The Secret of Loving God
© Copyright 2002 by Tony Capoccia. This updated file may be
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Verses quoted, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the HOLY
BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION © 1978
by the New York Bible Society, used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
An audio copy of this sermon, Preached by Tony Capoccia, is available on Audio Tape Cassette or CD at www.gospelgems.com
“We love [Him] because he first loved us.” - 1 John 4:19
This morning, those of us who were here meditated on the connection between faith and love, so I thought we had needed to pursue the same subject somewhat further, hoping that we might still receive divine instruction on that important theme.
You must have noticed how continually John blends faith with knowledge and love, as in the sixteenth verse of this chapter: “We know and rely on the love God has for us.” All through this Epistle, he constantly repeats the words “we know,” “we know,” “we know,” “we know;” and perhaps even more frequently he uses the word “love.” Knowledge, faith, and love are interwoven together so closely that they cannot be separated. They are interwoven and united like the foundation of a fabric, and so they really become one. To know Christ, to trust Christ, to love Christ, these are among the elementary principles of holiness. Without all of these graces, there is no true religion; but if these things are in us, and abound, then we will never be harsh or unfruitful.
When you notice that knowledge, faith, and love are placed like a set of precious jewels in a treasure chest, it leads you to see how necessary it is that all the powers of our nature should be renewed. Our intellects need to be regenerated, so that we may be able to know Christ, for those who are unspiritual do not know him. They hear about him, but they are strangers to him. Spiritual things are only known to spiritual men. Faith is an act partly of the intellect and partly of the affections, and we must therefore have both head and heart renewed by the Spirit of God, or we shall not have true faith. Even though the mind may be purified, it will not be sufficient unless the soul is also cleansed, because love to God never comes out of a foul heart; it is a plant that will not grow on the dunghill of our corrupt nature. We must be transformed by the renewing of our minds, or else we can never know God, nor trust God, nor love God. In fact, it comes to this, as Christ told Nicodemus, “You must be born again;” there must be a thorough, real, radical change, not of this part or that, but of the whole person. He who sits on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” [Revelation 21:5]; and all who come into his kingdom are made new creatures in Christ Jesus just as much as if they had been annihilated, and had been created over again. What a solemn influence this truth should exercise over us! In what a clear light is true religion thus set before us! It is no mere child’s play, no matter to be settled offhand, without thought or consideration. Search yourselves, and see whether the Spirit of God has produced in you the true knowledge, the true faith, and the true love; for, otherwise, whatever you may think you possess of any of these things is not of God.
This short text is one from which I have often preached to you and I hope to preach from it a good many more times if I am spared, for it is one of those inexhaustible wells into which you may let down the bucket every morning, and always pull it up full. It is a mine with a good many seams of the richest ore. You may think that you have dug all its treasures out, but you have only to sink a new shaft, to find that there is another seam just as rich as the former one; and when you have brought all that wealth to the surface - and that may take your whole lifetime - someone else may sink another shaft, and open up a fresh vein.
I. I shall try to explain the text, first, by showing you that OUR LOVE TO GOD IS A FACT WHICH DESERVES AN ACKNOWLEDGMENT AND A CONFESSION.
Is it a fact with you, dear friend, or is it not? Let every one of us answer this question for himself or herself. With some of us, blessed be God, it is a fact that we do love God; and it is a fact that is worth speaking out, and worth writing down. The Holy Spirit himself thought it worthwhile to move John to write down for himself and for his brothers and sisters in Christ, “We love him.” Some feel that they must honestly confess that they do not love the Lord, and there may be others who are quite indifferent as to whether they love him or not; but there are some who must acknowledge their affection for him. The very stones in the street would cry out against them if they did not confess their love to their Lord; they feel compelled to say, in the face of all the world, “We love him.” They do not say it in a boastful way, for they give the reason why they love him - “because he first loved us” - a reason drawn from the grace of God which prevents any boasting concerning it. Yet, trustfully, boldly, without a second thought, they say outright, so that everyone may hear it, “‘We love him.’ Others may not, but we do; and we gather together as a company of people who are agreed on this point, ‘We love him.’ We love God; especially as he is revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ, his One and Only and dearly beloved Son, who loved us, and gave himself for us.”
If you ask me, “Why should this fact to be acknowledged and proclaimed?” I answer, first, because there is no good reason for concealing it.
