THE LOVE OF GOD
1. The primacy of the love of God
a. The Circle
2. What is the love of God?
i. Irrespective of Merit
ii. Seeking to Give
3. Man’s Response
a. Love for God
b. Love for the Brethren
c. Obedience to God
Appendix - Diagrammatic Summaries
The word ‘love’ in the English language has a wide diversity of application and meaning. It’s hardly surprising, then, that a believer’s concept of ‘the Love of God’ can be interpreted in the light of his experience and differ widely from both another believer’s concept and from the Scriptural teaching.
When I shared this message at various housegroups, I handed out scrap pieces of paper before the meeting which began with the words
written on them and collected them in shortly before I spoke to illustrate the point. The diversity of meaning was quite amazing!
What often passes for love in the world is so opposed to God and His ways that it’s not surprising that they fail to understand the message of the Gospel. Perhaps, even, it’s time for us to begin to speak about His love rather than use the all-inclusive phrase ‘the Love of God’ which will only be misinterpreted.
Beginning with the teaching that true love has God as its source and is not naturally resident in man, we’ll go on to define both what God’s love is and isn’t before finally determining man’s required response.
1. The primacy of the love of God
a. The Circle
John, in his writings (specifically the Gospel and his first letter), uses a circular argument to explain the interrelation between
i. Love for God,
ii. Love for the brethren, and,
iii. Obedience to God
Let’s take a look at these three concepts and how John has them interrelate. According to John, each of these concepts leads as a ‘natural’ consequence from the other two which makes his argument circular.
The first circle we’ll begin with is the definition of love for God. John tells us that it leads to obedience to God’s commandments (I John 5:3 - ‘For this is the love of God that we keep His commandments’, John 14:23 - ‘If a man loves Me, he will keep My word...’). Love for God isn’t some mystical, spiritual experience devoid of earthly expression. It’s practically expressed in obedience to His commandments.
And, obedience to His commandments leads on to a love for the brethren (I John 3:23 - ‘And this is His commandment, that we should...love one another, just as He commanded us’ - see also John 13:15, 13:34). If we obey God’s commandments, we’ll love the brethren because it’s a direct command of God through Jesus.
This, in turn, leads us back into Love for God, completing the circle (I John 5:2a - ‘By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God...’, I John 4:7 - ‘...let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God’). If we truly express love for our brothers, we’ll love God. Loving God is an expression of our love for the brethren - we can only love them fully when we love God, for that love reflects itself from Heaven via us to earth.
The circle proceeds from love for God to love for the brethren to obedience to God and, finally, back to love for God, each of the concepts being defined by the one which precedes it.
The second circle demonstrates movement round the circle in the opposite direction which concludes that each concept can be rightly defined by reference to each of the other two. Firstly, then, John teaches that love for God leads us directly into a love for the brethren (I John 5:1 - ‘...everyone who loves the parent [God] loves the child [the brethren]’, I John 4:21 - ‘...he who loves God should love his brother also’). If we love God, we’ll love ‘God in the brethren’ for He’s ‘fathered’ them and created something in them of Himself through the cross of Christ.
This, again, leads us onward and into obedience towards God’s commandments (I John 5:2b - ‘By this we know that we love the children of God, when we...obey His commandments’). Our lives affect those around us either positively or negatively depending upon our obedience to God (for example, the sin of Achan in Joshua chapter 7). Sin of the individual affects the Body. If we love the brethren, we’ll obey God so as to bless them and not hinder the work of God in their midst.
And, finally, we arrive back at love for God as being a consequence of obeying God’s commandments (John 14:21 - ‘He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me’). If we obey God’s commandments, we will be actively loving God.
The problem that we have with John’s writings is that, if we try and define either of these three individual elements in the circle, we can only do so by reference to the other two - we have no individual statement that can give us a definition of any particular one which stands independently of the others.
Each of the three concepts discussed above leads on to the other two and we’re left floundering as to which concept we should aim for first in order that we might obtain the other two in our lives. Should love for God be aimed at first, is this the most valuable attribute? Or obedience towards God? Or love for the Brethren?
Funnily enough, as I’ve taught this subject in different churches, I’ve discovered that how the majority answer the question
‘Which one of the three comes first that we might obtain the other two?’
is indicative of the state of the fellowship! If a church is legalistic, it will almost invariably answer that ‘obeying God’s commandments’ is the primary attitude to be achieved because salvation before God, although not confessed, is thought to be needed to be worked at! A church with a strong ‘family’ base (surprise! surprise!) will vote for ‘love for the brethren’ while a more insular and individualistic fellowship will opt for ‘love for God’.
And what’s the answer?
Strangely enough, the answer is that none of these three attitudes comes first for they all centre upon an action of man and not on the work of God. As John writes in I John 4:19
‘We love*, because He first loved us’
(*Many translations add the word ‘Him’, translating ‘We love Him because He first loved us’ but the Greek word for ‘Him’ is omitted by the manuscripts. Its insertion changes the meaning of a verse that makes perfect sense without it.)
And it’s in the sending of the Son and His work on the cross that His love is demonstrated to us. It’s His love that has to be received and experienced first before any of the above three are possible and without which all of the above three are impossible. John writes in I John 4:10 that
‘In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins’
and Paul in Rom 5:8 that
‘...God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’
(see also Eph 2:4-5). God first loved us so that our response to that love is reciprocal (we love God), reflective (we love the children of God) and repentant (we begin to be obedient to God) - see Diagram 2 in the Appendix.
If we haven’t first received and experienced God’s love for us in Christ, our ‘obedience to His commandments’ will be a legalism, our ‘love of the brethren’ will be a tolerance (ecumenicalism) and our ‘love for God’ will be unenlightened. As John Stott writes
‘It is not our love that is primary, but God’s, free, uncaused and spontaneous, and all our love is but a reflection of His and a response to it’
‘God’s love was primary; all true love is a response to His initiative...Agape, godlike love...does not reside in our fallen nature; “our very capacity to love, whether the object of our love be God or our neighbour” (Dodd) is due entirely to His prior love for us and in us’
God’s love in Christ, then, is primary.
2. What is the love of God?
It’s necessary that we define what we mean by ‘the Love of God’ and, therefore, what we should understand as the Biblical concept of ‘Love’.
Today, ‘Love’ has such a diverse range of meaning, from dark shades of sin to bright tints of righteousness, that it’s necessary that we define it not by our experience of man’s fallen love, but by the reality of who God is, for ‘God is love’ (I John 4:8). We’ve travelled so far away from the love God created us to display upon the earth, that we must return to the origin of true love and define it by Him, if we’re to truthfully understand what it is.
Therefore, we shall consider four specific Greek words (two of which are used in the NT) which are translated by the word ‘love’, to see both what love is and isn’t, and to define the characteristics of the ‘love’ that originates in, and is a part of, the character of God.
Each word outlined has different shades of meaning which cause them to overlap in use. The definitions are not rigid interpretations of the word in whatever context it might be found to occur but broad outlines of the underlying and usual meaning of the word.
a. storge - Noun
Morlove defines this word as meaning
‘...something like “natural love” or “family love”’
This word represents an affection for someone, but it isn’t used in the NT. It doesn’t describe the love of God in sending His Son into the world for us because storge is natural, almost automatic and inevitable. It’s the type of love that binds families together, races, clans and social groupings (including national unity and patriotism).
In a positive sense, this ‘love’ is the type that binds families together so that, no matter what external forces come against them, the unity of the group remains complete and unbreakable. Even though suffering and heartache may come into their experience, storge love binds the family together and strengthens its ties.
In a negative sense, though, it can bind a unit together so well that it rejects any or all who aren’t regarded as being a part of that unit. It can exclude immigrants and aliens for no better reason than they aren’t a part - that is, there’s given no opportunity for the unit to open up and accept into its midst people who aren’t originally part of them.
b. phileo - Verb translated ‘kiss’, ‘love’ (Strongs Greek number 5368).
philia - Noun translated ‘friendship’ (Strongs Greek number 5373).
See also philadelphia translated ‘brotherly love’, ‘love of the brethren’ (Strongs Greek number 5360), philadelphos translated ‘love as brethren’ (Strongs Greek number 5361) and philos translated ‘friend’ from which the above four words all originate (Strongs Greek number 5384).
Morlove defines this word as meaning
‘...the love of friendship’
It’s a word used to describe friendship that’s developed between two or more people - the bond can be very strong and it’s easily mistaken for agape love.
‘Philia’ will, at its worst, produce cliques and factions within a fellowship and exclude brothers who aren’t felt to be a part of the friendship circle. At its best, it will produce a bond between people that’s not easily broken, the best example of which in Scripture is probably the friendship that existed between David and Jonathan (I Sam 18:1ff).
It’s used with God as the subject and man as the object in Rev 3:19 but it’s directed at those who are already ‘in Christ’.
Also in John 16:27 it’s said of God that He loves the disciples and John 20:2 speaks of the disciple that Jesus ‘loved’ (in John 19:26, however, it’s agapao that’s used).
In each of these three occurrences, it refers to believers and it’s not used to denote God’s love in sending His Son into the world for fallen mankind, the ‘unsaved’.
c. eros - Noun
Eros wasn’t used by the NT writers, like storge, because of its connections with sexual intercourse and romance. Morlove writes
‘Basically, eros is romantic love, sexual love...the sex act is the fitting expression of eros; it is the love of the worthy, and it is a love that desires to possess’
The object of eros is considered as ‘beautiful’, ‘desirable’ by the subject, with the accompanying attitude of a compulsion to possess the object.
