Knowing the Love of God for me by Martyn Lloyd-Jones
All the passages below are taken from D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John.” It was preached in the 1940’s and re-published as one volume (formerly in five Volumes) in 2002 by Crossway Books.
And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. 1 JOHN 4:16
IN THIS VERSE, the Apostle sums up what he has been saying and arguing. First of all, this is the summing up of what he has just been saying in the immediately preceding context; he both sums it up and carries it a stage further. He has been reminding us that he and the other Apostles ‘have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world’; then he says, ‘Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God . . .‘ In other words, he puts his signature to what he has testified. ‘Whosoever,’ he says in effect, ‘says, “amen” to what we have testified and witnessed can be sure that God dwells in him and he in God. So then,’ John says, ‘we [no longer merely himself and the Apostles, but all Christians] have known and believed the love—of which I have been speaking—the love that God has for us.’ This is a summing up of the immediate context; he takes it beyond the state of belief to that of knowledge.
In a sense, John is dealing here partly with the relationship between belief and experience, and it seems to me that there are two main suggestions at this point. The first is the vital importance of our understanding something of the connection between the objective and the subjective in the realm of our Christian life. This is the special glory of our Christian position—that it is at one and the same time objective and subjective. It is outside us, and it is inside us; it is something which is believed as a body of truth, of doctrine, or of dogma; and yet it is experimental. It is life, it is actual, it is living.
Now here is a very vital and important subject. The history of the church and the history of God’s people throughout the centuries in every country shows forcibly that much harm and trouble is often caused by a failure to regard the relationship between the objective and the subjective in the way in which the New Testament itself does. There seems to be this fatal tendency in all of us as a result of sin and the Fall to concentrate exclusively on either the one or the other. There are those who are interested in theology and doctrine in a purely intellectual sense. It is full of great beauty and truth, which they are interested in, but they are not always concerned with practice. They will sometimes lose their temper with one another as they talk about the love of God, thereby showing that it is purely theoretical, something entirely in the mind which has never been applied and translated into life and has never been experienced.
On the other hand, there are those to whom the Christian life is purely subjective, and they dismiss dogma. They are not interested; they are not concerned about definitions; they say the only thing that matters is that we should be able to say, ‘Whereas once I was like that, now I am like this.’‘Don’t talk to me about your doctrine,’ they say, ‘I have had an experience—I have felt something.’ The tragedy is that we should ever be guilty of one or the other; furthermore, it seems to me that one is as bad as the other, for the glory of the gospel is that it always takes up the whole man—not only the mind, not only the heart, not only the will, but mind, heart, and will. Paul puts this in a resounding statement when he says, ‘But ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you’ (Romans 6:17). They obeyed with their will, they obeyed from the heart—there is the emotion. And what had they obeyed?—the form of sound words of doctrine that was delivered to them; there is an objective statement of the truth that comes to the mind.
Here in this particular section John puts this all very plainly and clearly to us. You see, he does not talk about what we know and believe until he has first of all put it in the objective form. He says, ‘We, the apostles, have seen and do testify’; there is the message. But what am I to believe, what am I to know, what am I to experience? That which has already been testified by the Apostles. In other words, we must always be sure and certain that we follow the order as it is laid here and everywhere else in Scripture. The love of God is only known and felt adequately and completely in and through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
John has gone on repeating this, and you notice how he never tires of doing so. ‘In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him’ (v 9); and, ‘We have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son’ (v 14). He repeats it again. This is because he knew that in his own day and age there were all those so-called mystery religions or curious cults which talked about the love of God; and they all tried to teach that you can know the love of God directly. That is always the characteristic of mysticism; what finally condemns mysticism is that it bypasses the Lord Jesus Christ. Anything that bypasses Christ is not Christian. I do not care what it is, however good, however uplifting or noble; it is Christ who is the manifestation of the love of God, says John.
I do not hesitate, therefore, to aver and to add as strongly as follows: I must distrust any emotion that I may have within me with respect to God unless it is based solidly upon the Lord Jesus Christ. In Him God has manifested His love. ‘God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). Therefore, I say that I must never attempt by any means or method to get to know God or to try to make myself love God except in and through my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. I must avoid every other direct approach to God, every direct dealing with God. There is but ‘one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’ (1 Timothy 2:5), and without Him I have no knowledge of God. So any love which is not based upon this is to be distrusted. And in the same way I would argue that a belief which does not lead to such a love is in and of itself useless.
Let us, then, leave it at that. But let us always remember the objective and the subjective; the objective is the doctrine concerning the Lord Jesus Christ, and if I truly believe that, then I will love. Let me put it again in a phrase from the Apostle Peter: ‘Unto you therefore which believe he is precious’ (1 Peter 2:7). There is little value in confession unless He becomes precious to us. ‘We have known and believed the love that God hath to us’; I have not only believed, I know it.
That takes me to my second point—the relationship between knowledge and faith. It is a great subject, and let me first just make one or two remarks in passing.
The first is that there is a sense in which knowledge and belief always go together and must go together. There is a sense in which we can argue that you cannot believe a thing unless you know it. It is an old and a great question as to which comes first: belief or knowledge. Indeed, there is a sense in which it is a foolish question. You must have a certain amount of knowledge of what you believe. You believe something, and if you do, then you know what you believe, and that is knowledge. So there is a sense in which a person who believes, knows. You do not believe in a vacuum; nor do you believe something vague and nebulous. You believe something, and that defines it and makes it concrete.
But, of course, there is another sense, looking at it from the experimental standpoint, in which knowledge is something that always follows. As Browning put it, ‘A man’s reach should always be greater than his grasp.’ So in that sense I think the New Testament does teach very clearly that ourknowledge always follows our belief. It is like a horse drawing a carriage; they are bound together, and they are never separated, but the horse is always in front, and the carriage is being drawn by him. Belief, then knowledge—that is the position. The Apostle Paul states the whole thing in Philippians 3. He thanks God for the knowledge that he has in Christ Jesus his Lord, and yet he goes on to say, ‘that I may know him’ (Philippians 3:10). He forgets the things that are behind and presses forward towards the mark. Nevertheless, ‘whereto we have already attained . . . let us mind the same thing’ (v 16). We know certain things, and yet we want to know more; knowledge follows belief and is always being led onwards by it.
In other words, we may put it like this perhaps, that knowledge is but a more sure form of belief. Knowledge is that state in which I really have grasped what I have believed. I possess it perfectly; in a sense I knew it at the beginning, but what I believed, I have now really got. John is here emphasising the certainty of belief. He says in effect, ‘We know and have believed the love that God has towards us.’ It is as if he were saying, ‘Thank God, you and I who are Christians—we know this love of God; and yet we do not know it all yet. It is too big—it is so high—it is so broad and deep. We will join all the saints in investigating it. Thank God, we know, and yet we do not know! We will go on to know; we will go on increasing in knowledge.’
That is why John puts knowledge before belief: I do not know, and yet I know much more than I have actually experienced. I have experienced, yes, but my belief is greater than my experience, and I am stretching forward unto that which I have not yet attained. So there is nothing odd about putting knowledge before belief. I think it is a very good way of putting it. I have, and yet I want; I possess, and yet there is more to be possessed. The love of God is like a mighty ocean; I am swimming in it, and yet how much remains! We know, and we have believed, and we ever go on, therefore, to know more perfectly that which we believe by faith.
Therefore, it seems to me that the great thing here is that we come to the practical application of all this. John is summing up. He has finished with arguments and propositions, and now he comes back to this experimental aspect. So the great question is whether we can join John and the first Christians in saying that we know this love of God to us. After all, there is little value in our profession unless it leads to some practical result in our lives. John was writing to men and women in a difficult world, even as we are in a difficult world; and the thrilling thing, he tells them, is that although the whole world lies under the power of the evil one, it is possible for our joy to abound.
How can my joy abound? How can I walk through this world with my head erect? How can I come through triumphantly? Well, here is the main thing: I should know this love which God has towards me. If I have that, I can say that ‘neither death, nor life. . . nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:38-39). Therefore, the questions come to us one by one: Do I know this love? Can I make this statement? It is made everywhere in the New Testament. Paul is fond of stating it generally, and yet you find that he also delights in stating it particularly: ‘. . . the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). No man could state the doctrine of the atonement in all its plenitude and glory like the Apostle Paul, and yet here he says, He died for me; He loved me. This is personal knowledge, personal appropriation. You find this everywhere in the New Testament. For example, ‘Whom having not seen,’ says Peter, ‘ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory’ (1 Peter 1:8).
Do we do that? These people did not see Him, and so we cannot argue and say, ‘It is all very well for those first Christians; they saw Him. If only I could see Christ, then I would love Him.’ But they did not see Him any more than we see Him. They had the apostolic witness and teaching and accepted this witness and testimony. They loved Him and rejoiced in Him ‘with joy unspeakable and full of glory.’
Read your hymnbook. Do you not find that the hymns are full of this sentiment, this expression of love towards God and towards the Saviour, this desire to know Him more and more, this personal, experimental awareness and knowledge of Him? Or read Christian biographies, and you will find that this is a theme that runs right through them all. The Christian position, thank God, is not merely that I accept theoretically certain ideas about the love of God. It is something that I experience, that I know. Look at that great statement of Paul’s: ‘I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day’ (2 Timothy 1:12). ‘We do know,’ said John in effect, ‘the love that God has for us’; Christian people must know it. Do we know it?
I keep on repeating my question because it is to me the most vital question that we can ever face in this life and world. Let me put it like this: I do not know what the future holds for me; nobody does. Our whole life and world is uncertain, and I say that in a world like this the supreme matter is to know that God loves me—to know that I am in that relationship and that whatever happens around me, God will always be with me. Whatever may or may not come, God loves me, and I am a child of God. If I know that, then there is a sense in which anything else does not matter very much and cannot vitally and essentially affect me.
So the question remains: How may we know this—how do we know that God loves us? I will, first of all, give a general answer to the question. First, I have an increasing awareness and an increasing realisation that I owe all and everything to the Lord Jesus Christ; I am utterly dependent upon Him and the perfect work that He has done for me in His life and death and resurrection. I am bound to put that first because John puts it first. How do I know that God loves me? Is it because of some sensations or feelings? No! Rather, in the first instance, the first thing is Christ, what I feel about Christ, what Christ is to me. ‘In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.’ Do you know for certain the love of God to you? Is He central? Is He vital? Is He essential? Do you know that you are entirely dependent upon the fact that Christ is the Son of God and that He died on the cross on Calvary’s hill and bore the punishment for your sins and took your guilt away? Is it all centred in Him?
If it is not, I say, go no further. If Christ is not absolutely essential and central in your position, I am not interested in what you have to tell me about your knowledge of the love of God. For the whole argument of the New Testament is that it is there that God has manifested His love, and if I do not start there, I am ignorant of what God has done. How can I love Him if I ignore that amazing manifestation and demonstration of His eternal love? That is the first test.
But let me come to the particular, and here I am simply going to give you a series of questions or statements. I agree with John that we must be particular, we must have detail. I shall suggest to you ten tests which you can apply to yourself to know for certain that you know the love of God to you.
Here is the first. It is a loss and absence of the sense that God is against us. The natural man always feels that God is against him. He would be very glad if he could wake up and read that some bishop or other had proved that God never existed; he would be ready to believe it. The newspapers give publicity to anything that denies the faith; they know the public palate. That is why the natural man is at enmity against God; he feels God is against him. That is why when anything goes wrong he says, ‘Why does God allow this?’ And when men and women are in a state of being antagonistic towards God, then, of course, they cannot love God. So one of the first tests, and I am starting with the lowest, is that we have lost that feeling that God is against us.
Secondly, there is a loss of the fear of God, while a sense of awe remains. Let us approach Him ‘with reverence and godly fear,’ writes the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (12:28). John is going to elaborate on that; that is the rest of the fourth chapter. We lose that craven fear of God, but oh! what a reverence remains.
Thirdly, there is a feeling and a sense that God is for us and that God loves us. Now I put it like that quite deliberately because it is so very true to experience. I have lost that sense that God is against me, and I begin to have a feeling and sense that God is for me, that God is kind to me, that He is concerned about me, and that He truly loves me.
Fourthly, I have a sense of sins forgiven. I do not understand it, but I am aware of it. I know that I have sinned; ‘my sin is ever before me’(Psalm 51:3), as David says. I remember my sins, and yet the moment I pray, I know my sins are forgiven. I cannot understand it, I do not know how God does it, but I know He does it, and that my sins are forgiven.
