One of the more spiritually edifying questions that I remember debating with several brothers in seminary (and there were certainly plenty of spiritually unedifying ones!) was, “Does God the Father love us because of Jesus?” It might not seem like an obviously difficult question on the surface. The instinctive answer would seem to be, “Absolutely!” After all, when I think of my sin and what I deserve from the hand of the infinitely righteous and just God, how could He love me apart from a representative who is Himself perfectly holy and lovely? It might surprise you, then, to know that the answer is actually, “No!” God the Father does not love me because of Jesus. He has loved His elect from before the foundation of the world; therefore, He chose them in Christ (Eph. 1:4; Rom. 9:11-13). He then demonstrated that love by sending His Son to die for them when they were ungodly, without strength, sinful and enemies (Romans 5:6-11).
The late Professor John Murray captured this idea so well when he explained that God’s love “constrained unto the death of Christ” and not vice versa. He wrote:
The death of Christ does not constrain or elicit the love of God but the love of God constrained to the death of Christ as the only adequate provision of this love. The love of God is the impulsive force and its distinctive character is demonstrated in that which emanates from it.1
Geerhardus Vos, the father of modern Reformed Biblical Theology, also explained this idea in the following way:
Not that Christ was the basis or meriting cause of election, as if the reconciling love of the Father could only have been active because of the surety of Christ. Scripture teaches us above all that Christ with His incarnation, His mediatorship and everything connected with it must be regarded as a gift of God’s electing love. Thus one must not say that God’s love cannot rest on the elect except in Christ. For Christ Himself as Mediator was already a gift of that love.2
In additon to what Murray and Vos wrote, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his sermon “Love That Produces Salvation,” unpacked this idea in light of modern perversions of it:
Sometimes rather loosely, Evangelical people especially are tempted (and it is the peculiar temptation of those of us who are Evangelical)–we are tempted to put this whole question of the atonement and of salvation in this way: that it is something the Son of God has done to effect the Father; and that the Son, having done the work, stands before the Father and pleads with Him and has to persuade Him to forgive us because of what He has done for us. Now that is a very terrible way of putting it, but it has often been put like that. There are some hymns that put it like that. I remember being brought up, in a sense, on a hymn in another language which very specifically and explicitely put it like that–that the Son was there pleading with the Father and saying, ‘I have died for them; let them live.’ Now that’s a terrible travesty of the Scripture. Though we realize that the work was done by the Son what we must never forget is this–that it was the Father who sent the Son to do it. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son;” “God was in Christ reconciuling the world unto Himself;” God is the actor. God is the prime mover. Salvation is of God the Father; and, therefore, I say it is very wrong to represent God the Father as being passive and being pleaded with and appealed to and persuaded by the Son and His work to grant us salvation and to grant us forgivenesss.3
It is important for us to note at this point that Murray, Vos and Lloyd-Jones are not saying that God the Father could have forgiven us apart from the saving work of Christ. There is, of course, no way anyone could read Scripture and walk away and say that it does not teach the absolute necessity of the atonement. After all, we know so well those words in Leviticus 17:11: “It is the blood that makes atonement for the soul” and Hebrews 9:22, “without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin.” Additionally, we read of the all sufficiency of the shed blood of Jesus throughout the entirety of the book of Hebrews and the rest of the New Testament epistles. This, however, does not mean that the atoning death of Jesus constrained the love of God for us. The apostle Paul is quite clear when he says, “God demonstrated His own love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The death of Jesus is the demonstration that God does indeed love us. If we believe that God the Father sent His eternally beloved Son to lay down His life for hell-deserving sinners like ourselves, then we will understand that God has done this merely because of His love for us. When we grasp this truth:
1. We will think about God the Father in the right way and worship Him more joyfully. He is the One who orchestrated and commanded redemption. It is not only the Son of God who loved us and gave Himself for us. God the Father has loved us and sent His Son to die for us. The Apostle John is almost paralyzed by the greatness of this truth when he declares, “Behold! What manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called the children of God.”
2. We will think about the relationship between God the Father and God the Son in the right way. The members of the Godhead are in perfect, unbroken, undivided unity with each other. The Father commands, the Son willingly consents and obeys. There is no tension in the purposes of God. What the Father does, the Son does in like manner. Jesus Himself said, “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay My life down that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me. I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father” (John 10:17-18). God the Father commanded the Son to lay down His life willingly and to take it again on His own. The Son willingly submitted to the Father’s command for Him to willingly lay down His life and take it again. This shows infinitely perfect harmony in the purpose of the Persons in the Godhead.
3. We will rejoice and rest in the fact that God the Father has always and will always love us. Geerhardus Vos put it so well when he said of God’s love for the elect, “The best proof that He will never cease to love us lies in that He never began.” Knowing that God the Father was never constrained–even by His infinitely lovely Son–to love you, but that He did so merely based on His good pleasure, is the greatest source of assurance. This is Paul’s main point in Romans 5:6-11 where he explains what the Father did for us to show us His love for us. In this way we will escape a “He loves me, He loves me not” mentality. In short, this biblical truth will help build our assurance more than any other.