by Justin Dillehay
How does God’s love serve as a model for our love as Christians? That is what D.A. Carson seeks to explain in the closing lines of his book Love in Hard Places.
In these paragraphs, Carson notes that God’s love is not a simple thing. It can’t be reduced to a sound bite (e.g. “God loves unconditionally,” etc.). Instead it comes in several different flavors or ways of loving: 1) God loves his Son 2) God loves all people 3) God loves his covenant people.
And each of these ‘ways of loving’ is slightly different. God’s love for his Son is entirely merited, while his love for all people as sinners is decidedly unmerited. Furthermore, the way God loves his covenant people is also gracious, special, and selective, and does not extend to all people. But even with regard to his covenant people, there is a kind of love that is conditional upon obedience to him (e.g. John 14:21-23; 15:9-10; Jude 21).
For a more on this topic, see Carson’s helpful little book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God.
But here at the end of his companion volume, Love in Hard Places, Carson explains how these diverse flavors of God’s love should be reflected in the lives of his people.
Despite the differences, however, the parallels [between God’s love and our love] are striking.
1) God’s intra-Trinitarian love is to be mirrored in the peculiar love that binds Christian to Christian. Moreover, the love of the Father for the Son is the standard by which he loves the world and the fundamental motive behind the Father’s commitment that all should honor the Son even as they honor the Father, while the Son’s love for the Father issues in perfect obedience to him, even to death on the cross. Thus God’s intra-Trinitarian love spills out into redemption.
2) God’s evenhanded, non-distinguishing, providential love for the world tells us something of the way we should love our enemies, for God sends his sun and rain upon the just and the unjust. God’s yearning love to see men and women saved is repeated in us: the God who loved the world now commands us to preach the gospel to every creature, driven by the same love to implore a dying world, “Be reconciled to God.”
3) God’s sovereign love for the elect is reflected not only in Christian love within the community of faith, but also in Christian marriages: as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her, so the Christian husband is to love his wife and give himself for her—and that, too, is a restrictive and selective love, even as it is sacrificial and seeks the other’s good. Moreover, God’s love for his people never allows them to forget that when he set his love on them, they were enemies (e.g., Rom. 5:8-11), for we are all by nature “objects of wrath” (Eph. 2:3).
4) And if in some contexts God’s love is made conditional on obedience, in some contexts ours is too: as we rear our children, exercise discipline in the church, deal with evil in a fallen and broken world.
Indeed, just as the Bible’s diverse ways of talking about God’s love cannot responsibly be deployed to eradicate other things of which the Bible speaks—God’s wrath, his judgment, his jealousy, his perfect holiness, his justice—so the Bible’s diverse ways of talking about the Christian’s love cannot responsibly be deployed to eradicate or domesticate the fullness and complexity of what the Bible says about our dealings with sin, injustice, war, brokenness, and judgment in this
life and in the life to come.
In this world, despite all the pleasure and healing it brings, Christian love will always be a matter of loving in hard places. But none of it is as hard as what God himself did: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. . . . For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Rom. 5:8, 10).
One day the hard places will be gone. But the love will remain, unalloyed, immensely rich, reflecting in small but glorious ways the immeasurable love we have received.”
-D.A. Carson, Love in Hard Places (194-195; the numbering and bold print are mine)