Experiencing the love of God

The concept of love has been cheapened beyond words over the past half century and longer. This is not only true in the secular realm, but sadly also for Christians. In all kinds of ways, the church’s view of love – reflected in song and sermon alike – owes more to the culture of our time than to the Bible.

This is perhaps especially true when it comes to understanding what it means to experience the love of God. Although we can speak about seeing God’s love in action on different planes – his love for creation, his love displayed in redemption and the love that defines him as Trinity – when it comes to understanding what it means to actually experience his love ourselves, we are in very different territory.

Too often Christians and the church at large have approached this either mystically or emotionally, or a combination of both. By doing so, they simply betray the extent to which their view of love is nothing more than a Christianised version of what prevails in today’s culture. That is, it is so focused on feelings that it fails to appreciate that how we ‘feel’ is nothing more than a reflex action to a whole range of factors – some good, but many which are bad.

At the crassest level, too many Christians embrace a notion of love that is little more than a spiritual equivalent of teenage romance. So, when they sing a song or discover something new about Jesus, God, the Spirit or the faith that stirs their emotions (usually in some kind of charged atmosphere) they see this as experiencing God’s love. But is this really the case?

There are several places in the New Testament where we are given an insight into what it means to experience God’s love genuinely. One of the most helpful is found in Romans where Paul, rounding off his exposition of God’s justifying grace and how it leads to ‘hope’ says, ‘and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us’ (Ro 5.5). The fact that God’s love has been ‘poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us’ is the key to understanding what it means to experience this love.

In order to appreciate the magnitude of what the apostle has in view here, we need to take a step back to remind ourselves of certain realities that we can easily overlook.

The first is to recognise the problem of what is sometimes called ‘the Creator-creature distinction’. That is, because God by nature and in his attributes is ‘wholly other’ – totally distinct in his order of existence from us as his creatures – there is nothing simple or straightforward about us ‘experiencing’ God and his love in any meaningful sense. He is beyond our comprehension and our reach, so the only way we can enter into any meaningful enjoyment of God must be on his initiative, not ours.

There is, of course, a second and more serious problem: the fact that we are sinners. The only thing we deserve by nature from God is wrath and condemnation, not his love and favour. Putting both these elements together we are doubly disqualified and disbarred from the possibility of experiencing the divine love. Yet Paul speaks about a heartfelt enjoyment of it. Indeed, John Calvin translates it as being ‘diffused’ and states that ‘it is very emphatical…so abounding that it fills our hearts.’

What is significant, however, is the way the apostle links what he says about the experience of God’s love – subjectively – in our hearts by his Spirit to what the Father has planned and the incarnate Son has accomplished for us – objectively – in our place and for our salvation. Our enjoyment of God’s love subjectively is intimately bound up with appreciating how he has demonstrated it objectively.

How does Paul unpack this? Primarily by bringing us back to God’s justifying grace. All he has been unfolding through Romans up until this point has been steering his readers towards the great declaration,

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God (Ro 5.1-2)

All we need in order to be restored to a right relationship with God, he himself has graciously provided through his Son. In him we are restored to the ‘glory of God’ from which we had ‘fallen short’ in Adam (Ro 3.23). And in this new state of reconciliation we have reason to rejoice.

More than this, even though as Christians we still experience hardship and suffering, God uses even our adversities to deepen his work in our lives as his people. It is striking to see that Paul does not set suffering over against love in the purposes of God. Rather, he makes a direct connection by saying it is ‘because’ God’s love is poured into our hearts by the Spirit (Ro 5.5) we can see how God uses our pain to pursue his purpose for our spiritual progress. Our sufferings are loving instruments in God’s hands to nurture our faith.

In an ultimate sense the Holy Spirit takes us into a deeper experience of God’s love by leading us to the cross. That’s where Paul takes his readers next in his exposition of saving grace, culminating with the declaration, ‘But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Ro 5.8). To borrow the title of a booklet by Iain H. Murray, the cross is The Pulpit of God’s Love. And since the word of the cross in the gospel is reinforced by that word made visible in the Holy Supper, we are allowed to ‘taste’ it and experience it as it touches all our senses and therefore savour it in all its fulness. Truly appreciating the immensity of this fulness can only lift us to the heights of the joy of God’s salvation and the measure of his love.

Mark Johnston