Over the summer, I want to draw attention to some of my preaching heroes. Not only do I commend them to you, but I also want to give you an example of their pulpit ministry.
Wallie Amos Criswell, better known by his initials W. A., lived from December 19, 1909 to January 10, 2002. He is one of the greatest Southern Baptist preachers of all time. Although he served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1968 to 1970 and was a favorite at evangelism and pastors conferences, he is best known for being the pastor of FBC Dallas, TX for 50 years (from 1944 to 1993), where that congregation’s membership grew from 7,800 to 26,000, with weekly Sunday School attendance in excess of 5,000. Not only did he found Criswell College, which is a fine evangelical school, most folks see Criswell as the patriarch of the “Conservative Resurgence” that returned the SBC to its Bible-believing roots. During his ministry, he preached over 4,000 messages and undoubtedly is one of the 20th century’s greatest expository preachers.
THE LOVE OF GOD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1 John 4:10
Preached June 3, 1973
The title of the message is “The Love of God.” And the reading is a very famous passage in 1 John chapter 4, beginning at verse 7:
Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.
He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.
In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him.
Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that God loves us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation, the hilasmos, the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.
No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and His love is perfected in us.
Hereby know we that we dwell in Him, and He in us, because He hath given us of His Spirit.
And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.
Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God.
And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love;
And he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.
Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as He is, so are we in the world.
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.
We love Him, because He first loved us.
If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?
And this commandment have we from Him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.
[1 John 4:7-21]
And the text is in the tenth verse, “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that God loves us, and sent His Son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins; that God loves us.” Three little words, monosyllabic words; but how weighty and meaningful, how significant they are—“God loves us.”
He whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain loves us. We are moved if a dog loves us. We are moved if a baby loves us, if a friend loves us. But that God should love us, how little we are in this vast big world. Almost eliminable in its creation and even our planet is like a speck of dust in the infinitude of God’s handiwork; yet the Lord loves us, we who are just ciphers in this big city. We’re like candle flies that die before the dawn. We’re like autumn leaves that fall unheated to the ground. Yet God loves us.
It is a marvel of condescension that He should. If two noblemen who are peers, they are both wealthy, they are both affluent, they are of the royal household, they are of the royal blood, if these two peers respect and honor one another we look upon it as something that would be quite natural. But if a nobleman of fame and affluence loved a poor crippled peasant, and took care of him, and ministered to him, shielded him, comforted him, how wonderful it is to look upon such love, such devotion. It’s just like God. For God is like that: the infinite loving the finite and the pure and holy looking with affection upon the unlovely and the unholy.
And that leads me to a second thing about the love of God: not only the marvel of His great condescension, that He stoops down to love us, the great Mighty One of the heaven of heavens, that in condescension He looks down in affection upon us, but oh the blessedness, the marvel that He does that in our sin and human frailty. The Lord looks in pity upon our wretchedness, brought upon us by the curse of sin. “As I live,” saith the Lord, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye; for why will ye die?” [Ezekiel 33:11]. And yet not turning, and remaining in our sin, God still loves us. “For when we were without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would dare to die. But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” [Romans 5:6-8]. The Lord, looking upon us from heaven, loves us; not because we are lovely, not because we are sinless, guiltless, pure, but God loves us in our necessity, in our frailty. God pities us. He is moved with compassion upon us. The one hundred third Psalm and the thirteenth verse, “As a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that love Him. For He knoweth our frame, He remembereth that we are dust.”
There was a father who had two sons. One of them was in college, a senior in the university, a fine, magnificent, good looking athlete. He was a wonder of a boy in every way to be admired. He had a twelve year old brother. And that boy had every prospect of being as tall, as strong, as handsome, as athletic as his older brother. And upon a day, upon a day, somehow that twelve year old boy got tangled up with a big truck on his bicycle. And in the hospital the doctor stood by the side of the father and said, “To save the boy’s life I must amputate his right arm and his left leg.” Across the bed stood the father’s older son, the senior in the university, fine and strong. And the father looked down into the face of his younger boy and heard again in his heart the words of the surgeon, “I must amputate his right arm and his left leg.” And the father said, in a testimony at the church, “For the first time I knew what that Scripture meant, ‘As a father pitieth his son, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him’” [Psalm 103:13].
