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R.C. Sproul: Abundant Love

love of complacency

Love of Complacency

In his monumental biography of Jonathan Edwards, George Marsden cites a passage from Edwards’ Personal Narrative:

Since I came to this town [Northampton], I have often had sweet complacency in God in views of his glorious perfections, and the excellency of Jesus Christ. God has appeared to me, a glorious and lovely being chiefly on account of his holiness. The holiness of God has always appeared to me the most lovely of all his attributes. (p. 112)

If we take note of Edwards’ language, his choice of words to describe his enraptured delight in the glory of God, we observe his accent on the sweetness, loveliness, and excellence of God. He reports of enjoying a “sweet complacency” in God. What does he mean? Is not the term complacency a word we use to describe a certain smugness, a resting on one’s laurels, a sort of lazy inertia that attends a superficial sort of satisfaction? Perhaps. But here we see a vivid example of how words sometimes change their import over time.

What Edwards meant by a “sweet complacency” had nothing to do with a contemporary dose of smugness. Rather, it had to do with a sense of pleasure. This “pleasure” is not to be understood in a crass hedonistic, or sensual, sense but rather a delight in that which is supremely pleasing to the soul.

The roots of this meaning of “complacency” are traced by the Oxford English Dictionary (vol. 3), where the primary meaning given is “the fact or state of being pleased with a thing or person; tranquil pleasure or satisfaction in something or some one.” References are cited for this usage from John Milton, Richard Baxter, and J. Mason. Mason is quoted, “God can take no real complacency in any but those that are like him.”

I labor the earlier English usage of the word complacency because it is used in a crucial manner in the language of historic, orthodox theology. When speaking of God’s love, we distinguish among three types of that love—the love of benevolence, the love of beneficence, and the love of complacency. The reason for the distinctions is to note the different ways in which God loves all people, in one sense, and the special way He loves His people, the redeemed.

Love of Benevolence

Benevolence is derived from the Latin prefix bene, which means “well,” or “good,” and it is the root for the word will. Creatures who exercise the faculty of the will by making choices are called volitional creatures. Though God is not a creature, He is a volitional being insofar as He also has the faculty of willing.

We are all familiar with Luke’s account of the nativity of Jesus in which the heavenly host praises God declaring: “Glory to God in the highest. And on earth peace, goodwill toward men” (Luke 2:8–14 NKJV). Though some argue that the blessing is given to men of goodwill, the root meaning is the same. The love of benevolence is the quality of good will toward others. The New Testament is replete with references of God’s good will to all humanity even in our falleness. Though Satan is a malevolent being (one who harbors bad will both toward us and God), it can never properly be said of God that He is malevolent. He has no malice in His purity, no maliciousness in His actions. God does not “delight” in the death of the wicked—even though He decrees it. His judgments upon evil are rooted in His righteousness, not in some distorted malice in His character. Like an earthly judge weeps when he sends the guilty for punishment, God rejoices in the justness of it but gets no glee from the pain of those justly punished.

This love of benevolence, or good will, extends to all people without distinction. God is loving, in this sense, even to the damned.

Love of Beneficence

This type of love, the love of beneficence, is closely linked to the love of benevolence. The difference between benevolence and beneficence is the difference between disposition and action. I may feel well-disposed toward someone, but my goodwill remains unknown until or unless I manifest it by some action. We often associate beneficence with acts of kindness or charity. We note here that the very word “charity” is often used as a synonym for love. In the sense of beneficence, acts of kindness are acts of the love of beneficence.