In the Name of Love

Introduction

God is love.

This is perhaps the most universal statement of Christendom; it is a glorious, marvelous truth. It has encouraged and emboldened many hearts. Yet, in recent times Satan has mangled it into something revolting and blasphemous. Under the proud banner “God is Love,” both the heretics and the untaught are committing atrocious deeds. This must not be. It must not continue.

The violent distortion of this truth is the result of an unbiblical definition of love. In the modern English language, love has manifold dictionary definitions: (1) strong affection for another, (2) attraction based on sexual desire, and (3) warm attachment or devotion. [1] Colloquially, to love someone means you’re willing to die for her, you can’t imagine life without her, and you feel good with her. Love is something fallen into, an indescribable euphoria, an unconditional affection, the pursuit of a lifetime, the willingness to do anything to make the beloved happy, the acceptance of the beloved no matter who or what they are.[2] Yet each of these definitions is woefully inadequate, erroneous, and unbiblical because they define love to be, at its core, a feeling or an emotion. At its best, this feeling may occasionally lead to action, but as is clear from above, “love” is primarily sentiment.

But the Bible does not define love to be sentiment; biblical love (in Greek,[3] agapē) is the commitment to the good of the beloved demonstrated by self-sacrificial action. It is not merely affection or attraction. It is not merely emotion or experience. The Scriptures say that love is patient, is kind, rejoices with the truth, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.[4] Patience, kindness, rejoicing, bearing, believing, hoping, and enduring are not mere emotions; they are attitudes of the heart demonstrated for the good of the beloved. To reduce love from such a glorious height to a loosely defined sentiment is to destroy the definition that God Himself has given.

God is Love

The importance of a correct definition cannot be overstated. If love is defined incorrectly, then God is understood incorrectly, for 1 John 4:8 says, “God is love.” There are many opinions about what this verse means. Some say that it means God is defined solely by love, or that God’s dominant attribute is love. Others say that it’s like a mathematical equation, and means: “Whatever God is, love is. Whatever love is, God is. ‘God is love’ means ‘love is God.’” However, all of these are fallacies, and spring from a misunderstanding of basic grammar.

To see this, think, “Love is patient.”[5] What does this sentence mean? It cannot mean that love is defined solely by patience, for the verse continues and says, “love is kind.” Thus, “Love is patient,” must mean that patience is one attribute of love, not the sole attribute. It also cannot mean that patience is the dominant attribute of love, for the passage continues and lists seven other attributes that love is and nine attributes that love is not. Furthermore, it would be foolish to follow mathematical equality logic for these sentences and say, “ ‘Love is patient, love is kind’ means ‘patience is love and kindness is love.’ Thus patience is kindness.” Patience and kindness may be related, but they are not identical: patience is the capacity to forbear without distress and kindness is a disposition of friendliness and warmth. Both words are necessary to describe love.

In the same way, “God is love” does not mean that God is solely love. It does not mean that God’s dominant attribute is love. And, it does not mean that love is God. Rather, when 1 John 4:8 says, “God is love [agapē],” it means that love is an attribute of God. But love is one of God’s attributes. Love must not be elevated above all His other attributes to be dominant if, in fact, it is not. It is gloriously true that God is love. At the same time, God is gloriously solitary, eternal, holy, sovereign, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, immutable, good, patient, merciful, gracious, wrathful, just, righteous, true, perfect, and infinite.[6]

Combining this understanding of “God is love” with a biblical definition of love leads to this conclusion: God Himself is committed to the good of His beloved and demonstrates this love by self-sacrificial action.

God Demonstrates His Love in the Cross

The cross of Jesus Christ is the perfect demonstration of God’s love. As the Scriptures say:

We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; ...By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world… 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. [7]

This passage says “the love of God was manifested” by this: “God sent His only begotten Son into the world … to be the propitiation for our sins.” He did not love us because we loved Him; before the cross, we had no conception of love. Rather, He loved us first, and “demonstrates [presently, continually] His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”[8] Through the cross, we can inherit unfathomable blessing: we can be forgiven of our trespasses and sins, established in a covenant-love relationship with God, saved by grace through faith, adopted as sons of God, called the righteous and holy ones, admitted into the God’s service for His kingdom and His glory, resurrected at the end of the age to eternal life, and given the blessings in the heavenly places in Christ for all eternity. How good is the Lord to His beloved! O, how blessed are those who know the love of God in Christ!

The cross is the pinnacle of God’s love toward us, the vivid picture that gives color to “God is love.” How can we know what love is? The cross. How do we know that God is love? The cross. How do we know that God loves us? The cross. It is the objective reality, the triumphant declaration of God’s love, the epitome of God demonstrating by self-sacrifice (His Son’s death) His commitment to the good of the beloved (us).

