The Depth of Christ's Love: Its Undeserving Objects
Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. 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. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through him. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.
If someone performs an act of love toward you, there are four ways that you can see the depth of that love.
1. The Costliness of the Deed
One is by the costliness of the deed. How much inconvenience or sacrifice did it cost the one who loved you? The greater the sacrifice, the deeper the love. If it cost an afternoon of time and sweat, it is one degree of love. If it cost his life, it is another degree of love.
2. How Undeserving the Object of Love Is
A second way to see the depth of love is by the how undeserving you are of the act of love. Jesus said,
If you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax-gatherers do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:46–47)
In other words the depth of our love is shown not just in the measure of our sacrifice but in whether we will give it to people who don't return it—and who may not deserve it at all. The love that overwhelms us is the love that comes to us authentically from those we have deeply wronged.
3. The Greatness of the Benefit Secured
A third way to see the depth of love is by the greatness of the benefit that comes to us by the act of love. If a person claims to love us with sacrifice, but we are not really helped by their love, we might begin to wonder if this kind of love really means anything. Love is not just making a sacrifice. Love is making a contribution to someone's life—at least that's the intention. And the greater the gift, the more amazing the love. John wrote,
See how great a love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God. (1 John 3:1)
The greatness of God's love is seen in the incredible benefit of being made children of God.
4. The Freedom of the Act
Finally, we see the depth of love which someone shows to us by how free the act of love is. If, for ten or fifteen years, I tell my son to get his brother a birthday present, and even sometimes buy it for him so he'll have something to give, that is one degree of love between brothers. But if, in his first year away from home at age nineteen, he calls, without a reminder from his parents, the week before his brother's birthday and tells me he knows of a store where there is a special knife sharpener his little brother really wants, and asks me to take the money from his account and buy it for him, then love is manifest in a whole new way.
Jesus has loved us in all these ways to a degree that is beyond human comprehension. Last week we saw the depth of his love for us in the degree of his sacrifice—he gave his life for us, and what a life it was to give! Today we will see the depth of his love—especially his Father's love—in how undeserving we were to receive it.
The aim in these messages is to sink the roots of our lives into the ground of God's love that has no bottom, so that we will be firm and unshakable, and so that we will have the nutriments of God's very love flowing in the branches of our lives to bear the costly and beautiful fruit of love for each other to eat.
The Key to Comprehending the Incomprehensible Love of Christ: The Holy Spirit
I said, Jesus has loved us in all these four ways to a degree that is beyond human comprehension. Let's start there this morning. If that's true, then what hope is there that I could help you comprehend the love of God and the love of Christ for you? What is the basis of my hope that through my preaching you might actually experience the incomprehensible depth of Christ's love? The answer is given in this text.
In Romans 5:3 Paul calls us to exult in our tribulations
knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; 4 and perseverance, [brings about] proven character; and proven character, [brings about] hope; 5 and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God [that is, God's love for us, not ours for him, as the next verses will show] has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who was given to us.
Here's the basis of my hope this morning that in my preaching about the love of God and Christ for you, you will actually experience that love, and comprehend in some significant, life-changing measure the incomprehensible love of Christ. The basis of my hope is that God has given you—who are believers in Christ—the Holy Spirit. You see that at the end of verse 5: " . . . the Holy Spirit, who was given to us." As you sit there, the Holy Spirit of God dwells in you. He is in you.
Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God. (1 Corinthians 6:19)
If this were not so, my aims in preaching about love to this church would be futile. I am preaching to people who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit of the living God. And to some who yet can be indwelt by this Spirit of God. How? Acts 2:38 says,
Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit and the Role of Preaching
Now how does the presence of the Holy Spirit give me confidence that my preaching on the love of God for you will result in a real experience of that love? Answer: because verse 5 says that the work of the Holy Spirit is to be the Agent of God in pouring his love out into your heart. Verse 5:
Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit.
One of the main reasons God has given the Holy Spirit to you is so that he might pour out God's love into your heart.
The Holy Spirit Pours God's Love into Our Hearts
Do you see what this means? It means that without the supernatural work of Holy Spirit, we cannot experience and comprehend the love of God in Christ. The love of God is a divine and supernatural reality. But you and I, apart from the Holy Spirit, are merely natural and unspiritual, and we do not recognize or value the love of God in Christ. But when God opens our eyes to his truth, and the Holy Spirit comes into our hearts by faith, he awakens us to the reality of God's love and begins to pour it out into our hearts.
This should greatly encourage some of you who feel that your background makes it difficult, if not impossible, for you to feel loved. The fact is, it is not only difficult, it is impossible—and not just for you, but for all of us. O, this is so important to grasp. Apprehending the love of God for you—experiencing it, being gripped by it, tasting it—is not the product of good preaching plus good family background. It is not the product of merely natural forces—good or bad. It is the work of God, the Holy Spirit. The love of God is poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Without that, you can have the best family background in the country, and you will never truly know the love of God. And with that, you can have the worst family background, and the Holy Spirit will pour the love of God into your heart.
Where Does Preaching Fit In?
But someone may ask, Where does preaching fit into this? What does what I am doing right now have to do with the work of the Holy Spirit pouring out the love of God into our hearts? The answer is given in verses 6–8 and the connection that they have with verse 5.
Verse 6 begins:
For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.
Notice the connection. In verse 6 what we have is the recounting of a historical fact. "Christ died." And we have the meaning of that fact, that is, God's purpose in it: "Christ died, for the ungodly"—to take the place of the ungodly, to save the ungodly. Now this is different from verse 5. In verse 5 we have Christian experience—the Holy Spirit pouring out the love of God in our hearts. In verse 6 we have history ("Christ died"), and we have theology (Christ died to save the ungodly).
And the connection between the history and the theology on the one hand (v. 6), and the experience on the other hand (v. 5), is that the history and theology are the foundation and context of the experience. What's happening is this. Paul has said that the Holy Spirit pours the love of God into our hearts. But then he shows us what that love is. And he bases it on history. This means that the work of the Holy Spirit in your heart is not to give the content of the love of God. It is not the job of the Holy Spirit to describe the love of God to you. That is the job God has assigned to history and to the Word of Scripture that interprets that history, and to preaching which brings them both to bear upon your mind.
You learn the nature and content of the love of God from the way that love acted in history in Jesus Christ, and you experience that love as a present, life-changing reality as the Holy Spirit pours it out into your heart. Both of these are utterly crucial. If we make claims to have experiences of the love of God without solid foundations in history and its God-given meaning, we become cultic, emotionalistic, fanatical; and if we claim to understand the history and the meaning of history but we don't experience the love of God poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, we become barren and impotent and intellectualistic.
The point is this; my message this morning cannot take the place of the Holy Spirit in your life. And the Holy Spirit will not do the work assigned to the Word of God. My calling is to describe the love of God to you. His calling is to pour it out in your hearts. My calling is to point you to what Christ did; his calling is to open your eyes to see it as glorious and personal. My calling is to make it plain; his is to make it precious. Mine is to make it clear; his is to make it dear. Mine is to take you on a tour around the deep and scenic lake of the love of God; his is to plunge you in and saturate your life with the love of God—to baptize you in it.
While We Were Yet Sinners
So come with me now as we look at the depth of the love of God in Christ. And the way we see it this morning is in how undeserving we were to receive it. Verses 6–8 give the description of God's love that the Holy Spirit pours out into our hearts:
For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Now the central fact of the love of God is that Christ died for us. This is what we focused on last week—Christ sacrificed his life—not just his time and energy and convenience and money and health—he sacrificed his life—his sinless, holy, tender, wise, loving, divine life.
But that is not Paul's focus in these verses. Here the focus is on the moral condition of those he died for. This is what shows the love of Christ to be so amazing. This is what the Holy Spirit will pour into your hearts afresh this morning.
Let's begin with the comparison that Paul makes to human love in verse 7:
One will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die.
The point here is to show that human love rarely reaches high enough to die for someone who has been especially good to us. And almost never would human love sacrifice itself for one who is simply a just and principled person. In other words, if you take the two best candidates of love—the just and upright citizen; and the kind and generous person who has been good to you—the likelihood that mere human love would give its life for them is very small.
In contrast with this, Paul describes the love of God. Verse 8:
But God demonstrates His own love toward us . . .
Just stop there for a moment. Put this together with verse 5. Here God demonstrates his love. There the Holy Spirit pours out his love. Do you see this? We see the demonstration of the love of God in history and in his Word; but we experience the application of the love of God by the outpouring work of the Holy Spirit in our heart.
Now back to the contrast with merely human love that scarcely will die for a good man. Verse 8:
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
The depth of God's love for us—and Christ's love for us—is seen in this: when he chose to love us, even at the cost of Jesus' life, we were not worthy of his love. In fact we were worthy of his wrath. We deserved his punishment for our sins against him. And his love is shown in this—exactly in this—that his love did not wait for any moral improvement in us. The full sacrifice was made while we were still sinners.
While We Were Helpless and Ungodly
Paul heightens this with three other words. Two of them in verse 6:
While we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.
Christ loved us and gave himself for us while we were "helpless" and while we were "ungodly." "Helpless" implies weak, sickly, unable to impress or make any contribution to our salvation. Paul said
God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong . . . that no man should boast before God.
The love of God is given to the unlikely and unworthy so that we will never boast before God. We will always be humbled that sheer, free mercy saved us.
But we were not only helpless, we were "ungodly." The word means irreverent. We did not fear God. We had no respect for God. We were godless. This is the way we were when he loved us and gave his Son for us. What is so remarkable about this word "ungodly" is that it is used in Romans 1:18 where Paul says,
The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness.
Which means that for all of you who trust Christ, the love of God overcame the wrath of God, and saved you. So you were guilty sinners, you were weak and helpless, and you were ungodly and deserving of the just and holy wrath of God. And in spite of all that, he loved you and gave his Son to die that you might live.
While We Were His Enemies
There is one last description of us as undeserving. It's in verse 10:
For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.
This is a good place to end, because after Easter when we turn our minds and our hearts to the way love works and looks among us and in the world, we are going to hear loud and clear the words of Jesus,
You have heard that it was said, "YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR, and hate your enemy." But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:43–44)
Here is the foundation and the source of that love. Romans 5:10,
While we were yet enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son.
God loved us while we were enemies. God sacrificed his Son for us while we were enemies.
Send your roots down into this love. Drink deeply from this love. Build your life on this love. And if you long to experience it more and more—as I surely do—pray with me, and fast with me, and yearn with me, that God would pour his love out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. This is revival. This is the great awakening we pray for.