Is it true that ‘God is love’?

It seems to be increasingly common in a range of ethical debates in the public sphere for one protagonist or other to reach for the formula ‘God is love’ as a quick resolution to disagreement. But this is usually done in a particular way, in the form of a progressive from God to us and then on to our actions and the impact that they have on others. If God is love, then love is the only valid measure of what we can or should do. And the measure of whether something is loving is whether those affected by the action feel that they are loved as a result of it. Therefore the measure of whether something is a Christian ethical action is whether those affected feel that they are loved by it. There is a serious point to this move, which is to counter the real danger that we can do unloving things in the name of a loving God. But in the form it is often practiced in contemporary discussion, it easily reduces both ethics and the idea of the ‘love of God’ to a banal measure of how I feel. I think this is the concern behind the spoof article on the satirical website Babylon Bee, ‘Progressive Criticizes Jesus For Not Being Very Christlike‘:

After reading several chapters from the gospels over the weekend, local progressive believer Wendy Butler reportedly published a Patheos blog post in which she criticized Jesus of Nazareth for “not being very Christlike.” The blog post took Jesus to task for His “unloving and problematic” teachings.

“He devotes entire sections of His sermons to ranting about archaic religious concepts like hell and the last judgment instead of just coming alongside the marginalized and affirming their sins,” Butler said. “Very little of what He did on earth I would describe as life-giving. Frankly, I do a better job of being Christlike than Christ Himself.”

One way of exploring the phenomenon of reducing ethics to ‘felt love’ would be to look at the structure of how we think about what is right and wrong, as Jonathan Haidt has done in The Righteous Mind (summarised helpfully by Glynn Harrison). But I want to make some observations from the other direction, that of the Scriptural texts about God’s love. I feel enormous trepidation in even beginning to think about this, since it is such a large topic, so many people have written on it, and I am in serious danger of being accused of heresy if I omit something important. Despite that, I am going to stick my neck out and make three main observations; the heresy register is open in the comments section.

My first observation is that God’s love is consistently depicted as self-generating and self-originating. By that I mean that God loves because of who God is, and the love of God is not drawn out of God by the virtue of the thing that is loved. This finds one of its most explicit expressions in Deut 7.7–9, where Moses is rehearsing the narrative of God’s rescue of Israel from the land of Egypt:

The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments.

The repeated emphasis here is that God’s people are special and distinct—not by any virtue or merit of their own, but simply because God ‘set his love’ on them in his sovereignty. Election is not a badge of merit, but a sign to the world of God’s sovereign, self-generating love.

This offers both a challenge and an impossibility to the human exercise of love, if it is to be patterned on the love of God. The challenge is that God’s love is offered ‘indifferently’, that is, without regard to the status or merit of the one loved. This is behind the repeated NT claim that God is ‘no respecter of persons’ (Acts 10.34, Rom 2.11, Eph 6.9, Col 3.25, James 2.1, 9, 1 Peter 1.17), which is not only important as an expression of God’s justice, but is the central theological conviction behind the extension of the good news about Jesus from his Jewish people into the Gentile mission. The (in one sense) arbitrary nature of God’s election of Israel ultimately deconstructs itself, and leads to the (theo-)logical conclusion of inclusion of people from every tribe, language, people and nation. If we love with the love of God, we too need to love regardless of the merit or virtues of the one loved.

But this leads to the impossibility. As a finite and frail human, my love of the other is almost always dependent on that love being drawn out by the merit of the loved. I love my wife, at least in part, because she is lovely (and in my view, extremely so). The love of spouses for each other in marriage is (in this sense) only a partial model of the love of God for his people. (This is the point for a digression the subject of the analogia entis, the ‘analogy of being’, a debate about the virtue of Thomist theology, and whether what we know about our own lives leads us to understand God, or whether our understanding of God through his self-revelation is the only thing which allows us to understand ourselves…but I will leave that to others.)

My second main observation is that God in his love is constantly depicted as seeking out and crossing boundaries. I think that this is more implicit than explicit in most OT narratives, since there is a repeated focus on the holiness of God and the boundaries that must exist around that. But that in itself assumes that God has crossed the most fundamental boundary of all—that between the creator and the creature—in making God’s name known to his people. The presence of God in tabernacle and temple represents a crossing of the boundary between earth and heaven which forms the basis of all theology of God’s presence in the world (across the Scriptures) and finds ultimate expression in the eschatological hope of the NT, that the temple-city-people of the New Jerusalem will come from heaven to earth. The final abolition of boundaries will only come when God’s love has fulfilled its ultimate purpose.

The boundary-crossing nature of God’s love is evident in the ministry of Jesus—though not quite in the way that is often assumed. Jesus’ programmatic saying ‘The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost’ is attached by Luke to Jesus encounter with Zacchaeus in Luke 19.10, but it could easily have been deployed amongst Luke’s collection of the parables of the lost in Luke 15 or in the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ in Luke 10. It is worth noting that Jesus use of this latter parable as a commentary on the OT commandment to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ implies that boundary-crossing was always present, even if latent, in the OT understanding of love.

But the parables of the lost themselves contain a curiosity: after the depiction of the boundary-crossing seeking of God as a shepherd pursuing the lost sheep and the woman searching for her lost coin, we have the paradoxical portrayal of the patient father who receives the prodigal son returning home after he has ‘come to himself’—though the father himself neither travels nor mounts an expedition to recover the son or persuade him to return. There appear to be some limits to God’s boundary crossing!

This is reflected in that aspect of Jesus’ ministry which provokes the telling of these parables in the first place. It is often noted that “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15.2), which was seen as fault by the Pharisees but virtue to us. There is no mistaking the radical nature of this boundary-crossing in the context of a culture where eating with another had a symbolic significance that is missing in our days of public restaurants and casual eating. And yet it is usually overlooked that Jesus himself does not host meals for ‘sinners’, and his ‘invitation’ to them consistently takes the form of accept their invitation to eat at their home, as in the case of Zacchaeus himself. The only mean where Jesus is host is the one for his disciples, which anticipates the eschatological meal with the redeemed in the new creation. That is why we cannot easily make the move from Jesus’ table-fellowship to indiscriminate association with others.

