I have two goals in this message. They both relate directly to Bethlehem, and they both feel pretty big to me. One goal is to clarify (or some might say rectify) something I have said for many years about God’s love for us. Hence, the name of the sermon, “How Much Does God Love This Church?” And I mean for you to take that very personally.
The other goal is to give you a strong encouragement that God intends to do very good things for you while I am away (on this upcoming eight-month leave). At root, both goals are the same. I want you to feel — and feel is the right word, though not the only word — more deeply and more firmly and more joyfully that you are loved by God personally as individual Christians, and corporately as a church with a love that is immeasurably great and eternally unwavering.
Almost always when I go away from Bethlehem to speak, I give messages that are the overflow of what I have preached and taught here at the church. But at the end of February, when I went to Seattle, I worked out a fresh way of saying some things that I have been saying for a long time, which I hope will give a clearer sense of the biblical emphasis on God’s glory in the way he loves us. I refined that message by giving it three times, once at Mars Hill Church, once to some urban pastors in Los Angeles and once in the chapel at Westmont College. I knew as I developed these thoughts that I wanted to find the right time to give the message here. And that’s what this is.
The Bottom of Our Joy: God, Not Self
Here is the question that I want to clarify. I have been asking audiences for years: “Do you feel more loved by God because God makes much of you, or because God, at great cost to his Son, frees you to enjoy making much of him forever?” The aim of that question has never been to deny that God makes much of us. He does. (Which we will see shortly.) The aim has been to help people relocate the bottom of their joy — the decisive foundation of their joy — from self to God.
Let me try to help you understand what shapes so much of what I say. A people ought to understand their pastor. I am more concerned about nominal hell-bound Christians who feel loved by God, than I am about genuine heaven-bound Christians who don’t feel loved by God.
“What makes the born-again person glad is not that they have God’s gifts, but that they have God.”
Please don’t hear me as uncaring or indifferent to genuine Christians who don’t feel loved by God. I do care, and this sermon is especially for you. At this point, I’m simply trying to give you a perspective on why I emphasize what I do. There are millions of nominal Christians who are not born again who believe God loves them and yet are on their way to hell. And the difference between them and a born again believer is this: What’s the bottom, the decisive foundation, of their happiness? As you penetrate down deeper and deeper to the core, or the bottom, of what makes you happy, what is it?
Jesus Is Not a New Butler
Millions of nominal Christians have never experienced a fundamental alteration of that foundation of happiness. Instead, they have absorbed the notion that becoming Christian means turning to Jesus to get what you always wanted before you were born again. So, if you wanted wealth, you stop depending on yourself for it, and by prayer and faith and obedience you depend on Jesus for wealth. If you wanted to be healthy, you turn from mere human cures to Jesus as the source of your health. If you wanted to escape the pain of hell, you turn to Jesus for the escape. If you wanted to have a happy marriage, you come to Jesus for help. If you wanted peace of conscience and freedom from guilt feelings, you turn to Jesus for these things.
In other words, to become a Christian, in this way of seeing things, is to have all the same desires you had as an unregenerate person — only you get them from a new source, Jesus. And he feels so loving when you do. But there’s no change at the bottom of your heart and your cravings. No change in what makes you happy. There’s no change in the decisive foundation of your joy. You just shop at a new store. The dinner is still the same; you just have a new butler. The bags in the hotel room are still the same; you just have a new bellhop.
A New Bottom for Our Joy in the New Birth
That’s not what the new birth is. It’s not having all the same desires that you had as an unregenerate person, and just getting them from a new source. The new birth changes the bottom, the root, the foundation of what makes us happy. Self at the bottom is replaced by Jesus. God himself.
What makes the born-again person glad is not at bottom that they have God’s gifts, but that they have God. This is what I am more concerned about than genuine Christians who are truly on their way to heaven, and don’t feel loved by God. And my shorthand way of trying to awaken people to the dangers of feeling loved by God while being unregenerate is to ask: Do you feel more loved by God because he makes much of you, or because, at great cost to his Son, he frees you to enjoy knowing him and treasuring him and making much of him?
Why God Makes Much of Us for His Own Glory
But today I am jealous that this concern of mine not undermine the immeasurable way God loves you who are born again, including by making much of you — indeed, making much more of you than you ever dreamed.
So here is my new way of coming at this issue. I ask: Why does God perform all his acts of love toward us in a way that reveals he is loving us for his own glory? Why does God relentlessly reveal his love to us by telling us in the Bible that he is loving us for his own name’s sake? It is an urgent question because there are so many who say or feel that it isn’t love if God’s aim is to magnify his own glory. Or they feel: you say he is making much of me, but in fact he isn’t making much of me if his design is that he be made much of in making much of me.
I tremble just to say those words. It isn’t so. I want to show you — I want to help you see and feel — that you are more loved by God when he loves this way. He makes much more of you when he makes much of you this way. Please don’t turn this off. Ask God to help you see what we are about to see in the Bible.
