The Love of God
The love of God, as with His grace, mercy, and longsuffering, is another aspect of that more general attribute which we have referred to as goodness. More than that: Love is something God is. The apostle John concludes that lovelessness on the part of the individual is an indication that one does not know God, "because God is love" (1 John 4:8). Love, therefore, according to Carl Henry, "is not accidental or incidental to God; it is an essential revelation of the divine nature, a fundamental and eternal perfection" (V:341). Simply put, God is a lover.
But what is love? Love is simply the giving by God of Himself to His creatures. It is the benevolent disposition or inclination in God that stirs him to bestow benefits both physical and spiritual upon those created in His image (and is thus in this respect synonymous with grace). However, insofar as not all of God's creatures receive and experience His love in precisely the same manner or to the same degree, one cannot speak of "the love of God" without qualification. It seems inescapable, both from Scripture and experience, that we differentiate between the love of God as manifested in common grace and the love of God as manifested in special grace.
· The love of God as manifested in common grace is the love of God as creator which consists of providential kindness, mercy, and longsuffering. It is an indiscriminate and universal love which constrains to the bestowing of all physical and spiritual benefits short of salvation itself. It is received and experienced by the elect and non-elect alike (see Matt. 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-38).
· The love of God as manifested in special grace is the love of God as savior, which consists of redemption, the efficacy of regenerating grace, and the irrevocable possession of eternal life. It is a discriminate and particular love that leads him to bestow the grace of eternal life in Christ. It is received and experienced by the elect only.
Helpful in this regard is the way D. A. Carson identifies five distinguishable ways in which the Bible speaks of the love of God (“On Distorting the Love of God,” BibSac, 156 January-March 1999, No. 621, pp. 3-13):
(1) First is the peculiar love of the Father for the Son (John 3:35; 5:20) and of the Son for the Father (John 14:31).
(2) Second is God’s providential love over all of his creation. Although the word “love” is itself rarely used in this way, there is no escaping the fact that the world is the product of a loving Creator (see the declaration of “good” over what God has made in Gen. 1:4,10,12,18,21,25,31).
(3) Third is God’s saving love toward the fallen world (John 3:16).
(4) Fourth is God’s particular, effectual, selecting love for his elect. The elect may be the nation of Israel, or the church, or specific individuals. See esp. Deut. 7:7-8; 10:14-15; Eph. 5:25.
(5) Fifth is God’s love toward his own people in a provisional or conditional way. Often the experience of God’s love is portrayed as something that is conditioned upon obedience and the fear of God. This doesn’t have to do with that love by which we are brought into a saving relationship with God but rather with our capacity to feel and enjoy the affection of God. See Jude 21; John 15:9-10; Psalm 103:9-18.
A. The Principles of Divine Love
1. Like grace, the saving love of God is undeserved. This is but to say that the love of God for sinners, which issues in their salvation, finds no obstacle in their sin. God loves us while we were yet sinners precisely in order that the glory of His love might be supremely magnified. It was when we were still “powerless” that “Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). Again, Paul stressed that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8; cf. Deut. 7:6-8). Consequently, the sole cause of God's saving love for sinners is God Himself!
"What was there in me that could merit esteem,
Or give the Creator delight?
'Twas even so, Father, I ever must sing,
Because it seemed good in Thy sight."
2. This love of God, then, is clearly the source or cause of the atoning work of Christ. God does not love men because Christ died for them, Christ died for them because God loved them. The death of the Savior is not to be conceived as restoring in people something on the basis of which we might then win God's love. The sacrifice of Christ does not procure God's affection, as if it were necessary, through His sufferings, to extract love from an otherwise stern, unwilling, reluctant Deity. On the contrary, God's love constrains to the death of Christ and is supremely manifested therein. In a word, the saving love of God is giving:
"I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20).
"This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 4:9-1O).
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).
"Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Eph. 5:1-2).
"Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (Eph. 5:25).
