The love of God as understood from the Scriptures is a most precious doctrine. To be loved by God and to love him in return is the joy of salvation, ‘Whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory’ (1 Peter 1:8). Jonathan Edwards is credited with saying, ‘True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections’. Where religion in the soul is true and pure, says Edwards, love and joy are known.
The Bible reveals the true nature and essence of God himself. He made himself known to Israel over thousands of years through the inspired prophets; to the whole world he is known through Jesus Christ, the living Word. God is Spirit and no man has seen or can see him (1 Timothy 1:17, 6:16) but Jesus Christ has declared him (John 1:18), i.e. ‘made him known’ (NIV). Even if God, who is Spirit, were visible then no man could see him and live (Exodus 33:20; John 4:24).
In his first epistle, the apostle John directs our thoughts to God’s eternal being when he tells us that, ‘God is Light, and in him is no darkness at all’ (1:5); he also tells us that, ‘God is love’ (4:8 and 16). This reflects the eternal, essential loving communion within the Triune Godhead between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote, ‘Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, before the world was made, he was not love’.
God is love: the meaning of love
John tells us that God is the fountain and origin of love, that all true love derives from him. Love is ‘of’ God (1 John 4:8). God’s love is therefore part and parcel of the divine being himself. Love, as well as holiness, is his essence. This means that God cannot exist without being loving. He cannot but love. He is and has ever been love. Love could never be absent from his being or actions. Think of the one true God and you must think of love. Love therefore, like God himself, is not created and never slumbers nor sleeps (cf. Psalm 121). Before the world was created, ‘God is love’.
At creation, God said, ‘Let us make man in our image’, and so man was made from the dust of the ground and Eve from Adam’s side (Genesis 1:26-27 and 2:7, 18-25) and after creation God, ‘sent his Son to atone for our sins’ (1 John 4:10). By this, God’s eternal love has been made known.
The divine essence, part of which is love, surpasses knowledge. Oh, the height and length and breadth of it! Oh, its depth! It surpasses understanding but it can be wondered at, embraced and enjoyed: ‘Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God’ (1 John 4:7). This love of God for us is because God loves lost sinners (John 3:16) and because he acts by love. This was historically manifested in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
God is love: the manifestation of love
The Incarnation of Jesus Christ was how God communicated and made known his love for a world ruined by the Fall. No greater act of love was possible. Jesus was God’s unspeakable gift. Love had a purpose and this came from (the perfection of) God’s own nature. The Son died in our place — this was forgiving love; the Son came to save us — this was atoning love; God made Jesus, ‘to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him’ (2 Corinthians 5:21) — this was amazing love.
God made Jesus Christ sin for us by laying on him, ‘the iniquity of us all’. We had gone astray from the original righteousness given to Adam and his guilt is imputed to us all. We had fallen into transgressions and turned to idols, ‘every one, to his own way’ (Isaiah 53:6).
In God made a path, Robert Murray M’Cheyne said, ‘God heaped upon his Son all our sins until there was nothing but sin to be seen. He appeared all sin; nothing of his own beauty appeared. Brethren, look at the love of Christ, that he should be willing to be made sin for us, and this was his love.’
Peace between God and fallen humanity came only through substitutionary atonement made good by Christ on the cross. The holy, sinless substitute took the place of helpless sinners. Propitiation is the act of atonement for undeserving law breakers and which results in turning aside God’s holy wrath. It is typified by the ‘mercy seat’ on the Ark of the Covenant where the blood of sacrifice was sprinkled for the sins of Israel on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).
God is love: the ‘moment’ of love
God’s love is real. It is not a theory or sentimentality, it is freely offered in the gospel. It is not given to creatures who are innocent and pure, but to rebels and transgressors of the law of God who, having believed the good news of the gospel, repent of their sins and trust in the promise of forgiveness. ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:8-9).
In our unsaved state, we feel no love for God. Nevertheless, God’s new life in the soul is known at conversion. This love is not created but communicated. It is born in us so that we partake of the ‘divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4). When born again, the gift of faith leads to justification, which in turn leads to adoption. As God’s children, we cry out, ‘Abba, Father’ (Galatians 4:6) with love and joy in the soul. The work of regeneration awakens and renews the heart, bringing faith and repentance leading to ‘joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith — the salvation of your souls’ (1 Peter 1:8-9). It is all of grace. To ‘know God’ (v.7) is to know his love and forgiveness and feel their joy. When we know God through Jesus Christ his Son, ‘Old things passed away and all things become new’ (2 Corinthians 2:17). After salvation, grace holds sway in the hearts of God’s people and they taste and see that the Lord is good.
God shows Love
To ‘know God’ is to know God’s love in your soul. This is something special, following repentance and faith and resulting in knowing God. This love is freely given and is caring and patient. God’s love is always kind and self-giving since it gives and continues to give. ‘Love suffers long and is kind; love… bears all things… love never fails’ (1 Corinthians 13:6-8). Love gave the Son for us and love also gives the Son to us.
Love found a way to redeem our souls: ‘not that we loved God, but that he loved us’ (1 John 4:10). This was an act of (electing) love and infinite mercy. There is no goodness in fallen men to elicit such love (Romans 3:10), therefore it is freely given: it is gratuitous and it is theirs for the asking (Luke 11:9-13). The free offer of the gospel is key to the gospel’s success and its kindness can be known experimentally in the soul, for ‘Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Romans 10:13).
Ian McNaughton, author of Getting to grips with prayer (Day One, 2017)