There is nothing more beautiful than the love of God. The love of God is essential to the Christian faith, yet how often we misunderstand this robust, multifaceted love. DA Carson was right when he calls the doctrine of the love of God “difficult”. The reason God’s love is so difficult is because it is actually offensive to most westerners who operate with a reductionistic understanding of love. Love is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot. We will within the same breath say we love our children and that we also love pizza. Love is a word that gets tossed around so much that is has largely lost meaning. The word “love” itself seems to be ambiguously and subjectively defined by the individual. For someone love might mean a sacrifice, for another it may mean freedom, for others it may mean restrictions and boundaries, for others it may be an emotion or feeling. Whatever our personal understanding of love, we tend to reduce love to fit our own personal wants and wishes. To make understanding the doctrine of the love of God even more difficult, we fail to recognize how much our cultural presuppositions influence the way we think about love. Just as one drop of food coloring can transform the whole color of a bowl full of icing, so does our culture comprehensively influence all our thinking. To be ignorant of the cultural influences that pressure us and surround us will always result in a convoluted mess. Although we cannot remove all our cultural influences from our thinking, we must seek to remove the cloudy lens of our present day to see the Scriptures clearly.
One of the great challenges is defining terms. Since love is such a junk drawer term, is it even possible to come up with a definition? Can there be an objective definition of what love is or is it a fluid word that simply adapts to our wishes? Well to give up the possibility of objective definitions is to simply dive into the chaotic emptiness of the postmodern predicament – meaninglessness. Yet, though we may be confused about love, we know that love is a meaningful word. It is an important word. We should not give it up simply because it is complicated to disentangle bad definitions or to correct grievous misunderstandings.
Who defines love? Or perhaps the better question is this, who is the authority that establishes a definition of love? A scripture that is well known and often quoted is 1 John 2:8 “God is love”. Although we need to understand what John means by “love”, we all know this, love is an essential characteristic and quality of who God is. It is essential to his being. So to provide a definition of love we must not look to our culture, but rather to the very character of God. Yet, what we will find is that the love of God is actually offensive to our modern times. The love of God, both at the same time, condemns us and redeems us. It is a love that both forgives us and sanctifies us.
What is Love?
So what is love? What does the Scripture say about how God loves us and thus how we should love one another? Well to do that we must examine the Scriptures and what we will find is that God’s love is God centered. It is a holy love, an offensive love. Let’s examines some key Scriptures.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, ESV)
“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” (Romans 3:23–24, ESV)
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,” (Ephesians 2:8, ESV)
So it seems from these Scriptures that Salvation is solely an act of God’s grace, which it is. However, it is easy to read these Scriptures and thinks that God merely just wipes the slate clean. He merely just looks over our sin and just attaches salvation to us. From our perspective this is what seems to happen, but from the perspective of God something much bigger (and better) is happening. In order for God to love us, he must make us holy.
God cannot love sinners as they are an offense to his holiness. So how does God solve this problem? Well enter Jesus. The son enters into the world and buys our salvation, absorbing the penalty for sin on the cross. This way sin is not only paid for, but we receive the righteousness of Christ. Therefore God imputes the righteous beauty of Christ to his bride the church. When God gifts us with salvation he is not only wiping our slate clean, but he makes us holy.
“When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.” (John 17:1–2, ESV)
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:” (Romans 3:21–22, ESV)
“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers,” (Hebrews 2:10–11, ESV)
“Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.” (Hebrews 5:8–10, ESV)
So what do we see from these verses? We see that salvation is given to unworthy recipients because of the worthiness of Christ. God’s great love for his people is founded in His love for his son, Jesus Christ. God loves those who are in Christ, because he loves the holy righteousness of himself. As Jonathan Edwards says “All God’s love may be resolved into his love to himself and delight in himself….His love to the creature is only his inclination to glorify himself and communicate himself, and his delight in himself glorified and in himself communicated”.
A Holy, God-Centered Love
In other words, God’s love has a God-centered aim. God’s love has a purpose, an end to which it is trying to achieve. He saves us and imputes to us the righteousness of Christ so that we might be like Christ. God so loves the image of His son that he multiplies this in love to those who are saved. So why does God save us and redeem us? He does so for His own glory. So that the bride of Christ, the church, might praise him and make much of Him. As the psalmist writes, “Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and atone for our sins for your name’s sake!” (Psalm 79:9). See God’s passion for his glory in Romans 15:8-9, “Christ became a servant ... in order that the nations might glorify God for his mercy”.
