This is the second Spreading Goodness reflection on Affective, “heart-based” theology. It affirms Jesus as God’s ultimate expression of love as we read in John 3:16-17— “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
These verses suggest that God’s love is the basis for both creation and redemption. “Love” is linked to the verbs “gave” and “send” as signals of God’s expansive heart. Yet the world’s response would be to crucify the Son, as anticipated in Isaiah 53. And in Psalm 2 we see how this love promised to produce a binary divide between those who “rage” against God, and those who would “kiss the Son.” The Son is a gift for all, but only some respond to him.
This love is also crucial in reading the New Testament. Jesus sifted hearts based on how people responded to his words. In John 8:30-59 he said that only the Father’s intervention awakens hearts— “If God were your Father, you would love me…” (v.42). Earlier Jesus explained that, “no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (John 6:65). While at the same time those who refuse to respond are blameworthy because of their disaffection—for loving darkness rather than light.
Let’s chase this seeming paradox. God offers the Son freely, yet he never forces this love on anyone. Love is always free and invites a reciprocal response. The problem is that every human heart is captured by sinful self-love. Paul assumes this in Romans 3:10, “None is righteous … no one seeks for God.” Sin is Adam’s “gift” of our all being “curved in on self” as Augustine and Martin Luther put it. So that all humans are instinctively enslaved by self-interest, and any form of spirituality that turns faith in Jesus into a self-serving benefit is certain to be counterfeit. So various forms of therapeutic or wealth-seeking faith fall outside the realm of living faith.
In Affective Theology, then, we identify love as both the source of sin and its cure. Self-love is the ultimate addiction—no narcissist ever wants to love others. And only the Son is attractive enough to overcome this power. We will only love him as he first loves us and sets us free.
So human heart responses are crucial. We see this in John 3:19, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” The only way to find light and life is to love Jesus on his terms.
Yet there are forms of “faith” that make self-concern central. If, for instance, love is made out to be a facet of human free will, it still places self at the center. Only a love birthed in our being “drawn” to respond to Christ by the Father’s work fits Bible assumptions. Or, as Paul put it in Ephesians 1:18, by “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened…”
Here, then, is the Affective progression. God loves everyone, but no one—without exception—loves God. Yet God’s love still draws some, but not all, into salvation.
Think, for instance, of Nicodemus in John 3 in contrast to the Samaritan woman in John 4. Nicodemus may have responded later on, but the woman at the well responded immediately. Or in Paul’s case where he was knocked over by Jesus as he was “seeking” God in all the wrong ways. In his later testimony he made it clear that his human initiatives to become righteous were misguided, and the truth is that only “the love of Christ controls us …” (2 Cor. 5:15) and brings real life.
The Father was willing to see his Son crucified for the world’s sake. Was it because he values the world more than he values the Son? No! What it tells us is that he values us in anticipation of our coming to love the Son. And he knows that authentic love only exists in his communion as the God who “is love”—as noted in the last section. And God unleashes this love by sending his wooing Spirit as the only possible cure to human self-love. But he can be grieved and despised.
A hard look at the cross is crucial here. The Christian narrative of Christ’s ministry—that he died for human sins—is profoundly true. Whether we read of the promised banquet in Isaiah 25:6-8 where “He will swallow up death forever.” Or the suffering Servant of Isaiah 52 and 53 who “bore the sin of many.” This sets up the astonishing propitiation through the Son’s death as noted in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Last week in our first reflection we affirmed that “God is love.” And now we see how Jesus reveals this love in his life, death, and resurrection. Yet this narrative is too narrow if we only embrace what we get from God. The true vision of who we are with God is central. Crucifixion brings a wholesale reconstruction of life as in Galatians 2:20—“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” The motivation of faith is God’s love expressed in his ultimate self-giving. And real salvation is only found in a reflexive love for our divine lover.
We also learn not to see Jesus as a utilitarian resource—as a spiritual life-insurance promise. Love is crucial: “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 5:39-42). So it is that love, and not “sound” information, that matters.
The Affective force of Christ’s incarnation is most explicit in the Son’s metaphor of the Vine in John 15. No spirituality ever grows without a believer living within the Son’s life—to “abide in my love” (John 15:10). Christianity only exists through this participation in the Son who loves us. He then reveals the Father to us. And, as we will see next time, the Spirit makes it all work.