This past Sunday was a potentially convicting one. The Lord was after our hearts as his word addressed areas of sin that stand in the way of our imitation of God in his love. We were challenged to walk in the light and to be filled with the Spirit as he guides us in wisdom. Then on Sunday evening at our Lift Up Prayer Night we spent time confessing sin together to the Lord. The Lord desires a pure and holy church, and we want to be contrite before him so that he would draw near to us in grace.
Coming out of such a great Sunday like that, my greatest fear, both for myself and for our church, is that we would forget that sense of conviction by Monday morning (or Tuesday afternoon as you are reading this). We all know that there is a difference between temporary guilt or shame over sin and active repentance, but what makes the difference? I am convinced that the key motivator toward heart-level change is faith-filled ongoing dependence upon the love of God in Christ.
I am convinced that the key motivator toward heart-level change is faith-filled ongoing dependence upon the love of God in Christ.
Better than "Self-Love"
It is common for me to talk to a believer who has a hard time believing that God loves them or has difficulty "feeling" that love. They look at their own circumstances of hardship and wonder how God's love could fit with what they are enduring. They look at others approval of them and believe God must feel the same way. They look at their own shortcomings and failures in walking in God's way, believing that God's primary disposition toward them must be one of disappointment.
The world (and popular psychology) would say that in order to counteract this negative thinking, you must begin to "love yourself." Even Christian counselors occasionally try to adopt this theory of "self-love" or "self-care" using Christ's command to "love your neighbor as yourself," which is not the emphasis of Christ's words. The scriptures do not point us to self-love as our primary source but to something far better: they point us to the love of God. As the Apostle John wrote, "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19, ESV).
Our obedience flows from our love, and our love flows from God's love. That means we must believe and depend on God's love if long-term obedience is to take root.
Beyond a "Debt of Gratitude"
This is more than the common idea that we should be "motivated by gratitude for the love of God," as if our thankfulness automatically produces holiness. Thankfulness is an essential by-product of holy living, but it's the One for whom we are thankful who produces the holiness.
Further, we sometimes think that we owe God a "debt of gratitude," and so our obedience becomes our repayment of all the love God showed us. But God's love cannot be, nor does it need to be, repaid. To view obedience in this way is to cut off our walk with Christ from its source. The love of God toward us in Christ must be the ongoing fuel for the flame of our obedience.
Bigger than One-Dimensional Love
It also can be easy to define love the way the world defines it and make it one dimensional. In doing so, we often separate and subordinate God's love to some of his more severe attributes.
Instead, we must see that God, in all of his infinite holiness, righteousness, purity, in all of his wrath toward sin and justice toward the sinner, loved us so much to send his own son to rescue us from our sin and give us new life in him. All of the attributes of God find their home in his love, which is why John can so unashamedly say that God is love. "So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him" (1 John 4:16, ESV).
Walk in Love
This is precisely why Paul instructs us in the way that he does in Eph. 5:1-2, "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (ESV). Walking in (or as John puts it, "abiding in") God's love is this idea of faith-filled, ongoing dependence on the love of God.
Hang on with me as I get technical for a moment. When teaching people to study the Bible, we often talk about looking for the indicatives (the unchangeable truths about God) that stand behind the imperatives (what we are commanded to do). Here the imperative commands are, "Be imitators of God" and that is specifically accomplished obeying the second command to "Walk in love." If we take those commands on their own, they will overwhelm us and we will fail to obey them. The conviction of Sunday will quickly fall prey to the overwhelming distractions and temptations of Monday. We will separate our obedience from its source. But the indicative (the unchangeable truth about God) is found in the phrase "'as beloved children." We are made children of God because God showered us with his love, even when we were not walking in love. Paul defines God's love even further: Christ gave himself up for us as a sacrifice to God.
Far more important and powerful than self-love is the belief that God loved us. Far greater than the motivation to repay a debt of gratitude is the understanding that his love never needs to be repaid and continues to be poured out on us as the fuel for our obedience. Far more than a one-dimensional human concept of love is an awareness that God's love is stronger than our wayward hearts.
Ephesians 2 makes it clear that believing the love of God toward us is central to believing the gospel. God made us alive with Christ "because of the great love with which he loved us" (2:4-5). We may not always feel his love or deserve his approval, but His love is infinite, unchanging, purifying, and relentless.
Faith-Filled Ongoing Dependence
If then, the key motivator toward heart-level change is faith-filled ongoing dependence upon the love of God in Christ, what does that look like? I've mentioned a number of things it is not. Let me point out what it is:
Faith-Filled - Our relationship to God's love must be grounded in faith, not feelings. We are not loved when we feel loved. We are loved when God acts in love. And he is always acting in love toward his children.
Ongoing - We are prone to forget God's love and seek other sources of love and approval. We need to come back to the source of love again and again. Use the habits of grace (word, prayer, fellowship, ministry) to remember his love every moment of every day.
Dependence - Our obedience does not fuel the factory of God's heart to produce more love. Instead his love provides us the security, freedom, and joy to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.
How can our conviction last beyond Sunday into Monday to produce true heart-level repentance? We must walk in his love.
Do you ever have a hard time believing God loves you, and if so, why? How can you become more convinced that God loves you? How does knowing God's love affect the way you imitate his love?
Knowing God by J.I. Packer (especially chapter 12, "The Love of God")
The Hole in our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung