Long ago, Augustine of Hippo pointed out that the desire of every human heart is to experience a love that is transcendent. Regrettably for us today, however, I don’t think there’s any word in the English language that’s been more stripped of the depth of its meaning than the word love. Due to the shallow romanticism of secular culture, we tend to view the love of God in the same way popular music, art, and literature view love. Yet the Bible says God’s love is far different—and greater.
First John 4:7-11 gives us this classic statement with respect to the love of God:
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 is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his only Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
Here the Apostle grounds his admonition for Christians to love one another in the very character of God. “Love is from God,” he tells us. What he means is that Christian love comes from God Himself. This love is not natural to fallen humanity. It originates in God and is a divine gift to His people. When we are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are given a capacity for this supernatural love that has God as its source and foundation. When John says that “whoever loves has been born of God and knows God,” he is not teaching that every human being who loves another is therefore born of God. The kind of love of which he speaks comes only from regeneration. Without the Holy Spirit’s transformation of the human heart, no one has this capacity for love. No unregenerate person has this kind of love, and no regenerate person lacks such love. Therefore, a person who does not have the ability to love in the way John describes has not been born again. “Anyone who does not love [in this manner] does not know God.”
John does not stop there. Not only is love from God but God is love. Note that John does not use the word is as an equals sign. We cannot reverse the subject and the predicate in God is love and say love is God. John is not making a crass identification between love and God so that anyone who has a romantic feeling in his heart or any affection for another person has thereby encountered God. When he says God is love, he’s using a bit of hyperbole. In other words, love is such an intimate aspect or attribute of the character of God, that you can, in a manner of speaking, say that He is love. Any view of Him that neglects to include within it this profound sense of divine love is a distortion of who God is.
Of course, the normal problem we face is not that people ignore God’s love; rather, people separate His love from His other attributes. I don’t know how many times I’ve taught on God’s sovereignty, holiness, or justice, only to hear the objection, “But my God is love”—as if God’s love is incompatible with justice, sovereignty, or holiness.
Our most fundamental inclination as fallen human creatures is to exchange the truth that God reveals about Himself for a lie, and to serve and worship the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:18-32). We commit idolatry every time we substitute a lesser concept for His glory, whether that substitution takes the crass form of stone gods or the more sophisticated form of redefining God’s character to suit our tastes. A god stripped of justice, of holiness, of sovereignty, and the rest is as much an idol as a statue of wood or stone. We must be careful not to substitute for the biblical God a god who is exhausted in his character by the one attribute of love, especially as popular culture defines it.
As Christians we believe in a God who is simple and not made up of parts. God is not one part sovereign, one part just, one part immutable, one part omniscient, one part eternal, and one part loving. Rather, He is all of His attributes at all times. To understand any single attribute, we must understand it in relation to all His other attributes. The love of God is eternal and sovereign. The love of God is immutable and holy. We treat all of His other attributes in the same way. God’s justice is loving and eternal. His holiness is loving and omniscient. Our concept of the love of God will stay on track only as we understand His love in relationship to His other attributes.
Whatever else God’s love is, it is holy. His love is therefore characterized by the qualities that define holiness—transcendence and purity. First, God’s love is transcendent. It is set apart and different from everything we experience in creation. Second, God’s love is pure. His love is absolutely flawless, having no selfishness, wickedness, or sin mixed in with it. God’s love is not ordinary or profane. It is a majestic, sacred love that goes far beyond anything creatures can manifest. No shadow of evil covers the brightness of the pure glory of the love of God.
The love of God is in a class by itself. It transcends our experience. Nevertheless, it is a love that He shares in part with us and expects us to manifest to each other. He grants to His people—insofar as is possible given the Creator-creature distinction—His holy love (Rom. 5:5).