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The Apostle John never tires of exhorting Christians to love one another, and the passage before us now is one of the most forceful exhortations that he provides. He grounds it not simply in the commandment of the Lord Jesus (e.g., John 13:34–35) but in the very nature of God—“God is love.” In saying this, John is teaching us that love belongs to the very essence of God. God is not loving in any contingent sense, as if He could have been otherwise. He is essentially and necessarily loving. Indeed, we may say that He is love itself. He is the original fountain from which every other instance of love flows.

But in God, this is true of all His attributes. What God is, and all that He is, He is essentially and necessarily. He could not have been otherwise. As God is loving, so also He is just, good, wise, merciful, etc. Or, if we want to express His attributes as nouns, God is justice, goodness, wisdom, mercy, etc., even as He is love. Unlike human beings or angels who may be loving or unloving, good or evil, wise or foolish, merciful or cruel, God is necessarily loving, as He is necessarily “infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 4).

Theologians have considered the essential unity of all God’s attributes under the heading of His simplicity, though the idea here might seem to be anything but simple. The point is not that this idea is easy to communicate or comprehend (after all, it is God we are talking about), but that God’s attributes do not dwell in Him as parts that are distinct from one another or from Him. God is not a composite being made up of separate and different components. Even the distinct persons of the Trinity are not to be considered as parts or components of the one true God. Each person is fully God, with all of Them sharing a single essence—an essence that is simple, not composite.

John is teaching us that love belongs to the very essence of God. God is not loving in any contingent sense, as if He could have been otherwise. He is essentially and necessarily loving.

If we hold fast to these truths, we will not be led astray by teachings that put one attribute of God above another or put one in tension with another. Such ideas will lead us to distort the teaching of the holy Scriptures and perhaps to reject one part of the Bible in favor of another. The love of God has sometimes been represented in these ways, as if love were the primary attribute of God and the others somehow secondary, as if the full expression of God’s love somehow limits or even prevents the full expression of His justice. In extreme forms, the justice of God in the everlasting punishment of the wicked might be rejected on the grounds that it is inconsistent with His love. Yet both are clearly taught in the Holy Scriptures.

The Bible beautifully brings together the varied attributes of God as all belonging to His glory. When God revealed His glory to Moses, He proclaimed His name, saying,

The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Ex. 34:6–7)

Here there are many attributes of God mentioned, with none being more basic or primary than another. None is in tension with another. The God of steadfast love and faithfulness is also the God of judgment who visits wrath upon the guilty. The glory of God includes them all. We can see this harmony elsewhere in the Holy Scriptures (e.g., Isa. 30:18; Hos. 2:19).

The cross dramatically demonstrates the perfect unity of God’s attributes. John points to it as the supreme expression of God’s 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” (1 John 4:9). Yet it is also the supreme expression of God’s righteousness and justice, for God put forth His Son

as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:25–26)

That God is love is certainly a truth to be shouted from the rooftops as well as to be treasured in our hearts. But it is the same with all His attributes. One is not more beautiful than another; one is not primary over the others. None is in tension with the others, and all are essential. There is perfect harmony within the being of God, with all His attributes belonging essentially and necessarily to His glory.

1 John 2:27

Revelation 3:16

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From the August 2019 Issue
Aug 2019 Issue