God proves God’s love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5.8)
As Lent beckons us to Calvary and our thoughts turn toward the cross, I’m reminded of the hymn that says, “Oh, how I love Jesus/Because He first loved me.” Of all the facets of divine grace exemplified on the cross, the realization that God loved us first is the most dazzling for me. It is a decisive love, a love offered in hopes that it will be returned. But we can never forget that Jesus decides to die a criminal’s death with no promise that His love for humanity will be rewarded. It’s more than a selfless act of compassion. It’s a huge gamble—the most extreme risk a person can take—which makes it the ultimate act of faith.
And we should remember that this sacrifice is not without hesitation. Moments before He’s arrested, Jesus begs God to release Him from this fate. Because we’re governed by flesh, we interpret His prayer to be a plea to save His own skin. Like every human living under Roman oppression, Jesus has seen the horrors of imperial torture and crucifixion. In Jerusalem, Calvary is the site for frequent executions. As with other cities where potential for insurrection is high, the Romans select a spot at the edge of town to erect a grisly display of supreme authority. The crosses of Calvary stand as a warning to anyone traveling to and from the city: there is no mercy for anyone who bucks the system. Jesus knows well what torments await Him after He’s taken into custody. Then, because we know how gruesome His death is, we put two and two together and assume Jesus is asking God to spare Him from the extreme brutality He will suffer.
But might there be more to Jesus’s hesitance than escaping agony? One has to imagine a bigger question looms in His mind. Will dying be worth it? The mortification of an unjust trial, public mockery, being whipped within an inch of His life, and then hoisted onto a cross is supposed to result in our awakening to God’s boundless love. Yet there are no guarantees this will be the case. Given how much derision He’s faced in life, the odds don’t favor such an eventuality. It’s more likely He’ll die and be forgot, like every other troublemaker who meets his end at Calvary. Crucifixions happen all the time. Why should Jesus’s be any different? “Take this cup away from Me,” He prays—as if to say, “Don’t put Me through this for no reason.” It’s a huge gamble.
Jesus’s great assent—“Not My will, but Yours be done”—is more than accepting the price He will pay in His flesh. It’s the acknowledgement of what must be done to prove that God loved us first. The reconciliation at the heart of God’s redemptive plan starts with love and proceeds without any assurance it will be repaid. And the physical agony that Jesus endures cannot begin to equal the mental anguish rising from the possibility it could all be for naught. That is the miracle of the cross. Jesus’s faith in God—even in the terrifying moments when He feels God has abandoned Him to die alone—is matched by God’s unfailing faith in us. To love us without any certainty we will return God’s love, it is more than the human heart and mind can comprehend.
God loved us first. It is almost unimaginable. Yet it is true. And the grandeur of such extreme love becomes the centerpiece of Paul’s attempt to awaken us to this amazing fact: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves God’s love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5.6-8)
As we approach Holy Week, may awareness that God loved us first overtake us. We’re moving toward a moment when we will discover love of unmatched magnificence and trust. The greatest love we can ever know is waiting for us at the cross. But as the Savior comes into view, let’s not forget that God waits faithfully for our love to flow upward. May our song forever be, “Oh, how I love Jesus. Because He first loved me.”