Should we proclaim that ‘God is love’?

If you had to sum up the core message that we had to proclaim in one idea, what would it be?

My feeling is that, reflecting on things I have read and conversations that I have been involved in, there is a pretty strong consensus amongst Christians and Christian leaders in the UK at the moment that it would be something around ‘God is love’ or ‘God loves you’. The more developed version, ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life’, developed by Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, has been widely criticised, not least in the wonderful Adam cartoon that explores the fate of Jesus’ first followers. So we might well have dropped the ‘wonderful plan’ bit, but we hold on to the ‘love’. God might have a demanding plan for your life, but the main ‘offer’ of the gospel is to discover the love of God, which will both bless you when times are good and sustain you when things are more challenging.

And there are some pretty good reasons for holding on to this core message. Quite apart from its pragmatic appeal (it doesn’t sound too hard as a thing to share with my friends and neighbours), there are some pretty good theological reasons for thinking that this was at the centre of the proclamation of the early church. The best known verse in the New Testament, and probably the whole Bible, John 3.16, focusses on the way that ‘God loved the world, sending his only Son’. Good Anglicans (like me!) are reminded of this every week in the introduction to confession. As I have explored previously, there are serious problems in communicating what the love of God really means, but that need not discourage us from trying to communicate it. After all, the experience of the love of God appears to have been pretty central for Paul. The Spirit is the end-times gift for all who follow Jesus, who makes him real to us, and our primary experience of the Spirit is that he ‘pours the love of God into our hearts’ (Rom 5.5) and enables us to relate to God, as Jesus did, as ‘Abba, father’ (Rom 8.15). Paul is clear that what God has done in Jesus is a manifestation of God’s love; Christ dying for us while we were still sinners ‘demonstrates God’s love for us’ (Rom 5.8), and Paul being the ‘chief of sinners’ must have felt this demonstration particularly personally. Similarly, God made us alive in Christ when we were spiritually dead ‘because of his great love’ (Eph 2.4–5). Not surprising, then, that the centre-piece of Paul’s letter to the warring Corinthians is a eulogy to love—embedded in an exposition of the work of the Spirit. Love is the first of the ‘fruits of the Spirit’ in Gal 5.22.

So if all that is the case, how come we never once hear the proclamation of God’s love as the content of the preaching of the first followers of Jesus? Or indeed of Jesus himself?

(Take time to pause for a moment, as I did, and wonder why you never noticed that before!)

You might want to argue that the NT documents are written for insiders (John 20.31 notwithstanding) and so might not give a clear impression of what ‘outsiders’ would have heard—and there has indeed been a lively academic debate over the years on the content of the early kerygma, the preached message that was proclaimed so effectively. Perhaps the best short example of this message can be found in 1 Cor 15.3–8, which doesn’t mention God’s love at all, but recounts a series of events; it might be protested that Paul is here talking to people who already know him, but he is clear that what he repeats is the ‘gospel I preached to you, by which you are saved’ (1 Cor 15.1–2). And in fact we do have a document whose aim appears to be, at least in part, to tell us exactly what is was that the apostles and other leaders of the Jesus movement did actually proclaim—the Acts of the Apostles (the clue is in the title), and specifically the numerous speeches in Acts.

There is quite a variety in the speeches in Acts, and even in the evangelistic speeches—but it is not hard to see how these variations arise as a result of different contexts in which the speeches are given by different people. They are not formulaic. But if you read them and compare them, there is a remarkable consistency in their core message—something that John Stevens highlighted in his blog post responding to debate about Michael Curry’s sermon at the Royal Wedding.

So what is the irreducible content of the gospel preaching of the apostles? A number of common features stand out in all of the major sermons recorded in Acts. These provide the measure by which we judge whether preaching is truly “gospel” preaching:

Jesus is the Risen Lord

The heart of all the preaching in the book of Acts is the declaration that Jesus has risen from the dead and is now ruling and reigning at the right hand of God. He is Lord. In Jewish contexts it is also highlighted that he is the Christ. This message is inherently confrontational as it declares that all other “lords” are false lords, including the false gods of paganism and the Roman Emperor, who declared himself to be divine.

In Jewish contexts, which were steeped in the monotheistic theology of the Old Testament, this claim inevitable meant that Jesus was himself God, and identified him with Yahweh. The apostolic preaching to Jews exposits Scripture and applies to Jesus texts that, in their original context, indisputably spoke of Yahweh. Whilst a full Trinitarian theology is not spelt out, the apostolic preaching presupposes that the only God is the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Progressive revelation means that “God talk” that is not thoroughly Christological in content fails to speak of the true God.

You are guilty of sin

The apostolic preaching also always declares the sinfulness of the audience, and therefore of the need for personal salvation. Sin is not just something abstract, structural or corporate, but deeply individual. The way that sin is explained varies depending on the cultural context. In Jewish contexts it is conceptualised as rejecting God by breaking his covenant law, supremely in the rejection and execution of Jesus himself. In a pagan context it is conceptualised as the stupidity of idolatry and worshipping “gods” made by human hands and living in temples. The reality of sin is almost invariably declared in the direct address of the second person (“You,”) though sometimes in a Jewish context a corporate national participation in sin is expressed by the use of “We”.

God is going to judge you

The apostolic preaching almost invariably comes with an explicit warning of judgement. God is going to take action against human sin at some point in future history. He is going to hold every single individual accountable. He has appointed the risen Lord Jesus to execute his judgement. It is interesting that the apostolic preaching never makes mention of the love of God. It is entirely absent from their proclamation of the gospel message. Their message is primarily a warning of the wrath to come because of human sin, and salvation means escape from this wrath. It is not love that will put the world right but justice. God will do justice and eliminate sinners.

You need to repent

The reality of coming judgement leads to great urgency in the apostolic preaching. The hearers are called, commanded, and urged to repent, by which it is meant that they are to turn away from their sin and back to God. They are to put their faith and trust in Jesus, recognising him as Lord and depending on him alone for rescue. Their repentance and new life in Christ is to be marked by baptism, which symbolises their own death and resurrection, alongside their cleansing and covenant membership of the people of God.

You will be forgiven and blessed

The apostolic preaching usually, but not always, includes promises of blessing for those who repent and call on the name of the Lord. The primary blessings offered to those who respond are the forgiveness of their sins and the receipt of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Far from calling people to bring about a new creation and change the world by their efforts, the apostolic preaching  announces that Jesus has inaugurated the new covenant and begun the new creation, and invites individual to enter into the enjoyment of this new reality, which will fully experienced only when Jesus returns.

These elements of the apostolic preaching in Acts make up the irreducible content of gospel proclamation, and ought to provide the framework for authentic gospel preaching for as long as the “day of salvation” lasts. They summarise a rubric, or grammar, of the gospel, by which preaching ought to be assessed for its faithfulness to the one true gospel.

I don’t think I can fault John for his analysis of the speeches in Acts, or his assessment their importance—but for me it raises two major questions, which I put to John in an online discussion.

The first is personal. As far as I can recollect, I came to faith through discovering God’s love and acceptance of me by means of a group of Christians who loved and accepted me. I am not entirely convinced that I would have come to faith if I had heard one of the sermons recorded by Luke in Acts—though I cannot be sure of that. But my pastoral observation is that this is also true for a lot of people I know. Most responded (it seems to me) to a message of love, rather than repenting in response to a message of judgement. John entitles his blog post ‘Evangelicalism divided’, and I think he is right: whether or not we prioritise a message of God’s love is quite divisive, and appears to divide churches very neatly into two quite contrasting groups, with little middle ground in between.