So, should you go into a china store and there see the most ghastly jug (in my opinion) that you find of supreme beauty, you would be expressing the first characteristic of eros love towards it. If you then looked at the label and saw the price, you may not find it as attractive as you first did, but presuming that it matched your value of it, you’d get the Credit Card out and make a purchase, thus possessing the object that you’d fixed your affection on.
Very simply, this is how eros love works.
Eros may be beautiful, as in the Song of Solomon (though there’s also the possibility that the sexual experience here noted was between two lovers and not a husband and wife) where it finds its perfect expression, but because of the connotations too easily associated with it, the NT writers preferred to use agape.
Eros, called ‘love’ by the present generation, is, at its worst, an unquenchable fire that consumes its owner. It seeks to find self-satisfaction in its object but the failure to possess only enflames the desire more. This side of eros cannot be satisfied and will destroy the man who gives free vent to its leading.
Marriage is often based upon an expression of eros love. A man sees a woman who is, to him, an object worthy of his attention and he goes about seeking to possess her in marriage (or, outside marriage). When the ‘attraction’ wears off (or when his ‘attraction’ is centred in another - and , believe me, the day will come when that does happen), so does his desire to possess and the marriage or relationship breaks down. Eros isn’t an adequate foundation for marriage if it’s the only type of love present. All the above three types of love described should be present in a marriage, yet especially the next concept word, agape.
Eros was not the word used for ‘the love of God’ because of the twin concepts that lay behind it. God didn’t send His Son into the world because He found mankind attractive and desirable to possess. On the contrary, sin had driven a wedge between Himself and man and His face was turned away from us.
It was probably also not used because of the sexual connotations that had become integrated into its Greek usage. To have used the word (even if the Church had meant something different to its regular concept) would have been to offer a concept of God to the unsaved that was both false and misleading.
d. agapao - Verb translated ‘to love’ (Strongs Greek number 25)
agape - Noun translated ‘love’, ‘charity’, ‘dear’, ‘love-feast’ (Strongs Greek number 26)
Morlove defines agape (my italics) as
‘...in contrast at both points [of the word eros]: It is not a love of the worthy, and it is not a love that desires to possess. On the contrary, it is a love given quite irrespective of merit, and it is a love that seeks to give’
i. Irrespective of merit
God loved the world irrespective of its merit to deserve His love; for while we were enemies, God reconciled us to Himself (Rom 5:10); while we were sinners and living in opposition to His will, He died for us (Rom 5:8); while we hated God, He loved us and poured out His wrath upon Christ that should have been our due (I John 4:10).
Through the cross, God showed that His love for mankind sprang out of His Being (that is, who He is) and not as a response to what we were. Morlove comments accurately that
‘He loves because of what He is, not because of what we are’
God showed the true meaning of His command through Jesus to ‘love your enemies’ (Mtw 5:44-45) by laying down His life for those who showed no affection for Him by their lifestyle.
ii. Seeking to give
It was because God wanted to lavish upon us the riches that we’d forfeited through our rebellion, that Christ came - so that everyone could receive the benefits and blessings of communion with God. He sent Jesus so that we might through Him receive Himself. He desired to give Himself to us for our benefit. All Jesus had to give was Himself anyway!
Agape is a self-giving love and cannot be described in terms of possession. Therefore, when the cross is looked at, we see not a god trying to obtain selfishly but God who is laying His life on the line so that he might give Himself away freely to all.
It was agape that the early Church used to denote the Love of God demonstrated in His sending of the Son to effect reconciliation (I John 4:10, Rom 5:8, Eph 2:4-5). It’s these twin concepts of ‘undeserved merit’ and ‘the giving of oneself’ that lie behind the concept of the love of God in the NT.
Summary of section b
see also Diagram 1 in the Appendix
agape - ‘love’
Love - Given irrespective of considered merit
Desire - to give to the object of one’s love
eros - ‘love’
Love - Of the worthy, attractive, beautiful
Desire - To possess the object of one’s love
philia - friendship
storge - natural affection
The three loves of storge, philia and eros are only made ‘perfect’ when agape is present in an individual’s life. They serve very well but are bad masters.
3. Man’s response
So far, we’ve seen, firstly, that God’s love is primary to all other love and, secondly, how the NT writers used the Greek word agape to define their concept of that love.
It’s quite true that we can experience God’s love as believers as all of the first three of the four ‘loves’ previously defined. Therefore, as philia, we’re ‘friends of God’ if we do as He commands us (John 15:14), as storge because we’re ‘sons’ of God our Father, making us part of His family if we’re led by the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:14) and, finally, as eros because we’re the bride of Christ (Rev 19:7-8) and Paul speaks of Christ and His Church in this way (Eph 5:31-33).
