What does it mean to “love God for his own sake”?

Q. I recently watched a video on hell where a Christian philosopher asks “Why are [people] being good?” Then he goes on to say that people who preach about hell and incite fear in people are not creating a heart that will love God. He calls this “being good for your own sake.” I know the Bible says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” Yet, Jesus warns in Revelation that the church in Ephesus needs to “Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” Jesus is using fear as a motivator here.

I do not see how you can love God for His own sake and not your own. You have to be thankful for something He does for you. What is genuinely best for you is to serve and love other people. Yet it is still all for your own sake because when you do something for another’s sake, you decide that sacrificing something “for their sake” is actually what is best for your sake! So we always should seek to do what is best for us, yet many people, like the aforementioned philosopher, view external motivators as impure. In light of this, what does it mean to be selfish from a biblical point of view? And, what on earth does it mean to love God “for His own sake?”

Actually, I understand what this philosopher is saying. Perhaps a helpful analogy might be to ask why we love our parents or our spouses. Is it only for what we get from them? Or is there something noble and excellent that we recognize in them that makes us love them independently of anything they might do for us? (With Valentine’s Day coming up, let me warn all of my readers: Don’t give that special someone in your life a card that says, “I love you because of everything I get from you”!)

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Jonathan Edwards, and in his work on The Nature of True Virtue, he defined it as a “disinterested general benevolence” that does “not properly arise from self-love.” Disinterested means without being in it for what we can get out of it ourselves, and benevolence means acting in goodness in the best interests of others. I think the philosopher on the video you saw was arguing in this same tradition.

I don’t believe that Jesus actually is using fear as a motivator when in Revelation he warns the church in Ephesus that if it doesn’t recapture its first love, he will have to take away its lampstand (that is, its very existence). Letting someone know the consequences of the course they’re on is indeed a vital warning, but it’s not designed to motivate them by fear. That would not be a lasting motivation; emotions always wear off. Rather, the person is supposed to be motivated by recognizing the difference between where they are heading and where they could and should be heading. The difference may represent a loss to themselves, but it is also a loss to others, and ultimately it is a failure to be a good steward of all the gifts and opportunities that God has so richly provided us so that we can fulfill our purpose. In that sense it is a failure to love God.

As for what it means to “love God for his own sake,” in his Treatiste Concering Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards wrote, “The first objective ground of gracious affections [i.e. those that arise from the saving work of God in our lives], is the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things as they are themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self, or self-interest.” In other words, just as I suggested that we should be able to recognize something noble about our parents or spouses that would lead us to love them apart from anything we might receive from them, in an even greater sense, we should recognize that God is “transcendently excellent and amiable” [i.e. to be loved], and love God for that inherent excellence.

If these ideas are all new to you, and you’re puzzling over them, I would simply say that you have some great discoveries ahead of you. God did not create the world to be a place where everyone was inherently motivated by self-interest. Instead, it’s supposed to be a place where free giving out of love can flourish, creating more of itself until people delight to be a blessing to others far more than they desire to have things for themselves. So I guess I’d say … keep in listening to videos by that same philosopher!

Are people dropping out of church because they were never saved?

Q. Why are so many people, even settled adults, dropping out of church? I recall a passage from 1 John which implies that those who remained are part of those who are saved, but those who depart were never really part of the kingdom. What is your take on this issue?

An excellent principle of biblical interpretation is that we first need to understand what a Scriptural passage was saying to “them then” before we can appreciate what it means to “us now.” (This principle is articulated in the book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.)

I believe this is the passage you are referring to in 1 John: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.”

When we investigate the meaning of this statement in light of the original context of 1 John—its historical setting and the reason why it was written—we discover that those who “went out” are people who left the Christian community that John was addressing because they chose to follow a false teaching: that Jesus hadn’t come to earth in a real human body. This teaching arose under the influence of the Greek idea that matter is evil and only spirit is good. The implications were that people could live in any way they wanted, since what happened in the body wasn’t important, and that there was no need to help others who lacked practical things such as food, clothing, and shelter, since those things only affected their bodies.

