Part One—Confusion over the Term Love
The love of God – what a glorious theme upon which to fix our minds! Perhaps an even clearer way to express this glorious theme would be to refer to the God who is love. Indeed, the subject of the infinite love of God is never to be exhausted. Paul expresses this clearly in his prayer for the saints in Ephesus.
For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height – to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:14-19 NKJV)
My hope and prayer is that my attempt to present what the Scripture reveals about the love of God would help each reader acquire a better understanding of this magnificent doctrine and to be amazed at the love of Christ that passes knowledge. It is not an overstatement to say that many people in our day misunderstand this great truth about our God. Although I have read and studied this doctrine, I do not come to you as one who has all the answers. However, I will faithfully exposit what I have found in the Scripture and present it to you for your perusal, awe, and wonder.
Why is this so difficult a doctrine? There are many reasons; I will suggest just a few.
(1) Most people who believe in God today believe that God is a loving being. Unfortunately, their conception of his love not only does not match what Scripture reveals; sometimes it is contrary to Scripture. Often love is understood as some kind of sentimental, gushy feeling.
(2) Broad disbelief or disregard of the complimentary truths about God adds difficulty to a right understanding of the love of God. We may not separate the biblical, and thus true, view of God’s love from his sovereignty, holiness, justice, wrath, and other attributes. For some people in our culture, the love of God blankets and covers anything else about God that makes them uncomfortable. Our culture promotes love; it is the theme of a multitude of songs. Do you remember the popular song from the sixties, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love”? When was the last time you heard a hit song that says, “What the world needs now is holiness, sweet holiness” or “judgment, sweet justice”?
If you tell someone today that God loves them, they are unlikely to be surprised. “Of course God loves me. He loves everybody. And why shouldn’t he love me? I’m a pretty nice person. I’m sincere.” This kind of thinking prevails in our culture. People seem to have little difficulty with the idea of the love of God, but they do not seem as willing to embrace concepts such as the justice of God, the wrath of God, or other equally emphasized attributes revealed in the Bible.
(3) Our culture promotes tolerance and connects it directly with the idea of being loving. The only thing that some people seem unable to tolerate is intolerance. This widespread attitude makes it difficult for them to accept a clear definition of God’s love that contradicts their presupposition.
(4) Ultimately, the biggest problem that underlies all the others is a failure to take into account all the Bible states on this topic, and the appropriate contexts of each passage. My question is this: Can a person have a biblical view of the love of God if he or she does not consider the entire scriptural account of the character and nature of God?
We cannot deny the reality of suffering that includes such things as world wars, mass starvation, disasters, corruption, injustice, and pain. Against such a backdrop, how do we form a perspective of a God who is both sovereign and loving? Many people ask, “How can God be all powerful AND loving, when we have what we do in the world? If God is sovereign, then how can he be loving? Some conclude that if he is loving, then he must not be sovereign. They reason that God willingly gave up his sovereignty to give human beings a free will or sovereignty over their own lives. This enables them to solve the seeming dilemma and at the same time keep their definition of love intact. (This is the Arminian attempt to solve what they view as a problem.)
Others stumble over the issue and question, “If God is love, why would he send people to hell forever?” The idea of eternal punishment contradicts most people’s definition of love. A similar question is the one that asks, “What kind of love is it that can control the world and allow it to suffer the way it suffers?” They think that if God so loved the world, he would not allow pain, sorrow, and death.
Some go so far in their attempt to reconcile a sovereign God with a God that they believe loves everyone equally that they conclude that in the end, God will save everyone. This allows them to retain their definition of love and yet keep God as God.
The problem with all these views is that one cannot find them taught in the Bible. They are human-conceived attempts to reconcile issues such as suffering with a human-developed definition and understanding of love.
Not everyone uses the love passages of Scripture to erase the passages of Scripture that uphold God’s sovereignty and power; some people do the reverse. They declare that God does not love those who are not his own. In fact, they hold to a doctrine that says he has nothing but hatred for them. This, too, is an attempt to reconcile sovereignty and love. This individual says, “There is no problem, because God does not have one iota of love for those he damns.”
We want to avoid jumping to hasty conclusions in this study. We want to search the whole counsel of God and take into account all that Scriptures say on this subject. We must do so if we are going to know and worship God as he is in truth. We do not want to approach the inquiry with a preconceived solution to reconcile the attributes of God. As John Reisinger often says, “You don’t have to reconcile friends!” We must submit to what God clearly reveals in his word. We do not want to diminish or explain away what God has revealed about himself. We want to hold all the truth that God tells us, even if we are unable to reconcile fully all things in our finite minds.