And the gospels make clear, in varying degrees, the purpose of Jesus’ welcome of sinners—that they might repentant and be transformed. Mark’s version of Jesus saying ‘I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners…’ is left hanging in the air (Mark 2.17), but Luke ends our suspense and completes what his readers must have known was Jesus’ meaning: ‘to call sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5.32). This is no easy acceptance of others, no simple rejection of Pharisaical concern with holiness (which Jesus appears in principle to accept and set as a benchmark for his followers in Matt 5.20)—and it bears little relation to contemporary ideas of tolerance, inclusion and acceptance. The consistent testimony of the gospels is that Jesus’ message was both good news and a challenge—the invitation both to trust and to repent.

This, then, informs my third observation about the language of God’s love. In the New Testament, it seems that every mention of God’s love is in the context of his forgiveness of sins—the costly self-giving of God that is necessary for the amends-making offering of his son Jesus for our redemption. This is true for the best known (and most misinterpreted) verse in the NT, John 3.16:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

(The misinterpretation is in thinking that ‘so’ here indicates degree; it actually indicates manner: ‘This is the way that God loved the world…’) But this unbreakable link between God’s love and the costly redemption of humanity from sin is evident everywhere else. In Ephesians 2.4–5, God’s love is evidenced in his bringing us from the death of sin to the life of obedience:

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.

It was Paul’s personal experience—God came to meet him even whilst he was the ‘chief of sinners’ because of his persecution of the followers of Jesus (and therefore of Jesus himself since they are his body and presence). This is embedded in his explication of his theology of the gospel in Romans 5.8:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

And this is equally true in the Johannine articulation of God’s love, from which our opening saying ‘God is love’ comes.

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4.8–11)

Once again, there is no escaping the ethical imperative here that should mark God’s people distinctively. But most deployment of the phrase ‘God is love’ rips this saying from its context. If we want to read this faithfully, then we need to understand it as expressing God’s costly self-giving which is ‘indifferent’ and boundary-crossing—but which is only fully expressed in the transformed of the loved as the loved respond to the love that is offered and are transformed and redeemed by it.

If we see the connection between the love of God as described in the Scriptures and the need of redemption on the part of the sinful, it helps us begin to resolve the tension we feel between the texts of love and the texts of judgement, which are present throughout Scripture but are especially problematic in the NT (as experience by our satirical ‘progressive’ in the Babylon Bee piece). If the love of God is expressed in the offer of rescue from sin and death, then the acceptance of this offer of rescuing love has serious consequences. In our own conversation, we often want to keep the two apart—yet it is striking how often the NT keeps these two ideas in close proximity. Our best-known verse about love in John 3.16 sits cheek by jowl with the language of judgement for precisely this reason: that God’s love intends to save us from the alternative fate of ‘perishing’.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. (John 3.17–19).

In this sense, the love of God is not so much ‘inclusive’ as divisive, since the extent to which we understand God’s love is the extent to which we see the urgency of the need to respond to it in decision. It also implies that the credibility of our claim to express the love of God cannot be separated from the credibility of our case that humanity is in need of this saving love.

All this goes to show that when we (rightly) proclaim that ‘God is love’, whether this is true entirely depends on our understanding of the term ‘love’. Many appear to take this saying, remove it from its context, and pour into it whatever their construal of ‘love’ is—but if we do this, we are emptying the text of its meaning and making it serve our own purposes. If we wish to be shaped by Scripture then this is not an option.

The comments section is now open for you to observe my errors, omissions, and the list of the many writers I should have cited in this piece. On your marks, get set—go!

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62 thoughts on “Is it true that ‘God is love’?”

  1. This is very helpful. From the same voices that misuse “God so loved the world” to mean “God loved the world SO much”, I hear an emphasis on “Unconditional love”. And then I get into a fuss comparing John 3:16 with John 3:36 which seems to say that God’s starting point is wrath, and so His love is very conditional indeed. No belief? No love!

    This is extremely upsetting, because my parents don’t much like church, or christians? and while I don’t blame them. what do I say when when they ask, What happens when I die? Should I say the message is that God has love for me because I believe, but wrath for you because you do not? I’m going to read the article again, as I think it’s helping me to unwind all this.

    • Steve,

      Your thinking sets “love” against “wrath” – Either God loves you or he is against you because of his wrath and therefore cannot “love” you. If you read Romans 5:8-10, you will notice that God loves us even in our fallen state, before we have reached out to him! That’s why he wants to save us. That’s why he died in order to save us. God never stops loving us, and God-in-flesh Jesus is the proof!

      So “No belief? No love!” (as you put it) is not at all the Gospel truth. The actual problem we have is “No belief = no salvation”. Here’s why-

      “Wrath” is to do with injustice. God is not only perfect love. He is perfectly righteous and the perfect and right judge of what is right and wrong. Jews used to think that the Law was the definition of what is right and wrong, but Jesus taught that we must actually be n line with his perfect will for our lives [Matthew 5:48] – read the chapter leading up to this conclusion. If we fail, we are ‘sinning’. As such, God’s wrath is against us even though he loves us.

      This is a problem! How can God be fully loving and act in an utterly just way at the same time such that sinful human beings can share eternity in his perfect presence? The answer is found in the cross.

      Like a fireman, putting his ladder up to an upstairs window in order to save people from their plight, we still have an option. We can choose to put our trust in his way, or we can attempt some other way of escape – or we may not even realise the severity of our plight. None of our own thoughts change the reality of the matter. Similarly, what we need to do with non-believers is to trying and help them to understand why Jesus is the only Way [John 14:6].

