Owing Beauty to God
God’s love is different from human love because it is a beautifying love. God does not find people who are beautiful and then decide to love them. Rather, he makes the objects of his love beautiful. They owe their beauty to him. Human love can have a beautifying aspect too, for example, when a husband desires to beautify his wife by helping her grow more into the likeness of Christ.
But human love is not, or perhaps is only very rarely, beautifying at its outset. I do not know anyone who has begun to love someone while finding him or her positively lacking in the principal kinds of beauty. Most relationships probably begin with an awareness of what might best change in the other, but a preponderance of such sentiment will spell trouble for the future. Human beings conceive a romantic love for those they find beautiful in some way.
For example, the elders of Troy describe Helen as “fearfully like the immortal goddesses to look at.”1 Romeo says that Juliet has “beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.”2 Zuleika’s visage, though not classically beautiful, “bewitched” the Duke of Dorset instantly.3
God Loves the Unlovely
By contrast, God loves us when we are unlovely to him. He finds us languishing in the filth of our sin and chooses to cleanse and make us holy. Samuel Crossman expresses this idea beautifully in his hymn: Love to the loveless shown, That they might lovely be.
Christ is a husband who makes the church beautiful when he weds her, not a husband who wants to wed her because she is beautiful. Martin Luther put the contrast between divine and human love very well in his twenty-eighth thesis for the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518: “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.”4
God’s love is a holiness-creating love, not a holiness-finding love.
Paul teaches in Ephesians 1:4 that God gives his people the beauty of holiness: “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” Note the wording: “should be,” not “because we were.”
God’s love is a holiness-creating love, not a holiness-finding love. In Christ God creates the beauty of those he loves: Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 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)
Note the connection here between Ephesians 1 and 5: in chapter 1 Paul praises God for choosing the church to be holy, and in chapter 5 he writes of Christ the bridegroom dying in history to make the church holy. As C. S. Lewis writes, “The Church has no beauty but what the Bridegroom gives her; he does not find, but makes her, lovely.”5
Because of Love
In eternity God chose us to be holy, and in time Christ makes us holy. The cross is God’s revelation in time of his purpose in eternity. Why is this his purpose? Why does God love us if he does not find us beautiful? Quite simply, because this is who he is, as Leon Morris explains: “He loves not because of what we are, but because of what he is: he is love.”6
Our thinking can be so warped that we find this good news hard to accept. While we ought to delight in being beautified, we all too easily grumble about being told that we are not beautiful by ourselves. We are like a bride whose beauty on her wedding day is accentuated by her dress and the glorious tresses of her hair but who finds in people’s compliments only an insult to her previous appearance: “What was wrong with how I looked before?”
John Calvin saw how “we always desire to be somewhat, and such is our folly, we even think we are.”7 Lewis also notes how we struggle to remember our place:
Depth beneath depth and subtlety within subtlety, there remains some lingering idea of our own, our very own, attractiveness. It is easy to acknowledge, but almost impossible to realise for long, that we are mirrors whose brightness, if we are bright, is wholly derived from the sun that shines upon us. Surely we must have a little—however little—native luminosity? Surely we can’t be quite creatures?8
Certainly it is humbling to acknowledge that we are not by nature beautiful, but we must not forget that it is astounding good news that God makes us beautiful! It is the good news of the gospel. It is the good news of who God is.
- Homer, The Iliad, trans. Martin Hammond (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin,
- William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, ed. René Weis (London: Bloomsbury, 2012; repr. 2013), 1.5.46.
- Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson (London: Minerva, 1991), 18.
- Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 32.
- C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (London: Collins, 1963; repr. 1965), 97.
- Leon Morris, Testaments of Love: A Study of Love in the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), 142; emphasis original.
- John Calvin, Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, with the Antidote, in vol. 3, Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, ed. and trans. Henry Beveridge, 7 vols. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1851; repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1983), 6th session.
- Lewis, Four Loves, 119–20; emphasis original.
This article is adapted from His Love Endures Forever: Reflections on the Immeasurable Love of God by Garry J. Williams.
- 5 Key Realities the Bible Teaches about God’s Love (D. A. Carson)
- 10 Things You Should Know about the Love of God (Garry J. Williams)
- How the Love of God Helps Us Walk in Holiness (C. D. "Jimmy" Agan III)