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God is the Gospel
When I say that God Is the Gospel I mean that the highest, best, final, decisive good of the gospel, without which no other gifts would be good, is the glory of God in the face of Christ revealed for our everlasting enjoyment.
The critical question for our generation—and for every generation— is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?
And the question for Christian leaders is: Do we preach and teach and lead in such a way that people are prepared to hear that question and answer with a resounding No? How do we understand the gospel and the love of God? Have we shifted with the world from God’s love as the gift of himself to God’s love as the gift of a mirror in which we like what we see? Have we presented the gospel in such a way that the gift of the glory of God in the face of Christ is marginal rather than central and ultimate?
Nothing fits a person to be more useful on earth than to be more ready for heaven. This is true because readiness for heaven means taking pleasure in beholding the Lord Jesus, and beholding the glory of the Lord means being changed into his likeness (2 Cor. 3:18). Nothing would bless this world more than more people who are more like Christ. For in likeness to Christ the world might see Christ.
But the gospel is not only news. It is first news, and then it is doctrine. Doctrine means teaching, explaining, clarifying. Doctrine is part of the gospel because news can’t be just declared by the mouth of a herald—it has to be understood in the mind of a hearer.
A love letter must be intelligible, but grammar and logic are not the point. Love is the point. The gospel is good news. Doctrine serves that. It serves the one whose feet are bruised (and beautiful!) from walking to the unreached places with news: “Come, listen to the news of God! Listen to what God has done! Listen! Understand! Bow! Believe!”
What the progress of revelation shows, as the New Testament unfolds, is that the death and resurrection of Christ to cover our sins is the foundation for all these blessings that the gospel of the kingdom announces. The King must die before he reigns. Otherwise the justice of his reign would only bring judgment and not salvation. So all the kingdom blessings demonstrated in the Gospels had to be purchased by the blood of Christ. This is why the cross must ever be the center and foundation of the gospel and why the blessings of the gospel should only be called gospel in relation to the cross.
What makes all the events of Good Friday and Easter and all the promises they secure good news is that they lead us to God. “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). And when we get there, it is God himself who will satisfy our souls forever. Everything else in the gospel is meant to display God’s glory and remove every obstacle in him (such as his wrath) and in us (such as our rebellion) so that we can enjoy him forever. God is the gospel. That is, he is what makes the good news good. Nothing less can make the gospel good news. God is the final and highest gift that makes the good news good.
Until people use the gospel to get to God, they use it wrongly.
Therefore, Protestants have viewed the doctrine of justification (by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Christ’s blood and righteousness alone, for the glory of God alone, as taught with final authority in Scripture alone) as “the heart of the biblical Gospel.” I agree with that judgment. I am thrilled to call justification the heart of the gospel. But figurative language (like “heart” and “center”) is ambiguous. What does it mean? By “heart” I mean that justification addresses the main problem between God and man most directly (see above) and becomes, therefore, the sustaining source of all the other benefits of the gospel.
That gives a special edge to the key question of this book: Why is justification good news? What is good about being justified by faith alone? Or more broadly, why is the gospel, which has justification by faith at its heart, good news? Now this question is seldom asked, because being forgiven for our sins and being acquitted in court for capital crimes and being counted righteous before a holy God is so manifestly a happy situation that it seems impertinent to ask, why is it good news?
But I believe we must emphatically ask this question. For the answer to it is infinitely important. Every person should be required to answer the question, “Why is it good news to you that your sins are forgiven?” “Why is it good news to you that you stand righteous in the courtroom of the Judge of the universe?” The reason this must be asked is that there are seemingly biblical answers that totally ignore the gift of God himself. A person may answer, “Being forgiven is good news because I don’t want to go to hell.” Or a person may answer, “Being forgiven is good news because a guilty conscience is a horrible thing, and I get great relief when I believe my sins are forgiven.”
Or a person may answer, “I want to go to heaven.” But then we must ask why they want to go to heaven. They might answer, “Because the alternative is painful.” Or “because my deceased wife is there.” Or “because there will be a new heaven and a new earth where justice and beauty will finally be everywhere.”
What’s wrong with these answers? It’s true that no one should want to go to hell. Forgiveness does indeed relieve a guilty conscience. In heaven we will be restored to loved ones who died in Christ, and we will escape the pain of hell and enjoy the justice and the beauty of the new earth. All that is true. So what’s wrong with those answers?
What’s wrong with them is that they do not treat God as the final and highest good of the gospel. They do not express a supreme desire to be with God. God was not even mentioned. Only his gifts were mentioned. These gifts are precious. But they are not God. And they are not the gospel if God himself is not cherished as the supreme gift of the gospel. That is, if God is not treasured as the ultimate gift of the gospel, none of his gifts will be gospel, good news. And if God is treasured as the supremely valuable gift of the gospel, then all the other lesser gifts will be enjoyed as well.
Justification is not an end in itself. Neither is the forgiveness of sins or the imputation of righteousness. Neither is escape from hell or entrance into heaven or freedom from disease or liberation from bondage or eternal life or justice or mercy or the beauties of a pain-free world. None of these facets of the gospel-diamond is the chief good or highest goal of the gospel. Only one thing is: seeing and savoring God himself, being changed into the image of his Son so that more and more we delight in and display God’s infinite beauty and worth.
Why Do I Want to be Forgiven?
Consider an illustration of what I am trying to say. Suppose I get up in the morning and as I am walking to the bathroom I trip over some of my wife’s laundry that she left lying on the hall floor. Instead of simply moving the laundry myself and assuming the best in her, I react in a way that is all out of proportion to the situation and say something very harsh to my wife just as she is waking up. She gets up, puts the laundry away, and walks downstairs ahead of me. I can tell by the silence and from my own conscience that our relationship is in serious trouble.
As I go downstairs my conscience is condemning me. Yes, the laundry should not have been there. Yes, I might have broken my neck. But those thoughts are mainly the self-defending flesh talking. The truth is that my words were way out of line. Not only was the emotional harshness out of proportion to the seriousness of the fault, but the Bible tells me to overlook the fault. “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Cor. 6:7).
So as I enter the kitchen there is ice in the air, and her back is blatantly toward me as she works at the kitchen counter. What needs to happen here? The answer is plain: I need to apologize and ask for forgiveness. That would be the right thing to do. But here’s the analogy: Why do I want her forgiveness? So that she will make my favorite breakfast? So that my guilt feelings will go away and I will be able to concentrate at work today? So there will be good sex tonight? So the kids won’t see us at odds? So that she will finally admit the laundry shouldn’t have been there?
It may be that every one of those desires would come true. But they are all defective motives for wanting her forgiveness. What’s missing is this: I want to be forgiven so that I will have the sweet fellowship of my wife back. She is the reason I want to be forgiven. I want the relationship restored. Forgiveness is simply a way of getting obstacles out of the way so that we can look at each other again with joy.
Propitiation, redemption, forgiveness, imputation, sanctification, liberation, healing, heaven—none of these is good news except for one reason: they bring us to God for our everlasting enjoyment of him. If we believe all these things have happened to us, but do not embrace them for the sake of getting to God, they have not happened to us. Christ did not die to forgive sinners who go on treasuring anything above seeing and savoring God. And people who would be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there. The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God. It’s a way of overcoming every obstacle to everlasting joy in God. If we don’t want God above all things, we have not been converted by the gospel.
In a sermon titled “The Excellency of Christ” Edwards took as his text Revelation 5:56 where Christ is compared both to a lion and a lamb. His point was that the unique glory of Christ was that such diverse excellencies (lion and lamb) unite in him. These excellencies are so diverse that they “would have seemed to us utterly incompatible in the same subject.” In other words,
• we admire him for his glory, but even more because his glory is mingled with humility;
• we admire him for his transcendence, but even more because his transcendence is accompanied by condescension;
• we admire him for his uncompromising justice, but even more because it is tempered with mercy;
• we admire him for his majesty, but even more because it is a majesty in meekness;
• we admire him because of his equality with God, but even more because as God’s equal he nevertheless has a deep reverence for God;
• we admire him because of how worthy he was of all good, but even more because this was accompanied by an amazing patience to suffer evil;
• we admire him because of his sovereign dominion over the world, but even more because this dominion was clothed with a spirit of obedience and submission;
• we love the way he stumped the proud scribes with his wisdom, and we love it even more because he could be simple enough to like children and spend time with them;
• and we admire him because he could still the storm, but even more because he refused to use that power to strike the Samaritans with lightning (Luke 9:54-55) and he refused to use it to get himself down from the cross.
*Jonathan Edwards, “The Excellency of Christ,” in Sermons And Discourses 1734-1738, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 19, ed. M. X. Lesser (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001), 565.
The ultimate good of the gospel is seeing and savoring the beauty and value of God. God’s wrath and our sin obstruct that vision and that pleasure. You can’t see and savor God as supremely satisfying while you are full of rebellion against him and he is full of wrath against you. The removal of this wrath and this rebellion is what the gospel is for. The ultimate aim of the gospel is the display of God’s glory and the removal of every obstacle to our seeing it and savoring it as our highest treasure. “Behold your God!” is the most gracious command and best gift of the gospel. If we do not see him and savor him as our greatest fortune, we have not obeyed or believed the gospel.
God uses weak, afflicted clay pots to carry “the surpassing power” of “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” What happens when these clay pots preach the gospel and offer themselves as servants? Verse 6 [of 2 Corinthians 4] gives the answer: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” This means that in the dark and troubled heart of unbelief, God does what he did in the dark and unformed creation at the beginning of our world. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. So he says to the blind and dark heart, “Let there be light,” and there is light in the heart of the sinner. In this light we see the glory of God in the face of Christ.
And let us not fail to see the sun at broad day. We are talking about glory—radiance, effulgence, brightness. Glory is the outshining of whatever is glorious. The glory of God is the beautiful brightness of God. There is no greater brightness. Nothing in the universe, nor in the imagination of any man or angel, is brighter than the brightness of God. This makes the blindness of 2 Corinthians 4:4 shocking in its effect. Calvin says it with the kind of amazement it deserves: “They do not see the midday sun.” That is how plain the glory of God is in the gospel. When God declares the omnipotent word of creation and “[shines] in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” the curtains are pulled back in the window of our Alpine chalet, and the morning sun, reflected off the Alps of Christ, fills the room with glory.
* 12 John Calvin, The Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. T. A. Smail (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964), 53.
Therefore, the glory of God in the face of Christ—that is, the glory of Christ who is the image of God—is essential to the gospel. It is not marginal or dispensable. Paul calls the gospel “the gospel of the glory of Christ.” This glory is what the events of the gospel are designed to reveal. If a person comes to the gospel and sees the events of Good Friday and Easter and believes that they happened and that they can bring some peace of mind, but does not see and savor any of this divine glory, that person does not have saving faith.
“When men are converted, they are, as it were, called out of one region into the other, out of a region of darkness into the land of light. . . . In conversion they are brought to see spiritual objects. Those things which before they only heard of by the hearing of the ear, they now are brought to a sight of: a sight of God, and a sight of Christ, and a sight of sin and holiness, a sight of the way of salvation, a sight of the spiritual and invisible world, a sight of the happiness of the enjoyment of God and his favor, and a sight of the dreadfulness of his anger. . . . They are now convinced of the being of God, after another manner than ever they were before. . . . ’Tis not merely by ratiocination that those things are confirmed to them; but they are convinced that they are, because that they see them to be.”
*Jonathan Edwards, “Christians a Chosen Generation,” in Sermons and Discourses 17301733, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 17, ed. Mark Valeri (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999), 322.
The greatest good in the gospel is the gift of seeing and savoring the glory of God in Christ forever. This is supremely important if we would use the gospel biblically in evangelism, missions, and the ministry of the church to sanctify the saints. The holiness of Christian people and the conversion of perishing people hang on seeing and savoring the glory of God in the gospel.
"To have a conviction, so clear, and evident, and assuring, as to be sufficient to induce them, with boldness to sell all, confidently and fearlessly to run the venture of the loss of all things, and of enduring the most exquisite and long continued torments, and to trample the world under foot, and count all things but dung for Christ, the evidence they can have from history, cannot be sufficient. . . . After all that learned men have said to them, there will remain innumerable doubts on their minds; they will be ready, when pinched with some great trial of their faith, to say, “How do I know this, or that? How do I know when these histories were written?” . . . Endless doubts and scruples [will] remain."
Therefore it is crucial for evangelism and missions that we understand that true saving faith is grounded on a spiritual sight of the glory of God in the gospel. This will have a huge impact on the way we think about missions and evangelism. The primary impact will be to make sure that the missionary and the evangelist are spiritual people who see and savor the glory of God in the face of Christ.
*Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. John E. Smith, vol. 2 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959), 303.
One of the reasons that many Christians seem to have no thrill at being forgiven through the gospel is that they have not been brokenhearted over their sin. They have not despaired. They have not wrestled with warranted self-loathing. They have not grieved over their sin because of its moral repugnance, but have grieved only because of guilt feelings and threats of hell.
“There is repentance of sin: though it be a deep sorrow for sin that God requires as necessary to salvation, yet the very nature of it necessarily implies delight. Repentance of sin is a sorrow arising from the sight of God’s excellency and mercy, but the apprehension of excellency or mercy must necessarily and unavoidably beget pleasure in the mind of the beholder. ’Tis impossible that anyone should see anything that appears to him excellent and not behold it with pleasure, and it’s impossible to be affected with the mercy and love of God, and his willingness to be merciful to us and love us, and not be affected with pleasure at the thoughts of [it]; but this is the very affection that begets true repentance. How much sovever of a paradox it may seem, it is true that repentance is a sweet sorrow, so that the more of this sorrow, the more pleasure.”
*Jonathan Edwards, “The Pleasantness of Religion,” in The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999), 15. His thesis in this sermon is: “It would be worth the while to be religious, if it were only for the pleasantness of it,” based on Proverbs 24:13-14.
The implication of this truth for preaching the gospel is that God himself must be shown as the ultimate good news of the gospel. If people are not awakened to the preciousness of God and the beauty of his glory in the face of Christ, the sorrow of their contrition will not be owing to their failure to cherish God and prize his glory. It will be owing to the fear of hell, or the foolishness of their former behavior, or the waste of their lives. But none of these grounds for contrition, by themselves, is an honor to God.
This means that the point of this book is stunningly important to God. God aims that his glory be seen and savored in the gospel so clearly that the power of Satan is broken, and it becomes plain to all that the sweetness of the crucified Christ is more powerful than the enticements of Satan. It is not a small thing to fail to display God as the greatest gift of the gospel. It plays into the hands of the devil and contradicts God’s design to break Satan’s power by the revelation of the superior beauty of Christ in the gospel.
So let us preach and live the gospel so as to display Christ. Let us take up arms and defeat the devil by being bold and glad in the superior glory of the Son of God! I do not say it is easy. It is very costly. The path of love that leads from the cross of Christ to the glory of Christ is a road of sacrifice. Christ’s superior beauty over Satan and sin is seen best when we are willing to suffer for it. One of the greatest blows against the power of darkness comes from the blood of martyrs. “They have conquered him [Satan!] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev. 12:11). This is the kind of life that grows from seeing God as the gospel.
Therefore, after Paul said in Romans 5:10-11 that “we are reconciled,” he went on to say, “More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” The aim of this reconciliation is not safe and sullen solidarity. The aim is that we “rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” God is the focus of the reconciliation. The joy of reconciliation is joy in God. Therefore when we preach the gospel of reconciliation, the focus must not be merely the removal of enmity, but the arrival of joy in God. Seeing and savoring the reconciled God is the ultimate good in the good news of Jesus Christ.
Many people seem to embrace the good news without embracing God. There is no sure evidence that we have a new heart just because we want to escape hell. That’s a perfectly natural desire, not a supernatural one. It doesn’t take a new heart to want the psychological relief of forgiveness, or the removal of God’s wrath, or the inheritance of God’s world. All these things are understandable without any spiritual change. You don’t need to be born again to want these things. The devils want them.