      I hope that helps.

  2. I have been concerned for a while that there is a tendency to ‘love’ people in a warm, fuzzy manner in the hope that they will like our ‘club’ and join, thus putting more backsides on pews (or comfy seats if a faculty to remove pews has been granted!) and defining the increased numbers as proof of effective evangelism. I am more and more convinced that to fulfil the commission to make disciples requires an honest demonstration and proclamation of the change of lifestyle, etc., that should result from being part of God’s people. I keep returning to Christopher Wright’s ‘The Mission of God’ and his theme in lectures that the law was given to Israel after they had been saved from Egypt as a way of living in response to God’s love in saving them and to demonstrate how to live in relationship with God, which he then applies to NT believers. I think your blog excellently addresses the same issue – that there is a necessary response to God’s love in offering a means of being saved, but that response is costly (discipleship in its full sense), and a failure to respond leads to judgement. God’s love and judgement are inextricably linked. Moses put the choice to Israel of ‘life or death’ (Deut 30:15-16) with life / blessing being conditional on obedience.

    I was intrigued by your observation about Jesus accepting invitations to eat with sinners, but only hosting meals for disciples. Does this distinction deserve further exploration in respect of approaches to mission & evangelism?

    Great blog that challenges the wishy, washy, ‘God is love, God loves you, come and feel warm & fuzzy being ‘loved’ by a God that is love and doesn’t do nasty things like judge’ version of the Gospel.

  3. Ian
    It is not so much what you have said in this article, which is very true, as what you have not said, which leaves me in doubt about what you believe about what you have not said, about the doctrinal questions/issues that inevitably arise when ‘God is love’ is faced with agonising frankness in the light of all that the Bible says:

    1 That all human beings are born with a nature inclined to evil and facing God’s wrath and condemnation, incapable, without divine grace, of taking any steps towards God, and that God has chosen in eternity those whom he will save and those, those only, will certainly be saved and the ‘dreadful fact stares us full in the face that God has thought well to leave some men eternally without the Spirit of holiness’ (Warfield).
    2 That those whom God has not saved face the eternal punishment that their sins deserve.

    (On 1 I say again that alongside this terrible truth it is equally true that God’s invitation, Christ’s invitation, to repent and submit to Christ in his atoning death and life-giving resurrection is a genuine and sincere invitation to all. How these two truths can be simultaneously true is one of God’s secrets)

    Phil Almond

    • “How these two truths can be simultaneously true is one of God’s secrets”

      It’s only a conundrum to Calvinists. The rest of us have figured it out… 🙂

      “If God is love (1 John 4:7) but intended Christ’s atoning death to be the propitiation for only certain people so only they have any chance of being saved, then ‘love’ has no intelligible meaning when referring to God. All Christians agree that God is love. But believers in limited atonement must interpret God’s love as somehow compatible with God unconditionally selecting some people to eternal torment in hell when He could save them (because election to salvation and thus salvation itself is unconditional).”
      Roger E. Olson

      • Hi Simon
        As you probably know as well (or probably better) than I do, the issues raised by your post have been the subject of debate and disagreement for centuries, especially since the Reformation. It is Ian’s call whether he wants a debate on these issues on this thread, given the long history of past debate in which the pros and cons and problems with competing theologies have been thoroughly explored. A debate here might consist of references to articles and books supporting/criticising those rival understandings. This post is just a preliminary while awaiting any guidance that Ian wants to give.

        Considering all those who believe that Christianity is in some sense true: I surmise (I know I cannot prove it) that only a minority of those ignore the Bible completely in what they believe and how they ought to behave. Then there are those who consider the Bible to be in some way significant but that it is not wholly trustworthy. Then there are those who do believe that the Bible is wholly trustworthy. I assume that we are both in this last group. The task facing all those in this last group is to fully face all that the Bible says, however agonising that may seem, and allow what it says to challenge us. I direct that remark to us all – myself as well as you. We are all looking for the ‘best fit’ which makes all that the Bible says fit together in the most convincing way.
        You are right that my view of how the doctrines of God’s sovereignty, Predestination, Free Will, God’s wrath, Justice, Holiness, Righteousness, Love, Mercy, Compassion, Pity, Grace, Gospel Invitation, Gospel Command, Gospel Exhortation involves what you have described as ‘conundrums’ – which I have defined as God’s secrets how two apparently contradictory truths are both true. My preliminary question to you is: what are the ‘conundrums’ in your view? Or are you saying that there are none?

        Phil Almond

        • Hi Phil,

          Thanks for the reply. I hope I’m not coming over as rude (that’s not my intention at all) but I have no urge for debate, however with all this talk of predestination and Calvinism, and in light of the blog post’s theme, I have three questions to ask. There’s no need to reply: –

          1) Do Calvinists tell unbelievers that God loves them?
          2) If reprobation is a thing, why did Jesus so long to gather Jerusalem’s children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but they were unwilling?
          3) What difference does it make to anyone if they call God a monster (which is something I don’t suppose either of us are suggesting!)? Related to that, why not just reject predestination altogether and throw ourselves at the mercy of a wholly more loving God than Calvin’s. What have we got to lose – the salvation we never had…?

          I suppose there are a thousand other similar questions, or even better ones to ask but I’m not sure I know them or that we’d get anywhere if I did.

          In answer to your question, I have to say I can’t answer it because I reject your premise of God’s unconditional grace (or, election) in the first place. So, whatever else I may or may not believe about predestination, grace, mercy, holiness or love etc, I have rejected the idea that a sovereign God apparently exercises love by damning billions of people to Hell. And according to Calvin, (as far as I know) it makes no difference what I think or believe if I’m predestined for wrath. So, to you, it might be a mystery and a fact, but to me it’s an unresolvable contradiction that removes the profound nature of God’s love displayed in Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.


          • Simon
            Perhaps my question (‘My preliminary question to you is: what are the ‘conundrums’ in your view? Or are you saying that there are none?’) was badly phrased. Sorry about that. Your Simon Cordingley September 30, 2017 at 6:02 pm post seemed to be suggesting, correct me if I am wrong, that your view avoids the ‘conundrum’ (as you called it) which is an essential part of my view. I was trying to get you to say whether you recognise that there are any such ‘conundrums’ in your view (I mean your whole theological view) or not. That is, any instances in your view of cases where ‘a pair of principles stand side by side, seemingly irreconcilable, yet both undeniable’ (‘Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God’ page 18, J.I.Packer). I will answer your first two questions (I don’t understand the third) after we have just explored whether your theology is ‘conundrum free’.

            Phil Almond

    • Hi Phil,

      I can’t say I can think of any apparent contradictory principles in my beliefs. Certainly not on the level of predestination. But it is late at night and I’m a little too tired to think. That doesn’t mean I never have doubts or struggle with my faith.

      If I did have beliefs about God’s nature which I thought were contradictory (and knowing God isn’t contradictory in his nature), I would assume the problem lay in my understanding of God. That being so, I would almost certainly restrain myself from declaring my beliefs to be truths, especially if I knew my beliefs were contentious (as I think you admitted yourself).



      • Hi Simon
        Thanks for your reply.

        It is possible for Christians, known-to-God-to-be-Christians, to be astray or go astray about the truths of Christianity they deny and/or the denials of the truths of Christianity they believe, just as they can be astray or go astray morally. Conversely it is possible to intellectually believe all the truths of Christianity and not be a known-to-God-Christian.

        For instance, going astray about the atonement, it is possible for a known-to-God-Christian to deny the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement and yet in reality be a known-to-God-Christian precisely because Christ on the cross has suffered the holy wrath and just penal condemnation and judgment of God that they deserve, thus delivering them from that wrath, condemnation and punishment.

        Likewise it is possible for a known-to-God-Christian to deny the doctrine that God has predestined some but not all sinners to salvation and yet be among those that God has so predestined, and to have come to repentance and faith by the merciful, gracious and loving sovereign irresistible operation of God in the soul, without ‘violence offered’ to the will of the sinner (cf Westminster Confession of Faith).

        When I first came across the doctrine of predestination 45 years ago by reading a book on the 39 Articles (especially Article 17) and talking to a friend, I was devastated. It was only by long and agonising reflection and by confronting myself with what the Bible says in Romans 8 and 9-11, in Ephesians 1:1-6 and chapter 2 and elsewhere that I came to my present convictions. I also have to say that in the immediate aftermath of that devastation, John 3:16 came to me with an experiential assurance of God’s love more intense than anything I have experienced since.

        You posted ‘I can’t say I can think of any apparent contradictory principles in my beliefs. Certainly not on the level of predestination’. But I was asking about ‘your whole theological view’.

        Several times in Exodus we read of the LORD hardening Pharaoh’s heart and Pharaoh hardening his own heart. If we regard the Bible as being wholly trustworthy (as I assume we both do) then both of these statements must be true. Also, it is clear that Pharaoh is responsible for his sin and that God’s judgment on Pharaoh and his army is a just judgment. And it is clear that ‘But I have raised you (Pharaoh) up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth’ (Exodus 9:16). Does this not confront us with the mystery of the interaction between the divine and human wills, with an instance where ‘a pair of principles stand side by side, seemingly irreconcilable, yet both undeniable’ – God hardens Pharaoh’s heart but Pharaoh is guilty and accountable for his sin, and God’s purpose in raising Pharaoh up was to ‘show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth’ and yet, as the Bible makes clear elsewhere, God is not the author of sin? And of course Paul refers to this in Romans 9, in one of the passages that convinces me.

        1) Do Calvinists tell unbelievers that God loves them?
        I don’t say ‘God loves you’ because I don’t believe that God bestows his saving love on all.
        What I do try to say is along the lines that we are all sinners deserving God’s wrath and just condemnation but God and Christ make a wonderful, sincere, genuine invitation, exhortation, command to an unbeliever to repent of your sins and submit to Christ in his atoning death and life-giving resurrection with the sure promise that if you do that he will forgive your sins, give you the Holy Spirit and bring you into a new living relationship with God. ‘Come now, make no delay, for this may be your dying day’. Or in the words of Article 17 ‘Furthermore, we must receive God’s promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God.’

        2) If reprobation is a thing, why did Jesus so long to gather Jerusalem’s children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but they were unwilling? (Matthew 23:37)
        My answer is to consider this passage alongside both God’s entire dealings with his people in the Old Testament and alongside what Paul says in Romans 11. In the Old Testament God commands the Jews to obey him and sends the Prophets to promise restoration if they repent and judgment if they do not. And there is passion and longing in God’s exhortation, ‘How shall I give thee up, Ephraim? how shall I deliver thee, Israel? how shall I make thee as Admah? how shall I set thee as Zeboim? mine heart is turned within me, my repentings are kindled together’. (Hosea 11:8) But they would not hear. In Isaiah’s vision in Isaiah 6, the Lord (whom John identifies as Christ (John 12:41)) says to Isaiah

        “Go and tell this people:
        “‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
        be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
        10 Make the heart of this people calloused;
        make their ears dull
        and close their eyes.
        Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
        hear with their ears,
        understand with their hearts,
        and turn and be healed.”
        Jesus refers to this in Matthew 13, Mark 4 and John 12

        In Romans 11 Paul says ‘What therefore? What Israel seeks after this not he obtained, but the choice obtained it; and the rest were hardened. As it has been written: Gave to them God a spirit of torpor, eyes not to see and ears not to hear, until the present day’. Hosea 11:8 and Isaiah 6:9-10 are both true. Matthew 23:37 and Romans 11:7-8 are both true. How can that be? That is one of God’s secrets.

