THE WONDERFUL LOVE OF GOD

SERMON BY CHARLES FINNEY

"God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."--John iii.16

 

THE term world as here used does not mean the globe of earth on which we live--but the race of man. In this sense the term is often used. The world; the whole world; are terms often used to signify the men who live in the world, the race of man, as such. The term perish in this passage does not mean annihilation; it is manifestly put in contrast to everlasting life, as the opposite of that. Everlasting life, as the term is here used, is not merely everlasting existence--I know not the term is ever used in that sense in any other part of the Bible: whether everlasting existence will be a blessing or not, will depend upon the state in which individuals exist, whether in happiness or misery. Under some circumstances everlasting existence might be anything but a blessing.

This everlasting life which is here spoken of is doubtless an everlasting living with God in heaven--an everlasting existence combined with everlasting happiness; this is the eternal life so often spoken* of in the Scriptures, and, doubtless, is that which is meant in this place. Now to perish is the opposite of this; it is not annihilation or a mere ceasing from existence, because to annihilate would ofttimes be no evil to the individual on whom the sentence should be inflicted; to a wretched being it would be not an evil at all, but a great favour. In short, it is very plain that to perish is the very opposite of everlasting life, and means what is expressed in everlasting death, or a state of endless punishment.

In speaking from these words I propose to notice--

I. THE OBJECT OF THIS LOVE.

II. ITS NATURE.

III. THE REASONS WHY THIS LOVE RESORTED TO SUCH A MEASURE AS TO GIVE THE ONLY BEGOTTEN SON OF GOD FOR MEN.

IV. THE NATURE AND NECESSITY OF THE FAITH WHICH CAN SECURE THIS GREAT END--THE SALVATION OF THE SOUL.

I. The object of this love. The object of this love is the world; not a part of it, but the world. There is no reason in the nature of things why one part of mankind should be loved, more than another part, because, observe, this love was not exercised to saints as such, and had not respect to the character of the men of the world; but it was to a world of sinners, towards which this love was exercised. God loved men as a race, as sinners, the enemies of God. Now there was no reason why part of the race of sinners should be loved, and not all of them; and the same kind of love which could possibly love a part of men, of necessity, from its very nature loved the whole of them--this is the only love, a universal love, which could have been exercised towards man by a good being. But this leads me to inquire in the next place into--

II. The nature of this love.

And, first, I observe that it could not have been complacency, or a delight in the character of men, for there was nothing in the character of the human race that could allow God to love them, or take any delight in their character--that is most certain. It is impossible that God should have loved mankind with a complacent love; for that would have been to make him infinitely more wicked than they were themselves. What is implied in loving a wicked being? Why sympathy with his character is implied: God could not have loved them with a complacent love without being infinitely more wicked than they, because for an infinite being to sympathize with wicked natures he must himself be infinitely wicked. It is certain that this love could not have had any respect to the character of men--they were not loved for their character, it is impossible that it should have been so.

But I remark again, this love could not have been mere emotion, for emotion does not influence the life without the will, emotion is not a cause; it will not give existence, even intense emotion will not; it is a merely involuntary state of mind--something which belongs to the passions; it will often be a motive to action, and may be a stimulus to the will, but mere passion never caused anything, causality is that which produces and lives in the will of every moral agent, and is a very different thing from emotion.

Again: it was not fondness for particular persons. There was no reason in God's nature, and no reason in man, why God should exercise any such fondness. I remark again: that it was not an involuntary love, as is manifest in what it did. It must have been voluntary, because we have here before us the evidence of its efficiency; and it was an efficient love because it was voluntary love. Again: it was not an unreasonable state of mind. There was, to be sure, nothing in the character of man to admit of a complacent love, yet it was not an unreasonable state of mind at all; it was not something prohibited by reason. We sometimes see affections among men wholly unreasonable. We sometimes see deep affection in the form of what we call love, existing among mankind in a way that is totally opposite to reason. But there was some good reason for this love of God--something which his own understanding and conscience sanctioned. There was something about men which rendered it reasonable for God to love them, with a certain kind of love.