It is not wrong to want them. Indeed it is folly not to. But the evidence that we have been changed is that we want these things because they bring us to the enjoyment of God. This is the greatest thing Christ died for. This is the greatest good in the good news.
Why is that? Because we were made to experience full and lasting happiness from seeing and savoring the glory of God. If our best joy comes from something less, we are idolaters and God is dishonored. He created us in such a way that his glory is displayed through our joy in it. The gospel of Christ is the good news that at the cost of his Son’s life, God has done everything necessary to enthrall us with what will make us eternally and ever-increasingly happy—namely, himself.
“This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God.” All other gods must go. All other delights that are not delights in God must go—not because anything good must be taken away, but to make room for what is infinitely best, God himself. Eternal life is a great gift of the gospel. And it becomes the great gift of the gospel when we experience it as knowing and enjoying the only true God and his Son forever.
It is stated even more strikingly in Romans 8:35-37. Here the love of Christ guarantees that we will be more than conquerors in every circumstance, including the circumstance of being killed. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Astonishing! We are more than conquerors as we are being killed all day long! So nothing can separate us from Christ’s love, not because Christ’s love protects us from harm, but because it protects us from the ultimate harm of unbelief and separation from the love of God. The gospel gift of God’s love is better than life.
Listen to the way Paul says it in 1 Corinthians 3:21-23, “Let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” All things are yours—including death! Death is included in our treasure chest of gifts from God through the gospel. So in one text Paul says that we are “more than conquerors” in death. And in another text he says that all things are ours, including death. I take him to mean that because of the truths of Romans 8:28 and 8:32 God takes every hardship and makes it serve us, including death. Death is “ours”—our servant. The fact that we are “more than conquerors” means that death doesn’t just lie dead at our feet after the battle—it is taken captive and made to serve us.
And how does death serve us? How does the blood-bought servitude of death bless the children of God? Paul answers, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Why is dying gain? He answers two verses later: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Being with Christ after death is “far better” than staying on earth. That is why we are more than conquerors when death seems to triumph. It becomes a door to better fellowship with Christ.
This is all very strange. Because of the gospel, God promises to “give us all things” with Christ (Rom. 8:32). The “all things” turns out to include not just pleasant things but terrible things like tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword, and death. These are all gospel gifts purchased for us by the blood of Christ. Death is a gift because it takes us more quickly to the great good of the gospel—seeing and savoring the glory of God in the face of Christ.
What about these other gifts—tribulation, distress, and so on? How are they benefits that are bought by the gospel? How are they part of the “all things” in Romans 8:32 and 28 and Philippians 4:13? The answer is that in the merciful sovereignty of Christ, empowered by his own blood, these sufferings accomplish the greatest good of the gospel, a more pure and authentic and deeply satisfying seeing and savoring of God in Christ.
For example, in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 he describes God’s gospel design in his terrible sufferings in Asia: “We do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” This is not the design of the devil. It is the design of God. Paul’s life-threatening suffering was designed by God to keep him close to God. The aim of the gospel is not an easy life. It is deeper knowledge of God and deeper trust in God.
Similarly in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 Paul explains how Christ refused to take away his suffering because of a better purpose than pain-free existence.
“To keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
This thorny “messenger of Satan” was designed by God for sanctifying, gospel purposes well beyond the reach of Satan. Satan becomes the lackey of the risen Christ. What was Christ’s purpose in Paul’s suffering? “My power is made perfect in weakness.” Now this is unintelligible to those who define love as helping us get out of pain quickly. It is also unintelligible to those who say that Christ cannot be loving if he is letting Paul suffer to magnify his own glory. But that is exactly what he is doing. This is why the love of God in the gospel looks so foolish to people. How can this be love?
Paul evidently thinks it is, because his response is utterly contrary to ordinary thinking.
He says, “Therefore”—that is, because Christ is magnified in my weakness—“I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” “All the more gladly”? This is a strange man. No. Rather we should say, the gospel is strange. Its goal is not my immediate ease. Its goal is my being so in love with Christ and so passionate about his glory that when my suffering can highlight his worth I will bear it “gladly.”
