August 16, 2016

God IS Love

"God is love" is not merely a statement about His activities. God not only acts out of love as one of His many activities, God's eternal, triune love defines all His work.  

Too rarely do we Christians think about the difference between knowing ‘scriptures’ and truly knowing the power of the Word of God gripping our hearts and affections. We can know about God, we can have an excellent working knowledge of the Bible as a book, but do we truly know the power of the Word of God in our lives by work of the Holy Spirit, transforming our hearts, actions and thoughts in terms of its central meaning? That central meaning is disclosed in Scripture as the kingdom of God (creation, fall, redemption), grounded in the fathomless love of God (Matt. 6:33; Luke 4:33).

Plenty of supposedly spiritual people, past and present, have claimed to know God in terms of their private, esoteric visions, and there are plenty of theological eggheads who have read plenty of books, but whose lives and thinking show no evidence of being transformed by the power of the Word of God (Matt 12:33). Scripture is plain that we must truly hear the Word of God, and not just listen. That is why Jesus said, “he who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Luke 8:8). This is not an analytical knowledge of the nature and love of God that is worked out by human theoretical analysis, it is revealed to us in the core of our being by the Holy Spirit – that is the power of the Word of God. God’s love is shed abroad in our hearts by the Spirit so that we know we are children of God (Rom. 5:5).

In 1 John 4 the apostle tells us that love comes from God. It derives from him. Thus John tells us, in one of the most well-known but oft-misunderstood statements in the New Testament, ‘God is love.’ That is to say, God is love in his inmost being. There are three other statements in the New Testament about the nature or substance of God: first, God is spirit (John. 4:24); second, God is light (1 John 1:5); third, God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29). It is notable that the Gnostic-type heretics who the apostle John was countering in his first epistle held that God was ‘immaterial’ spirit and light in an abstract and mystical sense, but they did not teach that God was love – the most sublime of all statements about God’s being. This is logical because the god of the Greeks was not personal and relational but unknowable and impassible, incapable of suffering or feeling pain – an abstract uncaused cause.

When we as believers affirm that God is love, it is very important to emphasize that this scriptural teaching is not like saying “God sustains all things and amongst his many activities also loves people.” God’s love is not simply one of his activities. Rather, God in his own being is love so that love defines all his work. John Stott puts it well:

If he judges, He judges in love. Yet if his judging is in love, his loving is also in justice. He who is love, is light and fire as well. Far from condoning sin, his love has found a way to expose it (because he is light) and to consume it (because he is fire), without destroying the sinner, but rather saving him.[1]

The love of God, then, is integral to his being and so to his activity in everything. Since God is love, it follows that the professing Christian who does not love (in his living and activity) does not know God, because if God is our father we must resemble him.

But there is more to say about the fact that God is love. Because human persons are made in the image of God and made to know God, the self, and the world in terms of relationship to God, it is impossible for us not to think about life and reality in relational and social categories. From the scriptural perspective, we are relational beings and we inescapably think of ourselves in terms of relationship to ‘the other’ – both God and man. It is here that the question of love enters at the very beginning and centre of life itself.

The apostle John shows us that for biblical faith, the ultimate foundation of all reality and all its categories of thought is the being of God, the ontological Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.[2] There is no deeper or more foundational starting point for thought than God’s own being. It is John who records in his gospel that Jesus Christ reveals the all-personal, all-relational character of God by unveiling something of the eternal love relationship that exists between the members of the Godhead – a profound reciprocity of mutual self-giving (see John 17).

Jesus declares in his prayer to the father, “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed…. You loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:5, 24). This reveals that God is not love because he created the world, so that a potentiality for love could then be actualised by having someone to love. If this were the case, then God is not transcendent or truly distinct, but is dependent on creation for definition). Rather, God is love within his own being, as the Father loves the Son and the Son the Father, through the Person of the Holy Spirit (1 John 4:8). In other words, as my former colleague, the Indian scholar L. T. Jeyachandran has rightly noted:

In God, qualities of personality can be actualized only if there is an actual, eternal relationship in him prior to, outside of, and without reference to creation. Only in that way would God be a personal being without being dependent on his creation.[3]

In other words, the Father is the Father because of the eternal relationship he sustains to the Son, and the Son is the Son because of the eternal relationship he sustains to the Father, through the eternal person of the Holy Spirit in uncreated, equal ultimacy.

The person of the Holy Spirit is the bond of love and fellowship who provides the space (distinction) between the Father and Son for there to be a real and eternal plurality (and so subject-object relation) within the unity of God’s mysterious perichoresis (a Greek word meaning ‘dancing around’). The concept of perichoresis tries to give shape to the mystery of God’s mutual indwelling that allows for the retention of the unity of God’s essence and personality, whilst distinguishing the persons. This does not imply separation of persons, only real distinction within God’s being. Of this mutual indwelling John tells us that Jesus declared in John 14:7-11:

‘If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’ Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father?” Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me…’

Through Christ, then, we see that there is a mutual indwelling and self-giving within the fellowship of the Trinity, where familial love is fully realized prior to all creation. God is a relational community whose uncreated and totally free being not only distinguishes him from all created reality as truly other (so that creation is not emanation from the divine being, but a free act), but whose eternal fellowship and economy of function provides for a proper understanding of the true nature of love and thus of right human social relationships.

It is because of this marvelous and glorious mystery that we can say God IS love. Yes, God is loving, and in all his actions he acts in love, in a manner that is consistent with his justice and righteousness. But he is love because he is a community of love prior to all creation. The power of this reality in God’s Word needs to grip and transform our understanding. If we are indwelt by the Spirit of God (the God who IS love), then we as God’s children must love one another – love for one another will be the evidence that we truly know God and have been born of God.

[1] John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John: an Introduction and Commentary, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 161.

[2] Triune literally means three in one.

[3] L. T. Jeyachandran, “The Trinity as a Paradigm for Spiritual Transformation,” in Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend, edited by Ravi Zacharias, 231-252, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 238. 

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