WHEN THE Apostle John wrote, “We love Him because He first loved us” (I John 4:19), he was reminding us of a first principle of true religion. He was saying — as one teacher put it — that we can never love God in the same way He loved us, because He loved us FIRST! He loved us while we were in opposition to Him, while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). Before we had even thought of pleasing God, He had begun to show His love for us — by personally sacrificing to save us.
The religion of the Bible is unique among world religions, not only because it alone is true, but with respect to its teaching concerning God. It is a God-centered religion. The divine Father is “above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6). “Of Him, and through Him and to Him are all things” (Romans 11:36). In the Bible, God always makes the first move. Man’s obligations consist (in one way or another) of responding to God’s gracious acts of salvation. This means that man can never be “one up” on God — God always loves him first!
The Old Testament begins with God DOING — and His work was “very good.” The story of the Jews from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to David and the prophets, and finally to Jesus of Nazareth — is a COVENANT story. Over and over we see God moving toward man in acts of salvation (sometimes spiritual, sometimes physical), calling man, leading man, promising man, giving a divine Word to man, and always requiring man to respond to divine grace by submissive and trusting obedience.
As the historical books of the Old Testament relate the events in which these things took place, so the Book of Psalms describes them in poetry and song. Psalms 105, 135 and 136 (among many others) sum up this story in beautiful meter. These psalms must have been sung frequently in Old Testament worship — and perhaps in early Christian worship as well (see Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). The God of the Old Testament is a God who acts first, to save His people. The Hebrew child grew up with this wonderful truth always before his mind. He also learned to praise God for His acts of lovingkindness, and to respond to God’s mercy by faithful and thankful obedience. The fact that many individuals perverted this beautiful scheme of divine grace and obedient response, or that some did not live up to it in practice, does not change the fact that this was God’s intention for His people as revealed in His Word.
Such psalms as we have just noticed formed the background for the birth of John the Immerser (Luke 1:67-79) and of Messiah Jesus (Luke 1:46-55). Jesus claimed to be fulfilling the Old Testament law, prophets and psalms (Luke 24:44-48). This involved certain predictions, to be sure, but it involved much more than that. It meant also that Jesus was in the very center of Old Testament teaching and precedent in this matter we have been discussing. He claimed to be sent from the same God who had brought about the Exodus from Egypt, who had given the Law at Sinai, who had raised up kings and prophets for His people. Jesus was saying that His own ministry and life and teachings were another demonstration of God’s lovingkindness
in reaching down to save His people. But this was final and complete. (see Luke 4:16-21; Matthew 4:12-17).
The apostolic preaching recorded in the book of Acts may be regarded as typical of the rest of the preaching of the apostles. In these sermons of Spirit-filled men the same themes are stressed which we have seen already in the Old Testament and in the personal ministry of Jesus: God acts to save His people, then calls on them to respond in faith and obedience. This is especially true of Stephen’s sermon before the Sanhedrin (ch. 7) and Paul’s Synagogue sermon at Pisidian Antioch (13:14-41), but may be said also of Peter’s discourses at Pentecost (2:14-40), at the Temple (3:12-26), before, the Council (4:8-12) and at Cornelius’ house (10:34-43). To some extent this pattern is found in Paul’s sermon to the Gentile Athenians (17:22-31).
The point is the same for us today. By our own sins we have become alienated from the true God, who is absolutely holy and absolutely just. We can never please Him by ourselves, nor can we alone appease Him, once we have sinned. We can never be GOOD enough, or DO enough, or PERFORM enough to make ourselves right with God — once we have rebelled and sinned against Him.
But God has acted FIRST — to save sinful man! His own Son became a man. He then lived a perfect life, in OUR stead. He died — for OUR sins. He rose — for OUR justification! Because of the life He lived, then gave in death, God can accept US — rebellious sinners though we were. “He hath made us ACCEPTED in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:7). We are counted as righteous in union with Christ (I Corinthians 1:29-31; II Corinthians 5:21).
As has always been the case, man must respond to God’s grace. He must believe that Christ is God’s Son with a committing, trusting faith. He must repent of his sins -turn the other way in his mind. He must confess that faith before others, by word of mouth and by action. And he must be identified with Christ in water baptism, being buried and raised with Him — through faith in the working of God (Colossians 2:12; Acts 2:38; I Peter 3:21).
The same faith that leads to this initial obedience must continue through all of life — still believing, still trusting, still obeying. Are you “set right” with God? If not, turn to Him this very day in penitent, sincere faith, demonstrated in complete and trusting obedience. Do not reject God’s love and grace! His righteous wrath is the only alternative we sinners have. God has already acted to save you. It’s your move now.