how the truth of the Trinity is woven into the very fabric of biblical revelation, of Christian salvation, of the Church’s life, and of the individual believer’s growth in grace.
And yet, is it not true that Bible-believing Christians, in general, think so little about the Trinity? Is it not a fact, deeply to be lamented, that our lives are so little framed by this most fundamental of all biblical truths? The opening verses of John’s Gospel introduce to us the unspeakably glorious reality of God’s Triune being, and to its unfathomableness. Before all worlds existed, before anything was, God was! And, staggeringly, he was a community, a fellowship : “and the Word was with (‘face to face with’) God! The Father was with the Son, and the Son was with the Father. And together they were with the Holy Spirit. ”In the beginning“, an eternal fellowship of holy love and loving holiness ”was“. We ”become“, the Trinity ”was". Here, if anywhere, we are on holy ground. We speak, only so that we may not be silent (to quote Augustine)! Here we are quite out of our depth. But yet it is precisely here, that we cultivate that humility of mind that keeps us from becoming insufferably proud in our knowledge of God. Here, if anywhere, we are cut down to size.
What time do we give to pondering the revealed glory of our Triune, Saviour God? What honour do we ascribe, in our personal and corporate worship as the church, to the Persons, being and actings of our Triune God? The Christian faith rests upon and centres in the Triune God: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever! Amen”.
Faith and Brotherly Love
I recently came across this striking comment from one of the early Church Fathers, Theophylact: “It is a matter of shame to Christians, that while the devil can persuade wicked men to lay aside their enmities in order to do harm, Christians cannot even keep up friendship in order to do good.” Theophylact was commenting on Pilate and Herod laying aside their enmity and becoming friends (see Lk.23v12). It would hardly be doubted by any thoughtful Christian, that the ancient Father was speaking the truth. Thomas Brooks, the eminently readable Puritan, said something very similar: “It is a natural thing for a wolf to worry a lamb; but it is a monstrous and un-natural thing for a lamb to worry another lamb.”
Why do Christians find it so hard to practice that brotherly love that our Saviour said would mark us out as being his? No doubt the reasons are as many as there are Christians! But some reasons in particular are obvious to us all. In the first place, we are too denominationally minded. We talk too much about being Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans and the like. Don’t misunderstand me: I am a convinced Presbyterian and a passionately committed paedo-baptist. I am always being amazed that my fellow believers don’t see the wisdom and grace of these truths! But while these are precious truths to me, the Word of God reminds me that there are no Presbyterians in heaven ( nor Baptists for that matter), only Christians. It is surely possible for us to hold fast to our distinctives, without un-churching those believers who don’t; to cultivate that largeness of spirit that embraces all whom God in his grace embraces - unless, of course, we are holier than God! Before believers are anything else, they are Christians, members of the family of the living God, bound together in that divine family with a countless multitude of sinners saved by grace, blood-bought brothers and sisters.
A second reason why Christians can be less than generous-hearted to one another, is our tendency to major on doctrinal correctness. Again, don’t misunderstand me. We can never be too much concerned to believe the truth, love the truth, practice the truth and commend the truth. What then do I mean? Simply this: the New Testament takes heresy of the heart every bit as seriously as heresy of the head. When did you last hear of a Christian being disciplined for lovelessness, gossip, back-biting, or envy? It is only too possible for us to be doctrinally on the ball, be “Reformed”, and yet have cold, loveless hearts, so showing that we are not true Christians (read 1Jn.4v7-12,20-21). When God’s truth breaks into our lives, it not only informs and reforms our minds, it melts our hearts and transforms our lives. Listen to Paul: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves...Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus...”. Paul proceeds to highlight the self-denying humility of the Saviour as he pursued our everlasting good. Is it not nothing short of scandalous the way some Christians speak and write about their fellow Christians. It would do us well daily to breathe the air of Gal.5v22-23: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” If these Christlike graces are not in some measure marking our lives and our relationships, our heads may well be filled with truth, but our hearts will be as yet unregenerate! James Alexander, the eldest son of Princeton Seminary’s first professor, was not expressing a mere personal opinion when he wrote, “At judgment I heartily believe that some heresies of heart and temper will be charged as worse than heavy doctrinal errors”
A third reason why Christians are not the friends they could and should be, is fear. “The fear of man brings a snare”, says Solomon. Too often Christians are influenced by what “others will think”. Again, don’t misunderstand me. It is right that we consider the impact our words and actions will have on other Christians. But there is a tyranny that some Christians never escape from, the tyranny of fearing the displeasure of “important” believers. And so, we narrow our circle of friends and curtail our range of spiritual engagements, in order not to offend those of a less catholic-spirit. Again let me say, is it not possible for us to hold passionately to our biblical and theological distinctives, and at the same time practice that largeness of heart and spirit that marks the character of the God of grace? Too often, some Christians are more concerned not to get things wrong, than to get things right. Those two attitudes produce two Christian lifestyles: one is cramped and defensive, while the other is generous and catholic-spirited.