The issue of the love of God is further confused because of the many aspects of love to which the Scriptures refer. Trouble begins when we do not recognize the difference. If we lock into one definition and use it everywhere, we will likely come up with one of the previously mentioned solutions. If we define love with a single degree and way of loving, we may be clear in our own minds, but we will have confusion when confronted with all that the Scriptures have to say on the topic.
Let me give you a few examples of the kind of trouble that results from having a locked-in, one-sided definition of a biblical term.
Grace – Some people define this as God’s unmerited favor to undeserving sinners. In some places in God’s word, that is a great definition. When it comes to passages that speak of grace demonstrated towards us by God, it is indeed true. However, when we read Luke 2:40, we find that this definition does not work.
And the Child [Jesus] grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.
Clearly, in this context, the definition of unmerited favor does not fit. The clever acronym “God’s riches at Christ’s expense” will not fit here either. This word, like virtually every other word, does not have a one-size-fits-all definition. One definition does not fit all uses.
Promise – In Hebrews, chapter six, we read that Abraham “having patiently waited, obtained the promise.” Yet in Hebrews, chapter eleven, the author refers to the faithful, including Abraham, as, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised.” Again, in verse thirty-nine of that same chapter, we read, “all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised.” If we understand “the promise” in all these verses to refer to the same promise, we run into a contradiction. However, when we look at the big picture, we recognize that both statements are true. Abraham did receive the promise in the miraculous birth of Isaac, but the ultimate fulfillment of the promise was to be found in Jesus Christ.
Law – When we read every passage containing the term law, we begin to see that Scripture uses it in various ways. Sometimes it refers to the Mosaic law covenant, such as in Hebrews 8, where we are told that the law is obsolete. Sometimes it simply refers to commandments of God. In the nineteenth Psalm, we read that the law is perfect and that it converts the soul. Can the law convert someone? It depends on what the word means. In Psalm nineteen, as in some other places, it refers to the word of God. If we read one single, uniform definition of law into the varied passages, we will run into trouble.
Hate – The Scripture tells us to hate sin. We are also told to hate our parents and our spouses and our children (Luke 14:26). Does this word have the same definition in both cases? I should hope not.
So it is with the word love; if we conceive of it in our minds in a one-dimensional way, we are bound to err in some way. Perhaps we will have a problem with passages that tell us “God is angry with the wicked everyday” and “the wicked one his soul hates” and thus will not be able to grasp the God who judges sinners in wrath. We will have to explain away these verses in the light of our definition of love.
The other alternative is to end up with a God who has absolute hate towards the non-elect: a God who desires only the worst for them. In this case, we will have to explain away many love passages in the light of God’s ultimate judgment.
We do not want to have to explain anything away. We want to hold together all the truths that God tells us; whether or not his ways are higher than our thoughts can take us … as I assure you they will be!
Catchy slogans also complicate our attempt to define words. We saw this already with the word grace. Slogans such as, “God’s love is unconditional,” is one such example. In certain contexts, this is true or at least contains some truth. Such is the case in the love that God shows towards his elect. However, what the Bible teaches about the love of God is far more varied and complex than this slogan indicates. To state to a professing Christian drifting towards sin that God’s love is unconditional may convey the wrong impression. How does that slogan fit verses with qualifying conditions, such as John 14:21 and 23? Even when we read verses such as “the Lord loves a cheerful giver,” we see that there is in some sense a conditional aspect of the love that comes from God. Some uses of the term love seem to be conditioned on the object receiving the love. Other uses of the term state that the love is not conditioned on the object receiving the love.
Looking at the Greek word used in a particular verse does not always clarify the definition, either. Consider the word agape. Is agape always some higher, nobler form of love that is less emotional than phileo? In 2 Samuel 13, we read that Amnon loves his half sister Tamar; but his love is selfish, sexual, and emotional, and lasts only until he rapes her. The Septuagint uses both Greek words agape and phileo to refer to Amnon’s love. In the Gospel of John, we read that the Father loves the Son. Sometimes the author uses agape in a way that seems to be broad and general and includes the aspect of phileo (even as adultery is included in the more broad term pornea or sexual immorality). When Paul writes that Demas has deserted him, having loved this present evil world, he uses agape, which makes no sense if the word always refers to “willful self-denial for the sake of another.”
