"Beloved, let us love one another; because love is of God; and every one that loveth hath been begotten of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knew not God, because God is love. Herein was manifested the love of God in us (or, in our case), that God hath sent His only-begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us, and sent his Son [as] propitiation for our sins.”
After the episode, as we may call it, of the first six verses, we return to the new theme that was introduced by the apostle it the end of the third chapter. He had shown the love of our brethren as a divine affection, not merely to be desired but of such solemn import that it really decides whether we are Christians or not. This accordingly makes it of very particular interest for us to beware of self-deceit. “Beloved, let us love one another; because love is of God; and every one that loveth hath been begotten of God, and knoweth God.”
If this divinely drawn inference is a sure and strong thing to say, there is no excuse for failure in love. But we must remember that love is not merely kind to a fellow-saint; it is also faithful to God. And sometimes the faithfulness of love is resented instead of being acceptable. In such a case the brother who is ruffled by being reproved for his failure whatever it be, and who regards the other’s faithfulness as inconsistent with love, has need to beware. For if that resentment overcome him — and it sometimes does — the issue may prove that there never was the divine gift of life in his soul. We find too often that departure from love even in a small way, if yielded to, is an extremely grave sign. It may be a symptom of what may be called the moral leprosy of the man. For, as we are here taught, there is nothing really of God, nothing truly sound, in the man that does not love.
In principle too can anything be plainer? Hatred certainly is not of God; love is, being the reflex of the active energy in God’s nature. Light is, if we may so say, the moral principle of His nature; that which is perfectly pure, which detects and rejects all evil; because in God absolutely it goes with holiness, and really in the Christian too, wherever there is life eternal. But love is the active outgoing of the divine nature, the seeking good without any motive whatever in those that are loved, but in its own spring of goodness. God’s love not only gives all, but also forgives all. This is only possible toward us through the Mediator. For God is consistent in His ways; and, where sin is, there must be a ground of righteousness. Where is this to be found? Certainly hot in sinful man. But God in Himself knew where unfailing righteousness would be found, even in days when unrighteousness prevailed.
Jehovah before the flood and after the law was looking onward to His Christ, and in an evil day spoke by His prophet of His salvation to come, and of His righteousness to be revealed (Isa. 56:1). Nowhere on earth could it be seen; but faith ever waited for it. There was no ground anywhere in man, not even in a true saint of God, not in Enoch nor in Elijah, to say nothing of others. They too looked forward to it in hope. But it was not yet an accomplished fact. The reliance of every saint was entirely on the One that was coming; for, as you know, He was proclaimed to man directly after he became a sinner. This was what Jehovah Elohim presented to the guilty pair, and in a, most impressive way; for it was not in direct address to the fallen but in the judgment of the serpent. Who but God would ever have thought, in a sentence pronounced upon the enemy, of also embodying the revelation of a Saviour? Thus did He in all holiness intimate the revelation of a Saviour to crush the power of evil for the deliverance of its victims, but also in love to endure anguish in the accomplishment of that deliverance. For who but an unbeliever fails to see that this is clearly the meaning of the heel being bruised? But the woman’s Seed, though thus suffering, should crush the serpent’s head; thence is fatal destruction from which the evil one shall never recover.
The “love” here meant has no source in the creature; it “is of God”; and if God were not the spring and power, not a soul could be saved, nor a saint walk in His love. For love knows how to bring out all the resources of grace where man lies in utter ruin. See it in Christ who died for our sins, and lives to be Advocate with the Father. What love in both ways! It is not merely said that the believer’s sins are forgiven: were this all, it might have meant that if a saint fell, he had to begin over again. Nor are Christians wanting who think that if a believer sins, he loses all and has to recommence; but those who so think evidently do not believe in life eternal as the present possession of the believer in Christ. It is humbling to say that others, have denied life eternal, though in a rather different way; but, however it may be denied, it is to sin against a foundation truth of Christianity.
Next we are told that “everyone that loveth hath been begotten of God.” To be of Him thus involves love in the children also. They have His nature. He that does not love never was born of God. But one may perhaps be badly instructed, and may feebly have learnt to judge the risings of the flesh, and consequently be not aware that a feeling of hatred is entirely incompatible with the Christian. The reason is its incompatibility with God and the life he has in His Son. “Love is of God, and every one” — nothing can be plainer — “that loveth hath been begotten of God, and knoweth God.” Is not this a wonderful thing to say about a man on earth? We know but very little of one another; and one evidence of our ignorance even of near friends and relatives is that we are surprised from time to time by little things which cause immense difficulty and surprise with no end of pain and sorrow here below. Well, if we knew one another, and possessed a loving nature, these things could not be. How astonishing, then, that we, who are so ignorant even of our next-door neighbour, should be capable of knowing God! We may know far too little of our brethren; the reason of which is the feebleness of our love. Were our love strong by faith and the new life in unhindered exercise, we should be intimate with them all and enter into their sufferings with Christ and for His sake in ways as pleasing to God and comforting to them as blessed to our own souls. For confidence is the child of love; and known love begets confidence, as we saw with God as well as His children. And who does not know the comparatively little confidence even among those that are children of God? Lack of love is indeed a matter of deep reproach, and most inconsistent on the part of God’s family. But here we have His mind in few and plain words.
