Most folks in the pew wouldn’t say so right out, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we often think we are more loving than God. For instance, when I think about those who’ve never heard the gospel or that great neighbor who just can’t bring himself to believe such a long list of difficult and offensive truths—people I think that I would save if I were God—I’d be lying if I said the thought had never crossed my mind.
Indeed, it did just the other day when I was stopped cold by one of the most arresting lines in the Book of Romans. Beginning at chapter 9, Paul is rounding the corner of his grand argument about salvation history into the question of how to make sense of the current unbelief of his Jewish brethren. Expressing great anguish on their behalf, he says, “For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people” (Rom. 9:3).
Cursed. Damned to hell. This is what Paul wishes he could trade for the salvation of his beloved people, Israel. The thought hit me like a two-by-four. Martin Luther comments, “It seems incredible that a man would desire to be damned, in order that the damned might be saved.”
How can Paul, Mr. “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21), say he is willing to be “cut off from Christ” for them? This is a love and mercy I can scarcely fathom; it puts all conceits about my own compassion to shame.
I’d be tempted to call it hyperbole if Paul didn’t say that he is speaking the divine truth of Christ and that his “conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 9:1). Paul’s love for his people is a “hell and back again” kind of love, given by the Spirit of love himself (Rom. 5:5).
What we see in Paul is what James Denney called “a spark from the fire of Christ’s substitutionary love”—the love of God—demonstrated in the cross, where while “we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). “God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). His love is the flaming Sun; our earthly loves are flickering candles in comparison. This is what sets Paul’s passion ablaze.
But this immediately raises the question: What about Paul’s adamant insistence on a gospel not according to the works of the Law? It would have been so easy for him to fudge this, to downplay the offense to his Jewish brothers and sisters to gain converts out of this great love. Why doesn’t he?
The image of flame clues us in to the difference between our loves and God’s: It is a holy love. God’s love cannot deny his perfection, his glory, or his righteousness—God’s love consists of these. As Karl Barth says, “in this turning towards the other He remains true to Himself” (see 2 Tim. 2:13). God lovingly wills to be with sinners but only as the Holy One he is.
This means Paul’s love cannot be simply blind passion, a “zeal . . . not based on knowledge” (Rom. 10:2), but one that knows sinful flesh will only be justified by faith in the redeeming work of Christ to lovingly and justly blot out our sins on the cross, not by works of the Law (Rom. 3:20, 24–25).
Here I recall C. S. Lewis’s defense of the doctrine of hell in The Problem of Pain:
In the long run, the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do?” To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary.
What does God need to do? Go to hell and back for them? Astonishingly, he already has. Perhaps, then, we need to consider different questions: Are our loves as holy as his? Is our zeal seasoned with knowledge? Do we burn with the ember of Christ’s substitutionary love?
Leave aside for a moment being cut off from Christ. Are we even willing to be cut off from comfort and respectability for the sake of ministering the gospel to our neighbors?
Derek Rishmawy is a doctoral candidate at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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