Doctrinal disagreements among “men of good will” are not uncommon. Fourth-grade country boys “duke-ing it out” in the school yard over unconditional election is appallingly real but mercifully rare (as rare as, say, once in two millennia). The author of the words you are reading has first-hand experience in this low moment in Church history.
In the fourth grade, a new fellow enrolled in our small rural school. Being a backwoods country place (at the time), we didn’t get too many new kids coming to our classes. But then there was Abe. Now, Abe was different. He was different in many ways. One way that Abe was different was his religion. The community was 100% professed Christian by the census. Only the Lord knows the real number. Since my own religion was a skewed mixture of works righteousness and cheap grace I am not sure if I was really in the number. Our community was comprised of three major “faith groups:” Baptists, Methodists, and tabernacle people (an uneasy coalition of disgruntled Methodists and Baptists who had erected a rough-hewn pine chapel). Abe was none of those. His family were members of the *Disciples of Christ . There was no Disciples of Christ congregation in our community, nor had we even heard of such (other than their name was what we were: disciples of Jesus Christ). We learned that a small gaggle of Disciples, who had moved from elsewhere, met in the biggest town around, Denham Springs. So, the new boy, Abe, was neither Baptist nor Methodist — nor for that matter, a tabernacle person. This piece of demographic insight was of no concern to me. What was concerning to me was his theology. Now, you might ask, “Why would a fourth-grader be concerned with theology?” Good question. That is another story, but I was.
I wouldn’t call my questions to Abe an “ice-breaker” to welcome a new student into our little community. I would describe my words as—oh, I don’t know—more like “an ice pick” to warn the new student about the dogs in this yard. During recess, I “stabbed” at Abe with religious interrogations. He humbly explained what his church believed. Neither of us being articulate in our summations, we cut to the chase: [Abe]: I think one can lose his salvation.” Then, I: “No way! Once saved, always saved!” Our heated discussion led to several attempted blows, none of which hit their mark, causing us to go into full-mode wrestling on the ground. I am not sure what would have happened if one of us might have won the fight. But the rebel-rousing was broken up by a teacher, *Mrs. McKenzie, who was also my Sunday school teacher. When my asked, “What in the world is all this about?” Some of the kids around answered for us. Abe and I were out of breath and also uninterested in revealing the source of the altercation. A little girl was quickly and outwardly delighted to help Mrs. McKenzie with the case: “Mrs. McKenzie, I know what was going on. Them [sic] boys were quarreling about ‘once saved, always saved.’ Mike Milton believes it, and Abe Smith doesn’t. So Mike Milton picked a fight.” “Wait a minute . . .” I protested. But Mrs. McKenzie shut me up with a narrowing of her eyes. She didn’t have to utter a word. I stood before my judge as a condemned man—of nine years old.
My dear teacher did not get on to Abe at all. But she lit into me in a way that just about brought tears to my eyes. She said, “Mike Milton, I am ashamed of you. Have I not taught you better? Hasn’t Aunt Eva raised you better (Aunt Eva was my late father’s older sister whom the courts appointed “guardian” after I was orphaned; everyone I knew called her “Aunt Eva,” which was a common thing where I came from)?
“Yes, Ma’am, but . . .”
The eyes; again. Clearly there would be no defense in this impromptu trial right out of the pages of Frank Kafka.” “Mike Milton, would you go into a fight about a question in God’s Word? Would you dare hit another believer in the name of the Lord over anything? Whatever seriousness was attached to your discussions has been erased by your arrogance and folly. Mike Milton, you are punished.”
Mrs. McKenzie was able to transform her facial expressions from a flint-rock warden to a sympathetic and concerned mother. “Now, Abe, honey, you just get on inside, son. I apologize for such an impolite welcome from our little class. We are normally not like this.” She was looking at me when she uttered that last line. Again, those squinting eyes of foreboding doom pierced me like a burning white-light laser from . . from Mrs. McKenzie.