There are immense difficulties in this world aggravated by the ruin-state of Christendom. There is a most subtle and restless enemy at work. We saw this when looking into the previous verses, “Believe not every spirit,” etc. The Holy Spirit was sent down by the Father and the Son. As before to harass the Lord Jesus when on earth, so Satan in no long time sent out evil spirits to imitate the Spirit of God. It was not merely in demoniacs, but by false teaching, subversive of Christ Himself. Christ gave apostles, prophets, teachers, in the power of the Holy Spirit for edifying the members of His body; Satan counterworks all. “Believe not every spirit.” And then followed the tests we have considered. But here it is our walking in love. It is not assaults on the truth, but the practical life of a believer which God would have instinct with love more than any other thing in those whom He has begotten with the word of truth. Righteousness is assumed, and obedience; but there must be love; and as love is the energetic power in God’s nature, so is it also the indispensable power that works in the Christians’ life one with another, coming out more saliently perhaps than anything else. Is it so with you, my brother? Do I fail in love?
He enters on this subject as he did before, saying “Beloved.” it was a call particularly for their affections, though then a warning; he was very much in earnest about the danger. Here were these evil spirits; and there is apt to be much unbelief as to either the Holy Spirit on one hand or Satan and his emissaries on the other. There are more than ever evil spirits at work in Christendom; for therein particularly they work. It is not merely in heathen countries, with their dark and cruel superstitions; in Christendom the spirit of error takes a fair form and pretends to highest truth. “Have we not truth of which none ever before heard, and withal of the utmost value? It was all very well to have had God’s righteousness, the heavenly calling, the mystery of the church, and so on; but now we have got something far better. Then it was but tuning the instruments; now the concert is begun in earnest, and we are the men!” No doubt it is utterly false, but such is the spirit and the blinded feeling of those animated by evil spirits. What evident vainglory in contrast with the meek Lord of all! It is for the destruction of the truth and not the edification of the souls that trust them, even worse than what Scripture calls “serving their belly.” They are of the world, and out of it they speak. They have their own motives from self.
But the precious fact as to the love that is of God is this the entire motive is His own goodness; as man has the reverse of that in his nature. The believer receives grace as a lost sinner in all its sovereignty as its object, and having life eternal in Christ his it flowing out habitually. It is therefore of the Spirit acting on the new nature, as being begotten of God. He is entitled to boast in God as well as in God’s love without any motive but the good that He is, which He delights to communicate to others. Such are Christians who by the faith of Christ are filled, firstly with being loved of His love, and secondly, carried out in the exercise of that love to their brethren (for this is the direction here) by the Spirit of God. But the principle is quite clear: to love is inseparable from being born of God; and so he that loves proves by this very fact that he is a child of God. It has nothing at all to do with natural affections, which everybody ought to know may be strong in the most wicked men and women. Deadly enemies of God, given up to base lusts and passions, yet they may have much natural sweetness and warm benevolence too. None of these things is His love, nor in the least spoken of here, nor anything but that which shone in the Lord Jesus. “Love,” says the apostle, “is of God.” Whatever is of ourselves is not of God. But this love is not of ourselves, even in a believer. He derives it entirely from above; he is born of the Spirit; and what is so born is spirit and not flesh. He is born of God; and God is love.
The connection here is with what was introduced at the end of the third chapter, where, for the first time in this Epistle, we hear of the Spirit of God. The form there taken is of God’s abiding in the believer; and the proof is the Spirit which He gave us. The Spirit given to the believer abides in him, and is the proof that God abides in him. This is a great advance on having the new life. Great as is the boon of a divine nature that we partake, it is much more to have God abiding in us. Yet this is effected and provided by that gift of the Spirit which is the distinctive mark of a Christian.
The aim then is to enforce the mutual love of Christians by the source whence it flows, and by the nature which, if it acts, must accord. But hindrances there are which run strongly against love, within and without; so that the saints need God to abide in them in order that love should work freely and fully. We therefore require not only to be begotten of God, but also divine power, nay, God’s abiding in us, in order that we should love one another according to God. If we were only born of God, there would still remain a mighty hindrance, which the new birth does not so much as touch. And what is that? The ignorance of redemption. There must be faith in the work of Christ for us, in the blood of Christ that cleanseth from every sin. There is a divine work in the soul before one rests on the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Take any scriptural case given to us.
Let me present one from the Gospel of Luke: the female in Luke 7, of whom the Holy Spirit says so much in the few words, “a woman in the city that was a sinner.” Yet she came, much to the astonishment of Simon the Pharisee, into his house when he had the Lord and the disciples dining with him. Even under such deterrent circumstances this woman Came, who would have dreaded at any other time to enter that man’s house. What emboldened her? Looking to the Lord in faith, nothing could keep her back from intruding (as it must have appeared, and as everyone would naturally say) into such a house under such circumstances. But the power of faith breaks through no small obstacles. Yet at that time she did not know her sins forgiven; nor were they forgiven. But she was on the way. She loved the Lord. It would be too much to say that she loved the disciples; still less that she felt for Simon any more than for other such souls. Another mighty work of God produces this too. But the Lord drew her to Himself by a new force of divine attraction. This is the effect of faith working by love. His grace created an affection she never before knew. She was perfectly sure the Lord was filled with holy love. Why was He thus going about all the country? What was the motive power of all His life, words and ways? Was it not divine love?