I cannot imagine a true Christian saying, “I love Christ, but I don’t want others to know that I love him, lest they should laugh at me.” That is a reason to be laughed at, or rather, to be wept over. Afraid of being laughed at? O friend, this is indeed a cowardly fear! Aren’t there some of Christ’s servants, who live in the full view of the public, and whose names are ridiculed every hour of the day? Yet has that ridicule ever broken their bones, or their hearts? Truly, never; and if God makes us Christians, we ought never to be afraid of such a thing as a sneer, or a jeer, or a joke on account of our Christianity.
Perhaps some will say that they do love Christ; but that, if they publicly declared their affection for him, they would provoke opposition.
Of course you would; didn’t God himself say so to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers”? [Genesis 3:15] Did you expect the woman’s offspring to be loving the Lord, and yet not to be opposed by the serpent’s offspring? Didn’t Jesus say to his disciples, “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”? [John 15:19] You know how the world treated him; and shall the disciple be above his Master, the servant above his Lord?
So, my brothers and sisters, if you do love the Lord, say, “We love him,” for there is no good reason why you should not affirm your affection for him; but, on the other hand, there is abundant reason why you must do so:
1. First, you should publicly acknowledge your love for Christ, because Jesus Christ deserves and demands that acknowledgment.
He was not ashamed of his love for us. He left all the glories of heaven that he might take up our cause; and when we came to his feet, burdened, and guilty, and full of despair, there was not one lovely trait in our character to attract him toward us; yet he took pity on us, and loved us, and saved us; and now he pleads for us in heaven. He is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters; so, surely, we ought, bravely and joyfully, to declare that we are on his side.
We should not need any urging to that make that declaration; but if we do, let us remember that Christ claims it, for he has said, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels” [Mark 8:38]. And he also said, “Whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. But he who disowns me” - and the apposition, you see, makes that word “disown” mean “he that does not confess me” - “But he who disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God” [Luke 12:8-9]. Come, then, brothers and sisters, since Christ demands it, and so richly deserves it, let the acknowledgment of this fact be made, if in fact it is true that, “We love him.”
2. Secondly, you should publicly acknowledge your love for Christ, because it puts you among the most blessed company.
I wish I had the tongue of the eloquent, so that I could depict for you that great cloud of witnesses up on high who, with one voice, cry out, “We love him.” If I ask everyone who is in heaven this very moment, “Who among you loves Jesus Christ?” I would immediately hear a response, like Niagara Falls in volume, but far sweeter in sound, “We love him;” and above all human and angelic voices, comes the declaration, of the eternal Father, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” [Matthew 3:17].
Look through all the pages of history, and ask the noblest men and women, who still seem to live, this question, “Who loves Christ?” and, at once, up from dark dungeons and cruel racks of torture there rises their confession, “We love him;” and from the fiery stake, where they clapped their hands with joy as they were being burned to death, the same answer comes, “We love him.” If you could walk through the miles of catacombs of Rome, and if the holy dead, whose dust lies there, could suddenly wake up, they would all shout, “We love him.” The best and bravest of men, the noblest and purest of women, have all been in this glorious company; so, surely, you are not ashamed to come forward, and say, “Put my name down among them. Though the lowliest of them all, I wish that ‘we’ might comprehend me, and my children, and my friends, that we all might be able to truthfully say, ‘We love him.’ “Happy are they who enlist in such an army as this, which has inscribed on its banners this grand declaration, “We love him.”
3. Thirdly, if you do love the Lord, confess that fact, because your acknowledgment may influence others.
It may be that some, who do not yet love him, will be constrained to do so when they hear you say, “We love him.” Many a child has learned to love Christ through his parents’ godly example; and many a stranger to true religion has been induced to yield his heart to Jesus by seeing the loving behavior of those who were Christ’s disciples. So, for this poor world’s sake, confess your love to your Lord. Perhaps you will never be a preacher, and you needn’t wish to be one unless you are divinely called to the office; but you can at least confess Christ; and, by that acknowledgment, and by living consistently with it, you will draw one or two to the Savior, in whose sight every soul is precious beyond all value.
4. Fourthly, you must publicly acknowledge your love for Christ, because it may be a great blessing to yourself to declare your love to Christ.
I always look back, with deep gratitude, to the day when I was baptized. You know that we baptize no one except those who profess to have believed in our Lord Jesus Christ, so it is absolutely certain that we attribute no saving grace to baptism in water; yet, at the same time, we have proved, again and again, that there is a distinct blessing in the observance of the ordinance. It was so in my case; up to that time, I was timid and fearful, and afraid to confess Christ; but after I went into the river, and was publicly baptized into his death, I lost all fear of man, and I think I can honestly say that I have never been ashamed to acknowledge my Lord from that day to this. That coming out boldly for Christ was like passing the point of no return, or burning the boats; no retreat was possible after that, nor have I ever wanted to go back to the world from which I then came out. The world has had many an cruel word for me from that day to this, and there is no love lost between us; I am done with the world as the world is done with me; I am crucified to the world, and the world to me. And you Christian people will find it good when you also can say, “We have come out from the world, and we love Christ.” Perhaps somebody says, “I would not be admitted into certain social classes of society if I were to confess Christ.” Society? Who cares?