But the second is more theological, or rather exegetical. The accounts of Jesus’ ministry in the gospels contain many different elements, but Jesus’ boundary-crossing love in healing and teaching those who are wounded and lost is prominent. Luke goes so far as to put Jesus’ compassion at the centre of several of his miracle accounts, so that we can be clear of his motivation and his response to seeing people in distress. In Jesus’ teaching and healing, people encountered the love of God—so shouldn’t we make this clear? John responded:

Both Jesus’ kingdom proclamation and the apostolic gospel message have the same basic call to “repent and believe” ahead of the coming judgement. Both Jesus and the apostles perform signs and wonders of healing and deliverance from demons which reveal the liberating power of the in-breaking kingdom, and in both cases the new community of the church (nascent in the gospels and inaugurated in Acts) is a hermeneutic for the gospel in the care for the poor and needy. The apostolic preaching in Acts is not in a vacuum but against this broader background. Even when he performs miracles of compassion and deliverance he turns back to challenge personal sin and the need for forgiveness (eg Mark 2.5; John 5.14).

Much of Jesus ministry is amongst people who already know that the are “unclean” and unacceptable to God and are outsiders to Jewish society (eg skin diseases, tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, Canaanites), so his focus with them is the unexpected possibility of God’s compassion in mercy/cleansing/salvation, whereas his message to the self-righteous religious people is a warning of judgement. Overall it is striking that Jesus does not seem to speak of the love of God as the basis of his proclamation – I can’t find any verses where this is directly the case.

I think John is here highlighting an important dynamic between motivation and message. Jesus’ motivation in his ministry to individuals and crowds was compassion, but his message was of the coming kingdom and the need to respond to it. We find the same dynamic in Paul. In his extended (and most personal) reflection on ministry in 2 Cor 3–5, his motivation is love (‘the love of God compels us’, 2 Cor 5.14) but the message is about the need to respond and turn from sin (‘We do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus as Lord’  2 Cor 4.5). We are used to making a different alignment: we often think that loving people will proclaim God’s love, and only grumpy people will talk about judgement and the need to respond! And because we want to be loving, we align our message accordingly.

I am still left feeling challenged and needing to wrestle further with my own agenda in sharing good news, both more formally in ministry contexts and more personally in conversation. One way of beginning to resolve this dilemma of the gap between most preaching today and what we find in the New Testament might be to consider the nature of the lordship of Jesus—that those around us are subject to the ‘lordship’ of powers that are anything but loving, and the invitation is to submit to the lordship of one who loves us.

And I am not sure if all of this makes me sound like a theological numpty! Thoughts, observations, and suggestions for therapy all welcome below…

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52 thoughts on “Should we proclaim that ‘God is love’?”

  1. Thanks Ian,
    Good post. What about 1 John 4:8, 10? That “God is love” is seem as the divine ontological grounding of Christian community love but, perhaps, not as the foundation of evangelistic appeals to outsiders. Yet, for those who have come to faith, it seems that our violation of Deut 6:4 “you shall love the Lord your God” in 1 John 4:10 “not that we have loved God” means that the love of God shown in the atonement “this is love… but God loved us and gave his Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins” is experienced by all believers. It makes the love of God is theologically central to salvation and the Christian life. That means that divine love might not be the Gospel precisely or strictly but it is foundational for the doctrine of God and is the key to the Christian experience of God. Interesting to note that Gerald Bray’s systematic theology is entitled “God is Love.”

    • Dear Ian and Ro Mody

      Ian, you wrote: “…..Jesus’ boundary-crossing love in healing and teaching those who are wounded and lost is prominent…” and I understand that and agree with that.

      There are four Koine Greek words for love in the New Testament and I appreciate you (Ian) know that. There is agape “caring”, storge “family”, philia “friendship” and eros “erotic/arguably sexual”.
      You had an item in May on this.

      Like a Venn diagram for each one the context is important and the context show that words can, due to context, overlap in their meaning.
      But, Koine Greek has four different words to talk about love and the four different types of love. So I fundamentally disagree with the idea that there is no differentiation and you can substitute one for the other just as anyone wishes – No they can’t. You can only use context to talk about a type of love that covers more than one word.