Life already wrought in the hitherto sinful woman, full of defilement, who had heretofore a character of infamy. But she believed in the Lord already; and she loved much, as He testified to Simon and them all. She found in Him a new life, and a new character formed by this blessed One. She might never see Him again nor have a like opportunity, however inopportune to other eyes. It was now or never for her soul; and so it is when simple faith actuates the heart. There is no loss of time, no allowance of any excuse for putting off; but in she goes, and “stood behind at His feet weeping.” Her unconscious bearing was morally beautiful; certainly she had not learnt it from her former life: it was entirely the effect of faith in Christ on her soul. There she began to wash His feet with her tears, and was wiping them with the hairs of her head. The Lord knew it all, and needed no turning round to look at the one behind. He knew it all perfectly, nobody so well as He. But it only drew out the contempt of Simon; for the ill-feeling of the unbeliever is against the Lord yet more than against His followers; he does not always say so, and perhaps he does not always recognise that so it is. It is possible that even Simon would not have allowed that; but it is evident that such was the moral of it all for him — the devil’s moral. “This [one] if he were a prophet, would have known who and what the woman is that toucheth him, for she is a sinner.” So he said in himself; but the Lord heard and answered. Had He not come to save the lost? and if Simon had broken down as she, to save Simon too? But to take the place of a sinner truly and before God is a harder thing for a proud self-righteous Pharisee than for a woman who had no character to lose.
But grace and truth can break down a Saul of Tarsus on the one side, no less than give a thorough sense of sin to a dissolute on the other. What was it that here produced brokenness as well as love? It was Jesus to faith, divine love in Jesus. But she needed more; and grace gave her more on the spot. For it is an immense accession for the heart to know that the sins are forgiven. And the Lord would not leave this to be implied only; He pronounced the word of God which the soul craves, Thy sins are forgiven. He was entitled to do so. The work was not yet done on which it is grounded; but the Judge of living and dead can never say what is not perfectly right, any more than the Judge of all the earth can do anything but right. Thus the Lord therefore pleaded her cause, and refuted the Pharisee’s unbelief; for He showed Himself the Lord of the prophets, and forgave sins as only God is entitled to do. Out of the fulness of His grace He brought the woman into the knowledge that her faith had saved her, and sent her away in peace.
Now, till we know that our faith has saved us, and that our sins are forgiven, this question must always occupy the mind. It is necessarily the great question for the soul when awakened. How can a quickened soul find rest till he knows that his sins are effaced, and that he is saved? All the while that there is hesitation and uncertainty herein, there must be pre-occupation of heart; and necessarily if we have no assurance that our sins are forgiven, we are not in a condition to let out the heart in love toward those who are thus at rest. Till then we cannot properly take the place of children of God. As the woman received it from the lips of the Lord, we have by faith to get it from or by the written word of God. If we have not forgiveness certified by the word of God, if we have not our new relationship carried home by Scripture to our souls, we must act on our own feeling, our own thoughts, or perhaps those of a man who knows no better himself. But even if it were the best preacher conceivable, who preached nothing but the truth, one is bound to receive the witness of God which He has witnessed concerning His Son. And “he that believes on the Son of God hath the witness in himself.” Nobody but God can avail, and there is no rule of faith but His word. The truth we must have therefore from God, and how am I to get it from God? By the word now written.
Therefore you cannot lay axe more wickedly to the tree of truth than by denying the divine authority of Scripture. One of the prevalent signs of unbelief now is that Scripture contains the word, as the more modest freethinkers say. But what the Lord and the apostles taught is the word. Again, as “every scripture is inspired of God,” so they authenticate what was written for the church of God. In these “prophetic Scriptures” they may incorporate what the devil says, and what bad people say. Of course these things are not given for us to follow but to learn, as far as God pleases, of enemies. Only unbelief makes a difficulty; but the believer accepts from God what He tells of evil as well as of good. What is thus written is really the word of God to profit by His wisdom, that me may the better avoid and be on our guard against every snare that comes from Satan or from mere nature. But Scripture is the written word of God.
Ever since the blood of Christ was shed or, to speak more generally, since He died and rose, the way in which souls enter into peace is through faith in the glad tidings. The Spirit proclaims the saving grace of God in the gospel message. Faith finds in Christ not only life but peace. This is the true preparation not only for obedience but for loving those who believe, children of God like ourselves. There is no doubt that the new nature loves. Life eternal given to us has the capacity of love; but flesh not duly judged is a hindrance in the way. Grace calls us to feel the inconsistency before we can go forward. There may be a steam engine and its various parts ready for use, but the steam must be there in order for it to work. This illustrates what is communicated in the verses before us.
There is again the dark side. “He that loveth not knoweth not God.” It does not matter what may be a man’s gift, or what may be his activity, or what reputation and influence he may possess, if he does not love he does not know God. The word is unsparing of self-deceit. He that has been begotten of God loves his brother, and knows God. His new divine affections have a definite sphere; and he has that knowledge of God which is distinctly said by our Lord to constitute life eternal. What He presented to the Father in John 17:3 is virtually reproduced here in a brief dogmatic statement with its negative. “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” Where no love is, there is no knowledge of God. The reason is as plain as it is decisive; “for God is love.”