God Demonstrates His Wrath in the Cross

The cross is also the perfect demonstration of God’s wrath. The above passage says that Jesus is “the propitiation for our sins.”  A propitiation is a sacrifice that diverts divine wrath away from those that deserve it. On the cross, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, was a wrath-bearing, substitutionary sacrifice who diverted the wrath of God against our sins away from us and onto Himself. God chose the bloody cross — a brutal torture device designed to extract as much excruciating, screaming pain as possible —to give us a tiny glimpse into the agony that Christ bore spiritually when He drank the cup of the wrath of God to satisfy God’s righteous wrath.[9] “God displayed [Jesus Christ] publically as a propitiation in His blood… to demonstrate His righteousness.”[10] This death, this blood, was the only way for sinners to be forgiven and for God’s holy wrath against sin to be satisfied. Sin deserves a punishment, and someone had to take that punishment; Jesus took it for us, so that we who have faith in Jesus could be forgiven and justified by the Justifier.[11] How terrifying is the wrath of God against sin! O, how we should fear the One who has the authority to kill and then cast into hell![12]

The cross of Jesus is the pinnacle of God’s wrath, the blow that takes our breath and reminds us it is “a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”[13] How do we know that God is wrathful? The cross. How do we know that God is just? The cross. How do we know that God hates sin and will punish it as it deserves? The cross. It is the objective reality, the resolute proclamation that God always has been and always will be the Just.[14]

Inseparable

It is unpopular to clearly affirm both the soft and the hard truths of the Bible. “Christianity is about love!” some cry. “And love is about acceptance and tolerance of all people, no matter who they are. You are unloving if you disagree!” Yes, Christianity is about the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Yes, it is about acceptance and tolerance. But that is not the end of the story. The soft (love, mercy, graciousness) and the hard (wrath, righteousness, justice) truths of Christianity are inseparable. Here are two reasons: (1) God is inseparable and (2) the love and wrath of the cross are inseparable.

The soft and hard truths of Christianity are inseparable because God is inseparable. God is righteous, just, loving, and merciful. It is not “either/or” but “both/and.” He is the God who displays His righteousness by punishing sin, and the God who displays His mercy by forgiving sinners.[15] He is the God who demonstrates His love by welcoming those made righteous by the blood of Christ into heaven[16] and the God who demonstrates His wrath by casting those guilty of their sins into the eternal, fiery hell.[17] He is the God of both kindness and severity.[18] We should worship Him as He is, for who He is, for to worship any other notion of God is to set up a false, unbiblical god and commit idolatry.[19]

Also, the soft and hard truths of Christianity are inseparable because the love and wrath in the cross are inseparable. The very sufferings that point to God’s great love for sinners simultaneously point to His wrath and just requirement for sin. As shown above, in one breath 1 John 4:10 speaks of both love and wrath in the cross. Furthermore, if God only wanted to demonstrate His love for us, why did it have to be through crucifixion? If God only wanted to demonstrate His love for us, why did Jesus have to be pierced by thorns in His head, lashed with a whip until unrecognizable, maligned, scorned, beaten, spit upon, and nailed? It is inexplicable save for the wrath of God against sin. God displayed Jesus as a propitiation to demonstrate both His own righteousness and His love for us.

You cannot take only the soft; to do so is to preach a false cross and a false gospel. To be a Christian is to take God as He is. To trust in the cross of Jesus Christ as the only means of salvation is to take it as it is. Anything less is arrogance, blasphemy, and heresy.

In the Name of Love and In the Name of God

God is love. It is a solid, concrete, and defined truth. God loves His people, is committed to their good, and demonstrates this love chiefly in the sacrifice of the cross. As He loves, He upholds His wrath and justice. As those who trust in the Savior who died for the love of God and the wrath of God, we must imitate Him and uphold both love and justice.

Thus, we cannot in the name of love or in the name of God affirm what He has clearly taught to be sin. We cannot in the name of love or in the name of God be devoted to something that He hates. We cannot be silent about what He has spoken loudly on. We cannot contort Scripture into a thing of our making. If we do, we make a mockery of the God who is love, and of the cross upon which the Savior died.

Thus, we must, in the name of love and in the name of God, live in light with His full character. We must, in the name of love and in the name of God, preach the entire message of salvation: that sinners destined for an eternal hell can be saved only through the forgiveness purchased for them by Christ on the cross. We must preach this gospel as Jesus and His apostles preached it. We must declare “the whole purpose of God”[20] from His inspired Word — even those things that make others and ourselves uncomfortable, and especially the things that we as sinners don’t tend to like. We must demonstrate our love for people by committing to their ultimate, eternal, good and sacrifice our time, money, and resources for them, in prayer, evangelism, and ministry.

We must love. God is love. May you love as He does.

Speaking the truth in love,[21]

Keith Fong[22]

Ephesians 2:1-10

Footnotes

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[1] “Love,” Merriam-Webster, accessed March 5, 2013, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/love.

[2] “Love,” Urban Dictionary, accessed March 5, 2013, http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=love

[3] I am aware that English versions translate several different Greek words as “love.” Yet, here I am discussing only the most important type of “love,” for which the authors of Scriptures purposely used “agapē.” This is the type of love I wish to discuss in this article.

[4] 1 Corinthians 13:4, 6-7

[5] 1 Corinthians 13:4-13

[6] It would benefit all people to know of the attributes of the God as revealed in the Scriptures. Books that I’ve personally found profitable on this subject: The Attributes of God by A.W. Pink, Knowing God by J.I. Packer, The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer

[7] 1 John 3:16, 1 John 4:9–10

[8] Romans 5:8

[9] Luke 22:41-44

[10] Romans 3:25

[11] Romans 3:26

[12] Luke 12:5

[13] Hebrews 10:31

[14] Romans 3:26

[15] Exodus 34:6-7

[16] 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17

[17] Revelation 20:15-21:4, Mark 9:48

[18] Romans 11:28

[19] Exodus 20:3-6

[20] Acts 20:17

[21] Ephesians 4:15

[22] I am indebted to Frank Gan, Derek Wong, and Abigail Shim, for they were instrumental the conception, writing, and editing of this article.