The Lord does not look down upon us in hatred or in bitterness. The Lord looks down upon us in condescending love and compassionate mercy. God is not against us. God is always for us. “For God loves us, and sent His Son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” God loves us in our need, our frailty, our necessity.
Again, I not only see that in His condescension, I not only feel that in His pity for our frailty, but I see it also in the unwearying blessednesses of His daily providences. These are for the years, these are for the centuries, these are for the generations, these are for the forever; and we experience them with all of God’s children. Look. Even God’s law that is so condemnatory, even God’s law is for our blessing. God’s law is like a marker on a highway: this is a dangerous curve, or, the bridge is washed out here. I one time heard an evangelist – heard him as a boy, shows how the word that he said made an impression upon my heart, I’ve never forgotten it – he said, “In the New Testament, one hundred five times does God warn the man about hell.” Then the evangelist said, “Just think, a man driving down a highway, and he passes one hundred five signs saying, ‘This road leads to hell.’” The signs are compassionate. God is telling us…they are like these skull and cross bones that you see on medicines, warning us that they are fatal and poisonous…God’s laws are like our interdictions of the little children we’re rearing in the house. It isn’t because you hate the child that you say, “You must not do this,” or, “Do this and I will punish you”; it is because of our love for the child that we say these interdictions and lay down these rules. And the child is blessed by them. So God’s children are blessed by His laws. The purpose of them is to rear us up in the love and nurture of the Lord.
Those providences that daily surround us are not only in the laws, the signs, the admonitions, the interdictions by which He seeks to bring us up unto Himself; but we see them in His daily providential mercies. Ah! Think of how blessed it was that God placed us, or at least most of us, in the circle of a Christian family. When I opened my eyes on this world, I looked up into the face of a mother who loved Jesus and named His name. I was nourished from her breasts. And that mother loved God. And I grew up in that kind of a home. There are children that are taught to steal and to curse; there are girls that are sold into prostitution; there are families that are vile and degraded; how sweet the goodnesses of God that I grew up in a home with a father and a mother like that. And the providences of God’s daily love surrounding our lives are unfailing, undiminished, without measure. Every night when I go to sleep, the guardian care of the Lord surrounds me like a silken curtain. His love, God’s love opens every day. And His Spirit encourages and blesses for the assignment of the work that lies ahead. God loves us.
But after I have spoken of His condescension, and after I have spoken of His compassion and pity, and after I have spoken of His daily providences, yet have I not named the most beautiful and wonderful and precious of all the signs and tokens of God’s loving affection for us. It is this: “He loves us, and sent His Son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins”; translated here in this text, “the propitiation for our sins,” the hilasmos. The hilasterion is the mercy seat. And God sent Jesus to be the hilasmos, the sacrifice, whose blood was offered on the hilasterion, the mercy seat. Think of that! Lost, facing death and judgment, God sent not a seraph, not a cherub, not an angel; but God sent Himself. He came down. We know Him as our Savior, God’s Son. And He offered Himself a sacrifice for our atonement, that we might be right with God, that we might see God’s face and live, that we might be saved, that our sins might be washed away. The love of God flows through a crimson stained glass window and forever after it is red; it is crimson. The light of the love of God that shines in the face of Jesus Christ is always red; it is always crimson. It is stained by His blood. “God loves us and sent His Son, an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
You know, the amazement of that is this: He did not come into this world because we desired Him or plead for Him or begged for Him; the love of God was given to us, bestowed upon us when we did not desire it, when we did not want it. That is the most beautiful and precious love in the world, when it is offered whether it is desired or wanted or not. Why, you look. When Adam fell and the curse was pronounced on his head, did Adam, do you have this in the Bible, did Adam fall down on his knees before God and plead for mercy and plead for a Savior? He did not. But God, out of the full love and compassion of His soul, God promised a redeeming Savior. He loves us, whether we return His love or not. Listen, it is more than that: God loves us, and Jesus came to die for us, when He was received with jeers and blasphemies and rejections. When that gift of God’s love was bestowed upon us, the children of old man Adam cried, saying, “Away with Him! Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” And they pulled out His beard, and they spat in His face; they crowned Him with thorns, and they beat Him with thongs; and they nailed Him to a tree, and they watched Him die, and rubbed their hands in glee to see Him suffer. Yet, God loved us.
