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 progression 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 (Rev 7.9). 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 debate 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. Rather awkwardly, 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 meal 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. (Note that, although in some respects Jesus acts as ‘host’ in a ‘meal’ at the feeding of the five thousand, this is not a meal in a home in the usual sense, and so does not constitute this kind of hospitality.)
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), perhaps making this more explicit for the non-Jewish readers in his audience. 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 Matt 23.3)—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. He mixed with sinners as a spiritual doctor dealing with the sick who need to be made well, coming to tell them that they are heading in the wrong direction and need to change ‘be converted’ even.
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 primarily 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 ones loved as they respond to the love that is offered and are transformed and redeemed by it. The love of God can never leave the loved one unchanged if it is actually received.
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.
(This article previously published in 2017, when it elicited a really interesting discussion in the comments.)