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God Loves You, and other statements that are roughly 35% accurate

Later this week I’ll be posting a complete list of reflections on pastoral theology and ministry practice from my time at TGC17, the national conference for The Gospel Coalition. Focused on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the conference was a series of biographical presentations on Luther, Calvin, etc., an extended exposition of Galatians and sola fide, and some workshops.

Here is a thought that I’ve been considering since I’ve returned to school.

Stephen Nichols gave a biographical presentation on Luther that included this line:

The love of God does not find, but creates that which is lovely.

Now, this is actually a misquotation of the statement from the Heidelberg Disputation, and it looks like it came through Carl Trueman. (I just finished Trueman’s biography of Luther and would recommend). The original line ends with “creates that which is pleasing to it.” But I like this one much more, and it changes nothing, and the original is not in English but Middle German, so it doesn’t matter.

Here is a good graphic I found of the quote:


(Here is a terrible graphic that I found:


The Lutheran discovery of justification by grace alone through faith (or, justification by faith alone, or sometimes abbreviated by quick note-takers at conferences as JBFA) came through Luther’s understanding of Romans 1, Romans 4 and Galatians (the entire book), not to mention his distaste for indulgences.

How can I be saved, get into heaven, avoid hell, be reconciled to God, etc.? The medieval church had an entire system of quantified sin and righteousness, according to Nichols. Good works need to outweigh bad works. If the balance tips towards goodness, eternal life awaits. If not, then not. Confession and acts of penance could reduce the quantity of bad works. But if I die with outstanding sin, those too can be worked off through suffering in Purgatory. It’s also a good thing that Saints and Monks and Priests don’t sin very much, because when they die, the extra righteousness they earned is put into the Treasury of Merit, which is a heavenly storehouse of free grace. The Pope or his designates can give grace to you from this storehouse for a small fee of whatever price they ask for. This last part was called indulgences.

None of this is true. (It is all historically true, in the sense that people did actually believe it. But it isn’t true in the sense that it accurately describes what the Bible teaches.) When Luther’s research of Lombard led him to Augustine, and of Augustine led him to Paul, it was a forgone conclusion that he would stumble upon this problem. Paul is loud and clear: in the gospel the righteousness of God begins and ends with faith, because as it was written, “the just shall live by faith.” Or perhaps an even better example is in Galatians: the scriptures foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced in advance to Abraham, “all nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed like Abraham, who was the very man of faith himself.

There are more passages than that. Romans 4 is another great example. And there are slight hints at this throughout the scriptures that, while not occupying whole paragraphs or chapters, can only be understood if this is true. It is very clear that Paul believes I can only be saved — I can only stand justified before God when that day of judgement comes — based on faith, not on good deeds.

(That this is Paul’s opinion is so obvious that the debate quickly changed from “what is Paul’s opinion” to the more general question, “does Paul’s opinion matter or can we add church tradition”).

I therefore receive by faith the reward that Christ himself deserved, whereas by that same faith I have instructed God to inflict upon Christ the curse that I deserved. (Sort of: I was born in 1997 and Jesus was crucified in 27). My right standing before God thus depends upon the imputed righteousness of Christ unto me. I can be declared right, because the rightness of Christ is just thrust upon me regardless of my own rightness.

So that quote. What does it mean?

The first idea is that the love of God does not find that which is lovely. God didn’t seek me out because he saw some great thing I could become. He didn’t look into the future and think, gee wiz, Ross is going to amount to something, and I need him on my team. Quite the contrary. The sin-plagued man has nothing to do with the righteousness that God demands. He even actively works against it.

Often we think in these terms: Jesus loves me; Christ died for me; God wants me to be his child. These are all true, but they risk giving the impression that it’s because of you. Really, what we mean is: Jesus loves me because I’m me; Christ died because he thought I deserved it; God wants me to be his child because he takes special interest in me. The opposite is asserted by Martin Luther’s (and Paul’s) doctrine of justification by faith alone: Jesus loves me in spite of me; Christ died for me in spite of me; God wants me to be his child even though he has met me. The love of God does not find that which is lovely.

Instead, the love of God creates that which is lovely. The beautiful thing about justification and imputed righteousness is that regardless of how ugly or impure we actually are, God chooses to view us not as such. Instead, in the same way that we swapped sin and righteousness with Christ by our faith, we have also swapped the ugliness of sin and beauty of righteousness with Christ by out faith. So, the person who stands justified before God does not have anything lovely of themselves. Anything worthwhile within them comes only from this swap.

A few days ago I filmed a voiceover for an ice cream shop in my hometown. While we were working on the script and trial running some recordings, the guy creating the project and I talked about all kinds of things for a few hours. One of the things I brought up was that we have a mutual friend who I just absolutely love. He asked, why, Ross, do you absolutely love him. My answer was that there isn’t really any particular part of him that deserves it, and instead I just feel it towards him because I myself am a somewhat love-expressing person. (In a sense, I was contorting my explanation to fit the gospel model on purpose). He sure thought that was strange. Why would someone receive love that they didn’t deserve?

It’s a question I wonder a lot too. The answer I gave — that the giver is just himself a love-expressing person — holds part of the answer. Another part is in this quote from Luther. The love of God does not find, but creates that which is lovely. God just is a love-expressing being, and directs his love into anything that he can create into worthiness.

The rest is a mystery.

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