God is one and only one. He is the only true God, and not one among many. He created the world and he rules it as his own.
This is what I believe and affirm along with many others. But I know not all will agree with us. Why not? Because the world of religion has always been divided by different visions of God. Christendom is set over against the alternative realms of Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, and so on.
My point here is not to review, or to challenge, or to correct others, but to be reminded of a basic point: differing visions of God lead to different versions of faith. And if God exists in his own right—and not as some ever-pliable human construct—and if God is a communicator who has disclosed to us something of who he is, then we must conclude that at least one vision of God is more accurate than all others. That is, those who are listening to God and seeing him as he really is—as he has actually and accurately disclosed himself to us—are in a privileged position when we worship him.
So I write this as a Christian, privileged—with very many others—by my union and communion with God through his Son and by his Spirit. All this is facilitated by Scriptures that collectively and reliably offer God’s heart to us. There we find the same God who spoke to Samuel of David in 1 Samuel 13:14, as one seeking out for himself those who are “after his own heart”.
Yet Christianity is itself divided by competing visions of God. There are the broad movements that include the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Reformation clans. And within these are even more divisions such as the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist groupings of the Reformation tradition.
So what do we do with all these differences? One option is to think of them as preference-based communities in the same way that the world is distinguished by clubs and societies—of dog breeders, auto enthusiasts, poetry clans, political parties, and so on—which is to say that the differences don’t amount to much. But Jesus—the defining figure of our Christian faith—did not treat such superficial distinctions as meaningful. Instead he was ever and always polarizing people by insisting that every human heart is either captured by his father or disaffected towards him.
We can think here of Christ’s famous saying, “No one can serve two masters”—one master will be loved, the others hated. So, too, among our current Christian groupings a given person—whether Baptist, Methodist, or Anglican—is distinguishable by this one affective measure: love. This is surprising in that features of creedal devotion, of liturgical tradition, or of church polity—matters that often divide Christians—are not elevated by the Bible as ultimate indicators of God’s mastery of a given soul. Instead every person is tested for either loving God or hating him. In the gospels Jesus returned again and again to this question of heart-orientation. In the book of Revelation the utterly orthodox church in Ephesus was called to repent for having left her first love for God.
That is not to say, of course, that people who “hate” God ever think of themselves as hating God! Instead they find their orientation unveiled only as God exposes their deepest motivations. Their hatred only surfaces once they find that Christ opposes their ambitions. Think, for instance, of what is reported in John 8:30 and following. There Jesus uncovered a group of “disciples” who were actually children of “the devil”. The indicator was that they refused to “abide” in Jesus’ word. Despite professing a belief in Jesus at the beginning of the event they ended up trying to kill him with stones for what he said about himself! Why? Because, Jesus said, they did not have God’s spiritual paternity: “if God were your father you would love me.” A love for the Father and the Son is the indicator of real relationship with God.
Nor is it to say that “love” is a shallow, syrupy sentiment. Instead the love God calls us to experience is both rich in emotion yet as sharply focused as Christ’s passion on the cross as he was accursed for our sins. In love the Son fulfilled the Father’s paradoxical plan to draw us, by the Spirit’s wooing, into the eternal Father-Son love relationship. The Son’s obedience to this plan expressed his own love for the Father and for us. So it is that Christian love is as expensive as Christ’s blood, and as expansive as God’s shared glory. It was this outcome of seeing and enjoying God’s own glory through our union with Christ that Jesus celebrated in his prayer of John 17.
Love, then, is the heart’s devotion to another. It is not a self-concerned, intransitive sentiment—as in “my personal feeling”—but an other-oriented, transitive devotion. As believers we love God because he first loved us. That is, love is defined more by its object of focus than by the subject who loves: it is only in knowing God that we love him properly and truly as a response to his self-disclosures.
This, in turn, sets up every aspect of our faith as “affective”. That is, our faith works through love just as Paul informs us in Galatians 5:6. The basis for this is in God himself: “God is love” and has made us, in his image, to be lovers as well.
Let me say more on this point. We must recognize that when John twice stated that God is love in 1 John 4:8 & 16 he was not saying that God “has” love—as if love is a commodity that God imports to himself. Rather we can say this: God exists the eternal relationship of “Father-Son-and-Spirit” and the bond of his union and the nature of his communion is what we call love. Augustine of Hippo put it this way in speaking of the distinctions of the Godhead: the Father loves, the Son is beloved, and the Spirit communicates the love between them. So it is that love is God’s bond; holiness is the moral ethos of that bond; and glory is the ongoing relational joy, honor, and delight in which that bond subsists.
Yet all too often we Christians still revert to our fallen patterns of acting as if we are in a contractual partnership with God: treating our own initiatives towards God—our perceived duties and responsibilities—as the substance of faith. We can all too readily treat doctrines as ends in themselves rather than as God’s ways and means to express his love for us. And so it is that duty begins to displace delight; responsibility is confused with response; and joy is lost as God is seen as demanding rather than merciful, compassionate, and captivating.
Jesus confronted this sinful misdirection in the religious leaders of his own day:
His [the Father’s] voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. (John 5:37-42; emphasis added)
My concern is that even today we can still miss this crucial point. The reason for a false confidence is that our present generation of theological leaders acknowledge Jesus, unlike those he confronted in this passage. But the deeper question we must still face is whether we “have the love of God” in us. Or—as was the case in those days—do we “receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (5:44)
To be honest, over the years as I regularly attended the annual theological meetings of the best and the brightest Christian leaders of today I often grieved over the absence of a clear and palpable love for God and for each other. It may have been there, of course, in many relationships; but on the whole the meetings had little in common with the communion of love that Christ shared with the disciples in the upper room as he told them, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
So when we come to God we have a double pathway before us: to love or not to love. And love is a response to the One who first loved us. It is not a love reduced into disaffected acts of willpower and discipline, but a devoted affective love for Jesus that meets every biblical call to know and choose the good—because we love the One who alone is good. Paul captured the point with enormous power when he wrote to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 13. We all need to pause, read, and reflect: “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” The greatest because love expresses God’s own heart. Given such love, may our own hearts leap with delight!