So what John says in this letter is that the Christians who have remained in the community, who have continued to have faith that Jesus became a real human being in order to become our Savior, shouldn’t be disturbed or shaken by the departure of many former members. Their immoral lives, lack of compassion, and denial of Christ show that they are indeed following a false teaching, and suggest that they may never have been saved in the first place.

To me this seems to be a very different case from people in Western countries (the church is actually growing vigorously in other parts of the world) not staying in church once they become adults, or never choosing  to attend church in the first place. The Pew Research Center has been tracking church attendance in the U.S. for decades, and it has found that attendance has been dropping steadily with each generation. I don’t think this is due to large numbers of younger Americans leaving the church to follow false teachings. Rather, I think it reflects the cultural shift from modernity to post-modernity and the fact that the church (which tends to change its own culture more slowly) has been scrambling to catch up with that shift. I think the church needs to find a way to “speak the language” of younger generations and to express how the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for them.

I must add that I know many younger Americans who are strong and vibrant followers of Jesus Christ. It isn’t automatic that a person in a younger generation will not find church participation meaningful or not be able to relate to the gospel as good news for them. But I do believe that the church needs to re-think itself culturally and learn to speak the new language of post-modernity if it wants to attract younger people in Western countries into the community of Jesus’ followers. This is a significant challenge, and your question points to it.

Why did Jesus have to die in such a torturous manner?

Q. One month before my 90-year-old aunt passed away, she asked me a question, “Why did Jesus have to die in such a torturous manner? The harshest way to die during his time was crucifixion. This has bothered me since I was a young girl.” I have the same question myself. Please share your thoughts, thank you.

I can understand your aunt’s concern and yours. Crucifixion was not just the harshest way to die during the time of Jesus; it was one of the cruelest and most protracted and painful forms of execution ever invented. It was first introduced by the Persians and then developed in other cultures. The Romans had turned it into a process that could involve days of unspeakable suffering before death finally came.

I don’t feel that I can answer your question in terms of purpose, that is, why God would have wanted Jesus to die that way. I can’t imagine that this was something that God wanted, intended, or made happen, even though God did send Jesus into the world at a time when crucifixion was practiced, knowing that he would be “delivered into the hands of men.” From such questions I think we can only step back in mystery.

But I believe there is an answer to your question in terms of result. After Jesus had suffered some of the worst things human beings have ever conceived of doing to one another, he still said, “Father, forgive them.” Such a statement would certainly have been meaningful if he had said it just before being executed in a way that, while nevertheless horrible, did not involve protracted torture, such as by a firing squad. But it is deeply meaningful in the context of crucifixion. There can be no doubt about the love of God that came to earth in Christ Jesus if, after suffering on the cross to the point of death, Jesus still forgave and asked the Father to forgive. So while we may always wonder why Jesus had to die that way, we can worship and adore him as the Savior who endured such things and still never ceased to love the people of this world who had done those things to him.

Meditating on the sufferings of Jesus is a time-honored spiritual practice. Reflecting on all that he suffered for us, and the love that this demonstrated, increases our devotion to him and helps us forsake the sins for which he died. It ultimately enables us to rejoice, even as we empathize tearfully with his sufferings, at the greatness of our salvation and of our Savior.

The great hymn writers give us exemplary models of this practice. An unknown German writer offered us this reflection, which has been translated into English as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”:

What thou, my Lord, has suffered was all for sinners’ gain;
mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ‘Tis I deserve thy place;
look on me with thy favor, vouchsafe to me thy grace.

Another hymn by an unknown writer, translated into English as “The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done,” shares a similar reflection:

The powers of death have done their worst,
but Christ their legions has dispersed.
Let shouts of holy joy outburst.
Alleluia!

