READ : 1 John 4:7-21
Today David Bast continues our series “Living in Love,” studies of the three New Testament letters of John the apostle. In what is perhaps the best-known passage from his first epistle, John defines God as love. Today many people would turn that around and say, in effect, “Love is God.” They’re wrong, and here’s why.
In what is perhaps the best-known passage from his First Epistle, John defines God as love: “God is love” (v.16). Today many people would turn that around and say, in effect, “Love is God.” Even within the church there are voices saying that we must abandon our traditional views of God and all the orthodox formulas of the Christian faith in favor of a new approach more congenial to modern people.
I was recently reading a book by a well-known leader from a mainline denomination. The writer began by listing all the things he didn’t believe: he didn’t believe Jesus was God incarnate, that he was born of a virgin, performed miracles, or rose from the dead. He didn’t believe Jesus saved anyone from sin, because he didn’t believe people were sinful to begin with. He didn’t believe the Bible was the Word of God, or that it revealed God to us. In fact, the writer didn’t even believe in God, at least not in a personal God, a God who created the world, or who hears and answers prayer. Belief in such a deity is infantile, this man said. He proudly, if rather surprisingly, continues to call himself a Christian, but he had grown out of such childish, ignorant faith. For him, words like “Christian” and “God” meant what he wants them to mean, not what the dictionary says or what most people have always understood by them. God is not a person or a being, this man thinks. God is simply Being with a capital “B,” a sort of force, or power. The writer is vague about what sort of force or power God is, or what sort of thing this power does, but it’s connected somehow with love, he says.
In other words, love is God. This is the conclusion to which many progressive, advanced, liberated religious thinkers have come in our time. But such a belief is nonsense. Love isn’t an impersonal force, like electricity or gravity. It isn’t a mysterious power that operates on us we know not how, from beyond, in some inexplicable and indescribable “God-experience.” Love is a function of personality and will. Only people can love. Love is the determination of a person to look with favor upon another. Love is the decision to act for the good of the beloved. When the Bible says that God is love, it doesn’t mean that he’s somehow less a person and more a force. It means he’s the ultimate Person, who chooses to define his very nature by this gracious decision to love.
This Is How God Loves
The same passage where we read that God is love, 1 John chapter 4, contains an earlier, equally famous section, where the apostle defines just what God’s love means.
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the [atoning sacrifice] for our sins” (vv.9-10).
To the idea that love is more than an impersonal force or power John now adds the important truth that love is more than personal feelings and words as well. Love is defined not by how much you claim to feel but by how much you are willing to give for another person. One of the more misleading bits of proverbial wisdom, at least when it comes to love, is the old saying that “It’s the thought that counts.”
I wonder; imagine me coming home one evening and saying to my wife, “Happy Anniversary, dear. I love you so much I thought about taking you out for dinner to celebrate.” How well would it convey love if I said to my little boy, “Happy Birthday, son! Daddy even considered getting you a present today.” Or what if the Bible’s best-known text boldly proclaimed, “God so loved the world that he thought about giving his only begotten Son, so that whoever believes on him should not perish, but have eternal life”? Thank God it doesn’t say that because when it comes to love, it’s not the thought that counts, or even the words; what really matters is action.
God’s love-in-action came through sending his only Son to die on the cross for our sins, so that we could receive eternal life through faith in Christ. This is how God showed his love for us, writes John: “God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.” The apostle Paul, writing to the Christians of Rome, said that “God demonstrates his love for us in that, while we were sinners, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:8). Love, you see, doesn’t just talk a good game, love acts. The greater the love, the greater the sacrifice it will make for the sake of the beloved. God’s love for us, by that measure, is infinite, for he was willing to give his very life for us, in order to save us from our sin.
Love One Another
And then John draws the practical conclusion: “Since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (v.11). There is the whole gospel in two simple phrases: God loved us; we love others. John expands on this in another of his great statements from chapter 4.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love (vv.7-8).
There it is: the great saying, “God is love,” but put in its proper context. This isn’t just an abstract truth, you see. John isn’t trying to give us a theology lesson here about some inner nature of the deity. His big concern is with how we treat our fellow humans. Because God is love, we need to be loving. We believe that we are “born of God,” that we have become God’s children, being born again by the power of his Spirit through faith in Christ. We claim to know God, to “know the Lord,” as we say, to be saved. This is all standard evangelical Christian phraseology. This is how we describe ourselves, how we really think about ourselves, how we talk amongst ourselves.
Very well; but the proof of the thing isn’t in talk, or thoughts, or feelings. The proof is action. If we really do know God, then we will act like God. If we are his children, then like Jesus we will be about our Father’s business.
I used to pass occasionally an old warehouse that boasted a large sign with the name of the family business: “So-and-so and Sons,” it said. I always felt kind of good about that sign. That’s a wonderful thing to see, a business where succeeding generations take up their father’s work. There’s real pride in that. Well, you know, our Father has a family business too, and that business is love.
You claim to be a Christian; well and good. But it doesn’t matter so much what you say or feel; it’s not how often you go to church or how loudly you sing the praise songs that will make your claim good. The proof of the faith is in the loving. Whoever loves is born of God and knows God, says John. Whoever does not love does not know God. What part of that don’t you understand?
So what is our excuse for not loving other people? Is it that we just don’t want to, because it’s hard, and we’d rather just love ourselves and a few close family members or friends? John said we ought to love one another (v.11). Love is an obligation, it is what we owe to God because of his great love for us.
The thought of inescapable obligations is not congenial to modern people. We much prefer the idea of total freedom. But if the gospel is true, then we are infinitely indebted to God for all that he has done for us. We can’t ever pay him back; besides, he doesn’t really need anything we could offer him anyway. So the Lord makes it easy for us. “I’ll tell you what,” he says, “since you can’t really do anything for me, and since you say you love me so much, why don’t you just go ahead and love your neighbor as yourself. And we’ll call it even. How would that be?”
But still the excuses come, one after another. “But that person doesn’t deserve to be loved. Look at what they’re like, see the terrible things they’ve done.” Oh, and we do deserve the love we’ve been given? We haven’t ever done, or said, or thought, or felt, anything despicable? “But if I just accept this person and try to help them or be nice to them, they’re just going to take advantage of it. Besides, then it will look like I’m soft on sin, like I’m condoning their behavior.” So what? Your business, and my business, is to love.
The fact is, none of our excuses matter anymore. No talk of rights or deserving makes any difference. God is love. If you and I want to be like him, if we want to prove the truth of our claim to know him, and serve him, and belong to him, and love him, then we had better make love our life’s work. “We love because he first loved us,” states John. “If anyone says, ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:19-20).