Can We Take It?
This article begins with one of the most familiar statements of all Scripture: “God is love.” We are commanded to love one another. These are truths mankind recognizes as the pinnacle of human existence, and all of the world’s religions and philosophies have tried to chart a path to attain this ideal. Norman details the impossibility of all man-made attempts to reach this goal, and the futility of the deceit of self-reliance inherited at the Fall. Only God is love, and it is only through our union with Him that “He is the love in and through us.”
God is love. John said that twice in that passage of his first letter, and it sets the final bounds to human destiny. If a man loves, that is the evidence of his union with God. If a man loves his brother, the invisible God is made visible in that act. That is the last word that can be said–for time and eternity.
Love is selflessness. The last rung of the ladder of attainment has been climbed. God is total disinterestedness in what might be to His own advantage. When it speaks of Him vindicating His own righteousness, giving pre-eminence to His own glory, that is not because of what He gets out of it; it is because only in the sharing of His perfections can His creatures attain theirs. It is for their sakes, for the universe of His creation, that He maintains the inviolability of His Throne. Love must sometimes be wrathful, appear self-interested and demanding, appear to maintain its own rights and dignity. Only love can safely do that, just because of its total detachment from self-interest. Can we imagine a Being whose sole occupation for the ages of the ages is to carry the burdens and provide for the needs of others, and when those burdens and needs add up to those of the whole creation? And when the only human race we know of, made to be His peculiar treasure, hates Him, rejects Him, takes all and gives nothing, not even thanks, and often denies His existence? And His answer is to set to work to win them back by giving His life for them!
The summit of revelation is that God has predestined man to be just that. And man knows it. Whether by this devious pathway or that, almost every philosophy and religion that has emanated from the mind of man ends up on the plateau of love. We might say that mankind has finally settled that one point–that brotherly love is the goal. Neither logic nor intuition nor revelation can offer an alternative. That could well be called the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. But pure disinterestedness? Total absorption in the needs of others? Service to others as a debt eternally owed to and eternally claimed by my neighbor? The command, “Be ye also perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect”? Can that be possible in human experience in this life or the next? No in one way, and yes in another.
The “No” way, in which it cannot be, is the path of delusion trodden by frustrated millions through history, the theme of a thousand religions, the pious aspiration but never realization of moralist, philosopher, idealist–and the butt of the cynic and pessimist.
It is mankind’s subtlest self-hypnotism. We can love, we can be friendly, kind, co-operative, they say. Give us time and self-dsicipline and we can attain to perfect love. Are not we commanded in the Bible to love God and one another? Do not the churches exhort us to imitate Christ–“Be like Jesus all day long”? Do they not spur us on to climb the heights of good resolutions by an admixture of prayer and self-effort? The highest philosophers, returning from their explorations of the good life, tell us we ought, therefore we can.
The roots of self-reliance are so deep in us all, so undiscovered, that only by the hard knocks of experience do we discover our vast error. This mountain of perfect love has no route to its summit! It is inaccessible, unclimbed and unclimbable
Paul makes a revealing comment in Romans 5, as we have previously pointed out, which nicely exposes the eternal and impassable gulf between human and divine love: “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son.” There is a limit beyond which human love cannot go–the limit of self-interest and human approval. We might even die for someone or some cause commendable enough, but it must be commendable to us.
But pure disinterested love, unconditional, unrelated to the deservingness of the recipient, is divine. Jesus implied it when He said that man’s greatest love was to die for his friends: but (as Paul said) God for His enemies. John said the same when defining love as “not that we loved God, but that He loved us.” We cannot love god, no man ever has or ever will love God: only divine love can love Him: for perfect love in the totality of its self-giving is so fearful, so devastating to anything less than perfect love, so offensive to self-interested love, that man can never love God, though he may often imagine and say he does.
That is the “No” way. Perfect love cannot be obtained that way, despite the pathetic fact that the world through its centuries of its history has tried to proclaim that it could and does: and that is true, not only of human philosophy from Plato onwards, and of all non-Christian religions; it is also tragically true of the perversions of the gospel by “the works of the law” which Paul and John and the other apostles had to combat even in New Testament days. It is seen in the mixture of self-effort and grace through the writings of many of the Fathers: it found the fullest of perverted expression in the good-works Pelagian teaching of Rome, until the fallacy was so gloriously exposed and combated by Luther: yet only to have returned again in multitudinous subtle forms from the Protestant pulpits. A masterpiece of clarification on the subject is in the book Agape and Eros by Anders Nygren.