The verses that follow set forth God’s love in its sovereign grace and fulness, the stream that fills the void heart for loving. The Spirit speaks of His love in its bright display in Christ the Son, sent in infinite grace into this world of sin, self, and darkness. It would be hard to match its simple grandeur even in Scripture. “In this was manifested the love of God,” not exactly “toward us,” or “toward all” as the apostle Paul says in Romans 3:22. The love of God is manifested toward everybody in principle. Here it is more definite, and rather looks “upon all that believe,” as is said in the same verse. It “was manifested in us.” It speaks thus of its taking effect. It was manifested in our case. The “in” therefore seems quite the proper word. “In this was manifested the love of God in us” or “in our case.” Here, as being the more extended mission of our Lord for life eternal, it is not merely God “sent” but “hath sent.” It expresses the permanent result of the past act. In the following ver. 10 it is simply “God sent”; for though it expresses simply the fact, it was far the deepest, greatest, most momentous end which ever engaged the Father and the Son in time or eternity. The difference is but slight, for it is only another tense of the same verb; but as all differences of Scripture are by divine wisdom, it is well for us to enquire into their respective meanings. “Sent” expresses simply the fact. It may be, and this is, of the utmost possible consequence, and the single act enhances it in this case. But “hath sent” expresses the present result of a past action, which suits His mission that we might live through Him.
“In this was manifested the love of God in us (or, in our case), that God hath sent his only-begotten Son.” What care to state the glory of His person in this case “His only-begotten Son,” it was not necessary to repeat in the next verse, though of course “the Son” is the same. But here it was wise to signalise a work of such weight and lasting consequence in language of the simplest character that its immensity, unadorned and unfathomable, might fill the heart to overflowing with the love of God. “God hath sent His only-begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him.” This is the first action of divine grace, essential as the first need if we were truly dead spiritually. So it remains for each soul now. The first requisite and primary proof of God’s amazing love is that those who were the objects of His love, and positively dead Godward, should be given to live. They had no sense of their own state; they had no acquaintance with God; and in their moral ruin they were wholly indifferent to either. Intellectual notions of man’s mind might be there, but not a pulse of life toward God. They had conscience to make Him an object of more dread than the most furious demon.
Yet in the face of such depravity “God hath sent His only-begotten Son into the world.” What a truth! How wonderful the bare fact! especially as it was in nothing but love. It was not something done in heaven. The Only-begotten Son He had sent to give a life in this world to fit for God there whence He came. But no work done even by the Son on high could suit either God or man. The way of love was that the Son should become man to glorify God, and give life in its highest nature to dead man by faith. Jews there were, and nations; but they were alike dead in their offences and sins, by nature children of wrath. As men they were dead while they lived. They had no hatred of sin, no love of grace; not one trait inwardly or outwardly was right in them. The mind of flesh in circumcision and uncircumcision was really and only enmity against God. Nevertheless God has sent His Only-begotten Son, the delight of the Father through all eternity, into the world, that we should live through Him; and the life given was His life.
The Old Testament tells how the race, whether Jews or Gentiles, had behaved toward God for thousands of years; the New Testament tells a still worse tale. Yet He who knew all beforehand has sent His Only-begotten into the world; and for what? Was it for judgment? It was for the very opposite; it was to quicken dead souls with the life eternal that was in His Son. For no less is meant in the words “That we might live through Him.” There was a new life that man has not as man, no, not Adam innocent in the paradise of Eden, who disobeyed when all was good in him and around him, bringing in death and judgment. Life was proposed to natural man, to Israel in the law: if he obeyed it, he should not die. But the only result of this was that it became a ministration of death and condemnation; because the introduction of the law provoked the will of man, and he became a transgressor, and thus a worse sinner after he had it than before. Sin that it might appear sin was thus working out death by what is good, in order that sin might become exceeding sinful. There was not even the prolonging of his old life. The upshot to the sinner under law was total ruin.
But there was another life, life eternal, and this life was in the Son; in the Only-begotten Son whom God’s love had sent into the world. No doubt the Father raises the dead, and quickens: it is the prerogative of God. Therefore the Son also quickens whom He will. But in becoming man, though He never ceased to be God, He in perfect humiliation receives all from God, as becomes perfect man. Hence even as the Father has life in Himself, so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself (John 5:26). The Son was the One sent to become man and conversant with man. He was the object of faith always; and when become man He is still more evidently and urgently its object as Jesus Christ yet the Son, and in one person. So too it was increasingly evident for whom He had been sent in God’s love. It was for man, not for angels. “The life was the light of men.” But no illumination suffices for man’s need; and so, though coming into the world He lightens, or is light to, every man: there was far more requisite, and He was the life to him that believed. To as many as received Him He gave title to become children of God. They were born now and thus of no creature source, but of God. But there is no believing and no new birth without the word as well as the Spirit. There must be God’s word, because the very essence of faith is that, instead of trusting my thoughts or those of others, I believe God in His word (Rom. 10:17, James 1:18, 1 Peter 1:23-25). Christ is the incorruptible seed by God’s living and abiding word.
