How Do We Know that God Is Love?
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, St. John writes, "So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in Him." God is love. But how do we come to know and believe this? Can we gaze at the creation and know it? Can we infer it from the miracle of life? No, the evidence of God's love for creation is ambiguous, since along with the beauty and wonder of creation comes harsh realities like tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and all manner of man-made disaster. Likewise, the miracle of life is counterbalanced by the reality of death. So from these things alone, we cannot know that God is love.
And so we turn to a text from Romans to learn where God shows that He is love: For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11, ESV)
St. Paul wrote his letter to the Christian church at Rome almost 2000 years ago. The words of this letter are the inspired Word of God and are without error, because the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write them. So the words of our Epistle reading have a timeless character; as the Word of God, they are applicable at all times and all places.
Yet it is also true that God the Son came down from heaven to be born of the Virgin Mary at a particular time, in a particular place; a time and place chosen by God, for our benefit, as Paul says in our reading from Romans, "While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly" (Romans 5:6). God sent His Son at just the right time, and that time and place was Jewish Palestine, under Roman rule, with Greek as the universal language, 2000 years ago. So this reminds us that while the Epistle to the Romans is the timeless, changeless Word of God, it also has a very human history and setting, which requires us to interpret it against is unique cultural setting.
Paul claims that at the right time Christ died for the ungodly, that is, in the place of sinners, as their substitute. This morning I want to examine the idea and practice of substitutionary death both in the ancient Greco-Roman world and also in our own culture, and this will help us see how radical and unexpected the death of Jesus Christ appears, and how His death shows that God is love and loves us.
I think we can agree that to die for another person, in his or her place, is pretty rare, and is quite heroic. St. Paul says as much: "One will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die." Scarcely shows the rarity of such a death; daring shows its heroism.
In the Greco-Roman world there were four general reasons why a person would consider dying for another (note that this is not the same as dying for a cause, as in the case of Socrates); these are reasons for dying as a substitute for another person to spare the other's life:
First, conjugal love. The ancient Greek playwright Euripides tells us the story of Alcestis, the wife of King Admetus of Thessaly. The Greek god Apollo worked out a deal with The Fates in order to spare Admetus from his fated day of death. Apollo got the Fates drunk, and while intoxicated the Fates agreed to give Admetus a reprieve from dying if he could find someone to die in his place. When Admetus's parents refused to die in his place, his wife Alcestis volunteered to die for him, as a substitute, to save Admetus's life.
I won't spoil the ending, but the point is clear: the love of wife for husband or husband for wife could be understood in Paul's day as a motivation for substitutionary death. I think in our own day this probably happens from time to time, and we would like to think that we would be so daring and heroic to die for our spouses.
In the case of Alcestis, an additional factor was that Admetus was a powerful king. We also could imagine a Secret Service agent or other patriot being willing to die in the place of the President or another important official in our government. This leads into the second ancient reason for dying in the place of another: a shared philosophical commitment or community bond. In one story of the ancient Pythagorean sect, one Pythagorean is sentenced to death, but asks the judge for some time to put his family affairs in order. The judge says, "Fine, but I need someone who would be willing to die in your place if you escape and don't return for your punishment." Essentially, the judge was asking for the ultimate bail bond—another life as a guarantee. The Pythagorean found a fellow member of his sect to stand in for him while he finalized his family affairs, and in some versions of the story, the judge is so impressed with the willingness of one to die for the other that he lets them both go. Perhaps a modern similar type of subtitutionary death would be the death of one soldier for another, or perhaps one Christian taking the place of another one because of our shared faith.
This leads into the third type of Greco-Roman substitutionary death: for a person's friend and fellow countryman. And similarly, the fourth kind of vicarious death: for a relative. The willingness to die for friends or relatives is illustrated by the ancient Epicurean Philonides, who lived in the second century BC. He said that for his most beloved kinsmen or friends, he would readily offer his neck; he asked, "If I would be willing to die for my native land, then how could I not die for a kinsman?"
I think we can probably cite modern examples of friends or family members dying for each other. It would be heroic but still understandable to die for someone you have a natural connection to, someone you love. Fathers and mothers sometimes give up their lives to spare their children's lives. And maybe we should consider the heroic examples of soldiers and policemen and firefighters and good Samaritans who are willing to risk their necks even for people they don't know. Stories like that appear in the headlines daily.
But with all those heroic substitutionary deaths in mind, let's go back to our reading from Romans and see how the death of Jesus fits into our discussion so far. St. Paul wrote, "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
We have talked about cases of substitutionary death this morning—one person deliberately stepping in and dying on behalf of another—but the death of Jesus just doesn't fit into any of the categories we have presented from the Greco-Roman world or from our modern examples. Sure, we have talked about substitutionary deaths, but nothing like this one.
