Christians struggle with two kinds of assurance – assurance that God loves them and assurance that God likes them. We might immediately cringe at such language as overly anthropomorphic and sentimental. I want to forestall this reaction, however, by admitting that such language can and has been used in all sorts of distortedly sentimental ways. And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, it is obvious that we actually do need to know that God loves us and that God values us. We need this because, in the words of Augustine, we were made to love and to be loved. And each relate to the other. We love because He loves us. We delight in and serve Him freely because He has first delighted in and “served” us in creation, providence, and redemption.
Our possible caution with respect to such language is undoubtedly related to two things. First, the Reformed have always had an enormously high view of God’s transcendent otherness. Reformed worship has historically been characterized by a sense of reverence toward God’s awesomeness, our absolute dependence upon God for His sustaining and redeeming mercy, etc. And this is not to be juxtaposed to His nearness, but it does caution us that we never think of God in an overly “familiar” and creaturely way. The second context to our caution is that much of the evangelical church has certainly been caught up in a portrayal of God which compromises that reverence, which makes God a sort of divine therapist who is ultimately about our needs and whims and feelings rather than His own glory and goodness. But with that all said, we can repeat the above. If we are honest with ourselves, it is obvious that we actually do need to know that God loves us and that God values us.
Let us briefly consider these types of assurance in turn. The first (i.e. God’s love for us) is especially important when we consider the assurance of our salvation. No matter is of greater importance for the Christian than to be assured that his sins are forgiven and that they are free in Christ. Indeed, it is difficult to pursue daily holiness without this motivation. As John Piper is fond of saying, “The only sins we can fight against are forgiven sins.” It seems to me that this assurance is chiefly to be found in God’s declared heart for human beings as such. That is to say, God freely offers forgiveness to everyone everywhere in Christ. What is more, God delights to forgive. Getting closer to home, God delights to forgive you. The free offer of the gospel is God’s unveiling of His own affections for human beings such that He stands willing and ready to forgive all that come to Him through Christ. And yet, the Reformed have traditionally had a small conundrum here. None of us come on our own. What is more, isn’t regeneration prior to faith (at least in some versions of Reformed theology)? And so there are those who worry that they haven’t “truly” believed or who examine themselves for signs of regeneration. After all, what if I was insincere in my repentance and faith? How do I know?
But this misses something. It misses God. In light of the love of God, the answer to such doubts is God Himself. Am I sure I have faith? Ask God to give it. What if I’m asking with the wrong motives? Ask God to convert you. What if I’m only asking because I want salvation from the consequences of my sin (i.e. Hell) but not its power? Ask God to give you desires for the latter.
Here is the question. Is there any real possibility, with the character of God as described in the Bible, that He says “no” to such requests? Not, of course, because of the greatness of our faith but because of the affections of God as revealed by His promise and accomplishment of salvation. Will the God who freely gave us His Son not freely with Him give us all things? (Rom. 8:32) Will He leave the praying sinner begging for conversion flat on his face because his name wasn’t in the book? This is unthinkable. All who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom. 10:13). The reason for that is because of the character and goodness and mercy of the Lord – who delights to answer those who call to Him for mercy. The chief foundation of the Christian’s assurance of salvation is simply to know the heart of God to save human beings – which is the “story behind the story” of the promises He makes to us and by which we take hold of Him (even as He takes hold of us).
There is no greater gift than the knowledge that one’s sins before a holy and righteous God are forgiven. But the Christian life is hard. Holiness is hard. And one’s relationship with God does not cease at the assurance of salvation. Some Christians continue to struggle with another question – “Does God like me?” One sometimes gets the impression that God’s relationship to His saints goes something like – “Well, I guess you’ll avoid damnation and I’ll go ahead and save you – but I don’t want you to get the impression that I’m happy with you. You still suck pretty bad.” This is something like the parent who provides all of the essential needs for his children’s survival, but who is slow to affirm them or give them a sense of being valued.
As it turns out, growth in this sort of assurance is not so different from growth in the former sort. Once again, we are led back into the chambers of God’s own heart for His people. First, God’s salvation is not for objects that He does not value. God created human beings and declared them “good.” Even after the fall, the essential “thing” that man is is a good thing. And each individual is full of qualities, virtues, attributes, and properties that are (as created) “good.” Indeed, God’s valuing of these things is such that it is His glory to redeem such goods at the cost of His own Son. Sometimes we are told in Reformed circles that God sent Christ “in order to” love us. This is manifestly wrong. The Bible is clear that God’s love is precisely love for His enemies (Romans 5:8). Why does He love His enemies? Why does God love us? More particularly, why does God love me? Once again, it would seem to be insane to suggest that this is merely a matter of arbitrarily directing his emotions toward an object as though it would have been just as fitting for such divine emotions to be directed toward a paper towel or a flask lid. No. God loves human beings because their objective goodness qua created is a deeper truth than their evil qua fallen. As such, every Christian can be assured that God delights to save just them and that God values and delights in just them.
To speak of “good” here does not necessarily imply any moral goodness. It simply means that a thing has real value and warrants love and affection because of what it is. God made us in love, and that which He is made is lovely (and therefore He loves it). This loveliness is obscured but not eradicated by our sin. And precisely because God has linked His glory to His love for His creation (and the response of that creation in participating in His self-delight), so God comes to defeat evil lest it entirely dissolve the loveliness of what He has made.
It is clear, then, that God does not “like” sin. And Scripture is clear that God can be angry with and grieved by His people. Some persons, many of whom have had an abysmal earthly father, have a difficult time understanding how this can be reconciled with the love of God that they think they need. In fact, however, it is essential to God’s love that His being pleased with us does merely overlook what destroys us. To sin and to pursue sin and to care nothing for sin is to fail to love what God loves – His people. God’s hatred for our sin and His anger is a measure of His love for us. He will see no-one destroy us. And He will not see us destroy ourselves. He is our High Tower and will defend us against all enemies from without and from within. This is not the heart of the neglectful father who is selfishly angry that the child didn’t do all the things for the father’s own convenience. Rather, the dishonor of God is never divorced from the destruction of His creation. God’s passion for His glory and His honor is, when directed toward creatures, a passion for their good. The antidote to a pathological aversion to any “toughness” in God is not a God who reduces down to mere absolute empathy. That is not the God we need. We need a God who can unite a painful chastening with a zeal for our true happiness over our immediate comfort. The alternative is actually a God who would leave us to destruction – a God who (ultimately) is apathetic toward or weak-willed concerning our good.
Each Christian has a God “for them” in a way that is violent toward whatever would destroy them. Likewise, they have a Father who knows their feebleness and weakness, who remembers that they are but dust, who is compassionate toward them. And so, importantly, we have a Father who affirms and delights in the feeblest of our efforts toward the good. So many Christians are discouraged in holiness because they didn’t meet a prayer or Bible reading quota. What this fails to capture is God’s delight in any effort they make. A father whose child has drawn him a picture does not discard it, though primitive by objective standards, because it is not Leonardo. He says, “Great!” and pins it on the fridge. Why? Because he loves the child, wants to cultivate the child, and would see the child flourish. There is no greater motivation for holiness in the Christian life than to know that one delights the God who is their Father, King, Savior,and Friend.
As it turns out, God can be anthropomorphized in two ways. We can sentimentally turn God into a mere servant of man who does not hate what would harm them and what dishonors His own name. And let it be noted: this is not the sort of love we need. We actually need to be healed. We need a God who hates sin. Any other sort would be a hateful God. But God can also be anthropomorphized to the extent that he is like a bad earthly father, or like a majestic emperor to whom the creature has no real access and from whom he can receive no sort of affection. Indeed, precisely because God is the transcendent Other before whom we must tremble and revere, He is able to be near. He loves what and whom He has made. He hates sin. He delights to save. And He values His people to the extent that He will crush His own Son to defeat their enemies from without and from within. And this is the epicenter of His being about His own glory.