Talk: The free and uncoerced costly love of God

God's love is both sovereign and yet does not obliterate our choice to respond to it

If we are chosen before the foundation of the world, how can we have a genuine choice? Is the great story programmed from the beginning, and we are merely puppets?

The truth lies in both extremes. God’s grace is sovereign and all-powerful and at the same time each one of us has a genuine choice as to whether we play our part. This is sometimes known as God’s concurrent action in providence. The essence of genuine covenant love is that it is free and un-coerced.

I gave a talk on this at the Christian Medical Fellowship February 2019 student conference. You can listen to it below:


If we are chosen before the foundation of the world, how can we have a genuine choice?  Is the great story programmed from the beginning, and we are merely puppets?

The truth lies in both extremes. God’s grace is sovereign and all-powerful and at the same time each one of us has a genuine choice as to whether we play our part.  This is sometimes known as God’s concurrent action in providence.  The essence of genuine covenant love is that it is free and un-coerced. 

John 13: 1-3

There are four things that Jesus knows utterly and unshakeably in the core of his being.

  1. The hour had come
  2. The Father had given all things into his hand 
  3. He had come from God
  4. He was going back to God. 

He could have destroyed Judas Iscariot with a blast of spiritual power.  Instead he stoops to the floor and starts to wash the disciples’ feet.

‘Do you understand what I have done for you. You call me Teacher and Lord and rightly so for that is what I am.  Now that I your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example that you should do as I have done for you.  I tell you the truth no servant is not greater than his master nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.’   John 13:12-16

Though Christ was in the very nature of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself (kenosis) – he made himself nothing –  and took the form of a servant – he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death even death on a cross.

The doctrine of kenosis does not mean that Jesus exchanges the form of God for the form of a servant.  It means that Jesus chooses to lower himself in order that the true nature of his deity is revealed through human frailty and humble sacrifice.  His status is not lost through the act of foot washing – it is powerfully revealed and unveiled.

To be forced by external power to take on the role of the lowest of the low, the house slave, would be damaging, abusive, destructive.  But to voluntarily choose the lowest role, motivated by love and out of the security of knowing our real status – as dearly loved daughters and sons of the King – that is totally different.  This is the profound dignity of Christ-like service.

So Christ’s action is motivated by free agape love – “there is no compulsion in love“.  It is not coerced, manipulated, even driven by a sense of duty of “ought”.  It is totally free and un-coerced.

And although it is not in the passage we know from elsewhere in the New Testament, Christ’s action was motivated paradoxically by joy.  “For the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross, and despised the shame.” Hebrews 12:2

The early church and the devastating reality of plague.

‘Afterwards there broke out a dreadful plague, and excessive destruction of a hateful disease invaded every house in succession of the trembling populace, carrying off day by day with abrupt attack numberless people, every one from his own house.  All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude death itself also.’ Pontius

‘At the first onset of the disease, the pagans pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape’

‘Most of our Christian brothers and sisters showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another.  Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pains.  Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…’ 

Bishop Dionysius

This led to the creation of hospitals.  The first hospitals were created by the Christian church for plague victims and they were named after the Greek hospes – which means a guest.  A hospital is a place where you practice Christian hospitality to strangers, to pagans who know nothing of Christ.

Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume, she poured it on Jesus feet and wiped his feet with her hair.  And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. John 12:3

Because of the intense fragrance and quantity of the perfume, the smell would still have been present when Jesus was crucified 6 days later.  In other words as Jesus hung on the cross he was smelling the fragrance of Mary’s sacrificial act, the fragrance of sacrificial and costly love.  Even in his hour of total darkness in Gethsemene he was surrounded by the fragrance of Mary’s love.

So what is the most precious, the most costly closed container in our lives, in our heart?  Are we prepared to sacrifice it and pour it out at the feet of Jesus out of generous and costly love?  Our natural tendency is to grasp, to hold on to the things which are most precious.  But the way of fruitfulness is to voluntarily open our hand and release those precious things we hold so tightly.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains alone– but if it dies it bears much fruit”, John 12:24

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose”.  Jim Elliot

The entire cosmos is a temple designed to be filled with the glory of God.

Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.  Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud and had settled upon it and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.   Exodus 40: 36

When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place the cloud filled the temple of the LORD and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the temple.  1 Kings 8:10,11

“The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”  Isaiah 11:9

So when you next look at a beautiful scene of mountains or lakes, or seaside, or a night sky just try to glimpse what the creation will look like when it is completely saturated with the presence and the knowing and the glory of God.  When God’s glory is visible and audible and tangible and unmistakable throughout the whole of creation – because that is what the creation was designed for.  It was designed to be filled with the glory of God.

Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure — for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.”  Revelation 19: 7,8

John Stott used to say that for him the brand image of a Christian was a person kneeling at the communion rail and holding out their hands to receive the bread and wine.  You do have to do something – but then that’s all you have to do.  Metaphorically you have to hold out your hands – you have to say “Thank you” and “Yes, I agree, I give my consent”. 

‘I am the bond-slave of the Lord, let it be to me as you have said…’

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