The fact that I can still say, even as a Christian, along with the Apostle Paul, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Ti 1:15) does not make me feel less loved by God because I am reminded that I am what I am- a sinner saved by grace. It really makes me realize how much I am loved by the Almighty. If a godly man like Paul could say it, of course in different words, at the beginning of his Christian life, he certainly did not feel any less loved by calling himself a sinner at the end of his earthly Christian life.
Why? Because he was confronted by the glory of Christ ( Acts 9:1-9). A glory that immediately laid him to the ground, blinded him and caused the men with him to go speechless. Saul of Tarsus came to encounter the holy God that he hated and persecuted. Like others- Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, James, John and Peter he was granted a special encounter with the living God and received a glimpse of His Majesty. He was able to say, in different words as we shall see, what Isaiah uttered in the presence of the thrice holy God, “And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Is 6:4–5). And what Peter uttered in the presence of Christ, “But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Lk 5:7–8).
Paul encountered that same holiness and glory. He was humbled and laid waste by the holiness of Christ. A man who sought consolation is his own obedience, after that encounter and saw how vile he was, was able to write:
For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— (Php 3:3–9 emphasis mine).
Paul, it seems, had no problems being self-deprecating (even after being “accepted in the Beloved”) after encountering the holiness of Christ. He is quite graphic. The word translated “rubbish” literally means “dung,” “refuse,” or “excrement.” Not a very flattering picture. But this is what happens when one understand the holiness of God. Of course he is not referring to his person per se. He is referring to everything he placed value in as his acceptance before God. He attributed everything to his own efforts. Today people go one step further and believe that just because God created them, then just by virtue of that, He must “love” them all with a sentimental “love.” But the consistent biblical testimony of those that understood the holiness of God are statements like this:
“Dominion and fear are with God; he makes peace in his high heaven. Is there any number to his armies? Upon whom does his light not arise? How then can man be in the right before God? How can he who is born of woman be pure? Behold, even the moon is not bright, and the stars are not pure in his eyes; how much less man, who is a maggot, and the son of man, who is a worm!”(Job 25:2–6).
Of course what Bildad said was truth but his problem is he left no room for the love and mercy of God. We have reverted the problem. We leave no room for His holiness. We do not view ourselves in light of God’s majesty. But when we do, we see how much God does love us. That is why many would ask God who is the son of man that you are mindful of him or like job, “What is man, that you make so much of him, and that you set your heart on him, visit him every morning and test him every moment?”(Job 7:17–18).We are the crown of his creation but the love of God says more about Him than it does us.
Paul certainly understood his unworthiness compared to God. At the same time Paul could confidently proclaim, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro 8:38–39 emphasis mine). He therefore knew what the love of God is. But lest you read a false view of God’s love in the above passage-there is one little word, one little preposition that undercuts the modern worldly understanding of “love” in verse 39. It is the word “in.” That is God’s ultimate and highest love is not for all people. It is for those He lavishes it on “in Christ.” My friends, not all are in or will be “in Christ.” It is the same kind of love that was poured on Jacob and withheld from his brother Esau, who was “hated” by God (Ro. 9:13).
Sure go ahead and try to turn “hated” into “loved less.” You still have the same objection that you are trying to avoid. That God, in some sense, did not “love” Esau in the same way He loved Jacob. And in the context it is in a salvific manner. Not, as some object, in simple reference to the blessing of nations. Let me foolishly try to use a human illustration (I’m aware that all analogies and illustrations break down at some point) to point something out. If my wife were to tell me that she loved all men the same way she loved me but that I was the only one that proposed to her and yet she still loves those men the same way she loves me. How would that make me feel “loved?” It wouldn’t. How would it comfort or console me? It couldn’t.
When I look at Gods love, not just for me, towards sinners I am brought to my knees in tears. That God, in all His holiness, would love us when in all reality we deserve His hatred just like Esau. So it’s, as has been pointed out before, that the struggle should not be why did God hate Esau? But why did He love Jacob? Of course God is love. Of that there is no doubt. But to understand this precious truth of God’s love one must come to face His holiness. Then, like Paul, they can never be uncomfortable calling themselves sinners.The second a believer becomes uncomfortable being identified as a sinner is the moment they have taken amazing out of grace.
To wrap things up, a person must be confronted with the holiness of God before they will be amazed and comforted by His un -exhaustible love. Otherwise it is only the love of man they are mistaking for God’s love.
As the “Good Doctor” said:
But let me come now to the third great attribute of God under this section of moral attributes, and here we come to the goodness or the love of God. You notice the order in which we are taking them—holiness, righteousness and justice, goodness and love. It is a dangerous and terrible thing not to put these attributes in the right order. People have often been guilty of that, and the result is that they have made shipwreck of their faith…
God’s love is that attribute in God by which He is eternally moved to communicate Himself to others. The Scriptures make it quite clear that the love of God is something that communicates itself; God is eternal, and God is eternal love. That, incidentally, will be our introduction to the doctrine of the Trinity. The very fact that God is love is proof, in a sense, of the Trinity. Because God is eternal and eternal love, there must have been someone whom He always loved. That makes the doctrine of the Trinity an absolute necessity (emphasis mine).*
We will never know the depths of God’s love for us. We can never separate ourselves from His love. We can never exhaust it. The cross of Christ is a public display of God’s glory and His love for sinners. But we must never forget that one little preposition and the sphere of that love- “in Christ.” Again, the love of God says more about Him than it does about us.
Soli Deo Gloria!
For His Glory,
*Lloyd-Jones, D. M. (1996). God the Father, God the Son (74). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books