What’s love got to do with it?

What’s love got to do with it?

On Good Friday Christians around the world re-affirm the belief that lies at the heart of their faith, that God loves them and therefore sent his Son to die upon a Roman cross for their salvation. In the words of St. John: ‘In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins’ (1 John 4:10).

For many people today, however, the belief that God shows his love by sending his Son to die a humiliating and agonising death seems impossible to understand. They simply cannot see why love would require such a thing. If God loves us, they ask, why can’t he simply forgive our wrongdoing without requiring that Christ had to die?
In order to answer this question we have to understand properly the nature of love. We often tend to think of love in terms of benevolence or affirmation, but that does not get to the heart of the matter. True love is tough love. It is the unceasing and inexorable desire that the object of love be the best that they can be. In the words of the nineteenth century Scottish theologian George Macdonald:

‘Nothing is inexorable but love. Love which will yield to prayer is imperfect and poor. Nor is it then the love that yields, but its alloy…For love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. Where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love its fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely, that it may love more; it strives for perfection, even that itself may be perfected – not in itself, but in the object…Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed. And our God is a consuming fire.’

In this quotation MacDonald connects the nature of love to the fact that ‘Our God is a consuming fire’ and he is quite correct to make this connection. This is because according to the Biblical witness the God who is love and the God whose judgement is as a consuming fire are one and the same. It is the same Lord described in Psalm 145:9: ‘The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made,’ who is described in Isaiah 10:17:

‘The light of Israel will become a fire, and his Holy One a flame; and it will burn and devour his thorns and briers in one day. The glory of his forest and his fruitful land the Lord will destroy, both soul and body, and it will be as when a sick man wastes away. The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few that a child can write them down.’

The God who meets us in such terrible judgement is the God whose compassion is over all that He has made because the purpose of His acts of judgement is to further His purposes of love by removing all that stands in their way.

If we think of the Biblical story line, after Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden God makes a new start for humanity by calling Abraham and promising to make Him a great nation and a source of universal blessing (Genesis 12:3). In order to keep this promise God enacts terrible judgements upon the Egyptians and the peoples of Canaan and, when she strays from her calling, upon Israel herself. Finally, when God fulfils His promise to Abraham by coming to His people in the person of his Son all but a small remnant of Israel refuse to believe and thus come under God’s judgement – a judgement embodied in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. However, as St. Paul argues in Romans 9-11, even this judgement implements God’s loving purposes in that it gives the Gentiles opportunity to believe which will in turn eventually lead Israel back to God. Furthermore the salvation of Jews and Gentiles alike is not the end of the story for the full redemption of humanity will usher in the redemption of all of God’s creation (Romans 8:18-21).

Seen in this perspective, then, the story of God’s anger is good news. It is good news because it is the story of how God’s loving purpose is at work in history judging and overcoming all opposition and achieving the good end which God has intended from the beginning.

If we ask where the cross fits into this story of the outworking of God’s inexorable love the answer is that on the cross God enacts his most severe judgement. He enacts the sentence of death on sinful humanity in the person of his Son. We see this in Romans 6:6-7 where we are told: ‘We know that our old self was crucified with him that the sinful body might be destroyed and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin.’

What these verses tell us is that our fallen nature was slain in the death of Christ in order that we might have liberation from the domination by sin which our old nature necessarily entails. Christ’s death thus brings together God’s judgement and God’s love. The cross is an act of God’s judgement in that on the cross the penalty for sin, namely death (Genesis 3:3, Romans 6:23), is carried out on us as sinners. Our sinful existence has no right to exist before a holy God and is therefore brought to an end. It is at the same time an act of love since the purpose of this judgement is to destroy our enslavement to sin in order that we might become free to be the people God intends us to be.