A sense of sins forgiven in turn leads me to the fifth test: a sense of gratitude and thanksgiving to God. No one can believe that God sent His only begotten Son into the world to die on the cross without feeling a sense of praise and of thanksgiving. It is all pictured in the story of that man of Gadara, the man possessed with a legion of devils. No one could cure him, but Christ drove the demons out, and the man who was cured wanted to go with Jesus. ‘He. . . prayed him that he might be with him’ (Mark 5:18). I imagine that the man said, ‘Let me be Your slave—let me carry Your bag or polish Your sandals—let me do anything I can for You—You have done so much for me.’ Or think of Saul of Tarsus there on the road to Damascus. The moment he saw and understood something of what had happened to him, he said, ‘Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?’ (Acts 9:6). That is, what can I do to repay You—how can I show my gratitude? Do you feel a sense of gratitude? Do you want to praise God? Do you want to thank Him? When you get on your knees in prayer, is it always petitions, or do you start with thanksgiving and praise—do you feel something welling up within you? A sense of gratitude and a desire to praise is a further proof of the knowledge of God.
Then sixthly, there is an increasing hatred of sin. I sometimes think there is no better proof of a knowledge of God and knowledge of the love of God than that. You know, if you hate sin, you are like God, for God hates it and abominates it. We are told that He cannot look upon iniquity (Habakkuk 1:13); therefore, whatever your feelings may be or may not be, if you have an increasing hatred of sin, it is because the love of God is in you—God is in you. No man hates sin apart from God.
Seventh, there is a desire to please God and to live a good life because of what He has done for us. The realisation of His love should make us not only hate sin, but also desire to live a holy, godly life. You may say your heart is cold. You are not aware of any strong emotion. But do you desire to live a better life and to please God more and more? If you are, you love God, because our Lord said, ‘He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me’ (John 14:21).
Eighth, we have a desire to know Him better and to draw closer to Him. Do you want to know God better? Is it one of the greatest ambitions of your life to draw closer to Him, that your relationship to Him may be more intimate? If you have within you the faintest desire to know God better and are doing something about it, I say you love God.
Ninth, I will put this point negatively, and yet it may be the most important of all. I am referring to a conscious regret that our love to Him is so poor, along with a desire to love Him more. If you are unhappy at the thought that you do not love God as you ought to, that is a wonderful proof that you love Him. Love is never satisfied with itself; it always feels it is insufficient. The men and women who are unhappy because they do not love God more are, in a sense, people who ought to be very happy, because their very unhappiness at their lack of love is proof that they do love.Let me put that in the words of one of my favourite sayings, that great and wonderful and consoling sentence of Pascal’s: ‘Comfort yourself; you would not seek me if you had not already found me.’ Love is dissatisfied, and so if I feel my heart is cold, it is a sure proof that I love Him. The unbeliever is not aware of the fact that his heart is cold, and so the negative becomes gloriously positive.
My last test is that we have a delight in hearing these things and in hearing about Him. That is one of the best tests. There are certain people in the world—alas, there are many—who find all that we have been saying utterly boring; all that we have been saying would be strange to them. Such people are spiritually dead; they know nothing about all this. So whatever the state of your emotions may be, if you can tell me quite honestly that you enjoy listening to these things and hearing about them, if you can say that there is something about them which makes things different, and that you would sooner hear these things than anything else in the whole world, then I say that you know the love that God has for you and that you love Him in return.
These, then, are some tests which seem to me to be the most practical and the most immediate that we can apply. Let me sum them up like this: Jesus Christ, the realisation of who He is, that God sent Him into the world; the realisation of what He has done by coming into the world and going back again, that He is my all and in all; the realisation that He is my Saviour and therefore my Lord, because if He has done that for me, then He has done it so that I might be rescued and redeemed out of this element of sin and that I may live a life pleasing to Him—it is all in Him. The key is my attitude towards Him. Can I say with Paul, ‘That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead’ (Philippians 3:10- 11)? You need not start traveling the mystic way, you need not try to work up feelings; there is only one thing to do: face God, see yourself and your sin, and see Christ as your Saviour. If you have Him, you will have everything else. It is all in Him; without Him there is nothing.
‘We have known and have believed the love that God hath to us.’ Do you know that God has so loved you that He sent His only begotten Son into the world and to the cross on Calvary to die for you, to rescue you and redeem you from your sin, and to make you a child of God?
May God grant that we may be able to join in this mighty chorus on earth and in heaven which goes on saying, ‘I know——yes, I know the love which God has to me’. (507-516)