I believe your aunt was meditating on the sufferings of Jesus in the last days of her life. While she may not have gotten an answer to her specific question, it seems she certainly got a deeper and deeper appreciation for all that Jesus had done for her on the cross. And not long after she shared her question with you, she met him face to face, risen from the dead and alive forever, and she saw in his eyes the same love for her that he had demonstrated in his death on earth.

How can I have a soft heart, not a hardened one?

Q. I want to be a Christian, but I hardened my heart and then God hardened it. I don’t want a heard heart, I don’t want God to harden my heart. How can I get my heart softened by God? I want to be safe and not frightened and scared.

I have good news for you. If you are grieved by the way you’ve hardened your heart in the past, then that in itself means that your heart is actually soft once again now. When you say that God hardened your heart, I take that to mean that you gave God no option other than to leave you in the hardness of your heart—until that brought you to the place where you are now, grieved by your resistance to Him and wanting to come back. So I see no reason why God would continue to harden your heart, either, now that this purpose has been accomplished.

I would say go to God in the softness of your heart and say to Him everything that you’ve just said here: You want to be a Christian, you don’t want to have a hard heart, you want God to soften your heart, and you want to be safe (saved) and unafraid. You can pray to God in those terms and be confident of Jesus’ promise, “I will never turn away anyone who comes to Me.”

I encourage you to approach Christian friends or relatives, or a nearby church, and share your past struggles and future hopes. I trust you will find a warm welcome in to the community of those who are following Jesus and walking with God. May God be with you and bless you.

How can I know for certain that I will go to heaven?

Q. How can I know for certain that I will go to heaven? I have of course recognized my sin and asked the Lord into my life to take control of all of it.

What you’re asking about is sometimes known as “assurance of salvation.” It’s one of the main themes of the biblical book of First John, so I’ll answer your question from that book. What we find there is that there isn’t one single means by which we get assurance; rather, it comes through a combination of things.

One thing that John writes in this letter is, “We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands.” He adds, “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” This is sometimes put this way: “Progress in sanctification is necessary for assurance of salvation.” That is, as we find ourselves, as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts and lives, living more and more in the way God intends, this assures us that we truly  do belong to Him.

Right after this, John says, “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness, but anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light.” So another sign that God has saved us is that our relationships are transformed. We become more and more able to love others; we live out this love by helping and serving and forgiving them.

A bit later John speaks of those who “went out from us, but did not really belong to us, for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us.” In other words, remaining within the community of Jesus’ followers,  persevering in the faith, is another sign of genuine belief. “Continue in him,” John says, “so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.” God wants us to receive this confidence, this assurance, through the way we see our faith persevere over time and despite difficulties.

Further on John says, “This is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” So our awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in our lives is something that gives us further assurance of salvation.

John does also say, near the end of his letter, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” So there is indeed an aspect of putting our faith and trust in Jesus as our Savior, as you describe. But the practical themes of living as God commands, loving others, persevering in the faith, and cooperating with the Holy Spirit’s work are woven through the entire letter, like the different themes of a musical composition. So we see that this belief is meant to be manifested in practical ways, and this is what really gives us assurance.

John concludes, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” So assurance of salvation is clearly something that God wants each believer to have. But it comes from reflecting on our own lives, from recognizing the progress we are making under the influence of God’s Spirit. Confessing our sin and turning our lives over to God is a necessary start. But it’s what God does with our lives from there that gives us the confidence that we truly do belong to Him.

So how about you? Are you finding that, by God’s grace and with His help, you’re more and more able to live as He wishes? Do you have greater love for others, expressed in greater patience, forgiveness, and practical compassion in dealing with them? Are you persevering in your commitment to Jesus, “no turning back, no turning back”? Are you discovering that the Holy Spirit is very much living inside you and bringing about transformation? Then all of these things, building on your initial confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior, should indeed give you confidence that you have “eternal life.”

And that phrase actually means more than going to heaven when you die. It’s not just a quantitative term (life of infinite duration), it’s a qualitative one—it means life that is better and greater because it’s lived in relationship and fellowship with God. And we are meant to enjoy that even in this life.

Why will there still be sacrifices in the future millennial kingdom?

Q. When Jesus died on the cross God split the veil of the temple giving access to himself thru Christ. Making that system no longer valid. Why then does it talk about in the future millennial kingdom that the sacrifices will continue?

I believe you are referring to the way the restored temple in Ezekiel’s vision still has facilities for preparing and offering “burnt offerings, sin offerings, and guilt offerings.” Interpreters who understand this vision to depict the future millennial kingdom of Christ explain that these sacrifices will be offered in honor and memory of what Jesus did on the cross. The sacrifices under the old covenant looked forward to the death of Jesus; these future sacrifices will look back upon the death of Jesus, just as every time we take the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” “in remembrance of him.”

Was Rahab really a prostitute?

Q. Was Rahab really a prostitute?

There’s no question, from the vocabulary and rhetoric of the Bible, that Rahab actually was a prostitute. In the Old Testament narrative about her in the book of Joshua, she’s described with the Hebrew term zonah, which unambiguously means “prostitute.” Rahab is also mentioned in the New Testament books of Hebrews and James, and in each case she’s described with the Greek term pornē, which correspondingly means “prostitute.” James, in fact, actually seems to stress this status when he emphasizes, in support of his argument that “faith without works is dead,” that “even Rahab the prostitute” was considered righteous because sheltered and protected the spies. The book of Hebrews also calls her “Rahab the prostitute” but it notes similarly that she protected the spies “by faith” and so “was not killed with those who were disobedient.”

I think that all of this leads us to an even more important question: Why was Rahab a prostitute? It seems quite likely from the Joshua narrative that she turned to prostitution out of desperate circumstances. Rahab acknowledges to the spies that “the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below,” and so she promises to shelter and protect them. But then she asks them, “Please swear to me by the Lord that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them and that you will save us from death.”

Who isn’t mentioned here? There’s no mention of Rahab having a husband or children. It’s quite possible (though this does involve reading between the lines a bit) that Rahab had been married, but that she was then widowed before she had children. Alternatively, she may have been a young woman from a large family that was poor and couldn’t afford a dowry for all of its daughters, nor could it afford to continue supporting them after they became adults. Either way, she would have been without financial support in this culture.

One further indication we have of poverty is the comment that Rahab’s house was “built into the city wall.” One excavation of Jericho found an area where houses had been built into the wall. One website suggests that this was likely a poor section of the city, “since the houses were positioned on the embankment between the upper and lower city walls. Not the best place to live in time of war! This area was no doubt the overflow from the upper city and the poor part of town, perhaps even a slum district.”

So Rahab was most likely a woman who forced into prostitution out of financial desperation. Poverty and human trafficking are almost always responsible for prostitution. The Bible seems to recognize this and not condemn Rahab, but rather praise her for her faith in the true God and her courageous service to him.

Indeed, the Bible ultimately tells a very hopeful story about Rahab, though it needs to be unambiguous about her circumstances in order to do so. According to the gospel of Matthew, Rahab later married an Israelite man and had a son named Boaz, who himself became the husband of Ruth, another foreign woman who married into the covenant community. As Matthew makes clear, Rahab and Ruth both became ancestors of Jesus himself.

So the story of Rahab in the Bible shows us that when God came into our world as a human being, He chose to come into a family line that included a woman who had once been trapped in prostitution, but who was rescued from it and began a new life. I hope this encourages us all to recognize that there is indeed great hope for those who are rescued from human trafficking and prostitution due to desperate circumstances. Perhaps the ultimate response to your question is that we should all support, through prayer, giving, and advocacy, the work of those who are continuing to fight in our world today against human trafficking and prostitution.

A drawing of Rahab protecting the spies, from an 1881 illustrated Bible. (Image courtesy Wikipedia.)