When Adam and Eve sinned in paradise, it was because they were oblivious of, and not subject to, God’s word. Eve was deceived by the serpent’s temptation, Adam not so but more boldly transgressed. The word of God did not govern their souls. The subtle foe insinuated distrust of Him who forbade them to eat of a tree which held out to make them know good and evil like God. Then the lust for it followed, when the woman was not afraid to parley a moment longer with a creature whose aim became evident to entice her to disobey the positive prohibition of God, and doubt that death would follow. “Oh, dear, no; God not be so hard as that. Look at the beautiful fruit! so desirable also to make you wise. God wishes the knowledge of good and evil to belong to Himself alone. You will find it a new status altogether when thus enabled yourselves independently to judge between good and evil. You know nothing about this now. But when You eat the fruit of that tree, from your own conscience you will know whether a thing is good or evil. Why not rise to independence of Him who slights man, and assert your own rights as monarchs of all you survey? “
It was self-will, the sad root of evil. In love the Son of God came in order to stand in the breach. The first necessity is not atonement through the shedding of the Saviour’s blood. Nobody ever believes the gospel without having a nature from God that craves and cries to God for what the gospel supplies. In every case one is born of God before he really rests upon the propitiation of Christ. For, having thus a new life, he soon enters into its necessity, and also its preciousness; he in faith eats Christ’s flesh and drinks His blood. And therefore it is said that he believes in his heart (Rom. 10:9) that God raised Him from out of the dead. This does not mean a certain fervour of feeling. It has nothing to do with throwing the soul on his emotions; it means that, instead of resisting the truth, his heart goes along with the glad tidings God sends him. With heart it is believed to righteousness, founded on God’s estimate of the atoning work of the Lord Jesus; as with mouth confession is made to salvation: thus is God honoured, and His Son, the rejected Lord.
But the first desideratum is the want of life, life eternal in the Son. Till he gets life, what adequate sense of his sin? till then, how can he know God’s holy nature in any real way? He has no more than a dread of God. A heathen might have this; and the evil spirits believe and tremble. So we are informed on divine authority, and revealed facts are explained by it. The reason is that they know too well there is no forgiveness for their rebellion. Although they believe Who Jesus is, it does them no good: they are sentenced to destruction. They sinned irreparably. There is no possibility of salvation for an evil spirit, for a fallen angel.
But it is a totally different thing with man. Christ’s birth witnessed complacency in men; how much more His atoning death! But in order that the shedding of His blood should purify the heart and conscience, there is a new nature given by receiving the Lord Jesus. It is not yet resting on His work, but believing in His grace as come in flesh, and the glory of Him that came on this marvellous mission of love, God’s love. As surely as the heart receives Him thus from God, at that very moment the life is imparted to the soul. Life is always an instantaneous thing, whereas it is not so by any means for peace with God. As a matter of fact there may be not a little of going through experiences, whereby souls keep themselves without peace for months and even years. Yet all the while they partake of a divine nature through bowing to the Son of God, though without solid peace. They have life from the moment that the heart receives Him. And thus they acquire a divine perception of evil within, as well as of their past ways; not only of what one had done, but of what one is. Such is the effect of having divine life. It is therefore introduced here perfectly in the true and proper place. It comes in before the propitiation is applied to deliver from the burden of guilt.
“In this was manifested the love of God in us” (or, in our case), “that God hath sent His only-begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him.” The reason we have seen to be that till then we were spiritually dead before God, absolutely without any living tie with God whatsoever, only the awful responsibility of being naturally God’s offspring, but nevertheless enemies of God by wicked works. Having been by God’s constitution of man His offspring (in contrast with the lower animals) does not help us, when ruined by sin, to have our soul saved. Man fell when under responsibility, and the Jew’s undertaking to obey God’s law only aggravated his responsibility, and could in no way deliver him from the wrath to come. Then the world consisted either of man without the law pursuing his own will, or of the Jew under law trying to recommend himself to God. But the grace that saves is not in the sinner but in the Saviour. “God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This is the gospel. It is not our love to Him, but His love to us while still sinners, His own spontaneous and gratuitous love to us.
Here too is afforded this second display of His love. The apostle shows us how God’s love acted in view of our load of guilt, and not only our state of spiritual death. God’s love wrought in what to Him was beyond all things severe to His heart and to His Son’s. Man cannot conceive what it was for Jesus to bear the judgment of our sins at God’s hand. It was also wholly beyond the thought of saints; even the apostles saw but the outside of the cross till the Lord opened their understanding to understand the Scriptures.
Yet Scripture had prefigured the Lord in atoning grace and infinite suffering in the Law, and the Psalms, and the Prophets. No disciple then but had witnessed the solemn ritual of the Day of Atonement; none who had not heard the unique Psalm 22; nor one who had not been perplexed by Isaiah 53, yet from no obscurity of language, but from truth so strange. Jesus making propitiation for our sins is the solution of the riddle in all three Scriptures. No words of His before the cross gave the key; no sight even of Him crucified brought the truth into their hearts. The blood of His cross made peace in God’s mind; to theirs as yet it was bitter anguish and cruel disappointment; for His words had fallen on ears yet deaf to the meaning of His death, and they had not known the scripture that He must thus suffer that they or any might have redemption. On the resurrection day the downcast pair on the way to Emmaus told out the state of all, when they said to Himself, “We did hope that He it was that should redeem Israel” — the very thing for which He hid laid the efficacious and everlasting basis (ver. 21) But what said our blessed Saviour in reply (vers. 25, 26)? O senseless and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets spoke! Ought not the Christ to suffer these things, and to enter into His glory?” Yet He had told them not long before (Luke 17:25), “First must He suffer many things, and be rejected of this generation.”
