And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
We are lingering for the third week over the conscious experience of being loved by God described in verse 5. What I have been stressing is that this experience is something we feel. Something we know in the heart that is more than a fact that we infer from argument. You can know some things from argument that you don’t experience in your heart. You might argue (1) The Bible says, “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16); (2) I am part of the world; (3) therefore, God loves me. That’s one way of knowing you are loved by God.
Or you might go further and say, (1) Christ told his disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13); (2) I am one of his friends because I follow him and keep his commandments (John 15:14); (3) therefore, Christ loves me with the greatest love.
These are ways of knowing you are loved by the use of argument. And that is important. We need to see these things and use them as part of our arsenal in our fight of faith. But that is not what Romans 5:5 is talking about. Romans 5:5 says that “hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” This experience of God’s love for us is not mainly a logical inference. It is something poured out. It is something felt in the heart. Known in the way the heart knows.
Four Points About the Experience of God’s Love
Last week I made two points from this text concerning this experience of being loved by God.
1. This experience of the love of God is poured out through the Holy Spirit.
I based the first point on the last phrase in verse 5, “through the Holy Spirit which was given to us.” This experience is supernatural, not worked up by human means.
2. This experience has factual, objective content.
It is mediated, or communicated, through objective truth about Christ. You don’t get the experience by emptying your head. You get it in seeing the glory of the love of God in the real historical work of Christ.
I based the second point on the connection between verse 5 and verses 6–8. Notice again the connection, for example, between verse 5 and verse 8. In verse 5, the love of God for us has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. In verse 8, the love of God is being demonstrated by God in history through the death of Christ. Read verse 8 carefully and notice something: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
Do you notice anything unusual in the time of the verbs? Look at the last clause, “Christ died for us.” That’s past. That’s history. That is fixed, objective, unchanging. How natural it would have been, then, for Paul to write: In this historical act, God “demonstrated his own love toward us.” But that is not what he wrote. He wrote, “God demonstrates his own love toward us.” Present tense. Ongoing action. God demonstrates his love today. He commends his love today through the past, historical, objective fact of the death of his Son for us.
Now tie that in with the outpouring of God’s love through the Spirit in verse 5. Do you see the connection? God pours out his love in our hearts, and God demonstrates his love by directing our minds to consider the death of his Son. This is why I said the experience of God’s love has factual, objective content. It is mediated, or communicated, through objective truth about the death of Christ. You don’t get the experience by emptying your head. You get it in seeing the demonstration — by seeing the glory of the love of God in the real historical work of Christ.
Today I want to make two more points about this experience of God’s love.
3. It is experienced by all Christians in some measure.
Why do I say this? The reason I say that all Christians have this experience in some measure is because that is what Paul says in verse 5: “The love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Notice the “our” and the “us” are the same group. The same group of people who received the Holy Spirit also have had the love of God poured out into their hearts. But to whom was the Holy Spirit given?
Let Paul answer from Romans 8:9, “You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” Here he uses three terms: Spirit, Spirit of God, and Spirit of Christ. It is the same Spirit, not different Spirits. Then notice what he says in verse 9:b, “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” That means that all true Christians have the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, that is who Paul is talking about in Romans 5:5 when he says, “. . . the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” “Us” is all true Christians. Therefore, that is also who “our” refers to earlier in the verse where it says, “The love of God has been poured out within our hearts, through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” — us believers in Christ, our hearts.
So I conclude that all true Christians have at least tasted the outpouring of God’s love in our hearts. Every true Christian knows the love of God not just as an argument, but as an experience. The Holy Spirit has opened the eyes of the heart to see the preciousness and beauty of the love of God in Christ for what it really is, and we have been moved by a spiritual sense of that love in the heart to cherish and value and treasure and trust this Christ and the love of God in him. That is what it means to become a Christian.
4. The experience varies from time to time and person to person and can be (and should be) pursued in ever fuller measures.
Now, why do I say this? First, because the tenses of the verbs are different in verse 5 between the outpouring of God’s love and the giving of the Holy Spirit. Notice: “The love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” The difference here is that the first tense implies in the original Greek that there was a past act for all believers but there is also and ongoing effect or an ongoing act as well. But the tense of “was given to us” implies a completed and once for all action. We were given the Holy Spirit, but the outpouring seems to have ongoing and varied expressions. The Spirit who was given once for all, and who poured out the love of God in some measure in all Christians, acts in varying manners from time to time and from person to person.