I remark again: that the love which God actually did manifest was the only kind of love that could have been important to man. If the love of God had mere emotion, or pity, it would have done man no good. This love, then, must have been a reasonable affection; it must have been a reasonable love. Now when we look at the nature of this love, if we do so in a simple and reasonable manner, there can be no doubt of what the real nature of this love is. I observe, that it was good-will or benevolence. This is evident from the fact, that it exerted itself for the good of the objects of it in a most striking and wonderful manner. It is plain that it was good-will, because it produced good action. Again: it was an unselfish kind of love. The reason why God loved men was not because they deserved that he should do them good--for they deserved evil only at his hands. Observe, there was a good reason why he should love them, but they had no right to demand his love as a matter of justice, for they had forfeited all claim to his affection or protection; and therefore, of course, justice did not demand that God should do them good.

But let me say once more, the soul of man was so valuable, its happiness would be so infinitely important, and its misery so great an evil, that God, looking at the intrinsic value of their souls, saw good reason for loving them and doing them good--that is, God did the good for the sake of the good itself; he willed good to them for the sake of the intrinsic and infinite value of this good to them considered in itself, and not because they at all deserved it. They not only had no claim upon him for this love, but there were great reasons for his destroying them; yet, nevertheless so great was the value of their souls, so much did he pity them in view of their coming and certain destruction, and so greatly did he love their happiness and desire it, that overcoming all obstacles in the way he rose above any disposition to punish them, or retaliate upon them for their wickedness, and sought only to do them good. There was good reason for this as I have said, not in view of the actions of mankind, but in consideration of the value of their souls.

I remark once more: this love was a disinterested love; I mean that he did not propose any interest to himself merely as the reason why he should do this thing--it was the love of the world--it was a disposition to do them good; it was the love of their good that led him to do it. He did not propose to benefit them, in any such sense, as to secure to himself in any selfish sense, any great good--it was a totally disinterested love. As a matter of fact he did enjoy it himself, and yet it was a totally disinterested love, and so much the more will it glorify him. Just in proportion as he aimed to secure their interest with a single eye, in just that proportion did he secure his own approbation and the admiration and glorification of all holy beings. By disinterested love I do not mean that he had no interest in it, for he had an infinite interest in what he did; but I mean that his love was wholly unselfish--he sought to do good because of the value of the good itself.

But let me say again: this must have been a love of amazing strength; it could not have been a feeble state of mind; it must have been infinitely intense! Just think of it! "For God so loved the world, that he gave this only begotten Son!" What a wonder this was! Here were on the one hand a world of enemies who were at war with him; and on the other stood his beloved Son, his only begotten, his well beloved Son. Now just look at this: and conceive of a state of mind that should prefer to give that Son, that only begotten, that well beloved Son, to die for those rebels who stood with the weapons of rebellion in their hand. They had revolted against his government, and were deserving of his frown and his wrath, his own conscience clearly affirming that they deserved to be banished from his presence; yet such was his estimate of the value of their souls, of the dreadful suffering to which they would be subjected if the penalty of the law should be inflicted upon them, that he gave his Son rather than banish that world of rebels from the glory of his power to die in their guilty state. No person, unless he ponders these things well, will understand how intensely strong this love must have been to produce such a determination as that. Let a parent conceive, if he can, who has an only child, one who has never offended him, the very darling of his soul, one whom he loves as well as he loves himself and has reason to love, if he could give up that child for the good of his enemies. Let people abuse him, do everything to injure him that they possibly could do, placing themselves in a position as obnoxious as possible so as to deserve his indignation and condemnation, incur his utter rejection and his abhorrence of them for ever. Now conceive of a state of mind that could deliberately make such a choice as God did. It was not the sacrificing of an innocent person instead of the guilty; it was not the punishment of Christ-- consenting that Christ should suffer instead of sinners being punished--no; there was no such idea in the divine mind. But we shall more fully inquire into the reasons why God gave his Son to die for the good of the world by and by. I am now talking of the intense nature of this love. Now think, if you can, with your son on one side and your enemies on the other, what struggles would be produced in your mind by reflecting upon the fact that these enemies must perish for ever or you must give up your son! You see that he has a willing heart in him, that he is ready to undertake their deliverance from death--that he is willing to take all that is implied in being their Saviour, but it demands that you consent to it, that you enter into it with your heart, and that you say to him go. Now when we realise what God must have felt under such circumstances, it is easy enough for us to understand the intense nature of the love that could have overcome that state of mind that would naturally cleave to his Son, and give him up for the good of the world. Just conceive how many things there must have been against this. God knew what it would cost him, that his Son must pass through trial, through affliction, through persecution, through poverty, through agony. His Father saw every trial and every suffering that he would have to undergo--he saw him heavy sorrowing and despised--he saw him too in the garden, when he sweat as it were great drops of blood, so great was his agony--this was all present to the divine mind when he gave up his Son to be the Saviour of the world. The Father saw his Son weary to fainting, as he carried his cross up Calvary's hill so that his barbarous persecutors were compelled to lay the burden on another. He saw him mocked and pierced when on the cross, and saw him in the agonies of death, and heard his lamentable cry, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" What a number of scenes must have clustered around the divine mind to forbid the gift of his Son for the salvation of a guilty world. Yet so great was his love that he overcame all these obstacles and freely gave him up for us all, that we might not perish but have everlasting life. Let this idea, dear hearers, take possession of your minds.