Let us look into one of these in the light of the risen Lord and as the Holy Spirit bore witness. What meant that cry, not from the robbers on either side but from the rejected Messiah in their midst? “My God, my God, why didst Thou forsake Me?” This was the bitterest of that suffering without parallel, the righteous Servant, the beloved Son, forsaken of His God, when abhorred of His people, scorned by the Gentiles, deserted of His disciples. Why, after enjoying uninterruptedly the light of His Father’s face throughout every step of His path of trial and sorrow, why was it hid from Him now when He needed most its cheer and consolation? Well He knew; yet He left it for faith to answer it from those that were once dead, but now enabled to confess that they had nothing but sins, through His grace who bore them in His body on the tree. Oh how deep was our guilt! yet deeper far His love who sent His Son, not only as life to the dead, but as propitiation for our sins, whatever the cost; and it was immeasurable. Reproach, despite, laughter, scorn, jeers were there to wound Him from all high or low, religious, civil, military, even the crucified criminals; many bulls, Bashan’s strong ones, surrounded Him: dogs, and evil-doers in a crowd; physical suffering all the more felt by His person, instead of less, because of His perfection, when poured out like water, all His bones out of joint, His heart like wax, His strength dried up as a potsherd, His tongue cleaving to His palate. But what was all this together compared to being abandoned by His God, as He Himself felt and owned?
Many a saint of His had suffered to the utmost of bodily anguish from heathens, ay, and from Jews, yet filled with patience and joy. Many more of His disciples have suffered still more hellish tortures under the misnamed Catholic Church, and especially by its child, the abominable Inquisition; but they too triumphed in His name over these worst of earth’s persecutors. Yet He confessed Himself forsaken of His God, confessed it to God in the agonies of the cross as the deepest woe, so that His enemies might hear, though they understood not more than His friends till the risen Lord set all clear, and the Holy Spirit made the truth realised in power of peace as well as of testimony to all.
But the meek Lord did more. Even when realising the horror to His holy and loving soul of being forsaken, He fully vindicated Him that smote and bruised in a way beyond all creature thought, “And Thou [art] holy, that dwellest amid the praises of Israel.” And more still, He owned that God’s abandonment of Him was the one exception: “our fathers trusted in Thee; they trusted in Thee, and Thou didst deliver them. They cried unto Thee, and were not confounded. But I [am] a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and the despised of the people.” Yes, so it must be, if He was propitiation for our sins. For we the guilty could not be saved righteously, unless God made the Sinless One sin for us that we might become God’s righteousness in Him. This, and this only, is the true answer to His “Why?” this the sole and complete solution of the enigma. But it is still impenetrable to all unbelievers, to Israel more than to any, but yet to be their song of everlasting praise when the veil is taken away which still lies upon their heart. So the latter half of this very Psalm reveals with all plainness and certainty, beginning with the Christians’ little flock, before the light of heaven dawns on “the great congregation” (ver. 25), leading the right way for all the ends of the earth to remember and turn to Jehovah, and for all the families of the nations to worship before Him, in the days (not of Christianity and the church, but) of the Kingdom, when He rules among the nations as He is not in the least doing now.
It is the more important and indeed imperative to have the clear truth of Christ forsaken of God in atonement for sin; because thus alone is the ground of God’s grace and of our peace taken firmly and with divinely given intelligence. And thus alone can we estimate aright, however feebly, the unfathomable suffering of the Man of sorrows and suffering, for God and for us, glorifying Him and saving us who believe. Here the theologians, even the truly pious, are shallow and faulty; and their own souls lose proportionately, and those who confide in their guidance as much or more. One does not think merely of the Greek communion or of the Latin where the poverty is extreme. But take the most evangelical of the Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed; or of the Nonconformists who boast of their freedom from tradition and prejudice. Of these none better could be adduced than — not dull Thomas Scott, but — genial Matthew Henry, the devout son of a devout father driven out by the “Act of Uniformity” in 1662. Yet that most respectable of English Commentators, from whom not another16 differs in this, unmistakably shows himself unable to seize the gist of God’s forsaking Jesus on the cross. For he says, “A sad complaint of God’s withdrawings, v. 1, 2. This may be applied to David, or any other child of God, in the want of the tokens of his favour, pressed with the burthen of his displeasure,” etc.17 Of course Henry believed it did apply to Christ crucified: else he could not be owned as a Christian. But even where he does, it is superficial, as it must be in all who extend its application beyond Christ. The Psalm speaks throughout of Him alone as its personal aim, and of Him in the opening forsaken only as atoning for all saints before or after. Not one ever shared that abandonment, which He alone could bear, though infinitely more to Him, the Holy One of God, than to any saint who ever breathed. He explicitly denied it of all before Him; the Holy Spirit in the New Testament excludes it from every Christian. He was forsaken of God for our sins, that they and we who believe might never be. It is utterly false that “this may be applied to David, or any other child of God.” It is, without their knowing it, a serious weakening of the gospel. Even where the believer’s sin calls for the severest chastening, God deals with him as a father, chastens whom He loves, and scourges every son whom He receives, for in many things we all stumble; but He has said, I will in no wise fail thee, neither will I in any wise forsake thee. It is all absolute truth of His grace; and as it applies to earthly difficulties, so still more evidently to those of our divine relationship through the efficacy of Christ’s propitiation.