      “God is Love” occurs in 1 John, written in Koine Greek. Unless I am misreading my Nestle-Alund 1 John, the entire letter uses agape, and only agape. So yes God is love in the sense that God cares for you. Jesus died for you BECAUSE God cares for you.
      God certainly doesn’t seek any kind of erotic relationship with you and so “eros” is completely inappropriate.
      God’s caring might have a modest overlap with friendship / philia, but to use philia would fail at various points because when Jesus died for us it is not mere friendship, it is because he cares completely about us.
      God’s caring might have a modest overlap with family type love/ storge, since we are supposed to be Sons of God if we believe in Jesus Christ, but that isn’t a complete word because it says nothing about Jesus Christ as our advocate, the total absolute sacrifice of Jesus Christ for us is still because he cares completely about us.
      So 1 John uses the word for love as caring, agape. ! John uses the word agape for a specific and clear reason.
      Even John 3:16 uses agape.

      No these words for love are NOT interchangeable without using the context to describe overlaps, not interchangeability.

      Comedy use an opening phrase that seems unconnected but later on brings back the phrase in an entirely different context that is completely inappropriate and very funny. Unfortunately academia has become like that and sadly comic at times. You can find uses of the four different words for love within contexts that suggests they are very similar but, instead of noting the contexts as it should, academia thrusts forward the inappropriate claim that the words are interchangeable when academia should have been talking about context instead.

      To state the BLINDINGLY obvious there are 4 words for love in such an ancient language (in which the variety of words is not as expansive as languages like modern English) precisely because Koine Greek does have 4 different meanings for love. If it were not so then why doesn’t Koine Greek only have 1 word for love like modern English? Why would they waste their time on having 4 different words? Because the differences are important.

      This is like the academic claim of Isaiah’s prophetic words could be translated as “maiden”. It is academically interesting and worth exploring but to state the BLINDINGLY obvious, to say that a virgin would have a baby IS a prophecy, to state that a maiden will have a baby is an everyday event and is NOT a prophecy – So context is what matters because what matters foremost here is whether or not it is a prophecy. If it is a prophecy then the academic view too easily descends into sad comedy.

  2. Could not this be conflated into the Good News of the Goodness of God in Christ Jesus? Does this not include the multifaceted diamond of the Good News? Cover all bases?
    But not all are likely to be encapsulated in any one kergema.

  3. We are not starting from the same place. As C S Lewis noted in “God in the Dock”, we now sit in judgement on “the Divine child abuser” etc, and discard our own leaders regularly in contempt, while every other generation of humans has feared both natural and supernatural powers. May the Spirit direct us to the right place to start the digging for today’s seam, rather than yesterday’s.

  4. I think all Christians are united in wanting to tell our friends of Gods love and if we are reading say Johns gospel 121 with our friends (in my view the best way to evangelise) we can hardly fail to repeatedly share God’s love and compassion. Where John Stevens is right that there is a great divide is on how we deal with sin/judgement and repentance. If we look at John 4 and see how Jesus himself “evangelised” the Samaritan woman we see that he neither ignored her sin not battered her over the head with it. Gently, kindly but firmly he placed his finger on her sin “You are quite right when you say you have no husband…”. So although we can be censorious and judgemental (and it’s interesting that the Lord is tough on the self righteous Nicodemus and gentle with the outsider Samaritan woman) we can also fail by glossing over sin and judgement. For most of us this is the bigger temptation I suggest. If there is no sin in our message then telling our friends that Jesus is “the saviour of the world” makes no sense. ‘Saviour’ from what? I’d also argue that the best way to get this gospel balance right is to use

  5. ….(continued) the gospels themselves if we retrace the gospels we won’t go wrong. I have found this an amazingly effective God given tool for sharing with our friends

  6. Good post – I have much sympathy with John Stevens approach and think the kerygma in Acts is a useful starting place to discern what is, in NT Wright’s term, ‘the irreducible minimum’ of our proclamation. I think it interesting that God’s love (even the term) is rarely spoken of in the kerygma, but the consequence of the demonstration of this is. In Paul’s summary of the gospel in 1Cor15 he highlights just 2 things: Jesus died according to the Scriptures and Jesus rose again according to the Scriptures.