God did not spare his own Son. Therefore all things are yours— “the world or life or death (or thorns in the flesh or life-threatening persecution) all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” These are gospel gifts because by the blood of Christ they help bring about the goal of the gospel. This goal is not our ease or wealth or safety in this age, but our dependence on Christ and our delight in his glory.
Answered prayer is based on Jesus’ priestly intercession for us, and that intercession is based on the blood he shed to remove our sins and release the flood of prayer-answering grace. Therefore, all the blessings we receive in answer to prayer, we owe to the gospel of Christ crucified and risen. They are not automatic blessings. They are blood-bought for sinners like us.
James 4:2-5 sounds the warning:
“You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! [literally: adulteresses!] Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?”
Why does he call us “adulteresses” when we pray? It’s because we ask God for things to indulge our desires that are not desires for him. This is startling—that in the moment of one of the most pious acts of our religion, prayer, we can be making a cuckold out of God. Cuckold is an Old English word for a man whose wife is unfaithful. The picture in this text is that God is our faithful, generous husband. So we go to him and ask for, say, fifty dollars, and he gives it to us. Then we take it and walk away from him and go to the end of the hall where our illicit lover has a room. That’s the way God looks at praying that does not make “Hallowed be thy name” the heart-cry of every petition.
When James says at the end of this text that God “yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us,” he means: God wants your heart when you pray. God will not be a mere dispenser of gifts for those who have no delight in God himself.
And God is not glorified if the foundation of our gratitude for the gospel is the worth of its gifts and not the value of the Giver. If gratitude for the gospel is not rooted in the glory of God beneath the gift of God, it is disguised idolatry. May God grant us a heart to see in the gospel the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ. May he grant us to delight in him for who he is, so that all our gratitude for his gifts will be the echo of our joy in the excellency of the Giver!
“The revelation made of Christ in the blessed Gospel is far more excellent, more glorious, and more filled with rays of divine wisdom and goodness, than the whole creation and the just comprehension of it, if attainable, can contain or afford. Without the knowledge hereof, the mind of man, however priding itself in other inventions and discoveries, is wrapped up in darkness and confusion.”
*John Owen, Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ in His Person, Office, and Grace, in The Works of John Owen, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 275.
All the enticements to God that are not God are precious and precarious. They can lead us to God or lure us to themselves. They may be food or marriage or church or miracles. All of these blessings bring love letters from God. But unless we stress continually that God himself is the gospel, people will fall in love with the mailman—whether his name is forgiveness of sins or eternal life or heaven or ministry or miracles or family or food.
“The redeemed have all their objective good in God. God himself is the great good which they are brought to the possession and enjoyment of by redemption. He is the highest good, and the sum of all that good which Christ purchased. God is the inheritance of the saints; he is the portion of their souls. God is their wealth and treasure, their food, their life, their dwelling place, their ornament and diadem, and their everlasting honor and glory. They have none in heaven but God; he is the great good which the redeemed are received to at death, and which they are to rise to at the end of the world. The Lord God, he is the light of the heavenly Jerusalem; and is the ‘river of the water of life’ that runs, and the tree of life that grows, ‘in the midst of the paradise of God’. The glorious excellencies and beauty of God will be what will forever entertain the minds of the saints, and the love of God will be their everlasting feast. The redeemed will indeed enjoy other things; they will enjoy the angels, and will enjoy one another: but that which they shall enjoy in the angels, or each other, or in anything else whatsoever, that will yield them delight and happiness, will be what will be seen of God in them.”
*Jonathan Edwards, “God Glorified in the Work of Redemption, by the Greatness of Man’s Dependence upon Him, in the Whole of It (1731)” (sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:29-31), in The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Douglas A. Sweeney (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999), 74-75.
The ground of natural love is finally me, not God. If you make much of me, I feel loved, because I am the final ground of my happiness. God is not in that place. He should be, but he is not. That is what it means to be unconverted and natural. The deepest foundation of my happiness is me.
When Unconverted People Get Religion
The astonishing thing is that people in that condition can become religious without being converted. That is, they join churches and start reading the Bible and doing religious things, with no change in the foundation of their happiness. It is still themselves. They are the ground of their joy. Being made much of is the definition of love that they bring with them into the church. Therefore what feeds the need to be made much of is felt to be loving. Some churches are so misguided in their theology, they actually nurture that need and call it love. They interpret all the good feelings in the church as coming from the grace of God, when in fact natural principles can account for most of it.