I must not enlarge upon this, however, but proceed to say, it must never be forgotten nor left out of view, that it was the love of enemies not of friends; for, observe, all the world was contemplated, and it was as sinners that God gave Christ to die for them--they were a race of sinners. Observe, it was not for a single Christian, as such, that God gave his Son, it was for sinners as such, for rebels as such; it was in view of the fact of their being sinners that God gave his Son. Now it is very important that this fact should be always kept in mind that it was not for good but for bad people, not for the righteous but for the wicked that God gave his Son.

Again: it was a forbearing love. Some persons seem to think that when we talk of the self-denial of God we imply that he is sometimes selfish. Now let me say, self-denial always implies the very opposite of selfishness in any being; it is the consenting to give up some good, or to endure some evil for the benefit of others. No individual, of course, can exercise self-denial who is living in selfishness. Now this was self-denial in God to consent to deny himself by giving up his Son; this must have been greatly trying to his feelings for him to consent to give up his Son to die for the world. But I must not enlarge upon this.

Let me say again: it was of course a universal love. It was not love to men alone; it extended to other worlds. And, no doubt, it was in reference, in a great measure, to other worlds that led him to take the course he did take in forgiving sin in this world. It was the good of his universal kingdom that led him to take this particular measure.

Again: his love was a holy love; it hated sin. It was very important, in as much as this love was exercised towards sinners, that something should be done to make the whole universe understand, that although it was the love of sinners as such, that it was not connivance at their sin. Indeed this was the grand and most material point, as every man can see, that as his love was a love manifested to sinners, how he should sufficiently guard against the impression that he connived at their sins; for, observe, he was going to express great love for sinners, by laying himself out to do them good. Now, mark, how shall it be known that he was as much opposed to their sin as he had professed to be, and as the universal conscience demanded that he should be? It is a delicate thing oftentimes for human governors to manifest love and benevolence to those who are rebels against the government. It is a very delicate thing for governments of great and extended empires to manifest deep and anxious love for those who are enemies of the law and who set it at defiance. There is also much danger that the justice of the law will be thrown into the shade, that respect for the law shall be lost sight of, and that the sin involved in the rebellion should be forgotten. Now there was infinite danger of this in the government of God; therefore it was necessary that while pardoning the sinner, he should as much as possible show his opposition to sin, and thus manifest plainly to the world that he did not connive at their sin.

