This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Love. Click here to see the entire series.
I John 4: 7-8 is almost as popular as John 3:16. Unfortunately, it is equally misused. John says, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and every one who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” God is love. We have heard it a million times, but what does it mean?
I believe it is fair to say that the standard evangelical interpretation of “God is love” is that God is in love with mankind. By that they mean that God is incapable of behaving in any way toward men other than what would generally be described as “loving”. Of course, we then have to define what “loving” means. In evangelical doctrine “loving” usually means emotionally attached. God is portrayed as emotionally linked to mankind. We are told that He does not desire for any bad things to happen to mankind. He wishes that He could make all bad things go away. However, because He is either unwilling or unable to override the free will of men and nature (yes, even nature has free will…it is seen in things like hurricanes and earthquakes where bad things happen to people even though God does not want them to), He is left sitting on the sidelines cheering for His beloved mankind to do the best they can in their tough situations.
It is alleged that God is also loving towards mankind in that He will patiently wait outside the door of every human being’s heart for the entire life of that particular human in the hope that he will someday open the door and allow Him in. Imagine the most lovesick individual, constantly pleading to his beloved from outside her bedroom window, night after night after night after night. This, we are told, is what it means for God to love us. When, on the rare occasion, one of the humans makes the decision to exercise his free will and open the door to allow God in, He rejoices as He has never rejoiced before. In fact, all of the angels of heaven get together with Him to throw a huge party to celebrate that His love is no longer unrequited. What a joy! It should be obvious by now that this doctrine of love is in no way related to the biblical doctrine of love we have seen. Nevertheless, God is love. What does that mean?
J.I.Packer, in his exposition of the love of God (“Knowing God”), states “God is love is the complete truth about God to the Christian, but is not the complete truth about God.” That is an interesting way of putting it. I believe that Mr. Packer is trying to get at the theological fact that the love of God can be seen as existing in two forms. Simply put, God has saving love for His people and sustaining love for His creatures. Not all love is of the same type or class. This should not surprise us since even the human emotional loves are different in their defining characteristics. It is important to understand the different expressions of the love of God for mankind and I believe a good distinction to make is that between saving and sustaining love.
We have already examined Matthew 5: 43-48 in the context of the commandment to love our enemies. The passage also has something to teach us about the sustaining love of God. Verse 45 says, “…in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Here Jesus is preaching that we are to love our enemies because God the Father loves His enemies. This is extremely important to understand. How does God the Father love His enemies? Clearly He does not save all of them. They are His enemies and they will be ultimately judged as His enemies. They will go to hell. Jesus tells us how He loves His enemies. He “causes the sun to rise” and “sends the rain” upon them. In other words, He sustains their lives. More importantly, He behaves lawfully towards them. He agapes them. The point that Jesus is making is that we ought to love our enemies the same way that God loves His enemies. We ought to behave lawfully towards our enemies. We ought to agape them.
The love of God is shown to His enemies by virtue of the fact that He sustains their lives for a period of time prior to condemning them to eternal damnation. God would be perfectly justified in wiping out every newborn the moment he draws his first breath. Original sin being what it is, there is perfect justice in God should he decide to annihilate all infants as they are born. But God chooses to be longsuffering. Romans 9, which we will be examining in more detail momentarily, has this to say about the longsuffering nature of God towards His enemies, “What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory…” (verses 22-23). Notice what is being said here. God displays sustaining love towards His enemies for the sake of His elect. The nature of the world is such that the lives of the elect are better off when God postpones His wrath against the reprobate.
Jesus said the same thing in Matthew 13:24-30. This is known as the parable of the tares. Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven and he describes it as being compared to a “man who sowed good seed in his field” only to discover that an enemy had sown tares in the midst of the wheat. As the two begin to grow together the tenders of the field come to the Master and ask Him if they should destroy the tares before they do harm to the wheat. The answer of the Master is telling. He says, “No; lest while you are gathering up the tares, you may root up the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.'” God manifests His sustaining love towards His enemies because He has a nature that is longsuffering with respect to the creatures He has created and, because He does not want to harm His elect with temporal judgments. God displays His sustaining love for all mankind by virtue of the fact that He does not make their earthly lives as bad as they could be. God loves all men because He always behaves consistently with His revealed law towards them. Of course, that means that men who are outside of Christ will eventually be judged for their sins since that is what the law requires. In this sense, God loves everybody.
This doctrine of love for all men should not surprise us. It is precisely the same doctrine we saw when thinking about our duty as Christians to love our enemies. Remember how we can tell the homosexual that we love him? We can sustain his life. We can give him a drink of water. We can pray that he will either repent or be subject to the wrath of God. We can call him to repentance and declare the righteous requirements of the law to him. Lastly, we can rejoice in either his repentance or the righteous judgment of God upon him for his sin. In this sense we are behaving just like our heavenly Father, just as Jesus commanded. There is nothing new here. The law of love revealed for our enemies in the Old Testament (other than the residents of Canaan, as we have seen) is the same as the law of love revealed for our enemies in the New Testament. Furthermore, the law of love revealed for our enemies in both testaments is also consistent with the law of love revealed by God toward His enemies. Last, the law of love revealed in the Bible and by God’s treatment of His enemies should be the law by which we live in the presence of our enemies. The Bible is consistent. Are we?
The second love of God is His saving love. His saving love is reserved for those whom the Father has given to the Son, otherwise known in Scripture as the elect. The saving love of God is demonstrated in the fact that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. The extent of His saving love is seen in the fact that God so loved the entire world, that He sent His only Son so that whosoever believes in Him might have eternal life. The depth of his saving love such that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. The saving love of God guarantees that His people will persevere and be present at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb as a pure, holy, and spotless Bride. The saving love of God is defined by His sacrifice of His Son on behalf of His people. That sacrifice then goes on to become the core of the loving relationship between husbands and wives (“Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church.”) Additionally, I will argue that His saving love should also be the core of the loving relationship between believers.