Three Other Texts to this End
First, consider 2 Thessalonians 3:5, “May the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the steadfastness of Christ.” Here we have Paul praying that God would do something now for the Thessalonians. What does he want God to do now? He wants God to “direct their hearts.” This is a remarkable phrase! The heart has directions. It moves toward one thing or another. It moves toward what it regards as attractive and satisfying and valuable. So Paul is praying that God would give the heart a sight of the love of God as more attractive and satisfying and valuable than ordinary earthly things. “May the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God.”
What would this be other than an experience of God’s love? And it must be that, even though we are Christians, this movement from where we are into the love of God is needed. Otherwise Paul would not pray it. Therefore, the experience of the love of God is different from time to time and from person to person. Here we are as Christians. We have all tasted of God’s love for us and have been drawn into trusting all that God is for us in Christ. But our hearts are not always steadfast. They drift and they waver. As the Puritans used to say, “There is much insensibility to divine things among Christians.”
This is why we need revival. And this is what revival is. Revival is not first the conversion of the lost. Revival is first the answer to Paul’s prayer in 2 Thessalonians 3:5, “May the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God.” When the Lord takes hold of the hearts of his people and directs them into the love of God, they experience the outpouring of the love of God through the Holy Spirit. When that happens to lots of people in the same place at the same time, we call it revival.
Second, consider 2 Corinthians 13:14. This is a closing benediction: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.” Now what is Paul doing here? He is calling on God, in the presence of the people, to make his love manifestly present and real to them. “The love of God be with you!” — be manifestly present to you!
What do I mean by “manifestly” present? For Christians, isn’t the love of God always present with us? Romans 8:35 and 39 say that nothing can separate us from the love of God. So if nothing can separate us from the love of God, why does Paul pray, “The love of God be with you”? The reason is because, even though the love of God is always present with believers, we do not always experience the love of God as present. Therefore, we want God to make his love more manifestly known. More obviously. More experientially. Therefore, I think what Paul is really calling for in 2 Corinthians 13:14 is that the love of God be poured out more fully and more consciously in our hearts.
Finally, consider Paul’s extraordinary prayer in Ephesians 3:14–19. He is praying for Christians, which makes some of what he prays remarkable.
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.
I think that some day I will preach fifteen messages on those verses. No passage in the Bible has filled me with longings in prayer as often as this one. It has layer upon layer of meaning. But very superficially consider what Paul is asking for as we read the prayer backward. In verse 19, he is asking that we be filled with all the fullness of God. That is an experience. We don’t always have that. We want it. We pursue it.
How Does the Experience Come?
How does it come? In comes through an experiential knowing of the incomprehensible love of Christ — “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” And how does that experiential knowing of the love of Christ come? In verse 17, Paul asks that they be “rooted and grounded in love” so that they “may be able to comprehend” this incomprehensible love. Well, how does that rooting and grounding in love happen? Paul prays for it to happen (in verses 16–17) by the strengthening of the Spirit in the inner man so that Christ dwells (manifestly) in the heart by faith.
So here we are at the work of the Holy Spirit again. And is not all this astonishing experience in Ephesians 3:14–19 simply an unfolding of the simple sentence in Romans 5:5 that the love of God be poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us?
And if so, then is it not clear that the experience varies from time to time and from person to person? Otherwise Paul would not pray for it as often as he does.
And, finally, is it not clear then how we should seek the fullness of this experience as a people? First, we do not empty our heads, but fill them with the truth of Christ and the demonstration of his love for us when he came and lived and died and rose. Second, we pray for it. Really pray for it!
These are the two things Paul did again and again. He wrote to his people to direct their minds to the truth of God in Christ. And he prayed that the Holy Spirit would give them eyes to see the glory of what he was writing about.
That is my call to us all this advent season. Read the demonstrations of the love of God in Christ. Think of them just that way. And pray with all your heart the prayers of Paul. Like the one in Ephesians 1:18–19, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.” When the eyes of our hearts are opened to the greatness of God’s love, the love of God is poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. Seek this. Seek this in its fullness will all your might.