The Sweetness of God
In recent weeks I have been reading Augustine’s Confessions. It is a great and compelling read, a 300-page prayer that illuminates Augustine’s search for God and for life. As I read the opening chapters I was struck by a word that Augustine regularly uses and that had not registered with me before. Again and again as he speaks to God, Augustine calls him his ‘sweetness’ (or ‘delight’). I began to note every time Augustine used this word, and other similar affectional terms. He also speaks of God’s majesty and sovereignty and power, but it was his use of the word ‘sweetness’ that captured, and captivated, my attention.
What had so impacted Augustine as he came to a living, saving faith in Jesus Christ, was God’s tender and kind dealings with him throughout his years of spiritual searching. Now a believer, having tasted that the Lord is good (Psa. 34:8), Augustine discovered that his goodness was ‘sweet’.
‘My sweetness’. As I thought about this striking statement I began to ask myself whether I also could call the Lord ‘my sweetness’? It was Jonathan Edwards, the great eighteenth century New England pastor-theologian who wrote, ‘True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections’.1 Edwards maintained that the Christian Faith is natively affectional. The gospel does not come only to transform our minds and reform our lives; it comes to implant within us godly affections.
First among truly Christian affections is heart-felt love to God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the gospel God reveals himself to us supremely as a God of love and grace. It was because the Father ‘so loved the world’ that he gave his one and only Son (John 3:16). It was because the Lord Jesus Christ loved us that he gave himself for us (Gal. 2:20). It is his love for us that draws out love to him.
God’s love to us is eternal, unchanging, and altogether undeserved. He could justly and righteously have damned us, but he chose in unfathomable grace to love us in Christ. Yes, the Lord is of purer eyes than even to look on sin. He is almighty, transcendent, majestic in holiness. But in his love to sinners he is truly ‘sweet’, inexpressibly sweet.
John Owen makes a telling observation in his remarkable work on Communion with God, that many Christians think there is no sweetness in God towards sinners except what was purchased by the high price of Jesus’ blood.2 For Owen this is nothing short of blasphemy and turns the gospel on its head. The gospel is not, Because Jesus died for us God now loves us; but rather, Because God loved us Jesus died for us! There is sweetness in God towards sinners that pre-dates the cross, a sweetness that brought him to send forth his Son to be the propitiation for our sins, and not for our sins only, but for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).
It is when we begin to sense the embrace of our heavenly Father’s love for us in Christ that we begin to understand why Augustine could call the Lord his ‘sweetness’.
‘My sweetness’. Are these not moving and deeply searching words? They are to me and I trust they will be to you.
- Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (London: Banner of Truth, 1961), p. 23.
- John Owen, The Works of John Owen, (London: Banner of Truth, 1965), Volume 2, p. 32.
Ian Hamilton is Pastor of the Cambridge Presbyterian Church, now worshipping God on Sunday mornings in All Saints’ Church, Jesus Lane, Cambridge and in the Lutheran Church, Huntingdon Road, on Sunday evenings.
On Doctrine and Practice July 16, 2019
A charge that is made repeatedly against historic Christianity is that its stress on doctrine makes it authoritarian, theoretical, and cold. The Christian religion is a practical affair; putting the faith in terms of truth to be believed alienates or repels many who would otherwise be sympathetic. As John Robinson puts it, ‘the effect of […]
Christianity and Culture July 12, 2019
One of the greatest of the problems that have agitated the Church is the problem of the relation between knowledge and piety, between culture and Christianity. This problem has appeared first of all in the presence of two tendencies in the Church — the scientific or academic tendency, and what may be called the practical […]