“In such society as this
My weary soul would rest:
The man that dwells where Jesus is,
Must be forever blessed.”
Be totally committed for Christ; unfurl your colors, never hide them, but nail them to the mast, and say to all who ridicule the saints, “If you have any cruel and unkind words for the followers of Christ, pour them out on me. If you call us Bible-thumping hypocrites, or whatever - say what you like about us, I am quite prepared to bear my share of your slander, I will even glory in it, if so it must be; but know this - you will hear it whether you like it or not - ‘I love Christ;’ and among the people, whose names are written down as lovers of the Lord, my name shall stand, unworthy as I am of such an honor.” This is a fact which deserves acknowledgment, and I would rejoice if I could induce some of you, who have never made that declaration, to join yourselves openly with the people of God in our Lord’s appointed way.
II. Now we will take the text in another way, and note, secondly, that OUR LOVE IS AN EFFECT FLOWING FROM A CAUSE: “We love because he first loved us.”
1. First, it is not the result of effort.
We do not love God because we tried to do so; true love cannot come in that way. You may say, “I intend to think,” and you may succeed in doing it; but you cannot act like that with regard to love. Oh, no! love is not a slave, to be at any man’s beck and call; it is a master; and when even the lowest form of love comes on a man, it carries him away wherever it will. So, this highest type of human love - our love to God - overpowers us; it is never the result of effort on our part. Did you ever hear a mother say, “I will try to love my child”? I don’t know how she would go to work to bring about such a state of things as that. Oh, no! she loves her child naturally, she cannot help loving her own offspring. I never tried to love my sons; I cannot help loving them; my love to them is not the effect of any effort on my part. It is as free as the dew that drops from heaven; we may not know how it comes, but we know that we have not made it.
2. Secondly, love to God is not produced in any heart as a matter of duty.
We love God, not because we felt that we ought to love him, but “because he first loved us.” A sense of duty is a very proper thing concerning many matters, and I don’t deny that it is our duty to love God with all our heart, and mind, and soul, and strength, for this is the very essence of the law of the Lord; but no man ever does love as a mere matter of duty. You love even an earthly object because you cannot help yourself, and you love God because he is infinitely lovely, and because he has so completely won your heart as to engross your whole affection. Because he first loved us, and that love of his has been shed abroad in our hearts, we have loved him in return as a matter of course; we could not help doing so. The mighty depths of his immeasurable love, high up on the eternal hills, flow down into the inmost recesses of our empty hearts; and when, afterwards, a fountain of love is seen springing up out of them, the secret of its action is to be traced to that great reservoir way up on the everlasting hills.
So our love to God is not the result of effort, nor does it arise from a sense of duty.
3. Thirdly, our love to God comes by knowledge and faith.
As John says, “We know and rely on the love God has for us.” [1 John 4:16] We have been informed, by a revelation in the Bible, which we accept as infallible, that “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.” We have believed in him; that is, we have trusted him; we know, therefore, that we shall not perish, but that we have eternal life; and now we love God for having bestowed on us the priceless gift of his dear Son to redeem us from death and destruction.
4. Further, the cause of our love to God abundantly justifies it.
People say that “love is blind;” but, in this case, the eyes of love are wide-open and far-seeing. Love can look the Savior in the face, and point to his beauties, which fully justify all its admiration of him, and devotion to him. We read the story of Christ - of his unique life in human flesh, and his sacrificial death for our sins, and we say that, if we did not love him, we would be the most ungrateful of all men. As he has laid down his life for us, and as he still lives to carry on the work of our salvation, as he has loved us from before the creation of the world, and will love us when this world has passed away, we must love him. It is wasting words to argue over this matter; there is, in the natural and proper order of things, an absolute necessity that such a love as Christ’s is should have the supreme affection of our hearts in return.
We also feel that “because he first loved us” is such a cause that is capable of producing a far larger result than we have ever experienced yet.
“Because he first loved us,” we expect to love him much more than we do at present; and we believe that, if we loved him so much that men called us fanatics, we would be perfectly justified; and that, if our heart was completely taken up with him - if we lived for nothing else but to serve him - if our every breath and pulse was devoted to him - if we laid down our lives for him; yes, if we had ten thousand lives, and laid them all down for him - we think that such love as that which he spontaneously showed to us when we were his enemies would perfectly justify us for doing all that, and ten thousand times more if it were possible.
So you see dear brothers and sisters, that our love to our Lord Jesus Christ is an effect produced by a great cause, namely, his eternal love to us. Oh, if you really believe that he has loved you so, sit down, and turn the subject over in your mind, and say to yourself, “Jesus loves me; Jesus chose me; Jesus redeemed me; Jesus called me; Jesus has pardoned me; Jesus has taken me into union with himself. Jesus has made me to be a part of the bride, the Lamb’s wife; I shall be one with him forever. He will put a crown on my head, and I shall sit with him on his throne; and this may happen within a week, perhaps I shall spend next Sunday seeing him face to face.” With such a hope as this, you must love him, must you not? Can your hearts resist his charms?
Hard is the heart that does not feel some sweet affection move, whenever the love of Christ is proclaimed. Yet we must not try to make ourselves love our Lord, but look to Christ’s love first, for his love to us will create in us love to him. I know that some of you are greatly distressed because you cannot love Christ as much as you would like to do, and you keep on fretting because it is so. Now, just forget your own love to him, and think of his great love to you; and then, immediately, your love will come to something more like that which you would desire it to be.
III. But now, thirdly - and I must speak only briefly on each point - OUR LOVE IS A SIMPLICITY FOUNDED UPON A MYSTERY. “We love.” That is simple enough. “Because he first loved us.” Ah! there is a great mystery which none of us can fully understand.
I say that our love to Christ is a very simple kind of love, and I want you to keep it that way, because some people treat it metaphysically, that is in an abstract manner.
Now, what is love? Will somebody give us a clear definition of it. Yes; now will somebody else give us another? By the time that we have two or three hundred definitions of love, and put them all together, it is very probable that we shall have lost all idea of what love really is. It is delight, it is contentment, it is longing for association; it is - well, you know what it is, don’t you? - for if not, I can’t tell you what it is. We get into the region of metaphysics when we begin to talk about love, and there we lose ourselves; and I have known people try to describe what love to Christ is, and, very soon, they have gone down in that sea. They could not explain it, for it is not easy to explain.
Sometimes, I meet with persons struggling with this. One says, “I have read that I should love Christ with a unbiased love, ‘Not with the hope of gaining anything; not seeking a reward,’ (Francis Xavier) and so on, - teaching us that we should love Christ simply for his own sake?” Yes, I know of this teaching, and that many holy men have thought they kept to that, and I daresay they have; but I also know that love may be perfectly genuine, and yet be as far as possible from being unbiased. For instance, do you doubt the reality of the love of that little babe to its mother? No; if there is love anywhere, it is in that tiny child towards its parent. But is that love unbiased? Certainly not. Isn’t the love of dear children to their father and mother true love, and very sweet love, too? Of course it is, and we delight in it; but is it unbiased?
No; they love us because, for years, they have received kindness from us, and they expect we shall treat them in the same fashion in the future; and I think that you and I will never be able to talk about being unbiased in our love to God when the very breath we breathe is his gift, his daily mercy supplies us with food, and we are clothed and cared for by his love. We are debtors, so deeply drowned in obligation to him, that we must stop talking about being unbiased. Why, we are always receiving something or other from our God, and so we shall be till we die. We are beggars at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, receiving daily alms from Christ; and, inasmuch as John, who was, perhaps, the noblest of all the saints, only got so far as to say, “We love because he first loved us,” I would be quite satisfied if I can get as far as John did; and if you cannot say anymore than that, you may be very content if you can join with John and the rest of the disciples of Christ in saying, “We love because he first loved us.” Don’t trouble yourself about the metaphysical distinctions which some try to draw. If you do love Christ, it is a simple thing, though you may not be able to explain it to others, or even to yourself.
Further, you must not always expect to display that love to the same extent.
We are sometimes very foolish about that matter. You have an intense affection for your child, but you are busy all day long in your shop or your warehouse, and, perhaps, throughout the whole day, not one thought of your boy has crossed your mind. Does anybody say that you do not love him? No; your love was just as true as ever, but there were other things that claimed your attention. Possibly, you are away on a long trip; and, one evening, as you are sitting down to rest, there comes a letter from your child, and as you read it, you say, “Bless his little heart, I wish I had him on my knee at this moment.” Something has come, you see, to awaken the love that was there all the while, for true love in our heart is often like the pheasant in the field. When somebody comes near, up they go; yes, but they were there before; they would not have flown up if they had not been under cover. So, often, do the graces of Christians hide themselves away for a time till the occasion for their display arises; and, then, up they start, but they would not have started up if they had not been there. We were singing, a few minutes ago,
“If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ‘tis now.”
