It would be natural to assume that God’s special love for his people comes from something special about his people, something they’ve got that no one else does. But listen to how Deuteronomy explains why God made Israel “his treasured possession” out of all the peoples on earth:
It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers. (Deut. 7:7–8)
Paul says something similar about God’s love for the church. Writing to new Christians in Corinth, where they were especially tempted to try to one-up one another, Paul reminds them, “not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor. 1:26). Translation: you guys weren’t winners. You weren’t the popular crowd of chiseled athletes and beauty queens.
No. When the Lord set his love on his people, it wasn’t because they were obviously his most desirable option. It’s not as if the relationship began with a dating app, where God swiped his way through the profiles until he found the perfect match. Not even close. He “set his love on you . . . because the Lord loves you.” He loves them because he loves them. That was true with Israel, and it’s true for the church too.
Not Good Enough
It would perhaps be even more natural to assume that God chooses his people based on whether or not they follow the rules. That sort of preference is a common feature in other religions—the insiders are the ones who earn it, the ones who deserve to be there. You only get what you can pay for.
Yet that’s not how God relates to his people.
Of course obedience, what the Bible calls righteousness, matters to God. He wouldn’t be who he is—he wouldn’t be worthy of worship and trust—if he didn’t see the difference between good and evil. The righteousness that God loves is not some set of arbitrary rules laid down to trap the unsuspecting or weed out the weak. The righteousness he loves reflects his own perfect commitment to what’s right. God’s righteousness is beautiful. It’s worthy. And in our gut, not perfectly but still truly, we want a God who loves righteousness because we want a God opposed to injustice. And God does indeed love righteousness.
But God loves his people despite their persistent lack of righteousness.
Take the story of Israel, for example. The only theme in that story as consistent as God’s steadfast love for Israel is the theme of Israel’s forgetfulness, ingratitude, and preference for the gods of their neighbors.
The best illustration I know of for the character of God’s people comes from the prophet Hosea. God himself designs an object lesson to capture what it’s like for him to love Israel. He commands Hosea to marry a prostitute named Gomer, to love her and build his life around her despite her past. That’s what Hosea does. But their wedding day isn’t the story’s happy ending.
Gomer leaves her marriage to return to prostitution. She prefers life as a whore to life as Hosea’s wife. That’s how God depicts Israel’s treatment of him. That’s whom he loves as his people.
God’s new covenant people, the church, is made up of individuals who were no more righteous than Israel when God first set his love on them. Listen to how Paul describes the life of every Christian before God’s love intervenes:
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy. (Titus 3:3–5)
Slaves to passion, just like Gomer. Disobedient, just like Israel. There was no cleanup effort, no “works done in righteousness,” to draw out God’s affection. His loving kindness came first, right down into the mess we had made of our lives.
God Loves His People through His Son
The difference between the inside and the outside of God’s special love for his people comes down to Jesus. It’s not a contest you win. It’s not a status you earn. It’s a gift you receive. And it comes only when you walk through the gate that Jesus opens for you.
I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)
God sets his special love on unrighteous people not because he decided to set aside righteousness, but because he decided to make his people righteous. This is, as the old hymn beautifully puts it, “love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.”1
The story of Hosea and Gomer doesn’t end with their marriage, but neither does it end in adultery and abandonment. It ends with an act of almost unimaginable mercy. God commands Hosea, this broken-hearted and betrayed husband, to go after his faithless wife and buy her back from the slavery she had chosen for herself. The slavery she had preferred to his companionship and care.
One pastor describes Hosea’s story as “an anticipation in pageant form of Christ’s story.”2
It’s not a stretch to imagine this story on Paul’s mind in his letter to the Ephesians, when he describes Christians as those who “once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3). We were once, each one of us, Gomer. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:4–5).
A little later on, like Hosea before him, Paul pictures this whole process as a marriage. He tells husbands to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). And the reason Christ gave himself for his bride was “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25–27).
Holy and blameless. That’s what Christ wants for his bride. Righteousness still matters. But the righteousness of God’s people—the righteousness God loves, that he delights to see— will come to them as a gift from his hand, a gift purchased for them by the blood of his Son.
Just as Hosea paid the price to redeem his unfaithful wife, so in Christ God paid what it cost to account for the sin of his people and to make them righteous. That’s what Paul means when he says Jesus “gave himself ” for his church (Eph. 5:25). That’s what Peter means when he says “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18).
That’s what Jesus himself meant when he said that he came to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
God’s love for his people is an extension of the perfect, eternal love for his Son.
And it’s an exchange perhaps best summed up in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he [meaning God] made him [meaning Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Christians often describe God’s love as unconditional. And that’s true. God loves his people despite their sin against him. He loves them before they love him back, and before there’s anything in them worthy of his love. Thanks be to God, that’s all true.
But his love doesn’t stop there. It gets far better than that. The Bible tells us God loves his people in Christ. In love the Father sends his Son to take on himself what his people deserve—the unrighteousness that God does not love and is bound to punish. That’s why Christ died. But in Christ, God’s people also take on what he deserves—the perfect, steadfast, unending love of God for his righteous Son.
It’s a mystery we can’t hope to fully grasp. But God’s love for his people is an extension of the perfect, eternal love for his Son. On the night that he was betrayed, praying to his Father for the safety of those he was about to redeem, Jesus pulls back the veil and reveals to us the unthinkable mystery of the gospel.
The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me . . . I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them. (John 17:22–23, 26)
To be in Christ is to live in the love the Father has for his Son. It’s not simply that God loves his people despite their sin. He loves them because his Son is righteous. He loves them “even as” he loves Jesus. The love with which he has loved his Son is now “in them.” When God looks on his people, he sees the righteousness of his Son and he is delighted in them.