Well, I didn’t lose my salvation. I did lose recess privileges. In those halcyon days of corporal punishment, almost every infraction meant that the teacher placed the “board of education on the seat of knowledge.” As I recall, I got three licks, and Abe got one (another welcome that was intended to say, “When we don’t really know the culprit, we just whip everyone”). I justified the punishment by telling myself, “The greater the light, the greater the judgment.” Abe’s little lick was light. Obviously, he was not having to suffer for the truth. I was vindicated.
Now, the truth is: we were both wrong. “Once saved, always saved” is a comfortable axiom to remember. The problem with it, like many other little sayings, is that it is not entirely correct. This saying carries with it a sort of laissez-faire approach to living for God. Whereas, the Bible teaches that if there is saving faith, there will also be evident sanctification. If I go around saying “once saved always saved” but then live like the devil, one has to question my sincerity (and salvation). The “once saved” part of the equation becomes suspect. Nor was Abe without warrant for critique. His assertions were not entirely accurate, even according to his brand of Disciples of Christ theology. The Bible teaches that some have left the faith. But the Bible teaches that they left the faith because they were never of the faith.
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.1 John 2:19 English Standard Version of the Holy Bible.
The doctrine called the “perseverance of the saints” is a much more satisfying and biblical expression. The principle states that what “What God starts, God completes. The Lord who beckons us to “come unto Me” (1 Corinthians 11:28) is the Lord who sustains (John 10:28). Almighty, God who chose us from the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4) will keep His covenant promises. He ordained the end, and so, He ordains the means. And that leads us to the lesson that is before us today.
The first Epistle of the Apostle John is concerned with expressing the doctrine of God’s love. In the passage before us today, we have a particular aspect of God’s love related to our faith as believers and as his children. It is the truth of God’s abiding love. This “love that will never let you go” is clearly articulated in John 15:1–8. Here one encounters the familiar language of the “vine and the branches.” But in his first epistle, “the Apostle whom Jesus loved” speaks without metaphor or simile. He speaks directly about the matter of “abiding love.”
The doctrine of God’s abiding love brings blessed assurance.
Every believer is guaranteed not merely the saving love of God but the abiding love of God: a love that will never let you go.
What are the characteristics of this “abiding love” that the Apostle John teaches in these verses? Let us examine three foundational features of God’s abiding love.
We discover the first foundational feature of God’s abiding love is found throughout the passage. We might put it like this:
God’s abiding love begins with God’s initiating love.
John penned verse seven: “love has been born of God…” John also wrote, “in this is love, not that we have loved but that he loved us…” (10).
When we speak of the love of God, we do so in several ways. There is a universal, created love of God. God loves his creation. God loves the little sparrows, and God loves the lilies of the field. I would like to add that I do not know if God loves mosquitoes. But in some unfathomable way, inconceivable to the mind of mortal man, I am sure that God has a purpose for those pesky little insects. Those who have been stung by red ants, like me, struggle to understand how He loves them. Yet, our God loves His creation—the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom—so, how much more does He love you? It is impossible to deny God’s love if you have ever drawn a breath in this world. But there is also a particular love of God. This is the love of God that comes to you through the power of the Holy Spirit. God’s love unshackles you from sin’s chains. God’s love liberates you from a will in bondage so that you can choose what is right. God’s love opens your mind and your heart that you might move from merely gazing at the heavens and saying to yourself, “there must be a higher Being,” to confessing that this Being is the one, true Almighty God: our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Holy Bible teaches us that this faith awakening is a supernatural work of God (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is a dangerous fallacy to believe and assert that you discovered God and chose to love him. Such a death-defying feat is impossible for you and me. The Bible teaches that you are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:8–9).
John Calvin commented on John chapter 15 and said that we were dead branches until God resurrected us and then engrafted us into his vine: “no man has the nature of a vine, till he be implanted in him.”
