For those who believe there is a God, we all agree on one thing: God is love.110 And the love of God is a biblical truth (1 John 4:8). But why is everyone so eager to embrace this attribute, unlike many other of God’s attributes? Arthur W. Pink tells us:
There are many who talk about the love of God, who are total strangers to the God of love. The divine love is commonly regarded as a species of amiable weakness, a sort of good-natured indulgence; it is reduced to a mere sickly sentiment, patterned after human emotion. The truth is that on this, as on everything else, our thoughts need to be formed and regulated by what is revealed in Scripture. That there is urgent need for this is apparent not only from the ignorance which so generally prevails, but also from the low state of spirituality which is now so sadly evident everywhere among professing Christians. How little real love there is for God. One chief reason for this is because our hearts are so little occupied with His wondrous love for His people. The better we are acquainted with His love—its character, fullness, blessedness—the more our hearts will be drawn out in love to Him.111
The need to study and to grasp the love of God is vital for a number of reasons (and even more!).
(1) The love of God is widely accepted, but wrongly understood. As indicated, many people believe in a “God of love,” who operates according to their definition of love. Those people will be shocked to find themselves spending eternity in hell if they believe “a loving God would not condemn anyone to hell.” But the error is not just among unbelievers, for many Christians also have a very distorted concept of God’s love.
(2) The love of God is the basis for God’s great acts in history. In Psalm 136, we find the love (“lovingkindness”—NASB) of God repeated after each new line of the Psalm. The Psalm praises God for His lovingkindness for two major acts in history, the creation of the world and the deliverance of Israel from their Egyptian slavery. The prophets of the Old Testament emphasized the love of God during the dark days of Israel’s captivity (Isaiah 49:8-16; 63:7; Jeremiah 31:3; Hosea 11:1), and the New Testament speaks of the love of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ (1 John 4:9).
(3) The love of God is the cause, the basis and the standard for the love we are expected to demonstrate in our lives as Christians (Matthew 5:43-48; John 15:7-12; 1 John 2:4-11; 3:10-11; 13-24; 4:7-11).
(4) The entire Old Testament law can be summed up in terms of love. The commands of the Law, given to the people of God, can be summed up as: love God, and love your neighbor.
34 But when the Pharisees heard that He had put the Sadducees to silence, they gathered themselves together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:34-40).
8 Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. 9 For this, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:8-10).
(5) Love is to be a principle goal of our lives as Christians (1 Corinthians 12:31; 13:13; 14:1; see 2 Peter 1:7, where love is the pinnacle of Christian virtues to be pursued).
(6) It is the love of Christ which controls us (2 Corinthians 5:14).
(7) What we love is what we will tend to be like, to imitate (see Hosea 9:10).
(8) Love is one of the prominent terms and concepts in the New Testament. When our Lord was soon to be arrested and crucified, He spoke to His disciples in what has become known as the Upper Room Discourse (John 13-17) concerning the things important for them to know in light of His coming death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. “Love” is one of the prominent terms in this section.
Love is also prominent in the Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians, being mentioned in each chapter. In chapter 1, verse 4, love is first mentioned as the motivation of God as He chose us for salvation in eternity past. In chapter 2, Paul reminds his readers they were once dead in their trespasses and sins, and that God provided salvation for us because of His mercy and His great love with which He loved us (2:4). In chapter 3, Paul prays that his readers might be “rooted and grounded in love” (3:17), and “know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge” (3:19). In chapter 4, Christian unity is urged, as believers show “forbearance to one another in love” (verse 2). In the same chapter, Paul says that the church, the body of Christ, builds up itself in love as Christians speak the truth in love (verses 15-16). In chapter 5, Paul urges believers to “walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (verse 2). Husbands are instructed to “love their wives, just as Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself up for her” (verse 25). In his concluding words to the Ephesians, Paul writes,
23 Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 24 Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ with a love incorruptible (Ephesians 6:23-24).
(9) Love for others is evidence of a true faith in Christ, and the absence of love is an indication of a false profession. These statements, written by the apostle John, are challenging to the Christian, and a sobering warning to those who merely think or profess to be saved:
9 The one who says he is in the light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now. 10 The one who loves his brother abides in the light and there is no cause for stumbling in him. 11 But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes (1 John 2:9-11).