    The recent discussion here on different forms of love in Greek/John21 & Bp Curry’s wedding sermon on love probed the heart of the matter. Its simply not enough to bandy around the term love – love must be defined. If it isn’t people will interpret through their own sentimental or subjective filters. The love of God is pre-eminently seen in the cross of Christ – its surely right that perhaps the most famous verse in Scripture and certainly on the theme of God’s love (Jn3:16) which can only be understood in referential terms of God’s condemnation of us and our needed salvation (Jn3v17,18). Similarly, Paul says: God demonstrated his love for us in this that whilst we were great sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom5v8). St John’s beautiful succinct phrase ‘God is love’ (1Jn4v8) is immediately qualified and applied (1Jn4v9-10) ‘In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.’

  7. Thought-provoking, as always. Thank you.

    Two comments:

    1. I would suggest that appeals to Jesus’ own ministry must always take into account his post-resurrection words. In this case, the charge given to the Apostles in Luke is very clear: ““Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:46-47 ESV) Clearly this is what we see taking place in Acts (and, for that matter, it seems that a very similar dynamic must have lain behind at least some of Paul’s proclamation, judging by passages such as 1 Cor. 6:11 or Eph 5:25 ff.)

    2. It’s always dangerous to assess these questions pragmatically. You don’t have to be a strict predestinarian to be less concerned with “what works” than with fidelity to Jesus’ commission. I’m not suggesting that you are arguing otherwise, but your tentative speculation about whether you might have come to faith through another kind of preaching has, at the very least, the seeds of such a problem.

    Of course, I’m not suggesting that there is only one formula for preaching, let alone that ‘the Romans Road’ is that one formula. It’s undeniable that some there are plenty of people who come to faith without a prior conviction of sin, while others have the classic Protestant plight-to-solution experience. But to hang one’s hat on the anticipated outcome of preaching – whatever that is – would be to ignore the foolishness of the cross or its power.

    • Thanks–I think you are spot on in highlighting the programmatic nature of Jesus words in Luke 24. This is typical of Luke’s style in his account of Jesus’ ministry and the early church, and we see such programmatic sayings punctuating Acts making comments about the growth of the Word.

      Yes, I would agree with your hesitation about testing what works—but I see the opposite problem more often: people dogmatically sticking with their convictions despite the evident practical problems, and not letting the existence of problems raise a question for them. I think ‘does it, in practice, actually work as a pastoral or evangelistic strategy’ should not *determine* our theology, but should act as a check, prompting us to review our theology.

  8. Recently, in response to the Curry ‘sermon’, I led a group in an exploration of the development of “Gospel” from its pre-Christian roots, and in its 1stC Jewish context.

    The context of Jesus’ message was one in which people were hating Gentiles and any fellow Jews who sided with the Romans in some way. The calls to ‘love’ stem from this context, with “love your enemies” being a good summary of the initial form of the message. This was not, however, what was understood to be the ‘Gospel’. That word stems primarily from Isaiah (especially Isaiah 61:1) as is seen in its NT use but also in the DSS. 1stC Jews were looking for ‘salvation’ from Roman rule, which they paralleled with previous situations – the Exodus and the Exile. The latter was the setting for Isaiah 61 and a ‘Christ’ who would bring his people back home. But how? That’s what Jews in 1stC were still working on.

    Within this setting, Jesus brings the “Good news of the kingdom”. The word ‘gospel’ (‘good news’) is always linked to the hope of receiving salvation. Jesus’ message pointed to the true enemy – not the Romans, or Gentiles or bad Jews but ‘sin’. This was in line with what the prophets had taught about the Babylonian exile. But Jesus not only identified the true enemy, he brought about a means of salvation from that enemy (on the cross). That was the core message of the ‘Gospel’, which fits neatly with what is evidenced in Acts and other NT writings.

    I concluded that the popularity of John 3:16 as a summary of “the Gospel” is likely the cause of many seeing ‘love’ as such a key word in the Gospel message. We have taken the verse as a summary of “the Gospel” for so long, and without thought of its context, that many have ended up with a twisted or wrong view of what “the Gospel” actually is. The message that the Gospel is just “God loves you” or “Love God and others” is actually “another Gospel” – a false Gospel – so we must reject it. We must be clear that John 3:16 shows God’s love as the motivation for him giving us the Gospel, rather than that love being the message itself.

