"But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Romans v. 8
We often say that love is an attribute of God, but does this express the full truth? The Apostle John tells us in his first epistle that "God is love." Love is not merely an attribute; it is the very essence and substance and being of God. This passage sets before us this love. The word "commendeth" here does not mean simply the act of recommending. The thought of the apostle—the thought of the Holy Ghost behind the apostle—is not that God commendeth to us His love; it is love toward us that He commendeth; and the commendeth means to set in a striking light, to exhibit, to evince, to hold up for our admiration. It implies a contrast with all other love—something beyond and above the highest ideal of human affection.
This text presents before us the love, the gift, and the object. As I have said, the love of God is peculiar; we use the same word oftentimes in different senses; and we use the same word "love" in different senses. The Apostle John, who had a remarkable insight into the love of God, and was chosen by the Spirit of God specially to write upon love, and whose first epistle is everywhere full of this great theme, says, "We love Him, because He first loved us." Now, in that very passage you will see that the word love is used in two quite different senses, for it is quite obvious that our love to God and God's love to us are quite different. We are accustomed to divide between what we term a love of complacency and a love of benevolence. And as these are very common terms, it may be best to understand the difference. The love of complacence means a love that is drawn out from us by the discovery of lovely qualities in other people; but the love of benevolence means the love that is drawn out from us without regard to the lovely qualities discovered in others, but for the sake of the good that we can do and the blessing that we can impart. It is the love of complacence when a man, becoming acquainted with an intellectual, cultivated, virtuous maiden, feels his heart drawn out to her by the beauty of her character, or when one friend, discovering in another friend amiable, attractive, and beautiful traits, gives love on account of the discovery of these charms of character. That is the love of complacence. But when to a beggar, perhaps a sinner degraded and filthy down below your social level, exhibiting perhaps nothing but the most unattractive and repulsive features to you—when to a beggar you give alms, when you seek to clothe his nakedness, to feed his hunger, to quench his thirst, to provide him with a home; when you surround one that is personally disagreeable to you, and perhaps hateful to you, with the ministries of affection—that is love of benevolence. There is a great deal of difference between these two sorts of love. The love of complacence is in a sense voluntary; you cannot help but love what is lovable; if you discover what is lovable, your admiration is drawn out, and if you are virtuous yourself you cannot but respond to the attraction of beauty and excellence in character.
Then the love of complacence depends upon acquaintance. You must know the object and you must discover the qualities of the object before this love of complacence can be exercised. And then, moreover, the love of complacence is exclusive. It has comparatively few objects; it delights in them, it rejoices in their possession, and it desires not to extend very largely the exercise of its affection. And then the love of complacence is intensive; it reaches right down to the depths of our being; it takes hold of all that there is in us; if there is power to respond, there is a response; if there is virtue, it must exercise its affection, as I have said, when virtue is discovered in others, and so the love of complacence is partial and oftentimes intensely partial.
But now look, on the other hand, at the love of benevolence. The love of benevolence is never exercised involuntarily. It is a voluntary love. It is not evoked from us by the discovery of beauties in others, it comes simply from a determination. It is a principle of love. And then, again, it is extensive and not intensive. It has broad range and scope. Instead of being partial, it is impartial and universal. It does not even depend upon the acquaintance which we have with other people. It bestows its blessings somewhat as God bestows His blessings, impartially and universally. Not, as I have said, exclusive, but inclusive; not intensive, but extensive; not partial, but impartial; not selfish, but universal. That is the love of God to us; we love God, that is the love of complacence. We discover beauty in God, and we respond to it. "We love Him, because He first loved us." That is the love of benevolence. He did not discover beautiful qualities in us that He loved us. He loved us despite all our unloveliness, and therefore He loved us with a benevolent love. Let us, first of all, get hold of the character of the love of God. It is a benevolent love, a voluntary love, an extensive, impartial, universal, unselfish love that yearns to give to the most unworthy, yearns to give to everybody alike, yearns to give without reference to any merit or desert in us. And in that very fact that God's love is such a love, He exhibits that love, sets it up in a striking light before us in contrast to any other love of which the world knows anything.
Now, this love has made a very marked and wonderful exhibition of itself in what it has done for us in its activity toward us; for we must remember that love is a force; and force demands activity; for instance, gravitation is a force; it is impossible to imagine gravitation as sleeping or being dormant. It must act, and it must act in every direction, and it must act always. And the greatest forces of which we know anything are forces that show themselves to be such by their perpetual activity. Fire must have vent. A stream must have a channel. And all love must have an exhibition and an expression. And because God not only has love, but is love, He must act, and act in a loving way. The very word "benevolent" implies that love gives. Benevolence means well wishing, and well wishing leads to beneficence, which is well doing; and the very fact that we call this love a benevolent love, or a love of benevolence, implies giving; and so the activity of love is the activity of giving; a universal giving, an impartial giving, a perpetual giving, a giving because it is God's nature to give, just as it is the nature of the sun to shine and the nature of the stream to flow. The measure of a gift is always determined by what it is that is given, and by how much it costs to give it; and I want you to notice that God gave His only begotten Son. Did you ever think that it is a greater thing to give a person than to give anything else; a mere object, a mere material thing. If you go to India you will see what is known as the Taj Mahal, the finest building in the world, more magnificent by far than St. Paul's in London or St. Peter's in Rome; costly, pure, symmetrical; a type and ideal of beauty made of sculptured marble and sculptured ivory, and inlaid with gold and gems, with sentences of the Koran, the sacred book of the Mahommedan. It is a perfect wonder of the world. It was erected by an Indian prince to commemorate his love for his departed wife; it is really a kind of mausoleum monument of the dead. Great gift, costly gift, magnificent gift, wonderful tribute of love; but remember this: Give us an architect or builder, give us royal riches, and we can open other mines where marbles lie and golden gems are found, and we can build another structure that shall equal the Taj Mahal and, perhaps, surpass it in beauty and symmetry and costliness and elegance. But you can never duplicate a person, though you may duplicate a building.
God did not give a world of one entire and perfect diamond, a world of gold and gems. Why, He could have rolled ten thousand worlds along the floors of heaven and sacrificed them all for the sake of men, and it would not have cost Him anything, for by one effort of His will He could turn all those worlds into being again after they had been destroyed or sacrificed. But God had one only begotten Son; not a thing, not a gem, not a mine of gold, not a world of riches, but a Person; one Person, the only Person that God could give; His one Son, His only begotten Son, His well-beloved Son, and He gave Him as a sacrifice. Now, when we talk of the death of Christ on the cross we too often forget that the whole life of Christ was in a sense a death. When He left the throne of glory and laid aside the mantle of His royal power and the sceptre of royal dominion—when He came down and consented to be born of a woman as a babe born in Bethlehem, born in a stable, laid in a manger, to wear the clothes of poverty, to have no place where to lay His head, to be poor and forsaken and despised and outcast, to be hated and mocked and insulted, to be scourged, to have a crown of thorns on His brow where the crown of universal empire sat, and to die on the cross as a malefactor, and to have enemies pass by and mock and deride His dying agony. Why, the whole life of Christ was a death from His birth to His crucifixion. Humiliation, mockery, insult, injury. I never like to speak of what must have been the feelings of God during the dying agonies of Christ. It is quite too august a subject for any human being to discuss, but if any of you who is a father has ever stood over one son and seen the dying agonies of that son, and witnessed those dying agonies for hours, you know something of what the feeling of a father must be over an only son that is undergoing the pangs of dissolution. And what do you think must have been the emotions of God the Father as He looked down from Heaven and saw His only begotten and well-beloved Son crucified and hanging on the cross and suffering the mortal pangs of dissolution from the third hour until the ninth hour of that awful day of tragedy? Could God have done anything more than this? He gave a Person, the Person, the one present that was the object of His intense and infinite love, His only begotten and well-beloved Son. He gave Him to a life of humiliation, a life of mockery, to a death of insult, hanging in crucifixion as a malefactor between two thieves. God sets His love before us in most striking light in contrast to all other love, in that He gave all He had to give, the sacred Person of His own Son. He gave Him to the sacrifice of the cross.