The citation of such texts could continue seemingly without end (see also Rom. 5:6-8; 1 John 3:16; Rev. 1:5). But after a survey of only these few it is evident that, in the words of Henry, "almost invariably the New Testament Epistles expound God's love for us by reference to the cross. To eliminate the death of Christ for sinners would eviscerate the very heart of divine love as portrayed in the New Testament" (VI:355).
3. The saving love of God is also sovereign. John Murray explains as follows:
"Truly God is love. Love is not something adventitious; it is not something that God may choose to be or choose not to be. He is love, and that necessarily, inherently, and eternally. As God is spirit, as he is light, so he is love. Yet it belongs to the very essence of electing love to recognize that it is not inherently necessary to that love which God necessarily and eternally is that he should set such love as issues in redemption and adoption upon utterly undesirable and hell-deserving objects. It was of the free and sovereign good pleasure of his will, a good pleasure that emanated from the depths of his own goodness, that he chose a people to be heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ. The reason resides wholly in himself and proceeds from determinations that are peculiarly his as the 'I am that I am'" (RAA, 10).
A. W. Pink concurs. Concerning the statement, "Jacob have I loved but Esau have I hated," he writes: There was no more reason in Jacob why he should be the object of Divine love, than there was in Esau. They both had the same parents, and were born at the same time, being twins [neither one had done anything good or evil]: yet God loved the one and hated the other! Why? Because it pleased Him to do so" (93).
Thus, to say that love is sovereign is to say it is distinguishing. It is, by definition as saving love, bestowed upon and experienced by those only who are in fact saved (i.e., the elect). Although there is surely a sense in which God loves the non-elect, He does not love them redemptively. If He did, they would certainly be redeemed. God loves them, but not savingly, else they would certainly be saved. All this is but to say that God's eternal, electing love is not universal but particular.
4. It is also to the saving love of God that we trace the cause of our predestination. Paul writes:
"For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers" (Rom. 8:29).
Although God certainly foresees all that comes to pass, more than bare foresight is envisioned here. The foreknowledge of which Paul speaks in Romans 8:29 is distinguishing, not universal: it is a foreknowledge of those and those only who are in turn predestined, called, justified, and glorified. But what precisely does it mean? Murray explains:
"Many times in Scripture 'know' has a pregnant meaning which goes beyond that of mere cognition. It is used in a sense practically synonymous with love, to set regard upon, to know with peculiar interest, delight, affection, and action (of. Gen. 18:19; Exod. 2:25; Psalm 1:6; 144:3; Jer. 1:5; Amos 3:2; Hosea 13:5; Matt. 7:23; I Cor. 8:3; Gal. 4:9; II Tim. 2:19; I John 3:1). There is no reason why this import of the word 'know' should not be applied to 'foreknow' in this passage, as also in 11:2 where it also occurs in the same kind of construction and where the thought of election is patently present (cf. 11: 5, 6). When this import is appreciated, then there is no reason for adding any qualifying notion and 'whom he foreknew' is seen to contain within itself the differentiating element required. It means 'whom he set regard upon' or 'whom he knew from eternity with distinguishing affection and delight' and is virtually equivalent to 'whom he foreloved'" (I:317).
It is, therefore, God's eternal and distinguishing love, conditioned upon no other grounds than His own sovereign and immutable purpose, that explains and accounts for our predestination unto conformity to Christ.
5. This same love of God is the reason for our adoption as sons. It was "in love" that God "predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance [not with our foreseen faith but in accordance] with his pleasure and will" (Eph. 1:4b-5). It is because God loved that he predestinated. "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us," John understandably exclaims, "that we should be called children of God" (1 John 3:1)!