The “Yes” way, however, by which such perfect love can be attained is made plain in the scriptures, and has been preserved in purity of teaching and experience by “the little flock” through the history of the church. Of course it has. God has never left Himself without a witness. I have already given the grounds of it in the revelation of the Trinity: the Three-in-One. Here is divine, uncreated, spontaneous, unconditional, undeserved love. But here is the only such love in the universe for time and eternity. He only is love. That is the point at issue. Not half of one percent of admixture is possible. Human love–the love of the independent self apart from God–is the crippled growth of a monstrous birth. It is the use of the love-faculty for self-interested ends, instead of it being the means of the radiation of the selfless love of God; for, once again, its birth was when the first created being, Lucifer, refused to fulfill the only purpose of his creation and be the container and manifester of Him who is selfless love. Cutting himself off from union with the Three-in-One, it was inevitable that his created love faculty turned in on itself to be occupied by self-love. This immediately became its fixed nature. It could not be otherwise. Every outlook and instinct from henceforth was permeated with self-interest. Selfless love was an eternal impossibility to him: and when Adam received the satanic spirit into his spirit by partaking of the tree of disobedience, it became equally and eternally impossible for any human being born of Adam to express anything but self-love. No matter what heights of idealism or religion were aimed at, the basis would always be self-love, for creature love can never rise above its source any more than water can, and can never change itself into uncreated love. Eros is of an eternally different quality from agape, and never merely a variation in quantity.
But now we see the glorious end-purposes of God. They are that we humans are an eternal expression of the divine, by the fact that He who is love has joined Himself eternally to us and us to Him, in Christ. He is love within and through us.
But that means that we redeemed people are paddling in the muddy shallows when we are so constantly concerned with what benefits we receive from him. It indicates the accursed admixture of this Eros and Agape. It means that we in our human selves are seeking something for ourselves, blessing, guidance, power, holiness, cleansing. The very seeking is a form of self-effort, of eros. Whereas the real truth is that He has found us, made us His dwelling place, and lives His own life in us.
What then is a totally committed Christian? He has ceased to be his own–neither people, possessions, nor life is his. All he has is Jesus. And what kind of person is Jesus? Unconditional love. Life’s occupation, life’s absorption, is expressing the love of Jesus in our world. Nothing one iota less. To me to live is Christ–all things counted refuse that I may win Christ (not by effort but by faith that He is what He is in me): and that means the life He will live out in me will be a participation in His power, His vicarious sufferings, and His death for sinners and enemies.
That is this life–Christ formed in us–no question about uncertainty of consecration or doubts about His permanent indwelling: no pursuit of personal revival, refreshment, renewal: but the clear recognition of this unchanging Other Person of love who has begun to live His eternal life of self-giving love through us. This has become our adventure for eternity, the upspringing well and the outpouring rivers.
See the way John takes us to the summit of living in his first letter. He tells that he is going to lay bare to us the meaning of eternal life, which is Jesus Christ–and its implications for us who are joined to Him. He leaves no room for second-rate standards. He says we are to walk in the light as He is in the light, to walk as He walked, be righteous as He is righteous, purify ourselves as He is pure; for as He is, so are we in this world! This is no gospel of standing, but not state! Of imputed but not actual righteousness! Of reckoning but not reality!
Then how can it be? Nothing could be simpler. Keeping His commandments is a consequence of being in Him, and a proof of His love perfected in us: ceasing from sin is due to abiding in Him: loving the brethren is the same as saying that God dwells in us. That whole passage of 3:7-21 cannot be matched in the Bible in its presentation of the nature of God and the new man. It even surpasses 1 Cor. 13 in that a cause is more fundamental than its effects. A redeemed man must love his brethren. Why? Because being born of God he is born of love. God within is his new nature. God’s love is no idle phantasy, for it is plain for all to see in the gift of His only begotten Son to give us life at the price of His own, and Himself pay the penalty of the wrongs done against Himself. This kind of love, reaching out to save the whole world, is the way He now loves others through us, and its manifestation in our love for each other is the only way God is seen by men. What could say more plainly that other-love, self-giving love is not of mere man, but God in a man? And be it noted that this passage which completes and consummates the declaration of the whole letter–that God who is light reveals to us in plainest outline God who is love–is saying not one word to us about His loving us for our comfort and benefit. It is saying that if the marvelous union-relationship is a fact, if we dwell in Him and He in us, then He cannot but live His own quality of life in us–of love, truth and holiness. Let us see then that we live that life, and there is no difficulty at all: for we live by faith, and faith is the recognition of the fact of a Christ who conquered the world and the devil, and that the Conqueror is within us.