To the day of atonement’s typical witness, one need not refer more now than to point out the beautiful distinction between the two goats, which together shadow the one atoning offering, for the children of Israel, one lot for Jehovah, and the other lot for Azazel (the goat that goes away). The first goat was slaughtered, and its blood brought within the veil. Over the second goat, the complement of the first, the high priest confessed all the iniquities of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, laid as it were on its head, and then sent it away by one standing ready into a land apart, into the wilderness never to be seen again. It is the witness of Christ’s substitution to bear our sins away into a land of forgetfulness, as the slim goat is of propitiation for sin judged before Jehovah in vindication of His nature and majesty and word dishonoured by evil. Together they foreshadowed Christ’s atoning work, in which God was shown not sparing the Saviour, His own Son, that He might spare guilty sinners as we have been. Was not the love of God in both the Father and the Son fully manifested in Christ’s sacrifice to God for us that we might be for ever saved?
Of Isa. 52:13-53 we may say the less, because it speaks itself so plainly of Messiah to be exalted and very high, but first suffering for sins sacrificially for His sinful people, that they might share the blessing and honour thus won for them by His grace. We share His life sufferings, and some too His martyr sufferings; but He is absolutely alone as the Propitiation and the Substitute. And these only are typified in Lev. 16. These only brought on God’s forsaking Him in the opening of Ps. 22. None But He endured God’s judgment of sin, and of our sins; and nothing but this judgment brings God’s forsaking. We may endure severe discipline of our faults, but it is in His love; He and He only, as our sin-offering. What means His being wounded for our transgressions? bruised for our iniquities? the chastisement of our peace upon Him? What means Jehovah laid upon Him the iniquity of us all? “For the transgression of My people was He smitten” (not on Israel, as the Jews say). Still more decisively “it pleased Jehovah to bruise him.” He put Him to grief (or, suffering). “When Thou (Jehovah) shalt make His (Messiah’s) soul an offering for sin,” what does this mean but His atoning work,? What again “He shall bear their iniquities”? and “He bore the sin of many”? Only blind and obstinate unbelief can evade what God thus reveals as clearly as words can make it.
“Herein is love, not that we loved God.” This the law of God demanded but never received, any more than loving his neighbour. And man easily deceives himself in estimating his love. How many Jews were trying to make believe that they did love God as well as man! But it was sadly short of the divine standard, as the Lord Jesus made evident when here below. Till the heart is set free by Christ’s redemption and has peace with God, it is impossible for love to break through the “barriers and integuments of death. Even saints under law are like Lazarus with his grave-clothes about him, alive but needing to be loosed and let go. How is the heart won? “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son as propitiation for our sins.” The more conscience there is while under law in spirit, the less happy we are. Exercised souls do not walk slipshod before God. They feel their shortcomings, and are grievously downcast about themselves. They are afraid that God has the same uncertainty about them that they cannot avoid about Him. That He justifies the ungodly through Christ’s propitiation for our sins is the full proof of His love to us when sinners.
Life, as we have seen, must precede peace. By many a scripture, perhaps by God’s solemn words as to sin and sinners, a person might be truly awakened. This is set out in the parable of the prodigal son, following the lost sheep, and the lost silver. In the intermediate parable the Lord presents the lost one dead, as before in the sheep actively straying. There is an evil life in which man is active, and goes astray; there is another life to which he is. dead. These aspects of death are in the earlier parables. The foolish sheep slipping heedlessly away and exposed to all mischief is man active in departure from God. The lost piece is one dead in sins. The Shepherd heirs all toll in quest of the stray. The light shines by the Spirit’s work till the lost piece. is found. This is far from being all. The prodigal son is required to complete the picture; and therein a double work of God appears. First, the prodigal “cometh to himself,” he is brought to repent. He judges himself a sinner; he acknowledges that he has sinned against heaven and in his father’s sight, according to the language of the parable. He is now going the right way; he seeks after God. He had been seeking his own lusts and passions before; now that he is brought to himself, “he rose up and went unto his own father.” But he has not yet peace. He is still in spirit under the law. “Make me as one of thy hired servants.” This is exactly what the law does; instead of leading into freedom, it can only put under bondage. The gospel alone can tell of all bonds broken by the Saviour, and the slave brought into the liberty of Christ. See this set out in the way of grace with the prodigal. “While he was yet a long way off his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and ran, and fell upon his neck, and covered him with kisses.” He, no doubt, was troubled about himself, and forecasting how the father would receive him. It is the father, not the son, who runs to meet him; it is the father who embraces him, notwithstanding his evil and his rags. What a melancholy sight is the son, to which he had reduced himself by folly and sins! In the father, all-overcoming love! But the father does not allow him to say, Make me as one of thy hired servants; he has the best robe brought for him, a ring put on his hand, and sandals on his feet, the fatted calf killed, and such a feast as never was before in that house. It was for a son dead but alive again, lost and now found.
We learn thus graphically what is also taught dogmatically in scripture, the goodness of God leading to repentance, drawing from the wrong to the right direction, with self-judgment of the soul, sure marks of life Godward. But there was no deliverance from fear or law till he was in the father’s arms, and the full sense of sonship by grace. Thus, and only then, he knew that all was clear. The father’s embrace made this perfectly plain, and the father’s ways with him were all the fruit of it. It is just so in the gospel, but many stop at the threshold. They have got out of the land where no one gave to the most abject want, but not to the Father who with the Son grants us all things. And here too it is. “Herein is love,” life for the dead, and propitiation for the guilty. Is it not more blessed than if one had never been a sinner? Adam in paradise had nothing like it. Adam had no such life as Christ’s. It was not given for paradise. He may have got it afterwards, like others who believed, the Old Testament saints; but he had it not then or there. It is really therefore when man has come to his worst, that God brings out His best. This is Christ not merely coming to give us life, but dying as propitiation for our sins.