We cannot come alive to God’s reality without the initial activity of God in our souls. God is the great initiator.
As I considered this truth this week, I thought about every simile, every metaphor, and every possible illustration I could use to communicate this essential truth of the Scriptures: that God loved us first. I can do no better than the inerrant and the infallible Word of God itself, which says that “love is from God.” The Bible affirms the basic terms of a human relationship with God: “not that we have loved God but that he loved us…” (1 John 4:10). In verse 19, John writes again, “We love because he first loved us.” The Scriptures are clear on this point. This aspect of God’s Being — His initiating love — is replete throughout the Holy Scriptures. For instance, Israel is called the chosen people because God chose them. Abraham did not choose God. The Semitic peoples who lived along the Mediterranean coast did not choose God. The Almighty God revealed himself to them. Their response was hesitant at best. The whole of the Old Testament is taken up with God demonstrating his love for Israel and Israel, showing their obstinacy to God. And do we believe that it is any different from a believer today? Unless God comes into our lives, we remain lost. But the truth is God initiates his love:
“The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deuteronomy 7:7).
Someone here might ask themselves, “Well, I wonder if God would ever choose me to love?” My beloved, if you have asked that question, then you’ve already demonstrated the answer. The question itself reveals the spirit which is hungering after God and therefore unveils the recognizable presence of the Holy Spirit in your life.
The second foundational feature of God’s abiding love is also found in verse 10: “He loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sin.” So let us say:
God’s abiding love is received through God’s redeeming love.
Verse 10 is the tenderloin of this passage. And perhaps the most flavorful part of that expensive cut is the divine Word that appears in verse 10: “propitiation.” Propitiation is a word that is pulsating with meaning and yet may seem inaccessible to some. Indeed, there have been translations that have chosen to disregard this Word. However, we do not ignore the difficult thing to understand. We face. We investigated. We embrace it. In this case, to embrace propitiation is to embrace the very ground of eternal life for humankind. Propitiation is an act whereby one grants clemency in the face of criminality. This is the way one scholar put it,
“To be propitious is to be disposed to forgiveness and favor. To propitiate is to render an aggrieved or offended party clement and forgiving. A propitiation is that [activity] whereby the favorable change is wrought. Hence, the mediation by the blood of Christ is a propitiation for our sins; and is the ground of forgiveness. Jesus became the divine atonement for the sins of the whole world. It is an atonement because a propitiation for sin in its relation to the clemency and forgiveness of the divine Ruler.” (Robert L. Thomas, and W. Don Wilkins. “New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Updated Edition,” 1998).
It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great Lutheran pastor and professor and martyr for the Christian faith during World War II, who wrote in his book, the Cost of Discipleship these words:
“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church. We are fighting today for costly grace . . . Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living, and incarnate. Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (London: SCM Press Ltd.), pp. 35
I remember visiting a particular congregation for the first time. I did not know these dear folks, and they did not know me. But it was my responsibility to administer the Lord’s Supper on this particular day. As the elders moved down the aisles, row by row, serving the elements, I observed that toddlers were taking the sacrament as they were being held on their mother’s knee. The little children had no concept whatsoever of the active participation in the sacrament that is required. In a sense, baptism is a passive response as we are the recipients of God’s grace through this sign of entrance. However, the Lord’s Supper is active participation requiring a mindful understanding of our redemption’s costly price in the body and blood of Jesus Christ. After the service, I brought this matter to the attention of some of the elders. I said I am not for the imposition of rules for rule sake, but I am for godly instruction to bring about the honor and glory that is due to the name of Jesus Christ. Let the little children be trained and taught the meaning of the sacrament, and so let them come.
