Considering the Love of God

In the first epistle of John, much like his gospel account of our Lord’s life and ministry, the apostle of love rightly earns this familiar title through his expositions on the love of God.  In many respects, several of these verses have become the most recognizable, most recited verses on the love of God in all of Scripture.  Surely a testimony to their simplicity, but moreso to the truths behind them.

One such passage is found in 1 John 4:10

“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

In order for us to comprehend and feel the weight of a passage like this one, concerning the love of God for us in Christ, we need to first understand the love of God for His Son.  If we are to properly appreciate the love that God has for His adopted children, and similarly the love that Christ has for those for whom He died, and subsequently avoid a man-centered understanding of these truths, then we must begin with the love between the Father and the Son.

When we consider the love that the Father has for the Son, we have only limited, imperfect examples from which to draw upon.  For instance, the Father’s love for His Son far exceeds the love that a husband has for his bride.  A husband may care for his bride, love and cherish her, protect her, but this is an incomplete, finite love when compared to God the Father’s love for God the Son.  Additionally, the love that a parent has for a child, closer in relationship, but again inadequate.  God the Father’s love for His Son far exceeds both that of a husband for his bride and a parent for their child.  In fact, if you consider anything in this world that you love, so much that you would die for it, you have but a pale shadow in comparison to the love that the Father has for the Son.  It is an infinite, everlasting, and eternal love.  It knows neither beginning or end.  It cannot be exhausted nor measured.  Our language fails to properly describe it, though we may begin with the word, perfect.  The love of God, this intra-trinitarian love, infinitely exceeds any example of love that we could possibly imagine.

To draw our minds to even an initial comprehension of the love that the Father has for the Son, Puritan John Flavel offers the following

How this gift of Christ was the highest, and fullest manifestation of the love of God, that ever the world saw: and this will be evidenced by the following particulars:

(1.) If you consider how near and dear Jesus Christ was to the Father; he was his Son, “his only Son,” saith the text; the Son of his love, the darling of his Soul: His other Self, yea, one with himself; the express image of his person; the brightness of his Father’s Glory: In parting with him, he parted with his own heart, with his very bowels, as I may say. “Yet to us a Son is given,” Isa. ix. 6. and such a Son as he calls “his dear Son,” Col. i. 13. A late writer tells us, that he hath been informed, that in the famine in Germany, a poor family being ready to perish with famine, the husband made a motion to the wife, to sell one of the children for bread, to relieve themselves and the rest: The wife at last consents that it should be so; but then they began to think which of the four should be sold; and when the eldest was named, they both refused to part with that, being their first-born, and the beginning of their strength. Well, then they came to the second, but could not yield that he should be sold, being the very picture and lively image of his father. The third was named, but that also was a child that best resembled the mother. And when the youngest was thought on, that was the Benjamin, the child of their old age; and so were content rather to perish altogether in the famine, than to part with a child for relief And you know how tenderly Jacob took it, when his Joseph and Benjamin were rent from him. What is a child, but a piece of the parent wrapt up another skin? And yet our dearest children are but as strangers to us, in comparison of the unspeakable dearness that was betwixt the Father and Christ.——Now, that he should ever be content to part with a Son, and such an only One, is such a manifestation of love, as will be admired to all eternity.

Now, considering this love that the Father has for the Son, consider that He gave, out of love, His son to be the propitiation, literally the wrath-absorbing-atoning sacrifice, for us, disgusting and vile sinners.  Stained not only with the guilt of sin, but filled to the core with rebellion against this same God that loves His Son without measure.  Consider that this same God, loving His Son as He did, freely offered Him up for sinful man.  As we are told in the passage above, this free offering of His Son was because God loved us.  This is the manifestation of the love of God, in Christ, for sinners (1 John 4:9; Romans 5:8).  This is what it means that God so loved the world (John 3:16).  When the Apostle writes, God is love, this is the starting point towards untangling the complexity of this divine attribute (1 John 4:8).