"Behold the amazing gift of love
The Father hath bestowed,
On us the sinful sons of men,
To call us sons of God!" (Isaac Watts)
6. We should not in the least be surprised that this love of God is described as "great." It was because of his "great love for us" that God made us alive together with Christ. It is a great love because it can never be exhausted, its depths never plumbed, its purpose never thwarted by the sin of man (Eph. 2:4-5). And again, the context will not permit this love to be universalized. Murray writes that it is a love
"which impels to the efficacious actions [of being quickened together with Christ and raised with Him] and cannot have an extent broader than those embraced in the actions specified. The same kind of relationship obtains between the 'great love' and the saving actions as obtains between love and predestination in Ephesians 1:5 and, again, the quality of the love must be as distinctive as the saving acts which are its result" (I:71).
This is not to say that God does not "love" in any sense those who are never saved (i.e., made spiritually alive and raised up with Christ). It is simply to say that only those who are, in fact, saved are especially God's "beloved" and the objects of a divine affection that actually issues in their being saved.
7. The saving love of God is eternal. It was "before the creation of the world" (Eph. 1:4-5) that He chose us in Christ and predestined us unto adoption as sons (cf. 2 Thess. 2:13). Charles Spurgeon describes this eternal love:
"In the very beginning, when this great universe lay in the mind of God, like unborn forests in the acorn cup; long ere the echoes awoke the solitudes; before the mountains were brought forth; and long ere the light flashed through the sky, God loved His chosen creatures. Before there was any created being; when the ether was not fanned by an angel's wing, when space itself had not an existence, where there was nothing save God alone — even then, in that loneliness of Deity, and in that deep quiet and profundity, His bowels moved with love for His chosen. Their names were written on His heart, and then were they dear to His soul. Jesus loved His people before the foundation of the world — even from eternity! and when He called me by His grace, He said to me, 'I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee'"(I:167).
8. This love is not only eternal in its conception, it is irrevocable in its purpose. "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?" (Rom. 8:35). Nothing, Paul insists and assures, shall be able to separate us from the love of Christ. That alone can sever us from the embrace of God's love which is greater than God. Hence we rest secure.
"My name from the palms of His hands
Eternity will not erase;
Impress'd on His heart it remains,
In marks of indelible grace."
9. In Romans 5, Paul can speak of a confident hope on no other ground than that God has loved us in Christ. It is because He loved us when we were yet His enemies, a love demonstrated by the sending of His Son, that His love for us now that we are His friends is unshakable. This "much more" argument of Romans 5:8-11 is encouragement indeed. Paul says, in effect, that if when we were alienated from God, He, notwithstanding, reconciled us to Himself through His Son, how much more, now that we have been graciously instated in His favor and the alienation removed, shall the exalted and everlasting life of Christ insure our being saved to the uttermost! Murray comments: "It would be a violation of the wisdom, goodness, and faithfulness of God to suppose that he would have done the greater [love His enemies] and fail in the lesser [love His friends]" (I:175).
10. Discipline, no less than life, is a product of the divine love: "My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son" (Heb, 12:5b-6).
The Hebrew Christians to whom these words were addressed had mistakenly come to think that the absence of affliction was a sign of God's special favor and, therefore, that suffering and oppression were an indication of His displeasure. On the contrary, so far from being a proof of God's anger or rejection of us, afflictions are evidence of His fatherly love. Discipline, writes Philip Hughes, "is the mark not of a harsh and heartless father but of a father who is deeply and lovingly concerned for the well-being of his son" (528).
11. The eternal and irrevocable love which God has for His people also secures far more than merely the reconciliation of estranged sinners. This manifold design of God's saving love is especially evident in John's first epistle. For example, the love that God has for us is said to make possible our love for one another. Following his discussion of God's love as witnessed in the atoning sacrifice of His Son (1 John 4:7-11), John writes: "No one has ever seen God; but if we love each other, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us".(1 John 4:12).
Other texts of Scripture confirm that God has never been seen (cf. 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16; Exod. 33:20). How, then, can He be known? In John 1:18 the answer is given: "No one has ever seen God, but God the only Son, who is at the Father's side, has made him known."
