We have been blessed in the West to live in a culture where there has been much exposure to the Word of God and the gospel. Yet in many places, the Word has not been taught accurately, or it has not been preached in a balanced fashion so as to include everything that the Bible teaches. As a result, many biblical concepts are popularly bandied about, but they are gravely misunderstood.
One of these often heard but misunderstood ideas is the notion that God is love. Certainly, the Bible teaches that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), but unless this statement is understood in its full, biblical context, significant confusion arises. Many people today understand the teaching that God is love according to the definitions of love in our culture. Consequently, when many people hear, “God is love,” they think of a being who makes no demands and who indulges our every desire.
Martin Luther and the other Reformers stressed the love of God for His people, but they preached a God who makes demands, who expects people to obey Him and judges them if they do not. In other words, before preaching the gospel, they preached the law. They understood that the gospel is good news only if we first know the bad news, namely, that God is perfectly holy and demands perfect obedience (Matt. 5:48; Rom. 3:23). This is bad news because we cannot render such obedience. But the good news of the gospel tells us that Christ has rendered such obedience in our place so that in Him by faith alone we become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). And then, having received peace with God, we thank Him by loving and serving Him (Rom. 5–6).
The point is that there is no gospel without the law. When Scripture says that God is love, it means that God is a God of holy love. We need the gospel because we have violated the standards of our holy Creator, and people need to hear the law preached in order to know those standards, how they have failed them, and what the solution is for their failure. Thus, the Reformers were clear that one of the chief tasks of faithful preachers and teachers is to preach the law and then point people to the gospel, which meets their need for the righteousness of Christ. And this preaching of law and gospel is not only for non-Christians but also for believers. We who trust in Christ need regularly to be pointed to Christ.