But again; this love was just as truly as it was merciful; that is, it was just to the universe. There were other interests beside the interest of sinners in his government. There were reasons why he should not endanger his authority and let down respect for his law. Now it is easy to see that justice to the universe demanded that he should be careful how he expressed the great and infinite love which he had in his heart toward sinners. This leads me to notice--

III. The reasons for this wonderful measure of the Divine government. His love, observe, sought to compass the world's salvation--he sought to save those that deserved to die, and we are informed that he resorted to this measure by giving his only begotten Son for sinners--a wonderful measure indeed! Now, it is plain that the reason for this must have been anything but ill-will on the part of God. Again: it was anything else than anger at them that led him to do it. To be sure, in one point of view, he had a holy indignation at their sins; but it was not this anger that led him to give his Son--he gave him in spite of this just and holy indignation at their sins. It was not God's anger then, but a merciful disposition that led God to require Christ to die for sinners. God was disposed to be merciful; this was the secret of the whole matter; this was the grand foundation of the whole arrangement: the very reason that God undertook their salvation, was that he loved them, and was disposed to show them favour. It was not then, I say, the want of a merciful disposition, it was not hatred, but love of sinners, the one great reason that led God to show mercy to men. There was one great reason in the Divine mind, the fundamental reason, his love for sinners. Now mark, it is said that God resorted to this measure of giving his Son to secure the good of the world--for several reasons which I will name, he did not retaliate upon them for all their opposition to him. Now observe, there must have been some very weighty reasons, and some reasons that needed to be overcome, but which could not be overcome by any other measure than the one which was actually adopted. We ought always to understand that God acts rationally, and for wise and good reasons. Let no man, therefore, suppose that he resorted to any unnecessary measure of severity. No one can rationally suppose that God resorted to any means that could have been avoided in the nature of the case. Now he had set his heart upon the means--wise means, and means that were demanded by the circumstances and the occasion. Who can believe that any other means were resorted to? But let us look at the reasons for the particular measure that was resorted to. It is of very great importance to understand them. We have seen that God had a good reason for the measure which he adopted; a sufficient reason, and a reason that could not have been set aside or overcome; but let us now ascertain, if we can, what these reasons were. Whatever they were, they must have been sanctioned by the law of benevolence, or they could not have been virtue. If the measure had not been one that was sanctioned by the eternal laws of God's own reason, he never could have resorted to it. But the fact is, it is simple enough, and it does not require any great knowledge to understand it: it only needs to be looked at, and everybody can see at once that such circumstances called for such a measure. Look at the subject--mankind had resisted the government of God, had denied the justice of his law, to which even the angels conform, and which is absolutely necessary to secure the well-being of the universe, and their own salvation. Now if God had seemed to connive at man's disobedience of his law, which was the law of the entire universe, all other beings might have denied the justice of the law, and disobeyed it also. Observe, therefore, the whole universe, all the inhabitants of heaven had a strong interest in maintaining this law. Now mark! This law had been disobeyed; a public lie had been told, and persisted in: the justice of the law had been, in a most deliberate manner, denied. Now what was to be done? It is evident that something must be done which cannot be construed into a connivance of this rebellion. Now observe the relations of man and God. God's law had been trampled down, and the universe had their eye upon God to see what he would do--the well-being of the whole depended upon it. His relation to the universe demanded of him either to execute the law or to make a demonstration on his own part, from his own heart--for it was his estimation of the law that the universe needed. It was for him to act, and everything depended on the course that he took. It is easy to see that the honour of the law might be fully sustained by God himself, if he should show before the whole universe his approbation of the law, and the public good--and such a demonstration as this would answer the same end as the execution of the law upon the offenders. If God would take upon himself human nature, and in this nature of both God and man, would stand right out before the whole universe, and yield obedience to its precepts, this would be as high an evidence of his regard for the law as he could possibly give in any way whatever. By taking upon himself the nature of the violators of the law, and in that nature obeying the precept and suffering the penalty, the demonstration would be complete and the law perfectly honoured. Now suppose that Christ, his eternal Son, should in this way stand forth as the representative of the race of rebels, having no sin in himself, and yet standing in such a position as if the sin of the whole race was summed up in him, and the whole rebellion centred in him, it is easy to see that God could pardon the sinners and yet honour the law. Mark! he stands as the representative of the world, as the representative of sin, and it is easy to see that this arrangement was a vast deal more impressive than would have been the execution of the law upon the rebels themselves. The lawgiver himself stands forth as an illustration of the beauty of his own law, and in vindication of its honour. But I must not enlarge upon this. I have only to say under this head, that it is perfectly easy to see the bearing of this measure upon the universe itself: how perfectly it met the government exigency, and made it quite safe in God to pardon the guilty. I shall now in the next place make a few remarks upon--