A recent book on The Church, has the striking title, “You in Your Small Corner” (by Mark Johnstone; Christian Focus Publications). God’s saved people, the Church, are his family. We are not to live in isolated small corners, but in inter-acting, loving fellowship. This is easier said than done. It will take effort, generosity, frankness, courage. We will never all agree about everything: we don’t need to! But we do need to learn to disagree in ways that “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace”. We do need to speak to one another, and about one another, in ways that honour the Christ we serve and the people he loves. We need to look fellow Christians in the face and see Christ. In other words, let’s be friends!
Faith Loves Christ
Reading the Letters of Samuel Rutherford is to enter a world where love to the Lord Jesus Christ is the absorbing preoccupation. Writing to a lady parishioner in 1637, he said, “Christ is a well of life; but who knoweth how deep it is to the bottom?...And oh, what a fair one, what an only one, what an excellent, lovely, ravishing one is Jesus.” Such language, and, vastly more importantly, such heart affection, appears remote, perhaps even embarrassing, to many Christians today. Neither our language about the Saviour, nor our discoursing on the Saviour, gives the impression that he is the love of our lives, the One we cherish and adore above life itself. Why are we such strangers to the unembarrassed ardour that so marked Rutherford’s(and multitudes of other Christians past and present), relationship with the Lord Jesus?
One answer that is sometimes given is that our temperaments are somewhat culturally conditioned and cannot be expected to be “fulsome” and “uninhibited” : we are English/Scottish after all! We don’t wear our hearts on our sleeves! Aside from the fact that Rutherford was as Scottish as you can get, this answer is a sad excuse. There is little doubt that the Lord has given his world a wonderful cultural and temperamental diversity. But according to our Lord Jesus, the extravagance of our love to him is not conditioned by the genetics of our temperament, nor by the geography of our nationhood, but by our grasp of his grace to us in the gospel!
In his Gospel, Luke recounts for us in the greatest detail, the anointing of the Lord Jesus by a “sinful woman” (7:36-50). As the woman lavishes her love on the saviour, Simon, Jesus‘ host, says to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is - that she is a sinner”. Jesus’ response takes us to the heart of the matter. As he concludes his searching exposure of Simon’s heart, he says, “therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven - for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little”. Consider what our Lord is saying to us. The reason why the sinful woman lavished her affections so openly and extravagantly on the Lord was because she had a deep sense of the wonder of the forgiveness of sins. The reason we love our Saviour so haltingly and so mutedly, is , at heart, because we have lost the sense of the wonder and blessedness and glory of the forgiveness of our sins.
It is an evangelical commonplace that “the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from every sin”. We are able to talk about Christ and the gospel and, to my great shame, preach about them, and not be captivated by the sheer glory of the divine mercy. We sing about “Amazing Grace”, but if the truth be told, just what is so “amazing” to us about God’s forgiving grace in Christ? “He who has been forgiven little loves little.” It has nothing to do, at heart, with nationality or genetics; it has everything to do with grasping the glory of the cross and the wonder of being a forgiven sinner, a friend and child of the living, thrice holy, triune God.
