From the Reformed Quarterly Winter 1987 Bulletin.
Many individual Christians would like to be on fire for the Lord but cannot ignite the flame. They’d like to want to pray and read the Bible but cannot make themselves desire these experiences. They go to church out of a sense of duty, habit, or fear of God, and they wish that it could be as enjoyable for them as they think it is for others.
Great churches are made up of highly motivated people who find worship and work in the church and in the Kingdom of God to be delightful. Every young candidate in training for ministry wonders, and often worries, about his ability to move a congregation to deeper levels of understanding and to provide the inspiration needed for people to become enthusiastic followers of Christ.
The Bible makes it very clear that the key to this motivation for worship and desire for the things of God is our love for God. Only those who love Him sincerely find great delight in doing the will of God as revealed in Scripture to the best of their ability.
We should be able to deduce this through our normal relationships with other people. Our human nature finds great delight in trying to please those whom we love deeply. Even among unbelievers there are many wives who find great pleasure in trying to please their husbands, and many husbands seek the same for their wives.
Jesus said that if we love God we will keep His commandments. The King James Version translates John 14:15 as a command saying, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” The correct translation, is, however, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” There is a world of difference between those translations. The latter is strengthened by verse 24 of the same chapter, which says, “He that loveth me not, keepeth not my sayings.”
If loving God is the key to being motivated to please Him, what is the key to teaching people to love God? The answer to this is as clear and simple as the first point. We love Him because He first loved us. The Bible says that God is love, and anybody who comes to know the God who is love will certainly love Him.
Are preachers today telling us that God is love? Yes, they certainly are. I know of no evangelical preachers today who do not say without reservation that God is love. I do know, however, of many people who are not getting the message. Why? Because we also get another message from the preacher which portrays a God of wrath. It is then difficult for us to integrate these two concepts and retain a God who is still love. We see a God who is sometimes loving and sometimes angry. We are told to fear God’s wrath and to love Him, too, and that’s not easy for us. We end up with a lot of ambivalent feelings for God, and it sometimes becomes a love/hate relationship. Even Martin Luther is reported to have expressed such feelings. In “Luther’s Table Talk” by McCauley (p. 31), Luther speaks of the importance of loving God, but I recall a film on the life of Luther in which he is quoted as saying, “Sometimes I hate God!”
There is a type of preaching to which I was frequently exposed in both the country church and tent revivals which I attended in my youth. It continues in some circles today. The preacher came to the pulpit looking very solemn. He read the text and looked at us sternly. We knew that he was deadly serious. He began with low tones and tight lips. Soon he was frowning, shouting, and waving his fists in the air. Sometimes he took his Bible in hand and swung it at the congregation with a backhand motion as if he would smack each of us in the face. He closed the sermon, wiping his brow, and praying in the same low tones with which he had begun.
I have never had the courage or the opportunity to ask it, but I have a question for that type of preacher. Can the people love the God that you told them about in your sermon today? After growing up under much preaching like that, I can tell you that I did not and could not love the God that was portrayed.
I recently asked a woman who happens to go to a Presbyterian church, “Is the God that you hear about from your preacher lovable?” Without hesitation, she said, “No, not always.” She went on to talk about boring services and sermons that placed meticulous demands and burdens upon the people that neither they nor the preacher could possibly bear. The thought of the God of the Bible being portrayed like that should cause us to weep.
Someone will say, “But God is more than love, and when the Bible says God is love we cannot assume that it is saying that He is only that and nothing more.” It is true that love is not the only attribute of God, but we must always be aware that one attribute of God never does violence to another. Because God is in no way tainted with sin, every aspect of His being exists in perfect harmony. This cardinal principle concerning the nature of God must be kept in mind whenever we consider any of His attributes. While we know that He is just in judgment and “His wrath is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18), this in no way reduces or alters His perfect love.
I am not like that. When I get angry with people whom I love, I forget how much I love them. Love is laid aside while I express my anger with terrible words and actions for which I have to apologize after I cool down. Parents do that with children and children with parents. One feeling or emotion crowds out others so that we are not everything that we ought to be at every moment. The result is that some of our work or deeds may reflect a person with love or intelligence while other deeds may reflect the same person filled with hatred or ignorance.
God, however, is different from us. At every moment and in every action He is everything that He is so that there is no variableness. He is not more or less loving at one time or in one situation than another. When the preacher speaks, therefore, about the wrath of God, he must not lose sight of God’s love. In wrath, men become irrational, but there is never the slightest loss of reason or knowledge with God. The result is that in every work of God, His justice, righteousness, knowledge, and love are all fully evident.
A child needs parents who are persistent and consistent in providing guidance and correction in a context of love if that child is to grow up mentally and emotionally healthy. If the child has such parents, he will love them.
When we know God as the loving heavenly Father, we inevitably love Him. J. I. Packer in “Knowing God” says that the whole New Testament was written to tell us that God is our Father, and Packer says that “Father” is the Christian name for God (p. 182). No doubt people will love God if they see Him as He is revealed in the New Testament.
If they love Him they will seek to please Him. God makes this task easier for us because those things that please the Father most are those that benefit the child. The commandments which God gave through Moses were designed for the benefit of the people of Israel. Having delivered them from slavery in Egypt, God gave them rules by which to live and through which they could find happiness, holiness, and prosperity.
When I hear the Ten Commandments as words from our heavenly Father, the whole atmosphere surrounding them is different, as is my attitude. The harshness of the law falls away, and an all-wise and all-loving Father tells His children how to live. We could easily shout with the Psalmist, “O how I love thy law!”
We not only can love God and His law, but we can and do enjoy trying, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to do all that the Law teaches us. Happiness is living to please God. Unbelievers have never been able to figure that out. They think that our religion is nothing but a set of burdensome laws by which we are bound hand and foot. The devil has blinded them so much that they are unable to see the freedom and joy of the Christian life. Christians, however, should not suffer from such blindness.
Are there other ways besides loving God by which people in the church can be motivated to behave as the preacher and/or the Bible say they should? Yes, there is the threat of hell if they don’t and the hope of heaven if they do. There are also tons of motivational gimmicks which many have used; new ones are being dreamed up every day.
When all is said and done, however, those who please God and are blessed by the Father will be the ones who love Him. Perhaps this is the reason Jesus said that the first and great commandment is to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind (Matt. 22: 37-38).