Examples of God Loving Us for His Own Glory
Just a few examples of what I mean by God performing all his acts of love toward us in a way that reveals he is loving us for his own glory:
1. God shows his love for us by predestining us for adoption into his family.
He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace. (Ephesians 1:5–6)
God loved us in eternity before we were created, and he planned to make us his children by adoption. And the aim of this love was “to the praise of the glory of his grace.” He loved us this way that we might praise his grace. A regenerate person loves to praise God’s grace in our adoption. A nominal Christian simply loves the natural benefits of adoption.
2. God shows his love for us by creating us.
Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory. (Isaiah 43:6–7)
“You are precious to God, and the greatest gift he has for you is not to let your preciousness become your god. ”
God loved us in bringing us into being that we might enjoy forever all the good he plans for us. And he did it, he says, for his glory.
3. God shows his love for us by sending us a Savior.
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest.” (Luke 2:10–14)
We get the Savior; he gets the glory. We get the “great joy”; God gets the praise. That is God’s design in sending his Son.
4. God shows his love for us when Christ died for us.
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:14–15)
Christ loved us, died for us; and the aim was that we might live for him. He pursues his glory through our salvation. And if you wonder why we read Psalm 79 at the beginning, it was because of one verse, verse 9:
Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and atone for our sins, for your name’s sake! (Psalm 79:9)
Born-again people pray like this. They see their salvation primarily as a gift of the ability to see and savor and show the glory of God.
5. God shows his love for us in the way Jesus prays for us.
Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:24)
“With” him. He prays that we be with him. And why does that make us happy? Oh he will give us many things. But the bottom of our joy, the decisive foundation of our happiness will be this: We will see his glory. Our Savior, not our self, will be the bottom of our joy.
The point of those five texts is to show that throughout the Bible, God performs all his acts of love toward us in a way that reveals he is loving us for his own glory.
Why does he do it this way?
How Much God Does Make of Us
Before I answer, it’s crucial in this message to emphasize that God’s love for us includes making much of us in ways that take our breath away. They are so over-the-top that we are scarcely able to believe how much he makes of us. A few examples of what I mean:
1. God makes much of us by being pleased with us and commending our lives.
Alan Jacobs said that C.S. Lewis’s greatest sermon was “The Weight of Glory.” And in that sermon, what is the weight of glory that every true Christian will bear? To hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
To please God . . . to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness . . . to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son — it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is. (“Weight of Glory,” 10)
2. God makes much of us by making us fellow heirs with his Son, who owns everything.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)
The promise to Abraham and his offspring [is] that he would be heir of the world. (Romans 4:13)
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. (1 Corinthians 3:21–23)
3. God makes much of us by having us sit at table when he returns and serving us as though he were the slave and we the masters.
Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. (Luke 12:37)
4. God makes much of us by appointing us to carry out the judgment of angels.
Do you not know that we are to judge angels? (1 Corinthians 6:3)
5. God makes much of us by ascribing value to us and rejoicing over us as his treasured possession.
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. . . . Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29–31)
The Lord your God . . . will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. (Zephaniah 3:17)
6. God makes much of us by giving us a glorious body like Jesus’s resurrection body.
He will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:21)
The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. (Matthew 13:43; also see Romans 8:30)
7. Most amazingly God makes much of us by granting us to sit with Christ on his throne.
The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. (Revelation 3:21)
“The new birth changes the bottom, the root, the foundation of what makes us happy.”
The church . . . is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:22–23)
We are destined to share in the governing of the universe with divine-like authority. Let it be known loud and clear, God makes much of his Son’s bride, the church. God loves the church with a kind of love that will make more of her than she can ever imagine. All this is yours, if you belong to Christ (Romans 8:9).
Why God Reminds Us That He Loves Us for His Glory
The final decisive question is: Why does God, who loves so much, and who makes much of us so extremely, remind us again and again that he does all this for his own glory? Why does God remind us over and over that he makes much of us in a way that is designed ultimately to make much of him?
The answer is this: Loving us this way is a greater love. God’s love for us, that makes much of us for his glory, is a greater love than if he ended by making us our greatest treasure, rather than himself. Making himself our end is a greater love than making us his end.
Self Will Never Satisfy
The reason this is greater love is that self, no matter how glorified by God (Romans 8:30), will never satisfy a heart that is made for God. God loves you infinitely. He sent his Son to die that he might have you, and that you might have him (1 Peter 3:18). He will not let you settle for wonderful and happy thoughts of self. Not even a glorified self. He will not let your glory, which he himself creates and delights in, replace his glory as your supreme treasure.
God’s Greatest Gift
Bethlehem, I leave this truth with you while I am away for these months. Glory in this. Take heart from this. Rejoice in this. Be strengthened by this. You are precious to God, and the greatest gift he has for you is not to let your preciousness become your god. God will be your God. God alone forever. And this is infinite love.