This is a point made forcefully by Martin Luther in his Lectures on Romans. Commenting on Romans 6:3, Luther notes that in Scripture there is alongside the temporal death of the body, a form of eternal death which is a: ‘very great evil’ in which: ‘it is man that dies, while sin lives and remains for ever’. This is the eternal death suffered by the damned. However, there is also a form of eternal death that is a: ‘very great good’. This is the form of death that took place in Christ:

‘It is the death of sin and the death of death, by which the soul is freed and separated from sin and the body from corruption, and the soul is united by grace and glory with the living God. This is death in the strict and proper sense of the word (for in every other death some mixture of life remains, but not in this one, in which there is nothing but life itself: eternal life). It is only this death that the conditions of death fit absolutely and perfectly; whatever dies in it, and in it alone, vanishes entirely into everlasting nothingness, and nothing ever returns from it (indeed it inflicts death also upon eternal death). Thus sin dies, and also the sinner when he is justified, for sin does not ever return, as the apostle says here: ‘Christ dies no more,’ etc. (Romans 6:9). This is the principle theme of the Scripture. For God arranged to take away through Christ whatever the devil brought in through Adam. And the devil brought in sin and death. Therefore, God brought about the death of death and the sin of sin, the prison of prison and the captivity of captivity. As he says through Hosea: ‘O death, I will be thy death; O hell, I will be thy bite.’ (Hosea 13:14)

It was this death – the death of death and the death of sin – that was undertaken on our behalf by Christ through His death on the cross. Our sins are no longer a barrier between us and God, because in Christ our sinful existence has been brought to an end. It is a closed chapter. That is why in St. Matthew’s account of the death of Christ the curtain of the Temple is torn in two and the tombs of the saints are cracked open (Matthew 27:51-53). Sin and death, which barred access to God and kept the saints in their graves, have been done away with by the death of Christ.

However, there is more to the work of Christ than simply the termination of our existence as sinners. The work of God in Christ is not simply, or even primarily, a destructive work. It is primarily a work of re-creation. In the words of St. Peter in 1 Peter 2:24: ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree that we might die to sin and live to righteousness’.

This purpose was not achieved through the cross alone because if the cross was all there was then the story of God’s involvement with Mankind would have reached its terminus point on Calvary. If we were to have a future our old existence as sinners had to be replaced with a new kind of existence.

This new kind of existence is what has been made possible for us by Christ’s resurrection on the third day. The resurrection is an act of divine re-creation in which a new way of being human is opened up in which we are not only dead to sin but alive to God. That is why St. Paul declares in 2 Corinthians 5:17: ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come’ and why he writes in Romans 6:10-11 ‘The death he died he died to sin once and for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you must also consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.’ That is why Christ declares in John 11:25-26: ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die’.

The cross and resurrection therefore go together. They are a twofold act of God in Christ in which, to quote John Stott, ‘We have died and risen with him, so that our old life of sin, guilt and shame has been terminated and an entirely new life of holiness, forgiveness and freedom has begun.’

Or, as Calvin puts it:

‘…our old man is destroyed by the death of Christ, so that His resurrection may restore our righteousness, and make us new creatures. And since Christ has been given to us for life, why should we die with Him, if not to rise to a better life? Christ, therefore, puts to death what is mortal in us in order that He may truly restore us to life.’

Good Friday and Easter Day thus force us to re-think our understanding of what it means to say that God loves us. God’s love involves far more than simply benevolent affirmation. It involves the death and resurrection of Christ so that we may die and rise with him to a new life with God which will last for ever.

Tweeting the Homilies (I)

Tweets on the Homilies (I)

As part of my continuing campaign to use social media to spread good Anglican theology,  I have followed my tweets summarising the Thirty Nine Articles with the following tweets summarising the First Book of Homilies. The words in bold are the titles of the homilies. The full texts of the homilies in question can be found in Ian Robinson (ed) The Homilies (Brynmill/Preservation Press, 2006).

I shall now go on to tweet the Second Book of Homilies at @MartinBDavie


The First and Second Books of Homilies are books of model sermons issued by the Church of England in 1547 & 1571 and endorsed in Article 35.

A fruitful exhortation to the reading of Holy Scripture

The Bible contains all we need to know to be rightly related to God. It can be understood by anyone who reads it with humility.