Well, if you meant it then, you will still love him tomorrow, when your hands are busily occupied at your job, or your brain is counting up the long rows of figures which make your eyes ache, or you have to wait upon so many customers that you get utterly weary. You may not be able to be always thinking about divine subjects; but if your heart is right, your love to your Lord is there all the while. We cannot always tell, during the day, where the crows live, for they fly all over the fields; but, at night, we see which way they go, as they fly to where their nests are. So, your thoughts may fly here and there during the day; but when you get home, they come back to your blessed Lord and Master. That is where the home of your heart is, for when it gets the opportunity, - when it is let go, as the apostles were, it goes to its own company. So may it always be with you, beloved!
But our love to Christ, though it is, in itself, a simple thing, is based upon a great mystery.
The mystery is, that he should ever have loved us at all. Can anybody tell us how it was that Christ ever began to love us? I sometimes imagine that I could explain why Jesus Christ loved some of you; but I cannot conceive why he ever loved me; that is a matter which I must leave until I see him; but I suppose it was because he just wanted to do so, because he determined it by his own sovereign will. Certainly, I cannot conceive of any other reason; and if any of you ever think that you were saved because you were better than other people, or that you owe being selected for salvation because of your own free will - well, I am glad if there are any such good people about, but I know that it was not so with me; and I think that the most of God’s people will say, “No, no, no, no; if there is any difference between us and others, it is the grace of God that has made it, so let him have all the glory of it.” There is a difference between some of us and others whom we know, and whoever made it happen ought to have the crown for it. If you made your own salvation happen yourself, then you can claim the crown; but I know that you will not do that if you are really a lover of the Lord, but that you will cry out with us, “Not to us, O LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness” [Psalm 115:1]. So I conclude that we are all agreed that the difference between us, and our former selves, and our old companions, is one which sovereign grace has made, and that this is a great mystery, although our love in return for it is a simple fact.
IV. I can only give you just a few sentences upon our last point, which is this - OUR LOVE IS A FORCE SUSTAINED BY A HIGHER FORCE.
Our love is a force. If you truly love God, you will feel it deep within you. It is a force that comforts and encourages us.
Out of love to God, we feel that we can even dare the devil to do his worst against us. When love fills us up completely, it makes us courageous.
Love to God also constrains us.
With the apostle Paul, we say, “Christ's love compels us” [2 Corinthians 5:14]. Because of this love, we often do things which we would never have chosen to do on our own, and we leave undone the things we once wanted to do. “Love is strong as death;” and when it once gets full possession of a person, it will completely carry them away; and love to God is indeed a mighty force, of which, perhaps, we have not any of us proved the full power as yet.
But it is a force which is kept up by a higher force - namely, the love of God to us.
What a force that is! Who can ever estimate its power? The love of God to men was so strong that, when death and hell struggled against it, they were driven away like chaff before the wind. All our sins stood, like a mighty mountain, barring our way to God; but his love leveled every hill, and made a clear path by which we might approach his mercy-seat. The love of God to his people is omnipotent; there is no force in nature that can for a single moment be compared with it. It is irresistible, for the love of God conquered God himself, and brought him down to earth in human form -
“First, in our mortal flesh, to serve;
Then, in that flesh, to die.”
“Found guilty of an excess of love,” our Savior was put to death that he might redeem us. He could lose his life for us, but he could not lose his love to us. O mighty force! Then, don’t you see, my brothers and sisters, if there is such a force as this to draw upon, that the love of God, when it is poured out in our hearts, can give our love a greater force than it has ever had? With that greater force, there can be put into our lives an energy which we have never known. It is possible for us to rise to something far higher than we ever have in our past; we can do something more than we have ever dreamed of doing; and God can use us to perform nobler deeds of self-denial, to rise to greater heights of daring, and to stoop to deeper depths of humiliation than we have ever done before. Oh, strong Son of God, nothing could stop you immortal love: neither pain, nor grief, nor bloody sweat, nor death itself, could stop you; and, by your sacred passion, we implore you to let your love drop into our souls till we too shall become strong, like yourself, according to our measure, and shall be able to contend for you, to suffer for you, to live for you, and to die for you, all the while giving this as the explanation of it all, “We love because he first loved us”! God bless you, beloved, for Christ’s sake! Amen.
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