An ancient Greek or Roman would have scratched his head at this passage, and so do we, if we are really listening to it. We may be able to imagine giving up our life in the place of someone we consider good or righteous, our husbands or wives, fellow Christians, friends or relatives, but listen to a description of the people Jesus died in the place of: St. Paul says that Jesus dies for those who are powerless and ungodly (Romans 5:6), unrighteous and no good (implied in Romans 5:7), sinners (Romans 5:8), those wicked and lost in sin (implied in Romans 5:9), and here's the clincher: He died for His enemies, those who were not at peace with God but rather violently rebelled against Him (Romans 5:10-11). Those are the people Christ died for.
When Paul first wrote this letter, the Greeks and Romans would have scratched their heads at such a ridiculous situation, and we should too if we understand it. Let me provide an illustration to translate into language we can understand what the death of Jesus was like.
Imagine the most wicked person you can, who is hostile to you in every way, who desires nothing but your misfortune and death. God forbid it, but imagine that this malicious person killed all of your family and friends, attacked and left you in physical pain and misery. But justice is served, and that person who has destroyed your life is sentenced to death. Naturally, what would you do? Would you say, "At least justice has been served?"
No, what happens is that you—out of love and sympathy for that vicious murderer who has caused you immeasurable pain—you willingly and enthusiastically arrange to be executed in the place of that person so that he can be set free. Now, does that sound reasonable?
Of course not, but that's the situation you should see in the death of Jesus Christ for us sinners. Paul wrote, "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." This is the great love for us that Christ and His Father have toward us, which is far beyond our ability to comprehend or put into practice ourselves. What human is willing to die for his enemy on the battlefield or in the courtroom? Only Jesus. Paul said, "While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son."
Did Jesus have any obligations to us that would move Him to lay down His life for us? No, when Paul identifies us as sinners in Romans 5:8 he identifies us as those who have actually renounced our obligations toward God by our rebellious acts against Him. When we sin, we commit treason and desecrate the name of God, the Father of Jesus. We have totally failed in our obligation to obey God's Law and so we have run the name of God through the dirt, and yet Jesus willingly obligates Himself to take the punishment for our sin.
While we might consider a President or King someone worth taking a bullet for, what happens in the case of Jesus? In Romans 5:6 Paul says that while we were still weak, literally "powerless," Christ died for us. We are the inferiors here. Jesus is called "the Christ," the majestic and powerful Old Testament King in the line of David, described in Psalm 2 as being exalted over all others. But what does He do for us? He lays down His life. The King dies for the rebellious subjects, those who are not "worth dying for."
And while we would consider dying for those whom we already care about, those we are friendly with, Christ dies for our sin in order to establish a friendly relationship between us and God. He dies to make reconciliation, to restore peace between God and His enemies, us sinners. His death creates a friendship that was not there in the first place. This is what Paul tells us in our text when he says, "Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life."
God sent His Son to establish eternal peace with us, to save us from His wrath against our sin, to make enemies into friends, and to save us for eternal life with Him. And because Christ died for us and rose again for our justification, we can be absolutely certain that we are saved. For we who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our future hope is absolutely guaranteed! And that hope is confirmed for us by the blood of Jesus.
Notice that key word Paul uses: we are justified by the blood of Jesus Christ, and so we will be saved from the wrath of God. Jesus offered up His body and blood on the cross to turn away God's vengeance against our sin, so that instead of being under God's wrath, we are under grace.
And this morning, Jesus gives us that true body and blood which He offered up for us by coming to us in the Lord's Supper, under the bread and wine to give us forgiveness of sins and assurance that His death is for our benefit, for our eternal salvation. This is a sure pledge and seal of our salvation, so that we can say along with St. Paul, "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Galatians 2:20)
The depth of the love of God is that He loved us enemies of Him, us sinners, and He proved His love by sending His Son. And then His Son showed His love for the Father and for us by laying down His life for us. Actually, it is not just that God's love is deep, but that He is love, as St. John says in our Epistle. And God's love for us removes the fear of death and damnation, as St. John also says, "By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment…Perfect love drives out fear." That perfect love is God's love shown in Christ.
And that also changes everything about how we live in this world toward one another. We now show our love for God by loving our neighbor as ourselves. St. John writes, "We love because He first loved us. If anyone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him: whoever loves God must also love his brother."
This is a teaching that we tend to neglect. We enthusiastically receive the message of God's love for us, but when we learn that this means that we also must love our neighbor as ourselves, or when we hear Jesus say that we must love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, well, that's a bit unreasonable, isn't it? But this is the love that flows from believing that God is love, and that His love has moved Him to give us all of Himself in Christ, and eternal communion with Him. St. John writes, "So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in Him." Grant this, Lord, to us all. In the name of the In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.