A. Craig Troxel
My first "real job" after college, though short-lived, was working with physically and sexually abused children. If some of them were to see the title of this article, they would shake their heads with skepticism or irritation, seeing the words father and love appear in the same sentence. Similarly, for some Christians the title father recalls a painful past of neglect or abuse.
Other Christians resist the idea of God's loving fatherhood for other reasons. Some think of the almighty, sovereign, and holy Ruler of all the earth as so imposing and intimidating that any thought of him as accessible or caring is ruled out. Others are offended to hear God addressed with masculine terminology. Many ministers can testify to praying before a theologically diverse crowd of ministers and theologians, only to discover that the chill in the air was not a sudden draft in the room, but the bristling of mainline clerics at the offensively "chauvinistic" salutation.
Whether the idea of God as their Father repulses, frightens, or offends them, whether such thoughts are understandable or baseless, and whether the problem is psychological or theological, these issues create regrettable but real hindrances for some Christians. They may find it practically impossible to fellowship with God their Father in love. To put it another way, here is a good example of where doctrine touches lifeor where it does not.
In the previous article (last month), I defined communion with God as an intimate, mutual, covenantal bond between God and his people. It is participation in a living fellowship with the living God. Every aspect of that relationship pertains to God in three persons. Our justification, adoption, and sanctification are triunely planned, purchased, and applied, as are any other spiritual benefits that we have from God. Our communion with God relates distinctly to each person of the Godhead, but without that communion excluding the other members of the Trinity. Love is no different. Although it is a perfection that resides in each person of the Godhead (1 John 4:8, 16), we may particularly expect our communion with the Father to be distinguished by love.
Love especially defines the Father's actions. As the English Puritan theologian John Owen put it, this is the great discovery of the gospel. Without the gospel, the Father would be perceived as full of wrath and indignation. But the Father's love precedes the sending of his Son. By sending such a gift, he "showed his love among us" (1 John 4:9). And if the Father was willing to give us his own sonthe greatest gift imaginablethen he will also "graciously give us all things" (Rom. 8:32). Through his Son's redemptive work on the cross, God demonstrates his love for sinners (Rom. 5:8), and through his Son's resurrection he assures us of eternal life.
Moreover, the "kind of love" the Father has for us evidences itself in that the Father freely and graciously adopts us, welcoming us into his family and calling us "children of God" (1 John 3:1). So tenacious is the Father's love for his children that no one can snatch us from his hands (John 10:29; Rom. 8:39). It is the Father's immeasurable affection for his children that conceives, propels, and guarantees our redemption, from its inception in the eternal counsel of God to its consummation in heaven (Jer. 31:3). To discover the solidity and certainty of our salvation, we need look no further than the Father's love.
The Son came to reveal the Father, as an emissary of his lovenot to condemn the world, but to save the world (John 1:18; Matt. 11:27; John 3:16-17). The Father's love is the fountain and cause of the gospel. The Lord had to convince his disciples of this (John 16:26-27): "In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God." Undoubtedly the disciples were convinced of Jesus' patience, compassion, and love toward them. But they may not have been convinced of the Father's love for them. Jesus says that although he may intercede on their behalf for many things, he does not need to intercede for them to receive the Father's love, because the Father already loves them.
Some would have us believe that not until the loving Son persuaded the Father did he relent from his previous wrath. On the contrary, Scripture teaches us that from the fountain of the Father's love flow the healing streams of the covenant of grace, in which the Father sends, sacrifices, and exalts his Son. Christ takes pains to comfort his disciples with this teaching. We should be consoled as well. Our Father assures us of his love every time we hear his blessing extended to us as public worship concludes: "May ... the love of God ... be with you all" (2 Cor. 13:14). Here is regular consolation that the Father does not condemn sinners. He loves sinners. But do we believe this?
The Christian life is characterized by spiritual highs and lows (Confession, 14.3; 17.3; 18.4). In more pleasant seasons, when obedience and devotion seem more sincere and consistent, we think of our fellowship with God as better or sweeter. Of course, in one sense this is true. We take pleasure in the peace and joy that we experience during such times. But just as our right standing before God does not ultimately depend upon our obedience, so also is our fellowship with the Father in love not restricted to the whims of our obedience or only to the good seasonsas if our Father's love for us were that superficial!
Our heavenly Father wants us to commune with him during the unpleasant seasons as wellwhen we struggle with temptation, when our obedience seems marked by inconsistency, when we are ashamed or even afraid to turn to him. As a parent, when I see a guilty face on one of my children, I hope for his or her eventual unforced and forthright confession. I tell my children to come to me voluntarily and trust in my mercy, understanding, patience, and love. I also assure them that it is in their best interest if they come to me first, instead of withholding the matter from me. But, as Christians, we make the same mistake. When we sin, we feel guilty, ashamed, and hypocritical. So we do not go to God. We do not speak to him. We think that we do not deserve to approach him, or that he is unhappy with us, or that he will punish us (1 John 4:18). But that is precisely the timeour time of needwhen we ought to draw close to God, so that he will draw near to us (James 4:8). We ought not to focus merely on his terrible majesty, holiness, or justice. We should also focus on his proven compassion, patience, and love.
We plead with the unconverted to stop running from God and to come to him for life, forgiveness, peace, and steadfast love. But why do we not listen to our own counsel? Our communion suffers because either we misunderstand who the Father is or we doubt what he has promised.
When we do this, we are not taking God's character seriously. The Father's love is essential to him as a divine perfection. We would never call into question the fact that God is eternal, unchangeable, almighty, holy, and righteous. So why do we call into question that the Father is loving? We fall into unbelief again and again, doubting the Father's avowed kindness toward us. Most of our friends would feel insulted if we doubted their loyalty and affection in the way that we doubt God's.
To be sure, the Father does discipline us fittingly for our rebellious sin. But Scripture clearly teaches that he disciplines us because he loves us, treating us like children to whom he is partial (Prov. 3:12; Heb. 12:5-6). Such providences and suffering work for our good (Rom. 8:28; Luke 11:11) and produce spiritual character and fruit (Rom. 5:3-4; Heb. 12:11). But he always measures and tempers his discipline, according to our infirmities and frailty, as any compassionate father would do (Ps. 103:13-14; 1 Cor. 10:13).
When we fail to trust the Father's love, we are not taking seriously the fact that our communion with God is a mutual fellowship, just like any other friendship. We must receive and rest in his love and respond to his love in mutual affection, if we are to have true fellowship with him.
We should look to the promises of the Father's love that are given to us in Scripture. They shine pure light on our mistaken beliefs and melt away our doubts and fears. Satan wants us to believe that God is implacable and harsh, waiting to crush us. But our Father wants us to believe what he has proclaimed, proved, and promisedthat he loves us.
As his children, we must not draw back from God the Father in suspicion, fear, and unbelief. He loves us dearly, and we must love him with all of our heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37). Here is the Christian's safe refuge in a hard, cold, vengeful world that is filled with hate. May our hearts be filled with this heavenly love in our fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ. But may it especially enrich our communion with our Father in heaven. Not everyone has a great father. But every Christian does.
The author is pastor of Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pa. This is the second article in a four-part series. He quotes the NIV. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2006.