Other churches may not nurture the craving to be made much of, but unconverted people may interpret everything that is happening through that lens. So when the love of God is preached, they hear it to mean simply that God makes much of us. They may even have a strong affection for God as long as they see him as the endorsement of their delight in being the foundation of their own happiness. If God can be seen as the enabler of their self-exaltation, they will be happy to do some God-exaltation. If God is mancentered, they are willing to be, in a sense, God-centered.
But let us learn from Jesus what love is and what our true wellbeing is. Love is doing whatever you need to do to help people see and savor the glory of God in Christ forever and ever. Love keeps God central. Imitating Jesus in this does not mean that we love by seeking to display our glory. Imitation means that we seek to display his glory. Jesus sought the glory of himself and his Father. We should seek the glory of Jesus and his Father. Jesus is the one being in the universe for whom self-exaltation is the highest virtue and the most loving act. He is God. Therefore the best gift he can give is the revelation of himself. We are not God. Therefore it is not loving for us to point people to ourselves as the ground of their joy. That would be an unloving distraction. Love means helping people see and savor Christ forever.
We should test ourselves with some questions. It is right to pursue likeness to Christ. But the question is, why? What is the root of our motivation? Consider some attributes of Christ that we might pursue, and ask these questions:
• Do I want to be strong like Christ, so I will be admired as strong, or so that I can defeat every adversary that would entice me to settle for any pleasure less than admiring the strongest person in the universe, Christ?
• Do I want to be wise like Christ, so I will be admired as wise and intelligent, or so that I can discern and admire the One who is most truly wise?
• Do I want to be holy like Christ, so that I can be admired as holy, or so that I can be free from all unholy inhibitions that keep me from seeing and savoring the holiness of Christ?
• Do I want to be loving like Christ, so that I will be admired as a loving person, or so that I will enjoy extending to others, even in sufferings, the all-satisfying love of Christ?
God loves as no other being can or should love. No one else in the universe can or should love by giving us the gift of himself. I don’t mean that a human being cannot lay down his life for others and call it love. I mean no human being can lay down his life for others in order that others might treasure him, and call it love. It would not be love. It would be a distraction—and in relation to God, treason.
I am not an all-satisfying treasure. Therefore, if I live or die in order that you may have me as your treasure, I cheat you and deflect your heart from God, your everlasting joy. If I would love you, I must do what Jesus did. I must live and die to give you God. That’s what Jesus did. That’s what God does. God’s highest act of love is giving us himself to love.
To say it yet another way, love labors and, if need be, suffers to enthrall us with what is supremely and eternally satisfying, namely, God. This is true for Christ’s love, and it is true for our love. Christ loves by suffering to give us God. We love by suffering to give God to others. Giving ourselves without giving God looks loving to the world. But it is not. We are a poor substitute for God. We are not the nobler because we die for them, if our hearts have no longing that our death lead them to God. One of the radical implications of this book is that if we would love like Christ, we will bear whatever pains it takes to make Christ’s glory seen. The aim of love—whether by gospel word or giving up our life—is to enthrall the beloved with the glory of Christ in the face of God forever.
The point of this book is that the Christian gospel is not merely that Jesus died and rose again; and not merely that these events appease God’s wrath, forgive sin, and justify sinners; and not merely that this redemption gets us out of hell and into heaven; but that they bring us to the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ as our supreme, all-satisfying, and everlasting treasure. “Christ . . . suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18).
We have come to the end of the book. How shall we take our leave of each other? Perhaps with the pledge of prayer and a word of exhortation. Make it your aim from now on to see the glory of Christ in the gospel. Make it your aim to let the eyes of your heart run up the beam of glory shining in the gospel until your mind’s attention and your heart’s affection rest in God himself. And when, by this vision, you have been freed from the vanities of this world, then give yourself to the highest, humblest, and happiest calling in the world—the display of the glory of Christ in the declaration and demonstration of gospel love.