This is all well and good, but for what purpose does John include it in this context? Evidently, according to John Stott, he wishes to say that the unseen God, revealed once in His Son, "is now revealed in His people if and when they love one another. God's love is seen in their love because their love is His love imparted to them by His Spirit" (164). The point is that although God cannot be seen in Himself He can be seen in those in whom He abides when they love others with that very love wherewith they were loved! The fullness of God's redemptive love for us in Christ thus attains its intended goal in our love for one another.
This notion that God's love has for its ultimate design more than the salvation of those on whom it is showered is seen yet again in 1 John 2:5. Here we read that "if anyone obeys his word, God's love is truly made complete in him." That is to say, the love of God achieves its ordained purpose when we as the recipients of it in turn obey Him from whom it has come forth.
John pursues this same theme from yet another angle in 1 John 4:17. "Love is made complete among us," he argues, "so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him." Once more, God's love secures its end to the degree that we who are its objects cease to fear the day of judgment. The knowledge of God's fatherly love should forever dispel any apprehension of standing in His presence. This is not presumption, but a Spirit-induced conviction that God's love has efficaciously and eternally provided for us in Christ that righteousness on the basis of which we are delivered from all penal liability. God's perfect love for us, when rightly perceived, does indeed cast out fear!
12. No wonder, then, in light of what we have seen, that Paul speaks of the love of God as incomprehensible! And yet he prays specifically that we might know this love that "surpasses knowledge" (Eph. 3:19). John Eadie says it beautifully. God's love
"may be known in some features and to some extent, but at the same time it stretches away into infinitude, far beyond the ken of human discovery and analysis. As a fact manifested in time and embodied in the incarnation, life, teaching, and death of the Son of God, it may be understood, for it assumed a nature of clay, bled on the cross, and lay prostrate in the tomb; but in its unbeginning existence as an eternal passion, antedating alike the Creation and the Fall, it 'passeth knowledge.' In the blessings which it confers - the pardon, grace, and glory which it provides - it may be seen in palpable exhibition, and experienced in happy consciousness; but in its limitless power and endless resources it baffles thought and description. In the terrible sufferings and death to which it led, and in the self-denial and sacrifices which it involved, it may be known so far by the application of human instincts and analogies; but the fathomless fervour of a Divine affection surpasses the measurements of created intellect. As the attachment of a man, it may be gauged; but as the love of a God, who can by searching find it out? Uncaused itself it originated salvation; unresponded to amidst the 'contradiction of sinners,' it neither pined nor collapsed. It led from Divine immortality to human agonies and dissolution, for the victim was bound to the cross not by the nails of the military executioner, but by the 'cords of love.' It loved repulsive unloveliness, and, unnourished by reciprocated attachment, its ardour was unquenched, nay, is unquenchable, for it is changeless as the bosom in which it dwells" (257-58).
B. Immeasurable Love
No discussion of the love of God would be complete without some statement on John 3:16. Indeed, the preceding analysis was in large measure designed to enable us to interpret correctly and appreciate more deeply the sense of divine love as found in that passage of Scripture.
The meaning of this text has frequently been obscured by interpreters who, unfortunately, have failed to place it in the broader context of what Scripture as a whole says concerning this divine attribute. Therefore, in the light of what we have already seen to be true of the love of God, let us consider this most famous of texts.
Often the interpretation of John 3:16 begins with the term world, for it is believed that here lies the key to a proper appreciation of the dimensions of divine love. "Just think," we are told, "of the multitudes of men and women who have, do now, and yet shall swarm across the face of the earth. God loves them all, each and every one. Indeed, God so loves them that He gave His only begotten Son to die for each and every one of them. O how great the love of God must be to embrace within its arms these uncounted multitudes of people."
Is this what John (or Jesus, as recorded by John) had in mind? It is undeniably his purpose to set before us the immeasurable love of God. But are we able to perceive how immeasurable God's love is by measuring how big the world is? I think not. What is the finite sum of mankind when set opposite the infinitude of God? We could as well measure the strength of the blacksmith by declaring him capable of supporting a feather on an outstretched palm! The primary force of this text is certainly to magnify the infinite quality and majesty of God's love. But such an end can never be reached by computing the extent or number of its objects. Do we to any degree heighten the value of Christ's death by ascertaining the quantity of those for whom He died? Of course not! Had He but died for one sinner, the value of His sacrifice would be not less glorious than had He suffered for ten millions of worlds!
Rather, let us pause to consider the contrast which the apostle intends for us to see. John surely desires that we reflect in our hearts upon the immeasurable character of so great a love, and that we do so by placing in contrast, one over against the other — God and the world. What does this reveal? Of what do we think concerning God when He is seen loving the world? And of what do we think concerning the world when it is seen as the object of God's love? Is the contrast this: that God is one and the world many? Is it that His love is magnified because He, as one, has loved the world, comprised of many? Again, certainly not.
This love is infinitely majestic because God, as holy, has loved the world, as sinful! What strikes us is that God who is righteous loves the world which is unrighteous. This text takes root in our hearts because it declares that He who dwells in unapproachable light has deigned to enter the realm of darkness; that He who is just has given Himself for the unjust (1 Peter 3:18); that He who is altogether glorious and desirable has suffered endless shame for detestable and repugnant creatures, who apart from His grace respond only with hell-deserving hostility! Thus, as Murray has said,
"it is what God loved in respect of its character that throws into relief the incomparable and incomprehensible love of God. To find anything else as the governing thought would detract from the emphasis. God loved what is the antithesis of himself; this is its marvel and greatness" (I:79).
When we read John's Gospel (and Epistles), we discover that the "world" is viewed fundamentally neither as the elect nor non-elect but as a collective organism: sinful, estranged, alienated from God, abiding under His wrath and curse. The world is detestable because it is the contradiction of all that is holy, good, righteous, and true. The world, then, is the contradiction of God. It is synonymous with all that is evil and noisome. It is that system of fallen humanity viewed not in terms of its size but as a satanically controlled kingdom hostile to the kingdom of Christ. It is what God loved in respect of its quality therefore, not quantity that sheds such glorious light on this divine attribute.
In summary, carefully note the explanation of B. B. Warfleld:
"The marvel . . . which the text brings before us is just that marvel above all other marvels in this marvelous world of ours - the marvel of God's love for sinners. And this is the measure by which we are invited to measure the greatness of the love of God. It is not that it is so great that it is able to extend over the whole of a big world: it is so great that it is able to prevail over the Holy God's hatred and abhorrence of sin. For herein is love, that God could love the world - the world that lies in the evil one: that God who is all-holy and just and good, could so love this world that He gave His only begotten Son for it, - that He might not judge it, but that it might be saved" (515-16).
Note carefully Warfield's definition of the term world:
"It is not here a term of extension so much as a term of intensity. Its primary connotation is ethical, and the point of its employment is not to suggest that the world is so big that it takes a great deal of love to embrace it all, but that the world is so bad that it takes a great kind of love to love it at all, and much more to love it as God has loved it when He gave His son for it. The whole debate as to whether the love here celebrated distributes itself to each and every man that enters into the composition of the world, or terminates on the elect alone chosen out of the world, lies thus outside the immediate scope of the passage and does not supply any key to its interpretation. The passage was not intended to teach, and certainly does not teach, that God loves all men alike and visits each and every one alike with the same manifestations of His love: and as little was it intended to teach or does it teach that His love is confined to a few especially chosen individuals selected out of the world. What it is intended to do is to arouse in our hearts a wondering sense of the marvel and the mystery of the love of God for the sinful world — conceived, here, not quantitatively but qualitatively as, in its very distinguishing characteristic, sinful" (516).