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Theology Thursday: His Love Endures Forever

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Posted by Tim Ward, 28 Apr 2016

The idea that God is love is very popular today, but what does it mean? Tim Ward reviews a book that will grow our hearts and minds:

This is the most deeply enriching book, in its address both to the intellect and the soul, that I have read in a good while. It’s relatively brief and also profound; learned and also lucid; doctrinal and also deeply applied to life. Williams keeps a consistent aim in view: to describe the love of God as we find it revealed to us in the Scriptures, and not (and this is something we fall into so easily) as a magnified projection of love as we experience it in this world. He offers the book, he says, as ‘a form of inoculation that will protect you against mistaken accounts of God’s love, accounts that flatten out the difference between divine love and human love.’

In addition, he is concerned that his material sink deep into the souls of his readers—something which he thinks super-abundant expository Bible ministry can inadvertently and ironically work against. To counteract this, he ends each chapter with a meditation and also a prayer, which he urges readers not to rush over. These are very well-judged, and might leave the reader wondering why more works of doctrine don’t include something similar. Where the book becomes particularly unusual for a work of doctrine, and helpfully so, is that the meditations include direct pastoral questions and even pastoral exhortations. Thus at the end of a chapter on the need for us to leave retributive justice to God, Williams describes someone obsessing over a past injustice and nurturing a growing desire to vindicate themselves. He then asks, ‘Are you such a person? Do you nurse a desire for revenge? Is it young? Have you harboured it for years?’ And then on the next page, ‘Consciously let God be God with your grievance in mind. Bless your enemies.’ Here is doctrine applied very faithfully, and with ‘under the skin’ directness. Beyond any insights which may be gleaned into God’s love, of which of course there are many, what will probably remain for longest with the reader who takes time over these questions is a reality of spiritual engagement with the God of love as he really is, not as we often imagine him to be.

The book opens with two methodological chapters on the pressing need for divine revelation. Although these are not specific to the topic of God’s love, they are especially needful as an introduction here because of the constant tendency just noted to define God’s love in light of human love as we experience it. The focus is on both the objective and subjective aspects of revelation. Objectively our exclusion from fellowship with God means that we need a gospel, and God has mercifully given us one in and through his Son, and has verbalised it in creaturely terms that we can understand. Subjectively we are spiritually blind and so need to be given the capacity to believe the gospel, and mercifully God has granted us that through the Spirit.

Then follow ten chapters, forming the bulk of the book, each addressing from Scripture a different aspect of God’s love and setting it directly in contrast with human love. Here is a taster of a few: we often love something too much and turn it into an idol, but God’s love is always ‘rightly proportioned.’ We love because we feel a lack within ourselves, but God has no such need and loves entirely out of his goodness. We are often captivated by the one we love, but God is always sovereign in his love. The strength of our love waxes and wanes, but God is eternally ‘maximally alive’ because the passion of his love never varies. We most often love because we find something lovely in the beloved, but God loves the unlovely precisely in order to beautify them.

It will be evident from this that along the way a number of themes in the doctrine of God are dealt with that sometimes seem forbidding and of little spiritual use to the non-academic, such as God’s simplicity, eternity, and impassibility. The genius of this work is that, in coming at these attributes from the overarching perspective of God’s love, it shows that they are spiritually and pastorally vital.

This is therefore a book that will do good to the mind and especially to the soul of any reader disciplined enough not to skim but to linger. Anyone with pastoral oversight in the church will find, perhaps at surprising moments, flashes of insight into how rich doctrine can deepen everyday pastoring. And (given my day-job I might be expected to comment on this) anyone responsible for the preaching ministry of a local church will find here deep stimulation for spells of doctrinal preaching. Moreover, any pastor/preacher may find themselves prompted to ask whether explicit language of God’s love is actually as central to our ministry as it is to God himself. But all this follows, of course, once the book has done its work in revealing to us how thin and puny our grasp on God’s love can become.

Ward, Tim. Review of Garry Williams, His Love Endures For Ever: Reflections on the Love of God (Nottingham: IVP, 2015). Churchman 130/1 (2016): 94–96.

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Tim Ward works for the Proclamation Trust Cornhill Training Course.

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