    So it is totally right to tell people God loves them and that he wants us to love one another, but it is totally wrong to claim this is “the Gospel message”, or that by communicating this we are actually preaching “the Gospel”.

  9. Thank you for this Ian. As always I enjoyed this thought-provoking article and the comments that have followed. I’m not really used to getting involved with such theological engagement but one thought that has struck me is to understand love as a verb rather than a noun. I John 4:19 says “we love because He first loved us”. I think part of our Gospel proclamation is how we act and not just what we say. Perhaps we are to love people (with God’s love) rather than think that telling people about His love is enough. If people see and experience in real terms His love, then perhaps they will take seriously the truth of His Lordship, their own sin, judgement and the need for repentance. Just this week I had the privilege of leading a 16 year old lad to faith in Christ (I’m a youth leader). When I asked him why he wanted to become a Christian he said it was because of what he sees in his Christian foster carers: how they live and love him and others. (They are a particularly inspiring example of what it means to love people, in my opinion.) This boy is from a nominal Islamic background and he said to me the difference between Muslims and Christians from his experience is that Muslims talk about loving people but he has seen that Christians actually do it. He didn’t have any problem with submitting to Jesus as Lord or needing forgiveness for his sin or repentance because his experience of God’s love outworked through God’s people had impacted him so much. I know one story is not enough to determine our theology but I think that just telling people about God’s love in itself doesn’t hit the mark, but if we demonstrate God’s love in our relationships, people can really grasp it and then they become interested in the fuller picture of the gospel. Thank you for letting me share this thought. James Simister

  10. Good points – the good news is of our salvation through Christ – deliverance, rescue, wholeness
    – love led him to do this but the gospel is not what led him but what he did for us

  11. Thank you for such an honest and insightful post.

    I would like to share, as my contribution to this, a long passage (perhaps overlong) from an excellent book. It resonates strongly with my own experience as a teenager, though mine is far less severe, happening as it did in very different circumstances. I won’t over-explain why I am sharing this passage, and instead let the author speak for himself on most points, though I may comment at the end.

    It captures, perhaps better than anything else I have read, the process of thought that follows hearing* the Gospel for the first time, at least when it is articulated in the manner described above.

    “What I can recall, very sharply indeed, is a visit to the Hotel-Dieu in Beaune, a town my girlfriend and I had gone to mainly in search of the fine food and wines of Burgundy. But we were educated travelers and strayed, guidebook in hand, into the ancient hospital. And there, worth the journey according to the green Michelin guide, was Roger van der Weyden’s fifteenth-century ‘Last Judgement’.

    I scoffed. Another religious painting? Couldn’t these people think of something else to depict? Still scoffing, I peered at the naked figures fleeing towards the pit of Hell, out of my usual morbid interest in the alleged terrors of damnation. But this time I gaped, my mouth actually hanging open. These people did not appear remote or from the ancient past; they were my own generation. Because they were naked, they were not imprisoned in their own age by time-bound fashions. On the contrary their hair and, in an odd way, the set of their faces were entirely in the style of my own time. They were me, and the people I knew. One of them, and I have always wondered how the painter thought of it, is actually vomiting with shock and fear at the sound of the Last Trump.

    I did not have a ‘religious experience’. Nothing mystical or inexplicable took place – no trance, no swoon, no vision, no voices, no blaze of light. But I had a sudden strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day, not imprisoned under thick layers of time. A large catalogue of misdeeds, ranging from the embarrassing to the appalling, replayed themselves rapidly in my head. I had absolutely no doubt that I was among the damned, if there were any damned.

    And what if there were? How did I know there were not? I did not know, I could not know. Van der Weyden was still earning his fee 500 years after his own death. I had simply no idea that an adult could be frightened, in broad day and after a good lunch, by such things. I have always enjoyed scaring myself mildly with the ghost stories of M.R.James, mainly because of the cosy, safe feeling that follows a good fictional fright. You turn the page, close the book and the horror is safely contained. This was not like that at all.