But, the love of God demonstrated in the cross and beyond the cross to believers is primarily agape. Indeed, the love of God expressed to the unsaved by the way of the cross is only ever agape until the individuals respond to Him in repentance and faith.
Now we must look at man’s response to God’s love, which was outlined in passing in section a, under three separate headings.
a. Love for God
Firstly, we need to note that there’s no agape love which resides within fallen man, but it’s a gift of God freely bestowed upon all in Christ.
The question which presents itself to us here is whether we’re to respond to God’s agape love for us with eros or agape love (that philia and storge are relevant love concepts in our relationship with God can be seen in the above intro.
Now that we’re believers, we can respond to God with eros love, though nowhere in the NT is eros used and our exposition of this must be limited with warnings:
Because we’ve come to see the ‘worthiness’ of God (for example, Rev 5:9-10), to see Him as beautiful and attractive through His work in, and through, the Person of Christ, we can respond with eros love. Also, a desire to have more of His presence in our lives is a response of eros - for instance, Phil 3:8-9 which has Paul recorded as desiring
‘..that I may gain Christ’
But, at worst, eros could be a ‘selfish love’ and is seen in the lives of individuals who follow God ‘for a time’ but fall away in hard times (Mtw 13:20-21). Their love for God is only rooted in a desire to receive blessing, not to give themselves unreservedly to God.
Throughout the centuries, Christians’ exposition of the Song of Solomon as the love relationship between Christ and His Church has been centred in the interpretation of God’s love primarily as eros, not agape, and our previous discussion in section b should warn us against taking a similar line for it majors away from the NT concept behind the usage of the word agape and onto an understanding of love defined by our own experience, not upon the character of God. Eros love waxes and wanes, ebbs and flows - but agape love remains constant.
And, besides, as already noted, the NT writers would not use eros as defining our love for God - instead, they used agape consistently.
It remains, therefore, for us to understand how man’s love for God, in response to His initiative of love toward us, is a demonstration of agape love. In what way can we say that we love God though we find nothing ‘beautiful’ about Him and that we give to Him at the same time?
There are many times when the way of God isn’t an attractive proposition at all (Acts 21:11 - see also Mtw 24:9, 10:34-36, John 21:18-19) but our response to press on regardless into the way that He’s prepared for us and our willingness to give ourselves freely in that service (Acts 21:13) is a work of agape love in response to His.
The two aspects of agape (love regardless of beauty and the willingness to give) are only a reciprocation of God’s love in Christ but, nevertheless, they’re the perfect response in that situation. As John writes in I John 4:19
‘We love (agape) because He first loved (agape) us’
And the Father will see whether we follow Him because of what we get from Him or in order to lay our lives down for Him. God desires that we love Him for Himself, not because of what we get out of Him.
No matter whether we feel we love God (eros), we do love Him if we continue to give ourselves to Him for His benefit and use, and if we continue to follow His way for our life despite the unattractiveness of it.
b. Love for the brethren
We’re commanded to have agape love for the children of God (I John 4:21). Indeed, it’s evidence that we love God (I John 5:1).
It’s a love that’s God’s love received by us as individuals and reflected into our brothers’ lives. Note that eros love can only be fully and properly shared between the husband and wife of a marriage partnership. Agape love, on the other hand, is properly given to all.
The oft quoted phrase
‘I love you but I don’t have to like you’
has an element of truth in it. Far from having to find an area of beauty in another’s life before love can be bestowed upon that individual, agape love can flow constantly out from us, demonstrating itself in our willingness to give time, resources, finance, encouragement, prayer, ministry and so on to that person.
There’s also an element of untruth in the statement for, as believers and being in the same family in Christ, storge love should be in evidence amongst us!
c. Obedience to God
Loving God means obedience to Him (John 14:21,23, I John 5:3), it’s not an optional extra.
If our obedience comes about as a work of our love for God, which in turn is a reciprocation of His love for us in Christ, no man can dare boast of His obedience, for it’s inspired primarily by the love of God!
As Ezekiel said of the days in which we live (Ezek 36:27)
‘...I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes’
and Jeremiah (Jer 31:33)
‘I will put My law within them and I will write it upon their hearts...’
Our obedience is part of the covenant that God made provision for in Christ.
Appendix - Diagrammatic summaries
Diagram 1 - ‘Loves’
This diagram attempts to show the definition of the types of love which are shared between different people. The preceding text needs to be read also as there is an overbleed of some of the concepts.
Diagram 2 - ‘Agape’
Taking God’s love as primary, this diagram seeks to illustrate how a man is expected to respond to it in three specific areas which are defined as being interrelated by John.