14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. 15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. 16 We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. 17 But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? (1 John 3:14-17).
7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. . . 20 If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also (1 John 4:7-10, 20-21).
If the New Testament abounds with references to the love of God and the believer’s responsibility to demonstrate this same kind of love, the Old Testament references are less frequent. This is not to suggest that the Old Testament avoids the subject of God’s love, but rather that the matter comes to full bloom with the coming of Christ. Another reason for the relative rarity of love in the Old Testament is a failure on the part of Bible translators. The Hebrew word, hesed, is often employed in the Old Testament, rendered “lovingkindness” 176 times, and “unchanging love” but twice. Nevertheless, hesed is the key word in describing the love of God toward man. Thus, “love” is much more frequently the subject in the Old Testament, even though it may not be the English word “love” that is employed.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him (Psalm 103:11).
7 I shall make mention of the lovingkindnesses of the Lord, the praises of the Lord, According to all that the Lord has granted us, And the great goodness toward the house of Israel, Which He has granted them according to His compassion, And according to the multitude of His lovingkindnesses (Isaiah 63:7).
17 So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:18-19; see also 2:4).
For all of eternity we shall ponder the love of God, and never will we fully be able to comprehend it, for His love is infinite.
1 Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; For His lovingkindness is everlasting. 2 Give thanks to the God of gods, For His lovingkindness is everlasting (Psalm 136:1-2, so also verses 3-26).
3 The LORD appeared to him from afar, saying, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore I have drawn you with lovingkindness” (Jeremiah 31:3).
The value of an article is due largely to how long it endures. Gold and precious stones, for example, are more precious than wood or paper, which do not last. God’s love, or lovingkindness, as the term hesed is rendered in Psalm 136, is everlasting. It is eternal.
How quickly human “love” can turn to hate in the divorce court. God’s love is not like this. His love is unchanging. As God is immutable, so is His love.
6 “Put me like a seal over your heart, Like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death, Jealousy is as severe as Sheol; Its flashes are flashes of fire, The very flame of the LORD. 7 Many waters cannot quench love, Nor will rivers overflow it; If a man were to give all the riches of his house for love, It would be utterly despised” (Song of Solomon 8:6-7).
18 Who is a God like Thee, who pardons iniquity And passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession? He does not retain His anger forever, Because He delights in unchanging love (Micah 7:18).
20 Thou wilt give truth to Jacob And unchanging love to Abraham, Which Thou didst swear to our forefathers From the days of old (Micah 7:20).
17 Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow (James 1:17).
Like God, God’s love is holy. It is communicated to us through the Holy Spirit:
5 And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us (Romans 5:5).
God’s love is always an expression of God’s holiness. It is also directed toward producing holiness in us. God’s love seeks to make us holy.
4 Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love (Ephesians 1:4).
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her; 26 that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word (Ephesians 5:25-26).
5 And you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “MY SON, DO NOT REGARD LIGHTLY THE DISCIPLINE OF THE LORD, NOR FAINT WHEN YOU ARE REPROVED BY HIM; 6 FOR THOSE WHOM THE LORD LOVES HE DISCIPLINES, AND HE SCOURGES EVERY SON WHOM HE RECEIVES.” 7 It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness (Hebrews 12:5-10).
Many people think God’s love is such that He “accepts me just as I am.” This is not true. We come to Him in the words of the hymn writer, “Just as I am, without one plea.” But He cannot accept us this way. He accepts us “in Christ,” just as Christ is. God cannot and will not accept our sin. And so, in love, God disciplines us, moving us in love toward holiness. The love of God is not a guarantee that we will not suffer; it is the assurance that whatever suffering we endure is directed toward making us holy by a God who loves us. If it was necessary for Christ to suffer in order to demonstrate God’s love toward us, why would we think our suffering is incompatible with God’s love toward us?
God’s love is not self-serving but sacrificial. Love comes at a high cost, and the one who loves is the one who willingly pays the price.