In comparison with both the love of God for Christ and the love of God, in Christ, for us sinners, how weak and feeble are our own declarations of love for our Heavenly Father.  It is not that we loved God, but that He loved us (1 John 4:10).  Yet despite this, one of the very evidences of the love that God has for us in Christ, which we share in and experience upon being born again, is that we love one another, “if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:12)  An evidence of the indwelling nature of God’s Spirit within us is love, for one another.  This outward, horizontal expression of love can only come from a heart that is oriented vertically with love from God and love for God.  As the Apostle exhorts,

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 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. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”

Therefore, dear readers, come often to the fount of God’s love and consider, meditate, draw upon the love that God has for His own Son.  Allow this to frame your understanding of the love that God has for you, in giving His only Son to die in your place.  If after contemplating the magnificent reality of God’s love, your heart is not drawn to love Him more, hardly moved closer to Him by increased affections, then perhaps the love of God does not abide in you.  Perhaps you have not come to either  be born of God or know God.  In that case, repent of your sins, turn to Christ for forgiveness with a genuine desire to love God and be loved by Him.

Learning to Walk

Walking is a universally known concept.  It’s one of those basic fundamentals that transcends from countries, societies, ethnicities, and classes.  While it’s granted that not everyone has the ability to walk, and some others may have lost the ability to walk, generally speaking walking is a given.  It’s typically not a matter of if (again granting those situations mentioned earlier), but when.  This is why we make a big deal about a baby learning to walk and even brag when our children are “early walkers.”  Given this, we understand that we do not come out of the womb walking, it’s a process of developing coordination, muscle strength, balance, and just plain old want to (desire).  Once the clumsiness and tendency towards frequent falls have been overcome, walking seems intertwined with daily life.  Apart from physical limitations, we rarely give walking a second thought.  Once mastered, it becomes as routine as breathing and blinking.  As a behavior, walking gets us where we need to be, from point A to point B and it represents progress along that path.

For these basic, universally understood reasons, perhaps it’s an easy explanation for why the concept of walking is used so often in a metaphorical sense to refer to the Christian life.  Of particular interest is the letter to believers at Ephesus.  Surveying this letter, we find the commonly translated word for walk, peripateo, used no less than seven times throughout the book.  This word is a compound word from peri, a preposition meaning of, for, about, and pateo, meaning to tread.  It’s easy to see that to walk is a reasonable translation.  However, we’re talking not so much about literally one foot in front of another, but metaphorically.  Given what we know about walking and then applying it to the Christian life, we can come up with a working definition such as, “the consistent direction, pattern, and progress of the Christian life.”

In Ephesians, we have the following uses of walk:

  • Ephesians 2:2 – refers to our old pattern of walking as unbelievers
  • Ephesians 2:10 – refers to walking in the good works, which God prepared beforehand
  • Ephesians 4:1 – an exhortation to walk in a manner worthy of your calling
  • Ephesians 4:17 – an exhortation to no longer walk as the Gentiles (pagans), in the futility of their minds
  • Ephesians 5:2 – An exhortation to walk in love
  • Ephesians 5:8 – An exhortation to walk as children of the light
  • Ephesians 5:15 – An exhortation to monitor how we walk, not as unwise, but as wise.

Clearly, at least according to the divinely inspired apostle’s letter, the Christian walk matters.  In parallel with our physical walking which we discussed above, our new birth in Christ supplies us with the ability to walk in a manner consistent with our profession of faith in Him.  However, our spiritual muscles need to be strengthened, our theological coordination and moral balance need developed, and our hearts need to have the desire to progress and move.  These can only happen as the Holy Spirit works in our lives through the Word of God.  Furthermore, this walking happens more efficiently with someone holding our hand, encouraging us to take a step, one foot in front of the other, ready and willing to help us should we fall (Philippians 3:17).  In a sense, this is a picture of discipleship.  Once we learn to walk, there’s of course no guarantee we wont stumble (James 3:2), no promise that a limb will not be disjointed or become lame (Hebrews 12:13), nevertheless walking in a consistent, godly manner should become as secondary nature as breathing (Romans 6:4; 8:4; Galatians 5:16).  We should therefore encourage and exhort others in their walk, picking up those who stumble, and guiding those who have yet to learn to walk.

The Christian walk is how we know and are known.  It is the measure of our growth and progress in the Christian life.  It is not enough to make a profession of faith in Christ, we need also to have a walk that reflects the reality and truthfulness of that profession.