More, more: not only did God send His Son when we didn’t ask for Him, not only did God love us when we didn’t even want His love, and not only was the gift of His Son received with violence, and rejection, and finally crucifixion and death, but more. In that raging flood when the Savior’s soul sank in agony, He became sin itself and God turned His face away. And the suffering Savior cried, “Eli, My God, Eli, My God, lama sabachthani, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” [Matthew 27:46].
The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen could ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell;
The guilty pair
bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled,
And pardoned from his sin.
Could we with ink the oceans fill,
And were the skies a parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the oceans dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.
Oh, love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure
The saints’ and angels’ song.
[“The Love of God”; Frederick M. Lehman]
Moved to repentance by the goodness of God: let me continue for the moment. “We love Him because He first loved us.” The fountain of our response to the Lord is found in Him, “We love Him because He first loved us.” He first loved us. Before I was born, before I could name His name, before I repented, before I had faith, before I made a public confession of His name, before the world was made, before a star did shine, God loved us. He first loved us. Before the little trickling rill that rushes to the sea came out of the ocean itself, and before those mighty rivers that pour their floods into the deep came from the sea itself, He first loved us. The stars that shine are but reflections of the glorious sun. And our response is something that comes from what God first has done for us.
Look at this, briefly. “Everyone that loveth is born of God” [1 John 4:7]. That is a sign that you have been regenerated, when you love the Lord. “Yea Lord, Thou knowest everything about me. You know that I love You,” that is a sign of being born again. It is a sign that we know the Lord. “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” A man can know all the tomes of theology and recite all of the creeds, but loving God is something in the soul and not in the head. When a man preaches, to preach from his head is one thing, to be academic, to be intellectual, to be smart, to be gifted; but that is not it, really. It is loving God—that is how the man knows the Lord—we know Him loving Him.
Or again, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” [1 John 4:11]. Love is ever dynamic and active; it is never phlegmatic apathetic and dormant. Love, if it is true love, seeks an expression; always. A boy loves a girl, he’ll find ways to show her. If a man loves his wife, he expresses it; he can’t help it. And to command a man not to express it is to command his love not to be. So it is the out flowing of our love for one another: “If God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.” By this do we know that we passed from death into live, because we love God’s people, our brethren.
Or, once again, “In this we have boldness in the day of judgment. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear. Fear hath torment; he that feareth is not made whole”; he is still immature. For that maturity finds itself only in love; casts out fear—fear of death, fear of the judgment?—no! There is no fear in love, “perfect love casteth out fear” [1 John 4:17-18]. So to the child of God, as he faces any tomorrow, God is in it. I need not be full of anxiety or dread or foreboding, the Lord is my helper; in Him will I trust. And I have no need to be afraid. And in death and the judgment there is just the love and goodness of God, “perfect love casts out fear.”
Yesterday afternoon, burying a man, a member of this church, cut down in the very prime of life, I stood at the head of the casket, and his mother, his old mother, stood there, looked upon the silent face of her son, and talked to him, just as though he could hear. Did she say, “Son, I am afraid. Oh, Son! Soon I shall die, and I am filled with torment and foreboding. Oh, Son! Soon I shall be called to meet God in the judgment, and my soul trembles!”? She is a great Christian woman. Looking into the face of that son, she said, “My son, my son! You are in heaven, and my son, I will soon be there too. God bless you and keep you till I see you again.” That is Christian, “perfect love casteth out fear”; nothing to be afraid of, just someday the full-orbed manifestation of the compassionate mercy and love of Jesus.
In a moment we stand to sing our hymn of appeal; and while we sing it, a family, a couple, or just you, on the first note of the first stanza, down one of these stairways, or into the aisle and to the front, “Pastor, today I decide for Christ, and here I come.” Or, “This day I am putting my life in the circle and fellowship of this dear church, and here I come.” As the Holy Spirit shall press the appeal to your heart, answer now with your life. Do it now, come now, make it now, while we stand and while we sing.