Founders Journal · Fall 2000 · pp. 23-26, 28
A Doctrinal Study: God’s Love
The following study is adapted from Chapter 10 of Boyce’s Abstract of Systematic Theology. This book is based primarily on Boyce’s classroom lectures on systematic theology delivered at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary during the first twenty-five years of its existence.
The Holiness of God
Holiness is, however, not a distinctive attribute, but rather the combination of all these attributes. We may suppose a being in whom there may be love without justice, or truth, or any one of these to the exclusion of the other two; but no being can be holy, who does not combine in himself all of these, and all other moral perfections. Nor, when we have such a combination, is there anything to be added to constitute holy character. It is evident, therefore, that holiness is the sum of all excellence and the combination of all the attributes which constitute perfection of character.
In the study of these constituents, we first consider
The Goodness of God
In one aspect of this word, it is merely equivalent to holiness. If we look at it as marking the excellence of God’s nature, as we often use it with reference to man, we mean by it simply holiness. Thus, when we say of any one, he is a good man, we mean to assert the combination of traits of character, such as have just been pointed out as constituting holiness. This is the goodness which terminates in God himself.
On the other hand, the goodness of God may be spoken of as kindness, benevolence, or beneficence towards others, in which it is seen to terminate outside of himself. Thus we speak of him, as being very good to us. Thus the Psalmist says: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Ps. 23: 6.
It is on account of this ambiguity in this word, that it is best to consider it, in its first aspect, as merely holiness, and, therefore, as disposed of in what we have said of that, and to refer it in this second respect to one of the divisions into which the love of God naturally falls.
We therefore take up next
The Love of God
Of this there are five kinds, which vary according to the object upon which love is exercised. The attribute in God is the same; but it is in its exit, or in its termination, that it assumes these different forms.
1. There is the love of complacency or approbation. This is exercised towards a worthy object in which excellencies are perceived. It is of the nature of tile love of the beautiful, or the good, or the useful in us. It complacently or approvingly regards, because there is in the object something worthy of’ such regard.
This is exercised by God, in its highest degree, in the love of himself, of his own nature and character, because the infinitely excellent must be to God the highest object of complacent love.
Were God but one person, in this way only could such love be exercised. But in the Trinity of the Godhead, there is found, in the love of the separate persons towards each other, another mode in which this love of complacency may in this highest sense be exercised.
Such love is also felt by God for his purposes. As he perceives them to be just, wise and gracious, he approves and regards them with complacent love.
But this love extends itself also to the creations, which result from this purpose.
This is true of inanimate creation. It is perfect, as far as conformed to his will, and fitted to accomplish his end, and as such God can regard it and pronounce it good. Thus we find that he did in the creation, Genesis, Chap. 1:10, 12.
The same record is made, in verse 25, as to the animal creation, before that of man; and after the creation, and investiture of man with the dominion over the earth, with its plants and animals, we are told, verse 31, “And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.”
The complacent love of God, therefore, extends not only to himself and his will, but to all his innocent creation and even to inanimate nature.
This love of complacency, however, as it is exercised in its highest degree towards himself, so also is it exhibited, in the nearest approach to that, towards those beings who are most like himself, having been made in his nature and likeness. An innocent angel, or an innocent man is therefore by nature a joy to God, as is the child to the father who sees in it a peculiar likeness to himself.
But the guilty cannot thus be loved. Sinful man cannot receive such love, so long as sinful. Even the penitent believer in Jesus, until the time of his perfect sanctification in the life to come, and doubtless even then, has access to God only through Christ, and, of himself, can in no respect secure the approbation of God.
2. The second kind of love, is the love of benevolence, which corresponds to the idea of God’s goodness towards his creatures.
This is the product of his wishes for their happiness. It is not dependent on their character, as is the love of complacency, but is exercised towards both innocent and guilty.
It is general in its nature, not special, and exists towards all, even towards devils, and wicked men, because God’s nature is benevolent, and, therefore, he must wish for the happiness of his creatures
That that happiness is not attained, nor attainable, is due, not to him, but to their own sin.
When the benevolence of God is exercised actively in the bestowment of good things upon his creatures, it is called his beneficence. By the former, he wishes them happiness, by the latter, he confers blessings to make them so.
This is done to the wicked also, as well as to the righteous. It is to this that Christ refers, Matt. 5:45, “He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.”
3. The third form of love is the love of compassion.
This corresponds to our idea of pity. It is benevolent disposition to those who are suffering or in distress.
This also may be exercised towards the guilty or the innocent, if it be possible to suppose that guilt and suffering are separable.
It has been very commonly held that they are inseparable. Pain, suffering and distress have been believed to be the result of sin, and consequently inseparable from guilt.