        Phil Almond

  4. A good reminder that love is costly, challenging and life transforming. I suspect it’s in the detailed application that disagreements might arise. (Is it possible that same sex marriage might be just such a disagreement?).

  5. Thanks Ian – great. I don’t want to suggest a hierarchy of divine attributes but have often wondered why the angels around the throne sing “holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God almighty” and not “love, love, love is….”?
    pls can we have a similar post from you on this theme.

    • Simon, that is a very interesting question. Part of the answer comes in the comment from Michael Lakey which I am posting below. I think a large part of it is another way of understanding the fundamental testimony about God, that ‘God is one’.

      (This doesn’t answer the other half of your question, which is why, of these attributes, holiness is prioritised in Revelation, and why love is less evidently prominent. I think part of the answer to that is found in the language of God’s just judgement on behalf of his people…)

  6. Michael Lakey on Facebook makes this comment:

    I think there are four points I would make:

    1) as you hint, by mentioning S. Thomas Aquinas, this is a topic that invites consideration of how dogmatics and biblical interpretation intersect. One of the things that I value in the dogmatic tradition is the understanding that the primary attributes of God do not operate independently of one another (as the analogous characteristics do in human beings—hence your point about anthropomorphism). Hence, divine Love as a primary attribute is inseparable from the exercise of divine justice/righteousness—with all of the members of the Holy Trinity fully possessing all attributes in their plenitude. That is, there is a simplicity and unity in the divine character.

    2) I’m thinking on my feet here, but, to use a mathematical or cartographical analogy, the unity of divine action is like a point in real space that can be charted according to any number of different vector bases. What do I mean by this? One can map the surface of the world as if East were North, or South were North or NNW were North. As long as the axes of the map are linearly independent of one another, it is possible to represent the point on the surface of the Earth as a combination of two coordinates (from whatever base). And the choice of base is irrelevant to the actuality of the actual location in the real world—one can represent the journey from Oxford to London using any of the bases I mention above. Likewise, the unity of any divine action is ‘representable’ using a conceptuality in which ‘Love’ is North, or ‘Justice’ is North, but to imagine that the representational base is a) the same as the reality it represents, or that b) there are no comparably adequate representational bases, is to misunderstand the nature of representation.

    3) Hence, key divine actions in the biblical narrative are amenable to a variety of representational bases. Was the Exodus about God’s love, manifested as pity for his people, or God’s righteousness, manifested as judgement for their persecutors? Was the crucifixion about God’s love for the world, his wrath over sin, or his faithfulness to his own holiness? I would argue at one level that the correct answer is “both”, or “all three”, yet at another level I would also argue that saying that gives the unfortunate impression that the unity of the divine action can be parsed in the way that we can parse the different representational bases we use to talk about it. This is simply to reiterate that all of the language we use to describe God is unavoidably analogical; the reality to which it refers is concrete in the grainy particularity of events and narratives—the biblical story and uniquely in the stubborn particularity of God becoming a Jewish man some 2000 years or so ago.

    4) One worked example of the general misunderstanding of this is a debate I remember having some time ago in which I argued that popular Christian accounts of the Resurrection can sometimes resolve into a particular form of anthropomorphism—in which God raises us because he loves us. Lingering in the background, and occasionally expressed, is the idea that the love which is temporal rather than eternal is somehow incomplete. My argument is that this is to violate the idea of God as actus purus since it posits God as needing creation. Instead, I argued that the resurrection as an idea emerged out of three theological impulses (not restricted to, but coming to a head in the Maccabean period); i) God’s covenant—his faithfulness to his own word; ii) God’s justice—in which disjunctions between covenant faithfulness/unfaithfulness and received outcomes are rectified; and iii) God’s love—which is manifested in raising the innocent martyred to eternal reward and also in raising their persecutors to damnation. But there is a unity to the act which integrates and overflows each of these frames of reference. This is the kind of theological thinking I have in mind in 1-3 above.

  7. A great article.

    There are self-contradictions galore in the normal facile appeal to ‘God is love’:

    (1) There were 4 loves in Greek, so ancient Greek and modern English don’t map onto each other here.
    Agape, philia, storge, eros. I have lost count of the number of times the second of these has been called philos.

    (2) ‘Agape’ does not mean whatever we want it to mean.

    (3) It certainly does not mean indulgence, whatever else it means.

    (4) Indulgence is one of the more unloving attitudes.

    (5) One cannot throw aside all exegesis on all topics for the sake of 3 words.

    (6) Why affirm this Johannine principle while also rejecting so much of what John himself writes? What one is really believing and affirming is oneself and one’s own culture. Anyone can do that, and most do.

    (7) Then there are the complex questions of how John uses language in the first place (as part of a preexisting system or grid of concepts) which determines how he uses ‘agape’ and also how he interrelates agape with philia and how he interrelates agape with Theos.

  8. Good piece Ian.

    Isn’t it significant that the only place in the Bible which says “God is love” (1 John 4:8) starts out by saying “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).

    Jim Packer said in Knowing God (on God’s love):

    “the God who is love is first and foremost light, and sentimental ideas of His love as an indulgent, benevolent softness, divorced from moral standards and concerns, must therefore be ruled out from the start. God’s love is a holy love … God’s love is stern, for it expresses holiness in the lover and seeks holiness for the beloved. Scripture does not allow us to confer happiness on people who will not seek holiness, or to shield His loved ones from trouble when He knows that they need trouble to further their sanctification.”

    It’s helpful to think that it says “God is love” – not “love is God” – God defines what love is. We don’t start with our ideas about love and then work back up to God!

  9. Great post.

    On God’s love as not being on the basis of the merit of the thing loved, I do worry that by itself this makes it too arbitrary. Jesus says we are worth many sparrows. That of course is because we bear God’s image in a way that sparrows (or any other element of creation) do not. Does God not love human beings who bear his image more than other things in creation? Is that not because we bear his image, so that if he loved say rocks more than human beings that would be wrong? Should we not for the same reason?

    Also, what about us hating our family etc compared to Jesus? Shouldn’t our love for God exceed that of anything else because of who God is? So the merit of the thing (being God, bearing his image) appears to play a role in the proper measure of love. This avoids it being arbitrary, but may create problems with respect to other forms of merit.

    Perhaps it is a combination: there is (inherent, not attained) ‘merit’ in bearing God’s image, but God has decreed (or from his nature it follows) that all human beings are equally the objects of this love regardless of other features.

    • Also, God loves righteousness and hates sin, and this is because of what they are as well as who he is. He loves righteousness because he is good and righteousness is good and the good love what is good.

      This might suggest he loves good people more than wicked. But this is where grace comes in and he in fact loves all his children, good and bad, equally – though that doesn’t mean he always treats them the same. He punishes the wicked (which is all of us) who do not repent and receive forgiveness in Christ as a matter of justice and holiness. He still loves them but within the fullness of his character and his goodness and justice that is fully consistent with punishment.

  10. “The only mean [meal!] where Jesus is host is the one for his disciples, which anticipates the eschatological meal with the redeemed in the new creation.”

    Well, there was also the feedings of the four thousand and the five thousand! And I think they were pretty ‘eschatological’ in meaning.

    I am glad to find someone who agrees with me on the meaning of ‘houtos’ in John 3.16.

    You are of course entirely correct to note that Jesus’ social interaction with others didn’t necessarily mean approval of their ‘lifestyle’ (a very over-blown word). He said he was a physician visiting the sick.

    Ah, so any doctors in the UK still do house-calls?

    Love is the well-spring of all Christian ethics, as Augustine would affirm in De Dei Civitate. Even prisons and armies should be seen as works of love (else no Christian could be involved as a magistrate or soldier).

    The assertion that ‘God loves everything that He has made’ is of course embedded in Anglican liturgies. The big questions (where you might have been headed) include:

    – Just how does God ‘love’ all his creation – including the majority that has not heard and responded to the Gospel? IOW, is God’s love uniform in its character?

    – How are love and punishment to be related?

    – What about the eternity of hell?

    Don Carson has sketched a Reformed answer to some of these questions in ‘The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God’, originally some lectures he gave at Oak Hill.

  11. 3.16 exegesis is quite interesting given that ‘the world’ is *usually* (but not necessarily always) a baddie in the 4th Gospel. Reminds me of the ambiguity of ‘ge’ in Revelation.

    • As always, stimulating. With respect to Brian & Ian (and a host of venerable scholars), I’m not sure I’d want to give up the ‘houtos’ as an intensifier of the verb so quickly. I think the conjunction ‘gar’ may serve the purpose you posit on ‘houtos’. And this sheer magnitude of divine love is seen in the giving up of his son.

      • …and yes, I know most of the time ‘houtos’ functions in the way you suggest 🙂 The NET translators notes offer the following resolution: ‘John is emphasizing both the degree to which God loved the world as well as the manner in which He chose to express that love. This is in keeping with John’s style of using double entendre or double meaning. Thus, the focus of the Greek construction here is on the nature of God’s love, addressing its mode, intensity, and extent.’

  12. As ever very helpful Ian – Luther expressed your first point beautifully: ‘the love of God does not find, but creates that which is pleasing to it’. In that surely is our hope and assurance; it is not my attractiveness or achievement that draws God to me, but his overflowing kindness.

    • Yes – a great line from Thesis 28 of The Heidelberg Disputation (1518), worth quoting whole for the contrast in makes:

      “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.”

      Earlier this year I watched a fine series of lectures on the Reformation by Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary which gave a very full but not sycophantic portrait of Luther’s thoughts.

      The lectures were a special teaching occasion to mark the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.

      Somehow, I don’t expect the C of E to pay much attention to this anniversary – probably clashes with Halloween.

      • Hi Brian

        I don’t think this is quite right. It doesn’t allow for necessary moral truth, which God cannot abrogate any more than he can make 1+1=3.

        For instance, God is good so he must love what is good. He would not be at liberty to love sin or evil. God loves himself because of who he is (and he is good) and he loves humankind because they bear his image. Yes he made them that way, but having done so he couldn’t fail to love the creatures which bear his image. This is a necessary moral truth.

        God’s love of himself, of creatures who bear his image, and of righteousness and his hatred of sin and evil are necessary moral truths that are part of the fundamental and necessary structure of existence.

        Or do you think I’m missing something?

        • Will, I am not sure what you mean by ‘this’; presumably you mean Thesis 28? Luther was attacking the late medieval notion that provided one first does ‘quod in se est’ (‘what is in oneself’), taking the first step in love and obedience toward God, God will ‘love’ us in return, i.e. justify us (actively infusing his righteousness into our souls).
          Luther denies this conception of divine grace: God does not ‘find’ love first in our hearts and thereupon infuse his righteousness but rather takes the initiative in acquitting us of sin and declaring us ‘righteous’, and then begins the work of sanctification (‘creates that which is pleasing to the love of God’). The ability to please God is not native to us but is a gift of God.
          The question here is not what God loves but what his love ‘creates’: a new creation in Christ Jesus.

          • The Luther quote was offered (by Rick) as a version of Ian’s first point, which seems to say that God’s love is not based on the qualities of the thing loved, and this was contrasted to human love which is. I’m querying whether it can really be true that God’s love has no basis in the qualities of the thing loved, which seems to make it arbitrary, and besides doesn’t God love us because he created us and we bear his image?

            I wasn’t responding to the more specific question of how his love and ours relate to salvation and sanctification, though that’s an interesting debate.

        • Well, that is something from one college, with one bishop at least a Luther scholar. Yet had there been no Luther, there would have been no Church of England – whatever Henry VIII did to deal with his progeny problems.
          On the whole, the C of E seems embarrassed about its origins.
          I do not think this attitude existed in 1917, despite the war with Germany then.

          • There are more things around to mark the 500th anniverary. St Martin-in-the-Fields is having a whole lecture series, for instance. There is one tonight. I cannot speak about other dioceses, but here in London there does seem to be quite a bit going on.

            As for being embarrassed about the the origins of the C of E, that might depend on who you are and what you consider the defining characteristic of the Church to be. If it is its separation from Rome, that is thanks to Henry, who was, of course, no fan of Luther. If it is its theology, then the BCP etc. probably owe more to Calvin than Luther.

            If Luther’s character, rather than the issues, was the catalyst for the Reformation, then one might speculate what might have transpired without him. There were plenty of antecedents for the Reformation in the Waldensians, the Hussites and our own Lollards, of course (who were being burnt at the stake even in Henry’s time). Perhaps reformation of the Roman church would have happened in another way. Perhaps the church in England would have separated rather like the Old Catholics of Utrecht did a few centuries later. Perhaps, perhaps…

          • “As for being embarrassed about the the origins of the C of E, that might depend on who you are and what you consider the defining characteristic of the Church to be. If it is its separation from Rome, that is thanks to Henry, who was, of course, no fan of Luther. If it is its theology, then the BCP etc. probably owe more to Calvin than Luther”

            That misses the facts of the time. The Henrician Reformation wasn’t much of a reformation – more of an asset-stripping exercise. Separation from Rome in itself wasn’t a ‘reformation’. Lutheran theology was already making considerable headway in the universities, long before Calvin came on the scene. At least the Bible in English came in Henry’s day; and though Henry tried to wipe out Protestants as well, he ended up marrying Protestant wives and having two Protestant children.. I don’t think Calvin had much influence on the 1549 Prayer Book.

            The Edwardine Reformation was decidedly influenced by Lutheran theology, though Cranmer was going beyond Luther’s idiosyncratic Eucharistic thinking.

  13. A great article and most helpful.Too many people think that the Love of God is His greatest attribute but I disagree. I think holiness is the greatest because that covers everything He does. His love is a holy love.

  14. Hi Will, it’s a great question, if I can try putting it another way: post-fall, if the heart of humanity is ‘desperately wicked’ (Jeremiah) or the fount of ‘all these evils’ (Jesus), does God see goodness or worth in what remains? There must be some sense in which he does, because (a) he loves the world into which he sends his Son as Saviour; and (b) he is pleased with holiness and justice rather than their opposites.
    But if we hold onto the doctrine of sin and its death-dealing effects, don’t we have to insist his ongoing love is despite our overall unattractiveness, rather than because of it?
    I also wonder about this seeming ‘arbitrary’ – doesn’t grace always look that way? Like a worker who only does a few minutes and gets the same as one who worked in the heat of the day?

    • I think Carson’s book (referenced above) explores these questions.
      God’s love for what he has made isn’t always salvific, and there is much in those whom he loves that is not lovable.

    • Thanks Rick.

      Yes his love is despite our sin and wickedness. But it is still based on a quality we possess (which he has given us) namely being his children and bearing his image. Hence the oft-used analogy of a parent always loving a child even when he or she is naughty, because it is their child.

      Yes, grace can seem arbitrary, and it reminds us of God’s sovereign freedom, as per Romans 9. But even it is not completely arbitrary and operates within a broader moral framework. If it didn’t the cross would not be necessary as a sacrifice to deal with sin and wrath.

      I suspect we broadly agree here, though you might want to come back on that.

  15. Will I think we do agree; even the qualities we possess are gifts of grace in the first place. I suppose I’m keen to guard the origins of it all being in God and undeserved (think of his affection for and election of Israel in Deuteronomy 7 as a paradigm). My sense is that in our culture we need to hear that it doesn’t make us any less human that all our worth and goodness is actually his gift. On the contrary, it liberates us to know not that we are beautiful, but beautified by the Great Lover.
    I also wonder about God operating in a ‘broader moral framework’, unless by that you mean that he is faithful, with which I would heartily agree!

    • I think there are necessary moral truths that God could not make otherwise any more than he could make 1+1=3. Such as that because God is good he must love himself, his creatures who bear his image, and righteousness, and hate sin and evil. These aren’t contingent truths that could be otherwise, they are necessary. This is what I mean by a broader moral framework. It’s why Jesus had to die for God to save us and he couldn’t just ‘let us off’.

      Hope that explains what I meant.

        • Hi Phil

          He can’t have created all truth because there is truth in uncreated things such as his own nature. He didn’t create the truths about Christ or the Trinity.

          God is bound by logic since he can’t make something both true and not true at the same time in the same sense.

          Logical and numerical truth is necessary truth, it is true in all possible worlds, and it would be contradictory and strictly impossible for God to vary it. 1+1=2 is true in all possible worlds, necessary truth, because of what 1, plus and 2 are. There are necessary structural constraints on existence.

          • Will
            Yes – I should have said ‘the creator of all truth outside his own being’, or something like that. Your view means that there is some truth outside his own being that is independent of God by which God is ‘bound’. That cannot be right.
            Phil Almond

          • Well if something is a necessary truth then presumably it must be part of God’s being since it is necessary and true.

            So are your saying you don’t think God is bound by logic? Even Ockham and the scholastic voluntarists thought God was bound by logic. How could God create things which are logically impossible? That’s absurd.

            I don’t think you’re fully grasping the nature of necessary truth. It is true in all possible worlds. It is strictly impossible for it to be otherwise. This is what logical truth is like.

          • I think there is a danger here that the creature is trying to tell the Creator what is truth! In our finite world, and within the limitations of the language we have developed we find illogicalities – God cannot build a wall so high he cannot jump over it or similar.
            I prefer to accept the limits of language, and worship the Creator, than limit my understanding of the Creator and worship the language / logic etc.
            Grace and resurrection and hope and love are all richer than language can express. So for that matter are the Incarnation, Trinity, and homo-ousios etc.
            Nicholas Wolterstorff suggests we are homo adorans rather than primarily homo sapiens, and I think the Westminster Confession would agree.

          • Peter Reiss writes:

            “I think there is a danger here that the creature is trying to tell the Creator what is truth! In our finite world, and within the limitations of the language we have developed we find illogicalities – God cannot build a wall so high he cannot jump over it or similar.
            I prefer to accept the limits of language, and worship the Creator, than limit my understanding of the Creator and worship the language / logic etc.”

            But you must not forget that it is not just our (particular) world that is finite but ANY possible world: because a ‘world’ by definition is a creature / creation of God.

            Secondly, orthodox Christian theology holds that the Laws of Logic are not simply descriptors and conditions of our world but are constitutive of God’s own being. The wall that cannot be jumped (or the stone that can’t be lifted) are simply riffs on the Law of Non-Contradiction (that something cannot A and not-A at the same time and in the same way). If the Laws of Logic did not apply to God, then we could say nothing meaningful or true about him at all. (Which means that the putative wall and stone are meaningless ideas.)
            But the Bible rescues us from such mystical (panentheist) despair. The creature is not telling the Creator what is truth. We are seeking to discover the structure of thought found in the Holy Scriptures. The Westminster Confession is closer to the method of Thomas Aquinas than many know.

  16. Hi Phil and Will, I’d go along exactly with Phil’s last post – it’s about God’s absolute freedom and goodness I guess. We wouldn’t know truth or goodness without him, so I think what we are stressing here is God as the source and sustainer of these things.

  17. Will
    Going back to your Will Jones September 28, 2017 at 12:35 pm post you spoke of ‘necessary moral truths that God could not make otherwise any more than he could make 1+1 = 3’ and you gave some examples of ‘necessary moral truths’. I wonder whether you appreciate that this way of putting things is open to the misunderstanding (if it is a misunderstanding) that you are saying that there has always existed a self-existent ‘broader moral framework’ and, by implication, the rules of logic and arithmetic, outside the being of God, alongside God for all eternity. It is this view that I have been disagreeing with. Your, ‘Well if something is a necessary truth then presumably it must be part of God’s being since it is necessary and true’ suggests that you are not saying that.

    As I see it:
    Taking what you have called ‘necessary moral truths’ and ‘broader moral framework’ first: The Bible reveals to us who God is and what God is like: holy, righteous, just, glorious, love, merciful, gracious, honest, compassionate, longsuffering, patient, angry with sinners, hating evil, sovereign, omnipotent, all-knowing (in no particular order and not a complete list). And the Bible shows how he has acted and spoken, is acting and speaking, will act and speak, in accordance with who he is and what he is like.

    I hope you agree that we must always bear in mind that God has revealed himself truly to us but not exhaustively and that there are cases where we cannot understand how two truths can both be true at the same time (this is God’s secret) as I said in an earlier post (Philip Almond September 27, 2017 at 11:08 am). And, I hope you would agree, we must be very careful not to speculate unduly about God beyond what he has revealed in his Word the Bible. We are on holy ground and we may have to often say, ‘We don’t know; we are not told’.

    Secondly: logic and the rules of arithmetic: either God is logical, another of his attributes, and our ability to reason logically is part of his common grace or his image- which perhaps you were hinting at, or the logic we have is part of the created order. In the former case I think we are in agreement. In the latter case we agree that the order that God has created rules out things that contravene that order. I know it is inconceivable that things could be otherwise than what they are in the created order that God has actually created, but I continue to argue against any notion that there does exist anything self-existent, alongside God for all eternity. That to me is close to idolatry.
    Phil Almond

    • Hi Phil

      I don’t really understand what you mean by exist alongside God or outside the being of God. The point is that some things are necessary truths and so could not be otherwise. This is a constraint on God’s freedom. Nothing idolatrous in this – this is standard Christian theology. As I say, even the scholastic voluntarists accepted that God was (necessarily) bound by logic.

      As to ‘where’ they exist, as per Augustinian metaphysics I’d say that, like all universals, they exist in the mind of God. But we can still enquire which truths are necessary and which contingent.

      The Bible tells us we can know things about God from what has been made. That’s why people are without excuse for disregarding him.

      Now, I contend that it is a necessary moral truth that God, who is good, must love the creatures he has made in his image. It would be incoherent for a perfectly good being not to love what is good, which is himself, and the creatures he has made in his image, for his image is good.

      These are necessary truths, moral truths, which exist necessarily in the mind of God.

      Thus God loves us because we bear his image, and he must because he is good and his image is good.

      (That doesn’t mean he can’t punish us – we are also sinful and corrupt.)

        • Where does it say there aren’t?

          God is portrayed as constrained by his nature. He can’t be what he isn’t. He has a character and that constrains how he may act. If it didn’t it wouldn’t be his character. He doesn’t choose to be good or holy. He is good and holy. And that constrains how he may act. You may say it constrains how he does act not how he may act. But why does he not act otherwise? Because he is good. He cannot do evil. Thus his goodness and character constrains him.

          Part of being good is being rational, which includes being logical. This is why John’s Gospel opens by speaking of the divine Logos – the rational order at the core of the universe and God’s being.

          I must admit I don’t really understand why you’re disputing this. Do you not believe in necessary truth? It is a standard logical and philosophical concept.

  18. Hi Will
    I am arguing against the view that there are necessary truths which exist apart from God and which constrain God’s freedom.
    If I am understanding your recent posts rightly it now seems to me that you are not putting forward that view. If so, I apologise for misunderstanding your earlier post.
    Phil Almond

  19. I like these three observations when put through their implications:
    God firstly needs us to be unlovely to him in order to love himself through us,
    God must erect barriers so he can cross them for some of us, and
    God must make sin a necessity to all created humans so he can save some of us from what he decided this sin would do.


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