IV. The nature of faith. Now observe, the motive that caused God to do this thing. I have sometimes heard persons talk of the atonement of Christ, and of God's motive in such a manner as to show that if they believed God had any such motive as they ascribe to him, that it was quite impossible for them to have any respect for him. They speak of the atonement as not being a merciful disposition in God, but the exacting of a debt; that God required a certain amount of payment for every sinner before he would forgive; that it was not the result of a merciful disposition. Now I say, that if anybody believes this he cannot even have respect for the character of God. Now we are taught that God gave his Son to die for men as sinners, and from love to them, and that they receive the blessing as the result of exercising faith in Christ. It is that [which] gives it all its power. Only let a sinner understand that God loves him as a sinner, and if there is anything that can break his heart that will. I do not mean to say that a knowledge of this fact will invariably do it; but I do say, that if this does not, nothing will do it. In short, the profession of love to sinners must be realized and believed by them in order to their salvation.

A few remarks must close what I have to say. First, many persons overlook the nature of this love because they cannot conceive how God can love sinners. I know by myself, for I stumbled at this point a long time. I had not experienced a benevolent love at all. I had exercised love: I know what the term meant in some of its significations. I know what it was to have complacency in those whose characters I admired; and I know what the love of fondness meant as it exists among selfish beings; but, observe, this was the only kind of love that I had exercised, and therefore I could not understand how God could love a wicked man: it appeared to me impossible that God should love a sinner. I said to myself, if God can love a sinner, he must be himself a sinner; and do you think that God can be a sinner? Now you see I judged God by my selfish love. The love that I exercised implied some fellowship and sympathy with the being loved. I was at last enabled to understand that God could love men without exercising a selfish love. A great many men speak very loosely when they speak on this subject; they do not understand the nature of God's love to sinners--the selfish mind cannot. When a sinner first becomes convicted of sin, he thinks that it is perfectly impossible for God to love him; and is ready to exclaim, he cannot love me any more than he can love the devil. And in part that is true. He cannot love the sinner with a complacent and sympathizing love any more than he can the devil--not a bit more. But there is another view of this subject, which is very important for you to take sinner; there is a kind of love to which you are a stranger--the love of your enemies. O, you say, what reason have I to love them? Why, you have the same reason to love them that God has--exactly! God does not love with a complacent love, which implies sympathy with their characters, but do not mistake, sinner, he can love you with a love of which you have no conception. Now the kind of love that God will exercise is just that kind which you ought to exercise towards your enemies; and in order to receive this love you must rise entirely above your selfishness, and give yourselves up with right good will to seek their good. Now the fact is, that because you never exercised this love you cannot understand its nature. But God can rise above--ah, he never was in the selfish slough which your soul is in. He is not filled with the spirit of retaliation which you feel--and therefore, although he sees and knows all the guilt of the sinner, he can yet look upon him with compassion, and lay himself out with all his heart to save him.

But let me say once more: the fact is, sinners mistake the nature of God's love, and so they try to make themselves happy. They always suppose that they must do something to deserve his love; you ask them to come to Christ, and they say, I must do more; I must become better; I must pray, I must do this thing or the other thing, to deserve his love. They have, you observe, the idea of complacent love, they must deserve it before they have it--they want to feel that they deserve it. The sinner never will believe that God loves him as a sinner. But let me tell you sinner that this is all wrong; you can never deserve God's love in the sense in which you hope to possess it--and if you seek to deserve it thus you will never be saved. But remember it was as a sinner that Christ died for you! It was as a rebel that God gave his Son to die for you! Just as you are in your sins God loves you, and for you just in that state he gave his Son to die for you. This is what you must believe. You will find it difficult to believe, but it is absolutely necessary that you should do so. Let me beseech you to let the idea take full possession of your minds, and say to yourself, what need then to seek to render myself deserving if God loves me now just as I am? It was as I am that Christ died for me; it was as a sinner that God loved me, and loves me still; as a sinner then I will go to Jesus, as I am, as an humble penitent, seeking, but not deserving sinner. Will you come? Will you come now? Will you believe now? or make God a liar?

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