Similarly, you and I must study the means through which God, for his sacrifice on the cross, is the very ground God has been offended by your sin. God is estranged from his creation because of the wicked and vile disposition of the human heart. Jesus Christ came to be a propitiation for our iniquities; that is, he came from heaven to earth to live the life we could never live and die the death that should’ve been ours. This act of Christ, in both his active and passive obedience — his life lived to produce the necessary righteousness and his death on the cross as the satisfaction of punishment against sin—has brought about the fulfillment of the terms of the Covenant of Grace. The propitiation is even more than that. When John says that Jesus Christ is our propitiation, we see that it is not merely the act of Christ, but it is the person of Christ himself. To ignore this indispensable feature of the Christian faith leads invariably to “cheap grace.” Such an erroneous conception is the deadly enemy of our church.
The third foundational feature of God’s abiding love, according to this passage, is this:
God’s abiding love is demonstrated by our reflective love.
John writes in verse 11,
“Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” He continues, “No one has ever seen God: if we love one another, God abides in us, and his love is perfected in us” (verse 12).
Upon an initial reading of the text, there seems to be a non sequitur. We understand when John says that if God loves us, we should love one another. But what does verse 12 mean? When John says that no one is ever seen God, that seems to be a truth dislocated. What does this have to do with abiding or with loving each other as a result of God’s love? A The answer is this: a John is saying that no one is ever seen God, but we see evidence of God. How? We understand the proof of God when we gaze into the heavens nobly? We see God’s proof when we see a sparkle of light in the eyes of the newborn babe. We see evidence of Almighty God in the act of kindness extended unconditionally. Thus, John is saying that we see God’s testimony in the love that transforms us and causes us to reflect redeeming love to others.
So, the question comes to each one of us: “Is there evidence of the presence of Almighty God in your life by your love?” For Christ’s love begets human love.
It may be that you are, in fact, a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. Perhaps, someone has hurt you. Our pain can be like a logjam in a river. The river cannot deliver its life-giving properties to creatures that depend on it. Such an impasse creates a black, backwater, murky, and lifeless pool. One of the reasons we assemble every Lord’s Day is to receive God’s Word. Drinking from the chalice of the means of grace is not an option. The eternal-life-giving properties of Word, Sacrament, and Prayer sustain our souls. Should a blockage of one sort or another impede the free flow of spiritual nourishment, we will most certainly develop diseases of the human soul.
We must remember that there is a constant barrage of bacteria seeking to attack our souls. The devil, the flesh, and the world do not take a timeout just because we neglect taking our cure. Instead, these forces of evil take advantage of malnourished souls. Whenever we are denied the Word of God, traces of residual sin can cluster and create spiritual infections. Thankfully, the Word of God—read, sung, prayed, and presented to all of the senses—is the strongest of all solvents, capable of reaching the remote area, inflamed spiritual tissue, and removing culpable impurities that provoke the wound. We might not give due concern to the creeping absence of prayer, or the Word being delivered through the frail instrument of a preacher, but, unbeknownst to us, tiny fragments of old, lethal sin— like toxic, fatty cholesterol—can get loose, and become lodged in spiritual arteries. Restoring the free flow of the spirit is vital to our growth in Christ and the mortification of sin.
The presence of God the Holy Spirit keeps the river of faith running freely. And when the stream of faith is running freely, there is life and spiritual health. And there is love. Maybe, someone reading these words, right now, will reflect on the love of God in forgiving another person. Perhaps, you even receive the forgiveness of God for yourself.
Abiding love is the essential character of God, which tells us He will never let us go. The features of this abiding love include his initiating love, his redeeming love, and his reflective love. What is this look like?
One could hardly imagine that a biblical lesson on the abiding love of God could be located in the isolated, criminal, and horrific surroundings of the North Vietnamese prison camp notoriously labeled “the Hanoi Hilton.” But I could think of no more excellent example of abiding love than the story of my late friend, a true American hero, Colonel Roger Ingvalson (1928-2011), United States Air Force – Retired. Col. Ingvalson and was also an elder at First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga, Tennessee. During my years there as the senior minister, I was deeply honored and humbled to not only be his pastor, but also his friend. One time, Roger and I went on a trip together to investigate the possibility of a church plant in Colorado. I’ll never forget that trip.