16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
13 “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
20 “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20).
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25).
9 By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:9-10).
Love always has a price tag, and the “lover” is gladly willing to pay the price. From eternity past, God set His love on us and purposed to save us through the sacrificial death of His Son.
God’s love is selective. When a man wants to marry, he chooses the woman he wants to be his wife. He chooses her apart from, and above, all others. He makes a selection. God’s love is likewise selective. He chooses some and not others:
“Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:13; Malachi 1:2-3).
“Yet on your fathers did the Lord set His affection to love them, and He chose their descendants after them, even you above all peoples, as it is this day (Deuteronomy 10:15).
“You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He may give to you” (John 15:16).
God’s love is not given to men because they are lovely. He has chosen to love us in spite of our miserable condition.
7 “The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the LORD brought you out by a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).
8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
We must conclude then that love is a choice—God’s choice. God chose to love us above others, not because of anything which we have done, or will do, but simply as a choice of His sovereign grace:
6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; 7 neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” 8 That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. 9 For this is a word of promise: “At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; 11 for though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, 12 it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” 14 What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! 15 For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy (Romans 9:6-16).
There is nothing whatever in the objects of His love to call it forth; nothing in man could attract or prompt it. Love among men is awakened by something in the beloved, but the love of God is free, spontaneous, unevoked, uncaused. God loves men because He has chosen to love them—as Charles Wesley put it, ‘He hath loved us, He hath loved us, because he would love’ (an echo of Deut. 7:8)—and no reason for His love can be given save His own sovereign good pleasure. The Greek and Roman world of New Testament times had never dreamed of such love; its gods were often credited with lusting after women, but never with loving sinners; and the New Testament writers had to introduce what was virtually a new Greek word agape to express the love of God as they knew it.112
God’s love is an exercise of His goodness towards individual sinners. It is not a vague, diffused good-will towards everyone in general and nobody in particular; rather, as being a function of omniscient almightiness, its nature is to particularize both its objects and its effects. God’s purpose of love, formed before creation (cf. Eph. 1:4), involved, first, the choice and selection of those whom He would bless and, second, the appointment of the benefits to be given them and the means whereby these benefits would be procured and enjoyed. All this was made sure from the start. So Paul writes to the Thessalonian Christians, ‘we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren, beloved by the Lord, because God chose you (selection) from the beginning (before creation) to be saved (the appointed end) through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth (the appointed means)’ (2 Thess. 2:12, RSV).113
The love of God is one attribute of God, one of many. God’s love is not the complete truth about God as far as the Bible is concerned; it is one attribute among many. God’s love is related to His other attributes:
It is not an abstract definition which stands alone, but a summing up, from the believer’s standpoint, of what the whole revelation set forth in Scripture tells us about its Author. This statement [God is love] presupposes all the rest of the biblical witness to God. The God of whom John is speaking is the God who made the world, who judged it by the Flood, who called Abraham and made of him a nation, who chastened His Old Testament people by conquest, captivity, and exile, who sent His Son to save the world, who cast off unbelieving Israel and shortly before John wrote had destroyed Jerusalem, and who would one day judge the world in righteousness. It is this God, says John, who is love. It is not possible to argue that a God who is love cannot also be a God who condemns and punishes the disobedient; for it is precisely of the God who does these very things that John is speaking.114
Here is precisely where many go wrong. Men often reason like this:
(1) God is a God of love.
God(2) is all-powerful.
(3) God therefore cannot allow suffering and pain if He is both loving and powerful.
The logic fails because it omits other critical elements of the equation. God is also holy. He hates sin. Men are sinful, hostile to God, to His Word, and to the way of righteousness. Human suffering tells us as much about men as it does about God. In love, God allows sickness and suffering to notify us that something is wrong. But what is wrong is not God; it is sinful man and the world man has corrupted by sin.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (1 John 4:7-11).
We love, because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).
In love, God provided a cure, a salvation not only for fallen men but for a fallen creation as well. In love, God sent His Son to die on the cross of Calvary, bearing man’s sins and offering to fallen men the righteousness of God. Those who receive the gift of salvation in Christ become the special objects of divine love, and then they begin to manifest this love toward others, who live in a sick, pain-filled, fallen world.