“So as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” Colossians 1:10

 

The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part VIII

In a recent series, we walked through the origin and history of what we’ve termed the Universal Church theory.  We began by noting how the term used today, informed largely by the Westminster Confession, is not how it was used when it was developed during the Patristic Period (the first 400 years or so since the birth of Christ).  The chief differences being the Patristic emphasis on the visibility and organization of the catholic or universal church and its dependence on the episcopate.  From there, we walked methodically through these developments, noting the significance of this episcopate, as well as persecutions, schisms, so-called heresies as well as genuine departures from orthodoxy, the development of Christian sacralism, and culminating with the Augustinian view of the universal church, which was anything other than consistent.

With this review in mind, there are a few loose ends that need to be tied up before moving on to next historical period, and then eventually reaching some contemporary conclusions, not the least of which will be considering the concept of the ‘eschatological church.’  Our study of these developments would be incomplete without at least a brief mention of the councils and creeds that littered the landscape during and at the conclusion of our period under discussion.  It’s towards their impact on the development of the universal church theory that we now turn our attention.

Historian Philip Schaff comments on the importance of these councils

“Above the patriarchs, even above the patriarch of Rome, stood the ecumenical or general councils, the highest representatives, of the unity and authority of the Old Catholic church.  They referred originally to the Roman empire, but afterward included the adjacent barbarian countries, so far as those countries were represented in them by bishops.  They rise up like lofty peaks or majestic pyramids from the plan of ancient church history, and mark the ultimate authoritative settlement of the general questions of doctrine and discipline which agitated Christendom in the Graeco-Roman empire.” (Schaff vol. 3 pg. 330-331)

With this background into the councils and synods, we need to observe first it’s superiority, representing the highest order of unity and authority in the universal (catholic) church.  Second, we need to note that these councils were originally confined to the Roman Empire, only later extended to “barbarian countries,” but only in so much as they were represented by bishops.  Third, they were generally convened to settle matters or disputes concerning doctrinal issues.  In the face of the many heresies and schisms, these councils would sometimes allow both positions to be represented and heard and then collectively decide what was orthodoxy and what was not.

Within this system of synods, there was an order of “hierarchical gradation” broken down from smallest to largest as follows:

  • Diocesan or district councils
  • Provincial councils
  • Patriarchal councils
  • National councils
  • Ecumenical councils (superior and most important)

While there were some councils and synods convened in the third century, the real emphasis, for our purposes, is on the ecumenical councils beginning in the fourth century, of which there are two of interest, beginning in 325 with the Council of Nicaea and then 381 with the Council of Constantinople.  Throughout a period of 462 years a total of Seven Ecumenical councils were convened.  These were referred to as ecumenical for two primary reasons.  First, because they were supposedly representative of Christendom, which in itself is troubling, because it doesn’t necessarily mean genuine Christianity, only that outwardly or in name only.  Furthermore, as we’ve already hinted at, these councils were typically restricted to the Roman Empire and largely aristocratic or based on class.  Schaff notes, “strictly speaking, none of these councils properly represented the entire Christian world.” (Vol. 3, pg. 333)  Yet, as we’ll see they functioned as though they did.  Though the bishops in attendance were mostly elected representatives, nevertheless, given the geographic, class, and laity restrictions, it’s easier to see the infancy of Presbyterianism rather than Congregationalism, even if on a larger scale.  Second, they were ecumenical because of the “result, the importance and correctness of the decisions, and above all, the consent of the orthodox Christian world.” (Schaff, Vol. 3, pg 334)