For one thing, we took in some skiing, and this former fighter pilot still had the Moxie and daring that caused him to ski all black diamonds. He enticed me to come with him up the ski lift to the highest point in the most difficult downward course. I remember that as we took off, Roger Ingvalson looked to me like a classic Olympian skier, or, maybe, a member of the original 10th Mountain Division. I appeared more like the snow-ski equivalent of a drugstore cowboy: all the right attire without any skill. Indeed, I fell over and began to cling to the side of the mountain in complete fear. Roger was pushing close to 80 years of age, and I was in my mid-40s. But he pitied me, did not make fun of me, came back up the hillside of the mountain, rescued me, and led me to a lower level where I could be more at home on the “bunny slopes.” But it was also during that time that I got to hear Roger’s famous testimony, which he is told Billy Graham evangelistic crusades and in speeches around the country.
In 1968, Roger was flying the F-105D with the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron out of Korat Royal Air Force Base, Thailand. The air war over Vietnam was in its third year. On 28 May, Roger took off on his 87th combat sortie, leading a mission to destroy a bridge in North Vietnam. (Roger once told me, lightheartedly, “Mike, it is crucial to keep the number of mission takeoffs and landings equal.!”). With 1600 hours in the F-105, he was confident that this mission would be a success. As he pulled off the target, an air controller requested that he hit an enemy truck convoy nearby. Roger’s tactical preference was for high speed and low altitude engagement to assure accuracy. At about 0900, he located the convoy of Soviet-built trucks near Dong Hoi and rolled in at more than 500 knots. At 50 feet above the hard deck, he fired a long 20mm burst into the convoy. Moments later, Roger recalls,
“I heard and felt an explosion, and my cockpit immediately filled with smoke. I hit the afterburner to gain valuable altitude, then pulled the canopy ejection handle to get rid of the smoke. I rocketed up to about 600 feet before my aircraft went into an uncontrollable roll. I pulled the ejection seat handle and squeezed the trigger. As I was catapulted out of the burning aircraft, the wind blast knocked me out, and I didn’t regain consciousness until just before landing on a dried-out rice paddy.”Roger Ingvalson, Col. USAF Ret. (1928-2011)
As he hit the ground, Roger’s first reaction was to feel for broken bones. “With 15 years as a fighter pilot, I was fully aware that there is very little chance of survival during an emergency ejection at high speed and low altitude, without a multitude of injuries. To my amazement, I had no broken bones or other injuries.”
Roger had regularly attended church for 40 years, but he says his relationship with his Savior began when he realized he had survived the ejection—a extraordinary dangerous last-measure initiative with little chances of survival at low levels. Roger was amazed to have survived the low-altitude ejection, a procedure not unlike strapping rockets to a car seat, with a better than attaching Heywot prayed and gave thanks for his survival as his would-be Communist captors were running toward him. For the next 1,742 days, Roger endured torture, starvation, desolation, disease, and one stretch of 20 months in strict solitary confinement.”
Roger and his fellow POWs, including a young naval officer named John McCain, departed for Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. That was 14 March 1973. Roger told me that when he was in solitary confinement, he considered that year-long, cruelest of detentions, something of a spiritual sanctuary. For the isolation of his cell cultivated a highly-focused mind—and soul. Without any light except a pinhole portion of daylight, which would force its way through cracks in the wall, unending shafts of buttercream sunlight bathed his thoughts; and awakened long-neglected memories of his childhood years in the little Norwegian Lutheran Church back in Austin, Minnesota. The longer the isolation, the greater the illumination, and the more productive the meditation.
