We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:19-21 ESV)
God’s love toward us, received and believed personally, creates by the Holy Spirit God’s love in us
In other words, the love that indicates we are actually saved is NOT self-originating. The only way a self-centered sinner lives a life of self-denying life of love is if something supernatural happened. In salvation, God takes the initiative. God is the first cause. God is the originator. God’s love through Christ and by the Spirit supernaturally creates a whole new orbit of life, revolving around God and the needs of others. Understanding this is the difference between Christianity and all the other religions of the world.
Let me use a simple illustration….
This is a picture of love in salvation. God’s love to us means we horizontally love others. If this graphic was to happen in sequence, God loves us first (downward arrow). The downward arrow is first. This creates love to God and love to others. This is how salvation is of God. God takes the initiative. He loves first. He reaches down to us in love. The result is transformation (horizontal arrows).
Religion does it the opposite way. Religion begins by urging us to love others (horizontal arrows first). To do good. To be good people. Fight for social justice. If we do, now God’s love is extended to us (downward arrow second). God’s love is a response to my love. I earn God’s love. If I do enough loving things, God will love me and in the end save me.
In religion, sinners love others so God will love them. In true Christianity, God loves sinners before they love him. One is performance based salvation. The other is grace based salvation. The one magnifies man’s goodness and ability. The other magnifies God’s mercy and love. One is about man. The other is about God.
Which better reflects 1 John 4:19? We love him because he first loved us. I hope you see it clearly.
When God loved us first, where God loved us, how God loved us, and why God loved us are wonderful and life-giving and precious truths for all who hope in God. Let’s answer those.
When did God first love us? In eternity past he chose to love us
While there is mystery to us how God is eternal and how his eternal purposes are accomplished, there is no mystery to God in this. He has explained it to us this way: in eternity past, before he created the world and us, he purposed the whole story. Everything. When he purposed and planned the story of everything, he chose to love us even back then.
He loved us before we existed. Is that so hard to believe? That God loved us before we existed? Can a woman have love in her heart for a future husband she prays for? This past Valentine’s Day, Jennifer gave me a special gift. It was a journal in which she wrote an entry every Valentine’s Day starting February 14, 2002. It starts out, To my dearest husband…. She wrote in the journal for 12 years before God brought us together. Love letters to a future and as yet, unknown, husband.
Can a parent already feel love for a child who hasn’t arrived yet? Of course. If we humans can have present love for future people, why can’t God? God says, I loved you even back then.
…Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:4-6, emphasis added)
God chose to love us before the foundation of the world. This is the amazing love of God. Before we even were, he chose to love us and he chose to adopt us.
This serves to highlight that man’s salvation does not begin with man, it begins with God. He loved us before we even were. Let’s say this wasn’t true. That somewhere along the way, during the story of man, God decided, “OK, now I’ll love you.” We would easily think, “God found us to be love-worthy! The cross is a statement about our worth and value! What amazing people we must be!”
In order to insure that we never think God’s love for us is based on our worth, performance, or anything else, God chose to love us and adopt us before time began.
How did God first love us? He loved us in our sin and hatred for him
This may seem confusing at first for a couple reasons. First, it doesn’t feel like we are in revolt against God. Society goes on day-to-day, and from our perspective, good people do life in a generally positive direction while bad people do the stealing, cheating, and murdering.
God’s perspective is far different. Humanity as a whole is set against God. We are all in moral and spiritual rebellion against him.
As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12)
How did he love us? He loved us in the midst of and in spite of our spiritual rebellion against him.
…But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
This also answers the “where.”
Where did God first love us? The cross is God’s “I love you”
While were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Jesus’ death in our place, bearing our sin, the death we deserved, is God’s love statement. John will also write, Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). Jesus was our friend. He is a friend of sinners. He died for us.
God loved us by giving of himself for us. Jesus loved us by giving his life for us. Love starts with God. Our love is a responding love; a grateful love for his first love of us.
“I will crush my Son under the full fury of my righteous wrath for you. In the Garden of Gethsemane, my Son will cry out for this bitter cup to pass from him. And I will remain silent. Why? Because I love you that much. And when my Son utters that shriek on the cross, unlike any other protest in all of history, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” I will again remain silent. Why? To convince you that I love you. Behold the supreme demonstration of my love—the cross—the death of my Son. What more can I say? What else do you require to be convinced of my love for you?” (C.J. Mahaney, For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper, p. 39.)
Why did God love us first? For the glory of his grace and our confidence in his eternal love
This isn’t the question 1 John 4:19 answers, but it is the natural question a sinner asks when he grapples with God’s love. Why? Why would you love me? Herein lies the wonder and praise of God’s electing and eternal love. That question is the question of genuine faith. As the song says, Amazing love, how can it be, that thou my God shouldst die for me?
By loving us as he has, it insures that we can’t take any credit for our love for God or others. We love because he first loved us. This should produce a tremendous humility among genuine Christians. A humble love that looks toward others and serves them with the kind of love we have received from God.
That is why love and non-love are such good indicators of our spiritual standing before God. It’s easy to see where hate comes from, but love—this kind of love—can only come from God and indicates that we are children of God.
He loves you. Christian, he loved you before you were you. He loved you before you believed. He loved you in your sin. If he loved you then, he loves you now and he will always love you.
So it may feel like we discover the gospel or we find God or that our journey leads us to God. In reality, this is a story of God finding us.
Ken Gire tells a great story of a little girl who lived at the edge of a forest and wandered off one day into the woods and thought she would explore all the dark secrets of the forest. The farther she wandered, the denser it became, till she lost her bearings and could not find her way back. As darkness descended, fear gripped her, and all her screams and sobs only wearied her till she fell asleep in the woods. Friends, family, and volunteers combed the area and gave up in the thick of night. Early the next morning, as her father began his search afresh, he suddenly caught a glimpse of his little girl lying on a rock and, calling her by name, ran as fast as he could. She was startled awake and threw her arms out to him. Wrapped in his tight embrace, she repeated over and over, “Daddy, I found you!” (Ken Gire, Source Unknown)
We are the little girl. It feels to us like we are the ones doing the rescuing; we are the seekers; we are the search party out to find God, to find our way home, to save ourselves. But the real wonder of the story is that God found us. He loved us. He forgave us. He saved us. He will love us for all eternity.
We love him because he first loved us.
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
©2013 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.
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