So the love that God has for us is a holy love, a love that is aimed at glorifying God. It is divinely oriented and motivated. The cross is the great display of God’s love towards us, but its chief aim is to make much of God. The glory of God is the chief aim of all creation.
So if the love of God is a God-centered love, it is a holy love. This means that God cannot love in a salvific way that which is unholy and tainted by sin. For the sinner is the enemy of God, continually attacking and marring the beauty of God’s glory. But God, zealous to defend, redeem, and manifest His holiness sends Christ to save sinners to the praise of His glorious grace!
The cross then is the great intersection of God’s justice and love. It is the vindication of his holiness and his gracious compassion on sinners. For at the cross, God’s wrath is satisfied by the blood of his son, and the holiness of the son, which God so delights in, is given to sinners. So God loves sinners because they are given the righteousness of the son. Sinners are justified because they possess the righteousness of Christ. Because the Father loves his holy, obedient son through Christ’s death he loves us who have received the beautiful holiness of Jesus as our own.
You can see how the love of God is surprisingly offensive. The object of God’s love must be holy. So God’s love not only offers us the gift of salvation, but it states that something is seriously wrong with us. In our sin we are by nature children of wrath, and it is only through Christ that we can be saved. It is only those who are in Christ who become the object of God’s holy redemptive love. If we are united in Christ by faith we receive the same love that God shares in his perfect son, therefore in order to be loved by God we must receive the righteousness of Christ by faith. We must confess our sin and unworthiness and by faith receive the worthiness of Christ.
A Definition for Love
So what is a good definition of biblical love modeled from the biblical doctrine of the love of God. I propose this:
True love delights in affection towards its object, giving of oneself for the other’s good in holiness.
To love is to delight in affection. There is a rejoicing an delighting in the object. There is strong emotions and a strong desire for the object of ones love. Yet true love not only delights in affection towards its object, but gives for the other’s good. In this sense, love is altruistic denying the self for the other. We see this so clearly in the Scriptures, most clearly in the life of Jesus himself who gave of himself on the cross for our salvation. Jesus loved us and demonstrated that love by his death. True love is not so much concerned with being loved but with loving, even at great expense to oneself. If you love someone only because you receive benefits from them, then that isn’t really love, is it? If you love your wife only because she cooks you a hot meal and does your laundry, that’s not love, its selfishness. You are merely loving your wife because you are getting something out of the deal. True love denies the self and gives to the good of the other. True love is not a contract but an act of self denial. All this is for the good of the recipient.
Now, up to this point in our definition few people would have any sort of problem with it. However the question is this – what is the other persons ultimate good? Here is where the Christian definition of love takes a different turn from the worlds. True love has at its aim the holiness of the other person. To reflect God His glory in holiness is the greatest good we can do for one another. True love does not seek its own good, but another’s. So to love one another means we seek to encourage each other towards holiness.
An Example from Marriage
We can see this in Paul’s teaching on marriage. In Ephesians 5:25 he charges husbands to “love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”. So he charges the husband to this affectionate altruistic love for the good of the wife. So husbands are to love in a posture of self-denial seeking the ultimate good of his wife. Now what is that good that true love seeks? Paul tells us in verse 26-27, “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish”.
Did you catch it? True love seeks the good of the other which is holiness. Seeking to sanctify the other is the greatest demonstration of love. Just as Christ laid down his life on the cross, he did this so that he could present the church perfectly holy and without blemish. The good true love seeks to accomplish in its object is beautification in holiness. This not only applies to the relationship of marriage, but within the relationship of the church.
We are to be continually building each other up in maturity to holiness. We love each other as God has loved us, by making one another holy. You can see this as we begin to think about our relationship towards one another. To love you as a member of this church does not mean that I allow you to be in sin and not say a word. To be silent is not to be loving but to be selfish. What keeps us from addressing one another in our sin with love? Do we find that we would rather just not handle the conflict and get our hands dirty? Are we friend of damaging our reputation of or are we fearful that this person may hate us after speaking truth? Does our fear of man hinder our ability to truly love one another?
When we derive our definition of love from the love that God has for us as revealed in the Scriptures, it is far more beautiful than our modern redefinitions of the word. Love is more than tolerance and it is more than acceptance. Love is a zealously affectionate desire to sanctify, which is the greatest good we can do to another. Understanding this way changes the way we think about social engagement, marriage and family, and even church membership. May our understanding of love flow from the great fount of love, the heart of our redeeming God.