By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:9-10).
God’s love to sinners was expressed by the gift of His Son to be their Saviour. The measure of love is how much it gives, and the measure of the love of God is the gift of His only Son to be made man, and to die for sins, and so to become the one mediator who can bring us to God. No wonder Paul speaks of God’s love as ‘great,’ and passing knowledge! (Eph. 2:4, 3:19.) Was there ever such costly munificence?115
God’s love is evidenced in the forgiveness of sins, but not incompatible with punishing sinners. Some wrongly think of love as antithetical to punishment. They believe they love their children by not punishing them. They expect God to bless them and make them happy, and then they become angry and frustrated when God allows suffering or pain. This evidences an inadequate definition of love.
Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7 who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:6-7).
In Exodus 34:6-7, the lovingkindness, compassion, and grace of God are evident in the forgiveness of sins, which He brought about through the punishment of our sins. Full and final forgiveness of our sins was accomplished by our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. But how was this forgiveness brought about? It was accomplished when God punished us for our sins in Christ.
4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. 6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him (Isaiah 53:4-6).
21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-26).
24 And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. 25 For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls (1 Peter 2:24-25).
“How,” some ask, “can a loving God send anyone to hell?” The truth is that our loving God sent His Son to hell for our sins, so that we might have our sins forgiven and enjoy the blessings of heaven rather than endure our just punishment in hell. Those who reject God’s punishment of His Son in our place must endure the punishment themselves. That men go to hell is not so much a reflection on God’s love as a reflection of our animosity toward the God of love who provided a way of escape, a way which some reject.
The first and foremost question I must ask you is this: “Have you accepted God’s gift of love in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ?” Jesus Christ is the “beloved Son” of God, in whom God is well pleased (Matthew 3:17). Because of this, we should “listen to Him” (Matthew 17:5). To accept the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary as God’s gift of salvation to you is to enter into His love. To reject Jesus Christ and attempt to stand before God in your own righteousness is to shun the love of God and to deservedly await eternal punishment. Only those who trust in Jesus Christ can experience and express the love of God. Those who reject the gift of His love in Christ have no claim on His love. The fact is that none of us have any claim on His love, but those who are saved gratefully receive it, and give glory and praise to Him for His grace.
In our witness to a sinful, lost, and dying world, we dare not distort the love of God. God is the One who defines love, not men. We must accept God’s love as God has defined and expressed it. We dare not rely on God conforming to the distorted perceptions of love to which fallen men ignorantly cling. We must be careful not to compartmentalize God’s love and separate it from His other attributes, or try to evangelize men by appealing only to the love of God. Our Lord did not indicate that we should depend upon the “attraction” of His love, as much as He has indicated that lost men should be compelled by a sense of His righteousness, our sin, and the judgment which awaits sinners (John 16:7-11). The sinner ought not to be comforted by assurances of the love of God (apart from Christ), but should be reminded that God hates sinners:
The boastful shall not stand before Thine eyes; Thou dost hate all who do iniquity (Psalm 5:5).
The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, And the one who loves violence His soul hates (Psalm 11:5).
I hate the assembly of evildoers, And I will not sit with the wicked (Psalm 26:5).
If we are to enjoy the benefits of God’s love, we not only need to embrace it through faith in Jesus Christ, we need to actively enter into it in an ongoing way as a lifestyle:
“Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. 10 If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments, and abide in His love” (John 15:9-10).
May God grant that we may enter more and more into His love, and that we may therefore become instruments of His love to a lost and loveless world.
110 Packer defines the love of God this way: God’s love is an exercise of His goodness towards individual sinners whereby, having identified Himself with their welfare, He has given His Son to be their Saviour, and now brings them to know and enjoy Him in a covenant relation. J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 111.
111 Arthur. W. Pink, Gleanings in the Godhead (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), p. 72.
112 J. I. Packer, Knowing God, p. 112.
113 Ibid., pp. 112-113.
114 Ibid., p. 108.
115 Ibid., p. 114.