The statement, “God is love” (1 John 4:8,16), ‘is one of the most tremendous utterances in the Bible – and also one of the most misunderstood. False ideas have grown up round it like a hedge of thorns, hiding its real meaning from view, and it is no small task cutting through this tangle of mental undergrowth. Yet the hard thought involved is more than repaid when the true sense of these texts comes home to the Christian soul. Those who climb Ben Nevis do not complain of their labour once they see the view from the top!’ So wrote J.I. Packer, in his classic book, Knowing God.
Love is not simply a quality that God possess – it belongs to his very essence. God’s nature has been one of love from all eternity, and we can but dimly perceive the depths of love within the divine Trinity. God’s nature is to love, and therefore does not depend on any attractiveness or worthiness in the object. Indeed, God’s love is magnified by the unloveliness of the recipient of it.
The love God shows to men, and which we know and rejoice in, is a revelation of his own inner being. ‘When we look at God’s wisdom, we see something of his mind; when we think of his power, we see something of his hand and his arm; when we consider his word, we learn about his mouth; but when we contemplate his love, we look into his heart.’
‘God is love’ is not the whole truth about God. It presupposes the rest of the biblical witness to God, who made the world, who judged it in the Flood, who called Abraham, who chastened his people of old by conquest, captivity and exile, who sent his Son to save the world, who will one day judge the world in righteousness. It is this God, says John, who is love, and it is perverse to use this statement to challenge other biblical teaching on, for instance, the severity of God’s justice.
Compare this statement with two grammatically identical ones found elswhere in John’s writings: ‘God is Spirit’, Jn 4:24, and ‘God is light’, 1 Jn 1:5.
The love of God is not fitful or fluctuating. It is not an impotent longing for something unattainable. It is a spontaneous determination of God’s whole being in a attitude of benevolence and benefaction, an attitude freely chosen and firmly fixed. The bonds of God’s love cannot be broken, Rom 8:35-39.
God’s love has always been an essential part of his nature. ‘God was love long before he had made any creatures to be the objects of his love, even from all eternity.’ (Bethune)
God is love, through and through. There is no part of his nature, and no action on his part, of which we can say, ‘That is unloving.’
God’s love is a jealous love. He will brook no rivals.
And yet, to contrast with the above, we must assert that ‘God is love’ is the complete truth about God so far as the Christian is concerned. The believer knows with Paul, that Christ loved ME, and gave himself for ME, Gal 2:20. He knows, further, that ALL things work together for good to them that love and are called according to his purpose, Rom 8:28. ‘Thus, so far as he is concerned, God is love to him – holy, omnipotent love – at every moment and in every event of every day’s life. Even when he cannot see the why and the wherefores of God’s dealings, he knows that there is love in and behind them, and so he can rejoice always, even when, humanly speaking, things are going wrong. He knows that the true story of his life, when known, will prove to be, as the hymn says, “mercy from first to last” – and he is content.’
What is God’s love? It 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 relationship.’
It is an exercise of God’s goodness. God’s goodness is his universal generosity towards all his creatures.
It is an exercise of God’s goodness towards sinners. It thus has the nature of grace and mercy. It is an outworking of divine kindness which is not only undeserved, but actually ill-deserving. For those who are loved by God have broken his law, are corrupt in their natures, and merit only condemnation and eternal banishment from his presence. God loves creatures who are unlovely and (we would have thought) unlovable. There was nothing in them to call his love forth. Love for us is awakened by something in the beloved; but God’s love inexplicable save by his own sovereign good pleasure.
It is an exercise of God’s goodness towards individual sinners. It is not a vague good-will towards everyone in general and no-one in particular. Its nature is the particularise both its objects and its effects. God’s loving purpose marked out beforehand those whom he would bless, and appointed in advance the means whereby these benefits would be secured, 2 Thess 2:13.
It involves God’s identifying himself with the welfare of sinners. We accept that God’s end in all things is his own glory: that he should be manifested, known, admired, and adored. But we must add that God has voluntarily bound up his own happiness with ours, as is the husband’s with the wife’s, and the father’s with the child’s. God has determined that his own happiness shall be conditional upon ours. He saves, not only for his own glory, but for his own gladness. Thus, there is rejoicing in heaven when a sinner repents, Lk 15:10; cf Jude 24.
It was expressed by the gift of his Son to be their Saviour. The measure of love is how much it gives, and God gave his only Son to be made man, to die for sins, and to become the one mediator who can bring us to God. See Jn 3:16; Rom 5:8; Eph 2:4; 3:19. And this one supreme gift guarantees all others, Rom 8:32.
It brings sinners to know and enjoy God in a covenantal relationship. A covenant relationship is one in which two parties are pledged to each other in mutual service and dependence, as in marriage. Biblical religion takes the form of a covenant relationship with God. The terms of the covenant were first made cleaar to Abraham, Gen 17:1ff,7. Christians inherit this promise through faith in Christ, Gal 3:15ff.
If it is true for me as a Christian that ‘God is love’, then I have no reason to grumble at the circumstances in which God has placed me; I need not be distrustful or fearful; I should not allow myself to grow cool, formal, or half-hearted in God’s service; I should not let my loyalties be divided, so that God has less than my best.
When John wrote, ‘God is love’, he did so to drive home the point that ‘we also ought to love one another’, v11. Is my love for others any measure of God’s love for me?
(Based on J.I. Packer, Knowing God, 129-141)