French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and myself have founded empires, but upon what do these creations of our genius depend? Upon force. Jesus alone founded His empire upon love: and to this very day millions would die for Him” (as quoted in Ankerberg and Weldon, 1997, p. 29). If every one of God’s characteristics was to be summarized in a single English word, only one word could suffice: love. Of course, the idea of love does not encompass all of God’s characteristics, but it is a fitting summation of God’s personality. In fact, John wrote simply that “God is love” (1 John 4:8-9,16)—perhaps the most powerful statement ever made about God’s love (we do not, as some do, charge that God’s justice is inconsistent with his love and mercy [see Colley, 2004a]).
When Paul listed the fruits of the Spirit—characteristics that appear in the lives of Christ's followers (Galatians 5:22-23)—the first fruit he mentioned was love. Jesus said that all the law and the prophets hang upon love (Matthew 22:40; Mark 12:28). God is not merely a loving God, but God is love, and love defines His very essence. Every action of God has been carried out, ultimately, because of His magnificent love.
God loves His Son. The relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ is one of great love. God’s eternal love has an eternal object, and that eternal object is Christ. Consider a sampling of the passages that bear the special relationship the Father and Son share:
Isaiah 42:1: “Behold! My Servant whom I uphold, my Elect One in whom My soul delights! I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles. He will not cry out, nor raise His voice.”
Matthew 3:17: “And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’ ” (cf. Matthew 17:5).
John 1:18: “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.”
John 5:20: “For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself does” (cf. John 3:30).
John 17:24: “Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me.”
God loves His Son’s followers. Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome: “Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5). The Greek verb translated “poured out” in Romans 5:5, ekcheo, is the same verb used to describe the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:17ff.). This suggests that, through Christ, God has blessed His spiritual children with an abundant amount of love. The tense of the verb is perfect, indicating a settled state or a completed action. The idea, then, is that the love of God has filled our hearts, and, like a valley remains full of flood water, our hearts remain full of Christ’s love (see Packer, 1975, pp. 129-130). Those who are in Christ (Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:27) are in a covenant relationship with God, a relationship in which both God and the Christian are pledged to each other.
Again, Paul wrote: “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 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” (Romans 8:38-39). Although Christians can (and, sadly, sometimes do) cease to love Christ (Acts 8:12-13; Galatians 5:4; James 5:19-20; see Jackson, 2003), Christ will never cease to love them, for God is unchanging (James 1:17; see Colley, 2004b). Packer wrote concerning the unchanging quality of God’s love:
…[T]his does not mean that He is unfeeling (impassive), or that there is nothing in Him that corresponds to emotions and affections in us, but that whereas human passions—specifically the painful ones, fear, grief, regret, despair—are in a sense passive and involuntary, being called forth and constrained by circumstances not under our control, the corresponding attitudes in God have the nature of deliberate voluntary choices, and therefore are not of the same order as human passions at all. So the love of the God who is spirit is no fitful, fluctuating thing, as the love of man is, nor is it a mere impotent longing for things that may never be…. There are no inconstancies or vicissitudes in the love of the almighty God who is spirit (1975, pp. 133-134, parenthetical item in orig.).
God loves the world. That is, God cares even for people who disregard Him. Paul wrote: “But God demonstrates His own love toward use, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, emp. added). The Greek word translated love in Romans 5:8 is agape, which appears abundantly (82 times) in the Greek New Testament. Agape is a selfless love that motivates one to sacrifice on the behalf of others, so it has come to be known by many as “Christian” love. This purest form of love is the agape under consideration when Paul wrote: “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). It was that love that made Christ willing to “taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9).
God despises sin, but loves sinners. He does not approve or overlook sin; rather, He wants each sinner to repent of his wrongdoing and change his life (Acts 17:30). Peter wrote: “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9, emp. added). God delays the Second Coming of Christ, not because He is undependable or incapable of fulfilling the promise of judgment (1 Peter 4:17; 2 Peter 3:7-9; 1 John 4:17; Jude 6,15; Revelation 14:7), but because His love motivates Him to give sinners more opportunities to repent. Instead of admiring or imitating the wrong actions of sinners, we should abhor sin (Romans 12:9), and share God’s concern for lost souls—a concern that should motivate us to share the Gospel (Mark 16:15-16; John 14:6).
Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34, emp. added). In stating that the commandment was new, Jesus obviously intended to draw a distinction between His commandment and everything else that would have been familiar to His disciples concerning the topic they were discussing. Though the command to love one’s neighbor was not new (Leviticus 19:18), Christ’s command was new in that it demanded that we love, not as we love ourselves, but as God loves us. This would be the sign to non-Christians that the first-century disciples really were followers of Christ (John 13:35; see Pack, 1977, 5:54-55), and it serves the same purpose today.
William Evans wrote: “As love is the highest expression of God and His relation to mankind, so it must be the highest expression of man’s relation to his Maker and to his fellow-man” (1994, 3:1932). God’s love should motivate us to express our love for Him by obeying His commands. Jesus could not have put it any clearer than He did when He said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Let us pray that as we obey Christ, we will be able to “comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height” of His love, which “passes knowledge” (Ephesians 3:18-19).
Ankerberg, John, and John Weldon (1997), Ready With an Answer (Eugene, OR: Harvest House).
Colley, Caleb (2004a), “God’s Mercy and Justice,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/1860.
Colley, Caleb (2004b), “The Immutability of God,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2567.
Evans, William (1994), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. James Orr (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).
Jackson, Wayne (2003), “Galatians 5:4—Fallen from Grace,” [On-line], URL: http://www.christiancourier.com/notes/fallenFromGrace.htm.
Pack, Frank (1977), The Living Word Commentary, ed. Everett Ferguson (Austin, TX: Sweet).
Packer, J.I. (1975), Knowing God (London: Hodder and Stoughton), second edition.