Roger had been an all-American kid. You wouldn’t say that Roger’s mind was set on God’s thoughts, but his parents were very faithful to bring him to church each Sunday. If you want to know the enduring influence and transformative power of the Christian liturgy in services of worship, you could ask a man like Roger Ingvalson. Every Sunday in his hometown church, he joined the other parishioners, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles Creed, and, not infrequently, the Twenty-third Psalm. The Ten Commandments were read by all each month at Holy Communion Sunday. As a twelve-year-old boy, in his church’s tradition (following Jesus’ miraculous teaching in the Temple when He was the same age), Roger professed faith in Jesus Christ. Although some in a free-church or nondenominational setting might question the spiritual value of such convention, Roger acted according to the customs of the Lutheran Church in his confirmation. He later told me that he truly believed in Jesus Christ as the resurrected Son of God, However, between that confirmation class as a boy and the solitary, beaten, and bruised figure of a famished Air Force officer in the Hanoi Hilton, Roger had lived the fast-paced life of a hedonistic young military pilot. Somehow, in predicable if not paradoxical, upside-down Gospel glory, the very forces of evil that intended to destroy this man became the powers that delivered this man from self to Christ, and from his weakness to Christ’s strength. And so, as Roger related, his filthy cell became a Holy Spirit-academy. Colonel Ingvalson began to recite the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostles Creed. He sang the Gloria Patri. Roger had “all the time in the world,” and he used each second on an unseen clock as a gift to be used for growth in Christ. He carefully spoke each clause, each word of the verses and liturgical phrases he could remember. He was happily surprised that he had remembered numerous hymns. This intrepid Air Force officer went through his new holy ritual like a pre-flight protocol. Roger used memorable phrases, and the unswerving doctrinal formulae as a means to pray to God; and prayer was a vapor stream left behind in his high-flying world, dissipating in the far-flung sky of a childhood memory, the broken streams of a long-ago reality re-formed quickly. What Roger discovered in the Hanoi Hilton, in the very worst place you could imagine, was that God’s love never lets you go. As a result, Roger’s faith in the resurrected and reigning Christ grew like a Midwestern field of sunflowers. The words he learned in worship as a boy were building blocks that erected a new, more robust living faith. What was so amazing was Colonel Ingvalson’s innate ability to faithfully uphold his oath to the Constitution and his renewed faith in Jesus amid such deprivation and hardship. What is even more astonishing is the love that he sought to show those acting as hostile animals towards him and his fellow servicemen in captivity. Roger was the toughest man I’ve ever known. He was, also, the most contented man I’ve ever known—a rare type of kindness—experienced, then received, at the feet of Jesus—that sparkled like a dew-drenched meadow sprawling in front of a background of a steelyard determination. After he was released, Roger spent the remaining years of his life ministering to prisoners. I have never known of a more magnificent example of God’s abiding love: initiated by God, redeemed through Jesus Christ, applied by the Holy Spirit, and reflecting the abiding love of God even to his enemies.
You and I don’t have to go to the Hanoi Hilton to discover God’s abiding love. We have only to read the truth of it here in God’s Word and to believe it. And to believe in Christ is to receive the promise of his Word: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” You see, Abe and I were fighting about something we knew little about. Mercifully, His grace is greater than our sin. The covenant love of God—what He requires of us He provides through Jesus Christ the righteous—is the unequaled and incomprehensible force in the universe that calls us and keep us. When we call upon Him, that was God. When we do any good as an act of thanksgiving, that is God. When all else fails and yet we are kept—even unto death—that is God. It is all of Him, from beginning to end, from grace unto grace.
Here, then, is Jesus’ saving love and His abiding love. I invite you to receive this love today.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Roger Dean Ingvalson l Collection: Veterans History Project (Library of Congress.” Accessed 20 June 2020. http://memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/story/loc.natlib.afc2001001.09773/.
Milton, Michael A. “First hand accounts with Colonel Roger Ingvalson (1928-2011).
* The asterisks are used to indicate a name change, or slightly altered scenario. This is to guard the privacy of others.