Though words have distinctions and carry meaning in themselves, we cannot latch onto a single rigid definition. Context is crucial. Words are somewhat plastic; they have various shades of meaning. They are more general or specific depending upon context. We note that self-denial cannot equal love in every case, for 1 Corinthians 13 states that even ultimate acts of self denial can be done without love. Therefore, we cannot simply reduce Christian love to an act of the will. So when we hear the slogan, “Love is not a feeling, it is an act of the will,” we do not really have a complete definition of love that fits everywhere in the Bible.
Mere word studies cannot allow us to fathom fully the nature of the love of God. Too often, people look up the meaning of a word in a dictionary or lexicon and consider that definition as the final answer. We must study passages with great respect for their context; with great attention to their place in the unfolding drama of redemption; with recognition of their place in redemptive history as God unveils himself in the person of Jesus Christ.
Sometimes, the things we see in Scripture may challenge the security of our systematized thinking. God is infinite and transcendent and the best we can do is to scratch the surface. Let us not be surprised that there are Scriptures and truth that will stretch us and go beyond us.
Even our English word love has different degrees, and there are different expressions of love. For example, I can say I love my neighbor. I also love my wife. I love pizza. People talk about “making love.” A small boy can say, “Gotta love me,” meaning you cannot get mad at him. We commonly use the word love in many different ways. A loving person directs different kinds and degrees of love to different people and objects based on relationship. For example, you may hear me say, “I love Cheryl.” Cheryl is my wife, so it is fitting that I love her. You may also hear me say, “I love Beth.” Beth is my neighbor and a dear older sister in the Lord, so it is also fitting that I love her. But it is not the same kind of love in both instances. Nor do I express it in the same manner. The difference is the relationship.
In 1 John 4:8, the apostle writes that God is love. This speaks of God. It has everything to do with God. The text does not tell us how God has chosen to express his character of love in various relationships. It simply tells us about God’s character. God is love, from out of which flows goodness, longsuffering, kindness, and mercy (even as 1 Corinthians 13 describes characteristics of love). God is love. That is his character. God’s relationship to us determines how he directs that love to us. The same is true of a loving man. A loving man holds back aspects of his love until he meets the woman upon whom he determines to shower that love. At the same time that he is withholding some aspects of his love toward one person, he exhibits various other aspects of his love to other people. If we rebel and oppose God, we may well cut ourselves off from the one who is love. Our attitude, however, does not change the fact that God is love.
God freely manifests, displays, and expresses his love in accordance with his sovereign will and grace. He would still be love even if he never directed his love towards us.
We must realize that in spite of some similarities, God does not love in exactly the same manner that we love. This is definitely a good thing. If we define love as the way that we love, we will be way off the mark much of the time. Our love is so often merit-based. Sometimes, our love is affection for or desire for someone or something. If, however, this attitude defines love, then God does not love at all – for God has no needs. Do you think that God ever once thought, “He is so cute and has such a good character. I’ve got to have him”?
I love the way God explains the motive behind his love directed toward Israel.
“For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth. The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the LORD loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh King of Egypt. (Deut. 7:6-8, emphasis added)
He says, “I loved you because I loved you.” He purposed it for his own glory. It has everything to do with God.
In order to show the difference between God’s love and man’s view of love, I would like you to consider an illustration. Jeffrey Dahmer was a convicted mass-murderer – a homosexual who killed seventeen boys, cannibalizing a number of them. Before he died, at the hand of some fellow prisoners, he made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ and was baptized. In his will, he repeatedly expressed love and confidence in the Lord Jesus Christ and the assurance that Jesus Christ had forgiven all his sin. The prison chaplain stated he was confident that indeed Jeffrey Dahmer was converted and born anew by the Spirit, and was trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ alone. Thus, he is now in God’s presence and loved as an exalted son. Along with all other justified sinners, he is exalted with Jesus Christ and blessed with all the rewards of heaven.
For the most part, hearing this makes the world angry. To think that such a man could be received with favor into heaven goes against everything they believe. Even many Christians want to doubt the reality of such a conversion because Dahmer was so wicked and vile. Yet this illustrates the amazing God who is love and who grants salvation to sinners, not because of anything deserving in them, but for his own great name’s sake. To see the love of God directed to such as sinful wretch as Jeffrey Dahmer testifies to the abounding grace of our God – as does the love of God directed to such a sinful wretch as Saul of Tarsus, or Murray McLellan, or you. Love is bound up in the very nature of God. God is love.