When we think of the glory, and the sufferings withal, especially at God’s hand of the One who thus died; when we think of all the sins and iniquities of those that He bore sacrificially, — Oh what a wondrous filling of the gap that nothing else could till between God and the sinner! This is what is implied here. “Not that we loved God” — we may have tried, but if so, we failed totally. That was the law; here is the gospel — “He loved us, and sent His Son as the propitiation for our sins.” It was all done in His one act, in His one suffering. “Christ once suffered” (“once” was enough) “for sins, just for unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). He was man; but was He not God? He was the Son; and He is risen. There is the glorious proof that He triumphed. Indeed He could not fail. How could God fall? And was He not the Only-begotten Son of God? If we believe the Scripture, we ought not to question it. Fear and failure are natural to fallen man. He is a sinner, and he therefore dreads God’s judgment. But He does not ask you to trust yourselves. He tells you to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. He knows too well that you do not love Him; He bids You to believe in His love manifested in Christ, and in dying as a propitiation for you. Do not say that You are too bad; indeed You are as bad as can be, and far worse than you think. Take honestly the place of being “lost”; and this will end all your talk about badness. Yet for the lost He came and died.
The prodigal thought he had got down low when he proposed to ask for that place. In fact he was not fit to be a servant. Think you that any man would be taken as servant with such a certificate of his life? There is no question of our character at all. Sovereign grace rises above every sin and iniquity. Let the soul take the place of being nothing but a sinner; and therefore leave it to God to show nothing but His love. What He does is not merely that He gives me the life to feel what is due to God, and what becomes His child, but also the propitiation which meets and clears away all my sins. And remember, if not all sins, none; if any, all. Such is the way of the gospel in which God settles the matter; and this is what every believer is called to rest in.
O dear brethren, are you resting thus in Christ? Do any of you that believe in Jesus the Son of God, the Only-begotten, say, Make me as one of thy hired servants? He that came as man, yet bringing life eternal, by that very gift of life makes you feel your sins, but also believe that He is the propitiation for them. Under the Jewish system there were constant sacrifices, and repeated sin-offerings; but now in the gospel, since the Son offered up Himself, there is remission of sins, and no longer a sacrifice for sin (Heb. 10:18). For by one offering He hath perfected for ever (or, in perpetuity, which is stronger still) the sanctified. By “sanctified” is meant those that are set apart to God, not by law now but by Christ’s blood.
Beloved brethren, is this your faith? May the Lord grant that so it may be; and that you may delight in the apostle John’s unfolding of the love of God manifested in the sending of His Son with its declared two-fold aim. Can any thing so perfectly display the true character of the love that is of Gods that it has nothing at all to do with any effort of our own. It is out of God that it springs. But, if begotten of God, we share God’s nature; and if we share His nature, He has provided to take away all that hinders the proper exercise of that nature. Our old man is still there as a matter of fact, though we know it crucified with Christ, that the body of sin might be annulled, that we should no longer serve sin.
Yet if our eye be off Christ, the old nature certainly does hinder. We need therefore to know how God has dealt in Christ with our sins, and with sin, their root. There may also be a hindrance through inconsistency, so that love cannot flow out according to God toward those that God would have one love. His love inspires love to all that are His, to His children; and He has provided for this by our faith, the new life, and the Spirit who abides in us. It is not a question of whether one likes this quality or that behaviour, or the like; but in the face of all difficulties He counts on our loving them with that love which is of God. And He brings in these two immense manifestations of divine love, to which we owe our new relationship and the clearing away of our sins, in order also to fit us for loving one another as of God’s family.
This is not all; but it is where we now stop. If the Lord will, we shall find that He has more to say, and of exceeding great moment as the crown of His love. We have had love coming down in the Son from its heavenly height, and going down into fathomless depths for us; and we are to look at its carrying us up into that height. Let me meanwhile cite the following sonnet by a famous agnostic converted to God before he died. How sad that he had no one from the Word to assure him of the love of God in Christ, and thus banish till his doubts! J.G.R. needed Luke 15 rather than Ps. 27.
“I ask not for Thy love, O Lord; the days
Can never come, when anguish can atone,
Enough for me were but Thy pity shown
To me as to the stricken sheep that strays
With ceaseless cry for unforgotten ways.
Oh send me back to pastures I have known,
Or find me in the wilderness alone
And slay me as the hand of mercy slays.
I ask not for Thy love, nor e’en as much
As for a hope on Thy dear breast to lie
But be Thou still my Shepherd — still with such
Compassion as may melt, and such a cry;
That so I hear Thy feet, and feel Thy touch,
And dimly see Thy face ere yet I die.”
16 The pious Bp. G. Horne on the Psalms wrote in just the same mistaken strain. I should hail with delight a single divine who knew and wrote better as to this fundamental truth of the gospel; but such are absolutely unknown to me.
17 Exposition of the Old and New Testaments with E. Bickersteth’s preface, in six vols. 4to. London, 1839.