Love in Paul (7) Experiencing the love of God

We’re continuing a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

We are in strand 2 – the responsive love of God’s people (now both Jews and Gentiles) in light of God’s prior redemptive action.

Our focus in this post is how, in Paul, the response of believers to divine love involves more than obedience. It is, at heart, experiential.

I think this is often missed in theological discussions of the Pauline theology, that tend, for example, to be dominated by technical debates about how justification works. All to easily we end up making Paul some sort of Enlightenment rationalist writing abstract theology for academics when he was nothing of the sort.

Repeatedly the apostle affirms that God’s people are loved by God (1 Thes 1:4; 2 Thes 2:13, 16; Rom 1:7; 2 Cor 13:11, 14; Eph 1:4-5, 2:4, 3:17-9, 5:1-2, 6:23; Col 3:12). Faithful obedience flows from personal experience of God’s elective love in Jesus Christ.

Let’s look at some texts:

Romans 5:5: Love and the Spirit

And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

All believers experience God’s love being poured into their hearts through the Spirit. [An aside: N T Wright argues divine love in this verse refers to our love for God. But this is unconvincing. It makes much more sense to read it as God’s love for us].

In his commentary on Romans Paul Jewett concludes that believers have nothing to boast about except their shared experience of the love of God conveyed by the gift of the Spirit (Jewett, 2007).

Also notice Paul’s ‘us’ and ‘our’ language. It’s very likely he is talking about his own experience here of God’s extravagant love and grace for a zealous persecutor of the church.

Romans 8:35-39 and Ephesians 3:18-19:

These famous texts speak for themselves. This is no abstract theology but one that speaks of a profound, personal and yet corporate experience of divine love.

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Ephesians 3:18-19

18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

It’s crucial to see what is going on here. Divine love is now reframed from the OT; it now has a Christological shape. Experience of the love of Christ leads to being filled with all the fullness of God (3:19).

These sort of Trinitarian connections between Father, Spirit and Messiah represent remarkable theological development in Paul’s understanding of divine love.

For God’s people, being loved by Father, Son and Spirit should lead to responses of gratitude, obedience and worship.

Indeed it’s fair to ask this question:

If someone claims the name ‘Christian’ but shows no signs of an experiential response of gratitude, obedience and worship in light of God’s prior love, have they really encountered the love of God at all?

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