But this is a mistaken notion. Man in a state of innocence was made capable of physical suffering. That capacity was necessary to the protection of his physical organism.
The lower animals also suffer.
Whatever addition to the capacity of suffering has, therefore, been made by the fall, and is the consequence of sin, we are not, on that account ,forced to the conclusion that there can be no suffering where there has been no sin.
The capacity to suffer may so belong to a higher organism, that we would naturally choose that organism, with that capacity, rather than a lower one without it. If so God can justly so create us.
If misery, then, may be the lot of the innocent, God’s love of compassion can be exercised toward such.
It can be and is also exercised toward the guilty. We see this in the forbearance with which he delays their punishment, in his constant offers of mercy, in his yearnings after their salvation, and most signally, in the gift of his only begotten Son, “that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:16.
4. A fourth form of the love of God corresponds to what we call mercy.
This can be exercised only toward sinners.
Its very nature contemplates guilt in its objects.
It consists, not only in the desire not to inflict the punishment due to sin, and the neglect and refusal to do so, but in the actual pardon of the offender.
It cannot be exercised towards a righteous being, because in him is no sin or guilt to be pardoned.
It is, however, no new attribute in God, which has arisen because of the existence of sin, and which is, therefore, an addition to his attributes.
It is a virtue inherent in his nature, and is especially only one form in which his love exhibits itself, the same love as that benevolence which innocent creatures call forth, and the same love which in another form of complacency has been eternally exercised in the Godhead.
When we say that this mercy must be exercised in accordance with the truth and justice of God, we say no more than is true of every attribute of God. No one can be exercised in such a way as to destroy another. Every one must be in harmony with the others. Or, remembering what we have before stated, that these attributes are not separate faculties, all that is meant in this case, as in all others, is that God must act in harmony with his nature.
The objects of the exercise of this attribute are all those to whom God pardons offenses of any kind.
They are not to be confined to redeemed sinners, although this is the most signal exhibition.
Under the ancient economy, God ruled as theocratic ruler over Israel. Sins of the nation and sins of individuals in their capacity of citizens of the nation, were pardoned.
Under that dispensation God occupied to that people the position of an earthly ruler, and consequently could pardon sins against his government at will, upon repentance, and upon merely governmental principle–that is, such as would secure obedience to the law, and peace and order, and the welfare of the nation. These were offences against the mere person of the king or the laws of his state, and not against the fundamental principles of holiness and righteousness; hence sovereignty and expediency could decide in each case what might be done, and mercy was exercised and justice dispensed accordingly.
But this is very different from the case of God, the righteous judge, the dispenser, not of arbitrary law, but of a law based upon his own nature and that of man, essential obedience to which is necessary, not for maintaining government, but for preserving and maintaining the right and preventing the violation with impunity of eternal law.
In both cases God must act in harmony with his whole nature.
But in that of Israel no obstacle was presented by that nature to the pardon of individual and national sins against the theocratic king.
Hence mercy was extended, apparently at least, without compensation to justice.
Yet amid it all, there was, in the sacrificial offerings with which the people were required to approach God, seeking pardon for both individual and national political sins, such a typical relation to the atonement made by Christ as shows that in some way in that atonement, may, after all, be found the reason why God, even in those cases, could be just and yet justify the offenders.
5. The fifth form of love is that of affection.
This differs from that of complacency inasmuch as it does not always demand a worthy object. This is exhibited in the parable of the “Prodigal Son.”
It differs from that of benevolence, inasmuch as its object is not viewed in general with all others, but is one of special interest.
It differs from that of compassion and that of mercy, because the object may neither be in distress, nor sinful.
It arises from,
(1.) Mutual relationship; as of the Father to the Son, and of all the persons in the Trinity toward each other; of God to Israel, of Christ to his apostles, his disciples and his church, and of the adopted sons to God the Father.
(2.) From dependence; as of creatures on the creator, and of the redeemed upon the redeemer.
(3.) From ownership; as of God over man of God over Israel, and of Christ over the redeemed. This is illustrated in the lost coin in Luke 15:8, 9.
This kind of love originates in each of these ways in man, and, as the Scriptures show, is also found in God.
It is from this aspect of God’s love that proceeds grace, which is to be distinguished from love, and pity, and mercy.
Love, as we have seen, is the general characteristic, exhibiting itself in these five different forms.
Mercy is one of these, but is given to the guilty only.
Pity is given to guilty or innocent, who may be in distress, pain or suffering.
Grace is also given to guilty, or innocent, and does not necessarily suppose distress in the object, but involves an affectionate interest in it, arising either from peculiar relation to it, or ownership of it, or compassion for its dependence.
Grace is undeserved favour to innocent or guilty arising from affection.
Mercy is undeserved compassion to the guilty only.