Tuesday, February 14, 2012

God is Love

The first epistle of John emphasizes that God is love (ESV 1 John 4.8,16). Love is also fundamental to the Gospel. John writes that God's love was made manifest in the act of him sending his son into the world to bring us life (1 John 4.9) and that the very definition of love is found within the Christ's act of propitiation on our behalf (1 John 4.10). John expresses quite plainly that we who follow Jesus are to love one another (1 John 4.7), that loving others is intrinsic to knowing God (1 John 4:8), and that it is impossible to love God while hating your brother (1 John 4:20,21)--which was basically articulated in an even broader sense when it was earlier expressed by Jesus (Mat. 5:44,45).

So what's the problem with love? I'm thinking of the perspective that we (followers of Christ) sometimes tend towards when too much love is seen as a threat to other items of practicing our faith or other aspects of God's nature. If you have no idea what I'm referring to then good, maybe you haven't experienced this. But some of us sometimes seem to understand love as existing in a dichotomic tension with other virtues. For example, it might be thought that emphasizing (or overemphasizing) God's love tends to underemphasize his righteousness, judgement, or holiness. Focusing too much on God's love won't lead a person to fearful reverence, repentance, and right living is how the objection might go. But how can it be possible that God is love and the gospel is founded on love, yet if we thoroughly apply this truth we risk damaging our faith? And if too much love risks keeping people from repentance, what then are we to make of the notion that God apparently finds it worthwhile to employ kindness in the attempt to bring people to that end (Rom. 2.4)? It seems obvious to me that, to whatever extent our thoughts on love lead us to these conclusions, our thinking is wrong.

As we see in John's epistle, since God is love and love is fundamental to the gospel, obviously there is nothing wrong with it. It is without meaning to conclude that it can be over emphasized (1 Cor. 13.13). If God is love then love is a premise in every attribute and action of God. God's justice must exist not aside from love or contrary to it, but rather enveloped by it. In fearing God, as we rightfully should, our reverence is not for a malevolent, loveless being but for an awesome, powerful, perfectly holy God who nevertheless is still love.

But if that's so, what else could be the source of all the examples of compromise within the church? Don't failures on the part of the church to discipline its own members indicate too much love and not enough accountability? Don't all of the "hippie-spiritual" people out there just float along trumpeting love but yet living outside of Christ? No, that's not it at all. The problem is not an overemphasis, but a wrong emphasis and a wrong understanding of love.

When we as believers object to focusing "too much" on love we are failing to understand love according to a biblical worldview. When we equivocate on the meaning of love and hold closer to a secular, romanticized, folksy definition then we start to get confused. I'm not going to outline it in detail, but within the biblical framework we are to understand love as an action (Luke 6.27, Rom. 13.9,10), and in the context of our relationship with God that action is obedience to him (John 14.15-24). Likewise, as Gods love manifested itself as a sacrifice for the propitiation of our sins, likewise our love for one another should manifest itself sacrificially (John 15.13). Love is not affability, kindness, or a sentiment and in many contexts such things work against love. Love in the biblical context can require us to do very hard things, such as confronting someone about their destructive lifestyle (1 Cor. 5.1-5). Paul sees church discipline as being needed for the sake of the person being disciplined, or out of love for those involved (1 Cor. 5.5). It because of love that God disciplines those whom belong to him (Heb. 12.3-11).

So don't be afraid of love. Abide in it and love one another. In Christ we have the freedom and grace to do so because he first loved us.