God Is Love (but what does that mean?)

Christians are quick to quote 1 John 4:8b that “God is love” but how often is this quoted in a self-serving, self-affirming manner? By this I mean in the first that when going through a rough stretch in the road of life, is professing that “God is love” just a way for the sufferer to revive hope that s/he is not utterly alone? Conversely in the second, is saying “God is love” just an excuse wielded to excuse the adherent from demonstrating love for his/her neighbor? Such a Christian believer might inwardly believe that it is God’s love that summons the unbeliever to believe and that the believer’s love for the unbeliever is of no consequence whatsoever. Both these and any other conceptualizations are completely and totally incongruous with the text.

Any time one excises a fragment from the text—any text, not just a sacred text—one should be wary. Let us take a deeper look at the surrounding passage:

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. 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 propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. 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[a] love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.  (1 John 4:7-21 ESV; emphasis added)

In short, the entirety of the passage builds up to the final sentence. All that God is for the Christian believer, all that God accomplishes for the Christian believer, it is all summed up in demonstrating love for one’s neighbor. And this is wholly and absolutely consistent with what Christ himself taught:

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 22:36-40 ESV)

It therefore follows that the professing Christian must act in love to everyone. This calls into serious question as to whether the professing Christian even has standing to pontificate about sin and unrighteousness. After all, the word Christian literally means “follower of Christ.” A follower goes second where the leader goes first. Yes, there is latency, but the follower is obliged to tread the same path of the leader. The follower does not have discretion to deviate from the leader’s path or else the follower would cease to follow and begin forging a different path. In a very real sense, free will becomes constrained by the a priori decision to follow. But the free will that remains manifests itself in how one follows, not whether one follows. And the Christian who follows Christ must do only what the leader does. Christ never sought out his neighbor to rail against sinfulness. No, teachings on sin were directed toward the people of faith so that the believers might believe more perfectly. Consider, for example, Paul’s address to the Athenians opened not with sin, but with esteem:

Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens, and after receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they departed. Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’” Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. (Acts 17:15-34 ESV)

Paul did not rail about the idolatry or polytheism or lasciviousness of the Athenians. Instead Paul complimented them and esteemed them as highly as himself. The result of this was that the people invited (or insisted, depending on how one interprets the prose) Paul to return at a later date. Kindness and gentleness (see Galatians 5:22), it would seem, are manifestations of love. But nowhere in Galatians 5:22 is there a spiritual quality of hellfire and brimstone, of damnation and hate. Because God is love, it is God who is best suited to, lovingly, correct and/or discipline the sinner.

Now some will undoubtedly say that this premise is a limp-wristed, watered-down, sugar-coated, palatable Gospel. But so what? Perhaps such a person will consider the fruit of the two labors and determine which lifestyle is more emblematic of Christ and which lifestyle represented Christ’s love best.

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