Of the misery of all Mankind

We are but dust and ashes, sinners facing death and damnation. We must seek our salvation from God through Jesus Christ.

Of the Salvation of all Mankind by only Christ

We are saved freely and without works by faith in Christ. However, such faith will result in a heart that seeks to obey God.

Of the true, lively and Christian Faith

There is a dead faith which cannot save and a lively and saving faith which is marked by love and obedience to God’s commands.

Of Good Works annexed unto Faith

The good works that are proof of a lively faith are those commended by God in the Bible. Therefore read, learn and obey.

Of Christian love and charity

Christian charity involves loving God and loving all Men, both friend and foe, encouraging the good and correcting or punishing the bad.

Against Swearing and Perjury

Taking oaths for the sake of truth and justice is fine, but taking God’s name in vain or committing perjury is damnable.

How dangerous a Thing it is to Fall from God

There are many ways in which we fall away from God. We need to realise how dangerous this is and turn back to God without delay.

Against the Fear of Death

Those whose lives are marked by faith, hope and love do not need to fear death, but can rather desire it so as to be with God.

Concerning Good Order and Obedience

As part of his ordering of the world, God has created rulers and governments. We must be obedient to these and pray for them.

Against Whoredom and Uncleanness

Sex outside marriage is grievously sinful, abhorred by God, and renders us liable to damnation. All Christians must avoid it.

Against Contention and Brawling

Contention and brawling about matters of religion are sinful and destroy the unity of the body of Christ.

Law, morality and difficult love

Law, morality and difficult love

The legislation allowing same-sex ‘marriage’ in this country came into effect last Saturday and when asked for his comments on the matter the Archbishop of Canterbury declared in an interview with The Guardian ‘I think the Church has reacted by fully accepting that same-sex marriage is the law, and should react on Saturday by continuing to demonstrate in word and action, the love of Christ for every human being.’

Archbishop Justin is obviously correct in saying that the Church of England has fully accepted that the change that has taken place in the law means that same-sex ‘marriage’ has become legal in this country. However, what is not clear is why he thought that this was a point that needed to be made. There had never been any suggestion that the Church of England would bury its head in the sand and contend or pretend that the law had not really changed.

However, accepting that the law has changed is not the same as accepting that the law should have changed. In subsequent comments on the Sunday programme the Archbishop went on to say that the government was ‘perfectly within its rights to make this law.’ This is a problematic statement because whether or not it is correct depends on what the phrase ‘perfectly within its rights’ means.

If what this phrase means is that the government had a legal right to change the law then it is correct. There was nothing that legally prevented the government changing the law relating to marriage in this country providing it could get the change in the law agreed by parliament and that the change received royal assent. These conditions were met and so the change in the marriage law was perfectly legal.

However, saying that the government changed the law in a legally valid way is not the same as saying that the government had the moral right to change the law in the way that it did. Recent history is full of examples of laws that were legally enacted by governments, but were nevertheless morally wrong. Two examples from Southern Africa will serve to illustrate this point.

First, following its election victory in 1948 the National Party in South Africa introduced legislation that entrenched racial segregation in every area of the country’s life. This legislation was introduced perfectly legally, but it was morally wrong in that it gave expression to a racist ideology and led to decades of oppression for the black majority in the country. Secondly, after Zimbabwe achieved independence in 1980 the governing ZANU PF party introduced legislation that led to the confiscation of farms and other property owned by white commercial farmers. Once again, this legislation was introduced in a perfectly legal manner, but it was nonetheless immoral in that it was racist legislation that was designed undercut political opposition to the Zimbabwean government and to enrich the members of the ruling elite. The governments in both South Africa and Zimbabwe were ‘perfectly within their rights’ to do what they did, but what they did was nonetheless wrong.

What this means is that we cannot simply say ‘the law is the law,’ shrug our shoulders and get on with our lives. While accepting on the basis of biblical texts such as Proverbs 8:15, Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2: 13-17 the God given right of ruling authorities to enact and enforce law, the Christian theological tradition has always insisted that unjust or immoral laws have less authority than just laws and should in some cases be opposed. Thus in Summa Theologica I-II. Q 96. Art 4 St. Thomas Aquinas asks ‘whether human law binds a man’s conscience.’ His response is to argue that:

‘Human laws are either just or unjust. If they are just, they have the power to bind our conscience because of the eternal law from which they are derived. As Proverbs says, “Through me kings reign and lawmakers decree just laws” (Prov. 8:15).

Laws are said to be just either because of their end, when they are ordained to the common good; or because of their author, when the law does not exceed the power of the lawmaker; or because of their form, when burdens are distributed equitably among subjects for the common good. For since a man is part of the multitude, whatever he is or has belongs to the multitude as a part belongs to the whole. Thus nature inflicts harm on a part in order to save the whole. Accordingly laws which inflict burdens equitably are just, bind the conscience, and are legal laws.

Laws are unjust in two ways: First, they may be such because they oppose human good by denying the three criteria just mentioned. This can occur because of their end, when a ruler imposes burdens with an eye, not to the common good, but to his own enrichment or glory; because of their author, when someone imposes laws beyond the scope of his authority; or because of their form, when burdens are inequitably distributed, even if they are ordered to the common good. Such decrees are not so much laws as acts of violence, because, as Augustine says, ‘An unjust law does not seem to be a law at all.’ Such laws do not bind the conscience, except perhaps to avoid scandal or disturbance, on account of which one should yield his right. As Christ says, ‘If someone forces you to go a mile, go another two with him; and if he takes your tunic, give him your cloak ‘(Matthew 5:40-41).

Second, laws may be unjust because they are opposed to the divine good, as when the laws of tyrants lead men to idolatry or to something else contrary to divine law. Such laws must never be observed, because ‘one must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29).’

The challenge that this quotation from Aquinas, and the tradition of Christian thought that it represents, present to the Church of England is how to respond to the fact that the new legislation on same sex ‘marriage’ introduced by the British government seems to fall into the category of laws that are ‘opposed to the divine good’ because is ‘contrary to the divine law.’

To quote the words of the marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer, the Church of England, like the Christian Church as whole, holds that marriage is not simply a human invention. Rather, it is something that is God given, being ‘instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency’ (see Genesis 2:18-25 and Matthew 19:4-7). Furthermore, God has given laws relating to marriage and ‘so many as are coupled together otherwise than God’s law doth allow are not joined together by God; neither is their matrimony lawful.’

In addition, according to the theology of the Church of England, marriage as given by God is an exclusive relationship between ‘one man and one woman’ entered into for life (see Canon B 30). This means that a ‘marriage’ entered into by two people of the same sex is not a lawful Christian marriage, in just the same way as a marriage entered into by more than two people or a marriage entered into on a time limited basis would not be. Such a marriage may be lawful in the eyes of the state, but it is not lawful in the sight of God and therefore cannot be lawful in the eyes of the Church.

What the Church of England therefore has to wrestle with is how to maintain a consistent witness in word and deed to the uncomfortable truth that some forms of what the government, the law, the media and society in general call marriage are not truly marriages at all, while at the same time, as the Archbishop rightly says, ‘continuing to demonstrate in word and action, the love of Christ for every human being.’

There are, of course, voices who will say that this is an impossible combination; that it is impossible to demonstrate love to people while refusing to recognise their relationships. This is not a position that a Christian can accept. Jesus showed love to the Samaritan woman at the well, but he did not shy away from raising the fact that after five marriages she was now sleeping with someone who was not her husband at all (John 4:16-18).

Love is not the same as unconditional affirmation. Love means valuing every single human as someone made in the image and likeness of God and for whom Christ died, and acting in a way that gives expression to that value. This frequently means challenging people about their behaviour so that they can change where necessary and so become more fully the people God intends them to be. It is this kind of difficult love that members of the Church of England need to learn how to show in the new social context that that government’s legislation has introduced.