Every autumn, those of us who live in the northeastern quadrant of the United States or in Eastern Canada enjoy the flaming beauty of the reds, oranges, and yellows that adorn our deciduous forests, particularly where maple trees are in abundance. The intensity and brightness of the warm hues vary from year to year and from place to place, depending upon the weather the trees experience during the growing season and up until the shortened days signal that the time for their change has come.
This temporary treat is another one of our Creator’s temporal gifts, as is the order and beauty of the whole universe in all its grandeur. And since the inspired word of God often uses natural phenomena to illustrate moral or spiritual truth, permit me to make an observation in a similar vein. If one were to be posted on a high vantage point and were able to view a large hardwood forest for a couple of weeks in the fall, on a “time-lapse” basis, he would be able to watch while, as if from an invisible pail of paint, these lovely natural colors are poured out to permeate and grace the whole scene.
Can we not enjoy this imagined vignette as a picture of “the love of God [that] is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit”? (Romans 5:5) The Greek word translated here as “shed abroad” is sometimes rendered as “poured out”, but it seems that the emphasis in the wonderful act of God described here is on the effect that outpouring of His love has on our quickened hearts, rather than on the act of pouring itself. As justified saints, the holy boast we now may have in the hope of the coming glory of God is dependent upon the warming and brightening effect of that love of God shed abroad in our hearts, perhaps slowly at first, but always permeating in due time.
Every natural illustration of a spiritual reality falls short necessarily, and this colorful analogy is no different. The supernatural effect of God’s love in the heart of a believer is permanent, although it may vary from person to person, and it may fade and brighten over time depending upon environmental and internal conditions. How needful it is for the Christian to be spiritually exercised about the conditions provided or permitted in his or her heart! But the love of God, which produces love for God, remains in the heart of the child of God, for “we love, because He has first loved us” (I John 4:19). As certainly as the believer in Christ will never be separated from the “love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord”, so the great love the Father has given us in calling us His children will never leave our hearts cold and barren and dead in the end.¹
Some of us hesitate to place emphasis on the subjective aspect of Christianity that might allow for boasting about our love for God. We remember that Simon Peter fell very soon after he professed his love and devotion to the Lord Jesus on the night He was betrayed, and Jesus in His public restoration of Simon asked him the searching question: “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?” (John 13:37 & 21:15). There is real spiritual danger in dwelling on or boasting of our love for God, but it is nonetheless true that the scriptures mention that subjective side of our relationship with Him in several places, both to teach us objective truth, and to cause us to reflect on what the Spirit of God has wonderfully wrought within us.
In Romans 8:28, we read the oft-enjoyed assurance that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.” We learn several things from this verse and those that immediately follow. We gain the assurance that God has His eye on His own, and that no matter what happens in our lives, whether it brings pain or pleasure, it is ordered or allowed of God for our blessing in this life and the next. But we also learn this equivalence: those whom God has called in time according to His eternal purpose (having predestinated them before time began) are exactly the same as those who love Him. That subjective love for Him does not originate with us; it is all the result of God’s work within us because He purposed to do so outside of us, before we ever existed.
I Corinthians 8:1-3 gives us another pair of clauses linked together, teaching us that the love that God has put in our hearts by His Spirit is the factor that determines the genuineness of a professed relationship with Him. “If any one love God, he is known of Him.” This declaration is made in this context, that knowledge is neither praiseworthy nor determinative in our standing with God, for “knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. If any one think he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know it.” This passage gives the lie to any gnostic pretension of being saved by knowledge, and shows the weakness of the Arminian argument that “the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (see II Peter 2:20-22) is the hallmark of a salvation that may be forfeited at last. Galatians 4:9 corroborates Paul’s and Peter’s teaching: “But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God . . .” Ultimately, what determines the salvation and security of your soul is whether God knows you, and if you possess a love for Him in your heart, He most certainly does know you!²
The apostle John gives us still another perspective on what necessarily accompanies a love for God. It must be acknowledged that “every one that loveth Him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of Him”, for God’s work of new birth in a soul generates a life and a love that all believers have in common with Himself. While all are commanded to “love thy neighbor as thyself”, it is only the born-again heart that can obey the commandment of Christ to “love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12). In John’s first epistle, chapters 4 and 5, the link between loving God and loving one’s brother is futher clarified. Loving the “children of God”, those who have been begotten of God and believe on Christ, is both a test of reality and a source of real assurance for one who says he loves God. This is not some general benevolent feeling we may have toward all men, but a special and particular love that we have for all of those whom God’s grace has quickened, and who share the same life that we have.
Now, if there is no special affection and care in your heart toward those who give evidence of being God’s children and not the devil’s, or if the suffering of saints for Christ’s sake in this evil world does not grieve your heart, then what John wrote by the Spirit of God is a reality check meant for your conscience. But if you love God, you will love His children also, assuring you and proving that you abide in the light, which is the natural environment for all those who have His incorruptible seed abiding in them (I John 2:10; 3:9-10).
“Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!”³ Every one of the children in the family of God possesses the same mutually shared love by the same divine operation and source and channel, an outpouring from God by His Spirit in time, soon to be on display forever in brightness and variegated perfection, and lit by the sunlight of Christ’s glory.
¹ Romans 8:38-39; I John 3:1-3; Ephesians 2:4-5
² See also Matthew 7:23. It is the knowledge of relationship, not a knowledge of facts.
³ I John 3:1 NKJV