Now, look at the object of that love "for us." And who were we? Those words in the fifth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans describe our condition, and it is quite remarkable that those words grow in force and meaning as they proceed. In the sixth verse we are told "When we were yet without strength." The word means helplessly weak—"In due time Christ died for the ungodly;" and then, again, "While we were yet sinners Christ died for us;" and then again, "When we were enemies." Look at these four words, helplessly weak, ungodly, positively and degradedly sinful, and not only so, but enemies, adversaries, hostile to God. The apostle has been telling us why it is that God sets His love in such striking contrast with all the human exhibitions of love. He says, "For scarcely for a righteous man will one die, yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die." But we were neither righteous nor good. Men have sacrificed their lives for other men, but it has been where the love of complacence has been evoked, as in the case of Damon and Pythias. One of these friends offered to die for the other, and would have died for the other had not the other made his appearance at the last moment. And then the sovereign who was about to have executed one of them was so much struck at their devotion to one another that he pardoned the offender, and begged to be admitted into the circle of a friendship so wonderful.
Men have been known to die for each other, friend for friend. They have died for a good man, they have died perhaps for a righteous man, though not so often, but Christ says, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend." It is the ideal of human love that a man for his friend's sake lays down his own life. And yet remember this, that where men's love ends God's love only begins. When you have reached the highest ideal of human sacrifice and human affection you are only on the mountain-top with the heavens infinitely above you, and it is in the heavens that God dwells. Not until you can estimate the difference between the height of the highest mountain of the earth and the great distance from the earth to Sirius, or those great stars that sparkle in the firmament, can you begin to express or understand the difference between the height of human love and the height of the Divine love. "Greater love hath no man than this, that he die for his friends." "But God commends His love towards us in that while we were weak and helpless, while we were godless, while we were enemies, Christ died for us"; and if you look in the life of Christ for His miracles I will tell you what the greatest miracle is. It is the utterance of that prayer on the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." When we were throwing back in His teeth His very agonising groans; when we were mocking and insulting and deriding Him, He prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." And that is the most stupendous miracle that Christ ever wrought, the miracle of a prayer for such sinners as they were.
I want to get before us, in conclusion, this idea of Christ dying for us. Substitution, taking another's place. You see the apostle does not leave us to misunderstand what this dying for us means. Let us look at two or three of the other phrases here; "Christ died for the ungodly; Christ died for us; when we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son by whom we have received the atonement and reconciliation." You see there might possibly be a doubt as to what it means by Christ dying for us; but when we are told that the effect of Christ's death was that while we were ungodly and sinful and enemies to God we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, then we begin to understand that Christ's death for us implies such a substitution, such a taking of our place as that the enmity between God and us is done away, and sin no longer becomes an obstacle to fellowship and sympathy and union with the Lord Himself.
Blessed be God that the Bible tells its own story and explains its own terms. What is reconciliation? Reconciliation is the bringing together of parties who have been alienated from each other. The effect of sin was mutual alienation between God and men. God could not look with favour upon sinners, and sinners would not look with love upon God; so God and the sinner were hopelessly estranged but for the precious blood of Christ; and when Jesus Christ died for us, taking the sinner's place, bearing in His own body on the tree our guilt and the equivalent of our punishment, then it became possible for God to take us into favour and put away the mountain of our sins that was like an obstacle to all fellowship and communion and even practical acquaintance with God.
This doctrine of substitution is very sweet to my soul; it is so simple and so easily understood after all. Why, you cannot look into the depths of God's love, and you cannot look into the depths of Christ's sacrifice, but you can understand what the effects of it are. In the war in America for the preservation of the Union there was a Wisconsin mechanic, who was drafted into the army. He had a large family and a wife depending upon him. The wife was quite an invalid, and he himself a poor working man, with no reserve of funds saved, for he had scarcely been able to maintain his family, and there was a young man, a friend of his unmarried and without family, and he came forward and said, "I will go for you; I will take your place." And he insisted upon it. He went to the war, and in the Battle of Gettysburg he fell, mortally wounded, and when the news came up to Wisconsin that this friend had died on the field of battle, this poor mechanic, himself a carpenter, made a headboard worked in hard wood and as enduring as he could make it, and he went with that headboard and worked his way down to Gettysburg and planted the board at the head of the grave. It bore the name of the young man who had been killed, and underneath were these four words, "He died for me." This is a simple, beautiful illustration of substitution. He went to the war for him, he went into the battle for him, he received the bullet for him, he died for him, and all that the man could do was to put up a headboard for him with the words, "He died for me."
But that was one friend dying for another. It was substitution, but it was the substitution of friendship. But Christ's is the substitution of the Eternal Friend for His enemies, persecutors, slanderers, crucifiers. When Erskine was called before the Scottish judges and told that if he did not stop preaching this glorious gospel of the grace of God, his life would be in peril, his answer was, "I will never stop preaching the glorious gospel of the grace of God until you can blot out and obliterate that sentence in which Christ says to the unbelieving Jews, 'My Father giveth you the true bread from Heaven,' and until you can blot out and obliterate that sentence from the Word of God will I cease to carry the Bread of Life to the hungering souls of my fellow-men." And so I would say, let those who know this precious gospel go to the stake rather than keep a silent tongue when the world round about us is dying without Christ, and we know that He died for us.
There is a very beautiful biography of Joseph Neesima, the Japanese, who founded the Doshisha or the one-aim school for the training of Japanese young men for the ministry. He was a native Japanese. Very early in life, when he was a mere lad, he made up his mind that none of these gilded images of Buddha could save them. He saw them in the wrought iron plain castings. He saw them when they were gilded iron. He saw them with the gold leaf laid in plating over the iron casting, and he said, "It is impossible that a piece of iron, though it bear the image of a God and is gilded with gold leaf, can do men any good"; and he threw away his idols, and would have nothing to do with idolatry. But he had no religion; he had not heard yet of the Saviour of mankind. He got hold of a Chinese Bible. He took up that Bible. He knew a little Chinese; enough to read what was in the Bible after a little painstaking effort; and the very first words he came to were the words of the first verse of Genesis: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." He said immediately, "I never saw this book before; I know nothing about it, but there is more wisdom in that one sentence than in any of the sacred books I have ever seen that have to do with my own religion." He could not rest until he had a chance of owning one of these Bibles for himself, for this was nothing but an abridged copy. He heard that these Bibles had been printed in America, and he longed to go to America. So he escaped in the disguise of a servant on a vessel bound for Hong Kong, and while the vessel was stopping at Hong Kong and he was trying to get a vessel to the United States, he went into a little shop in Hong Kong and there found a Chinese New Testament, and bought it by sacrificing for it a little body sword that he wore. And then on the vessel, as he worked his way to America, he read that Bible in every spare hour; and when he came to John iii. 16: "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life," he said, "In the first chapter of Genesis and the first verse I found wisdom for my mind, but here I have found wisdom for my heart." And as that first verse had led him to God the Creator, that sixteenth verse of the third chapter of John had led him to God the Redeemer, and he went back to Japan and there established that Doshisha and occupied himself during the rest of his life in training the young men of his own native country to preach the gospel of the grace of God, and to tell men that "God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
Joseph Neesima will rise in the judgment to condemn hundreds of people who have been habitual attendants at the churches of our country. They have heard the precious gospel of the grace of God preached in their ears till they have become gospel hardened. They have had the exhibitions of the love of God presented to them until they have become tame and commonplace and ineffective. Here is a young man who before he heard of this Bible and this Christ cast away his idols; his first glimpse into the Bible showed him that God was the Creator, and that that Bible must be the revelation of Him, and his second glimpse into the Bible showed him that God was the Redeemer, for no such love was ever known among men as the love of God. That was foreshadowed in the sixteenth verse of the third chapter of John. Down on his knees in the cabin of that boat he went, and in the darkness he prayed to this new God. He said, "O God, I know very little about Thee, but Thou art the God that made the Heavens and the earth, and didst give Thy only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth should not perish; now show me how to take this gift." And God showed him how to take the gift. He poured His grace into His soul; He revealed His love to a poor sinner; and that Japanese will stand in the judgment and, by his presence at the right hand of God, will condemn hundreds and perhaps thousands whose privileges were far greater, and whose opportunities were more extensive. "God commends His love towards us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Being reconciled to God by the death of His Son, we shall be saved by His life." A salvation by the blood on the cross; a salvation by His love on high; one act on the cross atoning for us, but a life on the throne interceding for us. One act completing the finished work of redemption, but an everlasting series of acts at the right hand of the throne of God supporting the soul that He saves, and strengthening the penitent and believing sinner in the new way of life in which by the grace of God he is treading. I want to plead with you, in the name of Jesus, that you will let this love come into your hearts and make a new man or a new woman of you, so that you may go and write down over your lost and ruined life, "Jesus died for me."
From Dr. Pierson and His Message... edited by J. Kennedy Maclean. London: Marshall Brothers, [1911?].
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