Typically, these ecumenical councils were dominated by the presence of eastern (Greek/Oriental) bishops and were generally presided over by the emperor, further blurring any remaining distinction between church and state from the 4th Century on.  Turning to Schaff again, he notes, “The ecumenical councils have not only an ecclesiastical significance, but bear also a political or state-church character.” pg. 334  This isn’t a point to gloss over, the reigning emperor called, presided over, sometimes  influenced, and ratified the decisions, of which the doctrinal were called dogmas and the disciplinary were called canons.  These decisions were authoritative, being enforced by the state, and likewise considered to be “invested with infallibility” (Schaff, Vol. 3 pg. 340).  In fact, many, from Constantine, to Athanasius, Pope Leo and Pope Gregory, to Justinian and others considered the decisions of these councils (at least the first four) to be the words of God or on par with Scripture itself.  Clearly then the stage was set that any disagreement against the councils dogmas were spiritual rebellion against God Himself and political rebellion against the empire.  All of this is well and good, if the decision turns out to be Scriptural, but again, what right has the empire to uphold Scripture.  And what happens when the State shifts her position, as she is want to do?  Stated as a summary of the Dontatist Controversy, “What has the emperor to do with the church?”  It should be noted on this point that Augustine bears a sense of sanity by rightly subordinating the councils to Scriptures themselves, at least in so far as his own catholicity would allow, “I would not believe the gospel, did not the authority of the catholic church compel me.” (Schaff, Vol. pg. 344)

As Schaff and others have noted, the synodical system had its origin in the apostolic council at Jerusalem.  In a future post (Lord willing), we’ll look at this event from Acts 15 to see if it was indeed a valid reference and basis for synods and councils, or even later, Presbyterianism.  Though Acts 15 may be an improper scriptural basis, the motivation for these councils seems proper, at least at the surface level, namely to unify truth and eradicate error.  Despite this, the convention of these councils reveal troubling and fundamental flaws with this early assumption of universality or catholicity, and while initially the results were favorable, the precedent for a mixed body of politics and religion acting as representatives for the majority would be disastrous.  Furthermore, the presence of a presiding emperor over matters of faith is a dangerous precedence.  Not only were the emperors pagan, but they wielded the sword.  Think about this for just a moment, would a true follower of Christ submit themselves to the authority of a president or king that dictated what they should believe or how they should worship?

Of these seven ecumenical councils, the first four of which are held in high regard among evangelical orthodoxy (Schaff), by far the most important was the aforementioned Council of Nicaea convened by none other than Emperor Constantine, who at the time of convention had not yet been baptized, a remarkable point considering the period in which these events took place.  This council, “settled the doctrine of the divinity of Christ, and condemned the Arian heresy.” (Schaff, Vol. 3, pg. 334) [We should note that this heresy is still alive and well today, most popularly promulgated by  the Jehovah’s Witnesses.]

Briefly, the Arian Controversy was so named for its chief proponent, Arius, who was a presbyter (elder) in the eastern part of the Roman Empire.  Arius believed that “the Father alone was God.  The Logos, or Son…was a created being – formed out of nothing by the Father before the universe was made.  There was once a time when the Son had not existed.”  Needham remarks that this controversy, which Arius helped to spread, was the “greatest theological controversy in the history of Christianity.” (Needham, pg 201)  Arius was chiefly opposed by Alexander, his bishop, who in 320 assembled a council of Egyptian bishops and declared Arius a heretic.  Arius, who was politically connected via the school of Lucian of Antioch, rallied former students to his cause and soon the controversy extended to leaders throughout the east.  It was in the throes of this controversy that Constantine entered, feeling “it was his duty as a Christian emperor to restore unity to his Empire’s divided Church.” (Needham, pg 203).  To resolve the controversy, Constantine convened the first ecumenical Council which met in 325 AD at Nicaea.

To this council, Emperor Constantine invited 1800 bishops to Nicaea, 1000 of which were from the East and 800 from the West, though the actual number of attendees was likely between 250 and 318.  Driven by his desire for unity, upon the heels of his victory and ascension to absolute power in 323 AD, Constantine met in 325 with the bishops, Eusebius and Athanasius (archdeacon) among them, in a little commercial town called Nicaea to settle the Arian controversy.  The decisions, dogma and canon, of this council is recorded for us in the Nicene Creed.

In the next post, we’ll look at the results of the Council of Nicaea, specifically the Nicene Creed, the impacts it had on the notion of a universal church, and then conclude with a brief look at the Council of Constantinople 381.

In this Series:

Needham, Nick.  Two Thousand Years of Christ’s Power: The Age of the Early Church Fathers, Part 1. London: Grace Publication Trust, 2011.

Schaff, Philip.  History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600. Available online here: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc3.html

 

Ephesians 4:15 "Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ"