A Devastatingly Merciful Vision of the Love of God

Former Calvinist Austin Fischer, Teaching Pastor at Vista Community Church and author of Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed, describes his journey out of Calvinism in this brief, edited piece from his chapter, "The Glory of God (Is) the Glory of Love." I consider this post one of the most significant pieces on this site; and I think this chapter is the most useful of Fischer's in parsing the opposing views of God between Arminians and Calvinists.

Maintaining a consistently Christocentric hermeneutic for properly understanding the love and glory of God, he challenges us to view God through the lens of Jesus. God, as a free agent, defines both His own love and His glory. Therefore, we do not have to sacrifice, redefine, or recontextualize our doctrine of God's love in lieu of God's glory, as do Calvinists. He has, Himself, declared that His Son, Jesus Christ, is "the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being." (Heb. 1:3 NRSV) Fischer writes the following.

__________

HE IS THE ONE WHO LOVES

Previously, I had known that the character of God revealed in Jesus, the crucified God, did not appear to jibe with the God of Calvinism. What [Karl Barth, 1886-1968, whom he quotes throughout this brief piece] further pointed out was that in the very act of revelation, the act of speaking to humanity and showing himself, God is revealed to be one who freely chooses to share himself with others. God has the right to do with us as he wishes, and God wishes to relate to us. As Barth says:
God is He who, without having to do so, seeks and creates fellowship between Himself and us ... He wills to be ours and He wills that we should be His. He wills to belong to us and He wills that we should belong to Him. He does not will to be without us, and He does not will to be God for Himself nor as God to be alone with Himself. He wills as God to be for us and with us who are not God.
This is who God is -- the One who exists in absolute sufficiency and happiness within himself, and has no need to do anything except be himself for all eternity. Thus, God does nothing he does not want to do. And yet in this complete and absolute freedom, God chooses not to exist for himself alone. God creates and God redeems and God is crucified for creatures that need not exist. God condescends and forgives and resurrects, and we find ourselves bowing before an ineffable mystery that we can identify only because God has given us its name: love.

Self-giving, suffering, crucified love of the Creator poured out on his creation: "We recognize and appreciate this blessing when we describe God's being more specifically in the statement that He is the One who loves."

LOVE PROBLEMS

Western Christianity has a love problem; namely, we have made too little of love by making too much of it. Love is tolerance, love is inclusion, love is self-esteem, love is comfort. And in becoming all these things, love has become nothing: "The term has become debased ... it has lost its power of discrimination, having become a cover for all manners of vapid self-indulgence." For simplicity's sake, let's call this the "soft love" problem: in becoming everything, love becomes nothing.

During my young, restless, and Reformed years, I thought the remedy to "soft love" was to wholly subordinate the love of God to God's self-glorification -- self-esteem and comfort certainly tend to wilt in the face of unconditional election. But during my journey out of Calvinism, I came to believe that, while Calvinism did solve the "soft love" problem, it did so with a painfully ironic [and irreparable] consequence.

Whereas "soft love" robs love of meaning by making it everything, Calvinist love robs love of meaning by making it nothing -- or at least unintelligible [and unrelatable]. The "love of God" is a hallow phrase, void of meaning and empty on the inside. And while it might be better to let glory co-opt love than tolerance, why settle for either? Why not let love speak for itself, or better yet, why not let God speak for love? Barth agreed and insisted there were five things we needed to know about the love of God.

#1 GOD (NOT I) DEFINES LOVE

Did you know that the Book of Acts does not mention love once? Whether you are looking for a noun or a verb, do a word search for "love" and you'll skip straight from John to Romans. Far from being a rhetorical fluke, I think the writer is trying to teach us something: we don't get to define love; God does. And this is the first thing we need to know about the love of God. If we want to understand it, then we must go to the place where God defines it: namely, Jesus Christ, crucified. This is the message of 1 John 3:16: "We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us ..."

It should thus come as no surprise that while Acts does not speak any of love, it is obsessed with telling the story of how a marginal community changed the world through its telling and living the story of a crucified Messiah. Though not in the same doses, this is in some sense true of the whole New Testament witness: it speaks about crucifixion more than love. And this is because "What the New Testament means by 'love' is embodied in the cross ... The content of the word 'love' is given fully and exhaustively in the death of Jesus on the cross; apart from this specific narrative image, the term has no meaning."

We do not get to speak of love abstractly, as some fluffy human ideal of goodwill. We speak of love in the concrete realism of divinity condescending to crucifixion on a wooden stake. We speak of love when we gaze in horror and wonder at the crown of thorns on the brow of the Creator. As Barth says, "Intentionally we have not begun with a definition of love, but with the resolve to let the act of God visible in His revelation speak for itself -- God is in His act the One who seeks and creates fellowship with us." This is what we speak of when we speak of the love of God: sovereign, free, self-giving, suffering, crucified love.

#2 GOD GIVES GOD

Second, in loving us, "God does not give us something, but Himself; and giving us Himself, giving us His only Son, He gives us everything." The greatest thing God can give us is himself. All the things we find so desirable -- power, influence, comfort, sex, money -- are the unimaginative desires of people who are too easily satisfied. We don't need things. We need God. In loving us, God gives us God.

#3 GOD'S LOVE DOESN'T TAKE

Third, God does not love us because of something he sees in us [i.e., His love is not object-oriented], but in spite of what he sees [or foresaw] in us. God loves us because he wants to love us despite the fact that we do not love him [nor could we ever love Him as He deserves to be loved]. God loves us so that we might come to love him:
The object of the love of God ... is another which in itself is not ... worthy of His pleasure. The love of God always throws a bridge over a crevasse. It is always the light shining out of darkness ... That He throws a bridge out from Himself to this abandoned one, that He is light in the darkness, is the miracle of the almighty love of God.
This is what we mean when we speak of the unconditional, gracious love of God.

When God looks at us he does not see creatures he should love. He sees creatures that he wants and thus chooses to love despite the fact he should not. And in this, God's love shows itself to be in contradistinction to human love. We love things -- God, others, possessions -- because of what they can do for us. Moltmann calls this eros, a love for the beautiful, and it exposes the bottom-line logic of human love: we love what is beautiful in the hopes it will make us beautiful in return. We love like black holes. We love in order to take.



But this is not the love of God because the love of God does not take -- it gives. God does not seek out beautiful objects to love; God makes things beautiful because of his love. After all, the good news of the gospel is not that we are good, but that we are loved:
But in the cross ... faith experiences a quite different love of God, which loves what is quite different. It loves what is sinful, bad, foolish, weak and hateful in order to make it beautiful because they are loved; they are not loved because they are beautiful.
#4 GOD'S LOVE = GOD'S GLORY

Fourth, God's love is an end in itself. And here I found a radical departure from Jonathan Edwards, John Piper, and the self-glorifying black hole of Neo-Calvinism. Edwards claimed that the ultimate aim of God in creating the world was the full manifestation of his glory (i.e., his self-glorification). Love is just a cog in the bigger glory machine.

Not so for Barth: "Certainly in loving us God wills His own glory ... But He does not love us because He wills this. He wills it for the sake of His love. God loves in realizing these purposes. But God loves because He loves; because this act is His being, His essence and His nature." God doesn't love us in order to take something from us (glory, worship, praise) -- that's what needy, greedy, human love does. God loves because he loves -- the only love in existence that doesn't need a reason.

And so when God opens his heart to us and we get a glimpse of what makes it beat (Jesus Christ crucified), we see a desire to love at all costs, not glorify himself at all costs. That said, it would be a mistake to think you must choose between God's love and glory because God wills to glorify himself as the God who, freely and sovereignly, loves at all costs (see Deut. 7:8; Jer. 31:3; Isa. 63:9; John 3:16; Rom. 8:31-39; Titus 2:14; Phil. 2:5-11; Rev. 5:6-10). As Miroslav Volf says, "We don't have to give up on the idea that God seeks God's own glory. We just need to say that God's glory, which is God's very being, is God's love ... In seeking God's own glory, God merely insists on being toward human beings the God who gives."

When we speak of the glory of God, we speak of the God who gave himself to us, to all of us, in Jesus Christ. Love is not just a cog in the glory machine. The glory of God is the glory of love.

#5 NECESSARY AND FREE

Fifth, God's love is both necessary and completely free. And here all the horizons of the love of God converge. From all eternity God is the being who has existed in perfect, glorious, self-giving love among Father, Son, and Spirit. Before we existed, God loves. From all eternity God has loved because love is who God is. God, infinite and eternal, is the God of love. As such the love of God is necessary in the sense that God has to be himself.

But God's love is completely free in the sense that he is merely being who he is. If God, at his very core, is a person(s) of infinite self-giving love, then even though God cannot be something else (hateful, arbitrary) this is no limitation: "To be moved by oneself in love is to be divinely free." In fact, this is the freedom God has: "But freedom in its positive and proper qualities means to be grounded in one's own being, to be determined and moved by oneself. This is the freedom of the divine life and love."

Thus, far from limiting God or undermining his glory, God's love is the ultimate expression of his freedom, sovereignty and glory. His transcendence is exhibited supremely in the fact that though God is utterly unconditioned, he reaches outside himself to create and bind himself to others -- a transcendence characterized by outwardness and not inwardness.

The gravity of God's glory is rooted in his giving, not his taking, and so God's glory shines brightest in his existence as the only non-black hole of self in the universe -- the One who in absolute freedom loves absolutely.

RELOCATING THE MYSTERY

I came to the end of this devastatingly merciful vision of the love of God and realized the mystery of God had not been removed; it had been relocated. No longer was the mystery how a good God, how the God revealed in Jesus, how the crucified God, could create people in order to damn them. The mystery is not in some hidden God lurking behind Jesus, but in Jesus.

The mystery is that God [in and through Christ on the Cross] is damned in order to save. The mystery is that in his absolute freedom, God puts on flesh, goes up on the cross and down into the grave. The mystery is that the heart of God is filled with an infinite supply of the self-giving, redemptive, reconciling energy we call love. The mystery of God is that he loves us -- all of us.
"God is" means "God loves" ... All our further insights about who and what God is must revolve round this mystery -- the mystery of his loving ... The consideration of the mystery of His freedom cannot lead us in any other direction. It cannot lead us to another god who is not the One who loves ... Everything will depend on our not losing the basic definition we have now found, that God is the One who loves.
"God is" means God -- in absolute, sovereign freedom -- loves. This is compelling. This is glorious. This is biblical. This is the God revealed in Jesus: a completely free, sovereign, and transcendent God who chooses to give himself away in love on a cross. What in the world would move God to do such a thing? He tells us to call it love. It's the real mystery.

__________

Austin Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey In and Out of Calvinism (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2014), 54-60.