How then can we begin to love him better? How can we love him more ardently, more extravagantly, less self-consciously? There are no slick formulae, no out-of-this-world-experiences to cultivate. Simply this: Consider Jesus! Contemplate Calvary! Make the time and take the time to meditate on God’s amazing grace to hell-deserving sinners. There is no substitute for loving Christ. Let Rutherford have the last word: “Give Christ your virgin love: you cannot put your love and heart into a better hand. Oh! If ye knew him, and saw his beauty, your love, your liking, your heart, your desires would close with him and cleave to him...O Fair sun, and fair moon, and fair stars, and fair flowers, and fair roses, and fair lilies, and fair creatures, but O ten thousand times fairer Lord Jesus.”
But you may be asking the question: “How can I grow in love to my Saviour?” We ca be sure that no one experience, or number of experiences, will, in themselves, deepen and strengthen the Christian’s heart-love to the Saviour. That kind of thinking leaves us seeking “experiences”, instead of loving the Saviour. But there is, nonetheless, no escaping the question: How then do I grow in my love for him who first loved me? I must confess at this point to an aversion to “How To” books, sermons etc. The impression is often (though not always) given that if only we follow the prescribed steps we will attain our hoped-for goal. Loving another is never simply a matter of following “steps”. And yet the Scriptures summon us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ”. Our Lord himself spoke about those who “love much” and those who “love little”. How then can we be among those who “love much”? Does God’s holy and “sufficient” Word give us any guidance? Yes.
According to our Lord Jesus, those who love much are those who have a deep, felt appreciation of the depth and grace of God’s mercy to sinners (see Luke 7v47). Love grows in the fertile soil of personal indebtedness to God for his undeserved mercy to a hell-deserving sinner. The apostle John says the same thing: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a propitiation for our sins”. Love to Christ, love that is not mere emotion, comes to birth and is nourished in the soil of God’s gracious, sovereign, unfathomable, inexplicable love to guilty, judgement-deserving rebels. It’s as we “survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died” that we begin to love the Saviour - and continue to love him. There are no shortcuts. No easy to follow steps. No once for all “love-sealing” experiences. No! Our Lord wants our love to him ever to be impregnated with the daily wonder and freshness of his love to us. So, ponder Calvary. And ponder it again. And ponder it again - until, as the hymn puts it, “teach me, till there gloweth in this cold heart of mine some feeble, pale reflection of that pure love of Thine.”
The Scriptures, however, have something else of vital importance to say to us on this matter. Learning to love the Saviour is not the private preserve of the Christian. While we so often think in personal, atomistic categories, the Scriptures think in corporate and covenantal categories. Let me illustrate: as he concludes his prayer for the church in Ephesus, Paul prays, “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge...”. “Together with all the saints”!! Paul does not pray that they will love Christ better, but that together they will know Christ’s love for them better! The focus is on Christ’s love for his church, not the church’s love for him - because, it’s as we grasp the illimitable dimensions of his love for us, that we will grow in our love for him. And we are to do this “together”. The Church, the Body of Christ, his precious Bride, is a unity. Of course every individual Christian has a personal relationship with the Lord. But more importantly ( I wonder if this will grate with some), and fundamentally, the Lord relates to his people as his church. It is in corporate fellowship “with all the saints”, and not on our “ownsome”, that we are brought to know “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ”. If nothing else, this is a plea that we prize and cherish the Church of Christ; that we commit ourselves to its worship, service, witness and fellowship; that we mortify the temptation, for temptation it is, practically to exalt ourselves above the Body of Christ and pursue the spiritual life in heart isolation from “all the saints”.
I know I have barely begun to answer the question. But I have spoken to myself what I constantly need to hear. The plaintive words of William Cowper have never been out of my mind these past months: I think he says what every truly Christian heart feels:
"Lord it is my chief complaint
That my love is weak and faint;
Yet I love Thee and adore;
O for grace to love Thee more"