    No doubt I should be ashamed to confess that fear played a part in my return to religion. I could easily make up some other, more creditable story. But I should be even more ashamed to pretend that it did not. I have felt proper fear, not very often but enough to know that it is an important gift that helps us to think clearly at moments of danger. I have felt it in peril on the road, when it slowed down my perception of the bucking, tearing collision into which I had hurled myself, so enabling me to retain enough presence of mind to shut down the engine of my wrecked motorcycle, and turn off the fuel cap unless it caught fire, and then to stumble, badly injured, to the relative safety of the roadside. I have felt it outside a copper mine in Africa when the car I was in was surrounded was a crowd of enraged, impoverished people who had decided, with some justification, that I was their enemy. There fear enabled me to stay silent and still until the danger was over when I very much wanted to cry out in panic, or do something desperate (both of which, I’m sure, would have led to my death). I have felt it when Soviet soldiers fired on a crowd rather near me, and so I lay on my back in the filthy snow, quite untroubled by my ridiculous position because I had concluded, wisely, that being wounded would be far worse than being embarrassed.

    But the most important time was when I stood in front of Rogier van der Weyden’s great altarpiece and trembled for the things of which my conscience was afraid (and is afraid). Fear is good for us, and helps us to escape from great dangers. Those who do not feel it are in permanent peril because they cannot see the risk at their feet.

    I went away chastened, and the effect has not worn off in nearly three decades. I have been back to look at it since and it remains a great and powerful work. But it cannot do the same thing to me twice. I am no longer shocked by the realisation that I may be judged, since it has ever then been obvious to me. And once again I have concluded that embarrassment was the lesser of the two evils I faced.”

    -Peter Hitchens. Taken from ‘The Rage Against God’.

    Fear is an appropriate response to God, to His word and to His message. We should NOT be be constantly exhorted to cower in our pews, or treated to fire and brimstone every Sunday to achieve this, but neither does it do the church good to bubble-wrap the creator of the universe out of fear that His ideas wont go down too well with modern, enlightened society. Such knowledge is relative, and the reality of Grace is only truly embedded in a mind that knows exactly where it stands before God.

    And that should happen to every Christian, at least once.

  12. I’ve picked up (mainly from N.T.Wright) that the message of the gospel; in three words; would not be, “God is love”, or “God loves you”, but “Jesus is LORD”. The Good News, preach-able by the 72, before cross and before resurrection, including but not constrained to, “Salvation is near”,.. that Good News is, “Jesus Is LORD”.

  13. Working cross-culturally in South Asia I had to learn that people there weren’t “tuned” to hear a message that “God is love” or that “God loves you.” This wasn’t something that caught their attention. What matters there are issues of honour, shame, status, and patronage. So they are tuned to look for a powerful, honourable protector and provider to whom they would give allegiance. They are tuned to “hear” the message “Jesus is Lord”. It was as this was unpacked over time that people either accepted, or rejected, the news. But it was this idea that they engaged with. Its a gospel of honour and status before its a gospel of love.

      • Thanks Simon. There is a stereotype (therefore somewhat problematic as well as helpful) approach of seeing honour/shame oriented communities and guilt/innocence oriented societies (as well as fear/power and newly described pain/pleasure oriented communities: see Honour/shame oriented communities focus on on community orientation where status is important. Hence status and power are linked with ability to provide and loyalty (faith as faithfulness). These are deeply biblical but westerners tend to not be tuned in to these. That being said, I think the west is moving quickly towards a stronger honour/shame orientation.

        In this, Jesus is Lord is the important Christology, and atonement is as much about participation (being “in Christ”) as it is about exchange concepts (penal or otherwise).

        • Colin, you offer here some serious insight into the first century world, since it is much closer to the honour/shame culture than it is to ours, and as you rightly say, we often miss that.

          But, more widely, you demonstrate the importance and value of cross-cultural experience in making us more aware of our own cultural assumptions—seeing ourselves as others see us. Thanks.

  14. This is such an important topic. I have become somewhat horrified in the way that John 3:16 has subsumed all others aspects of the gospel message almost to the point of banality. I recall someone stating that because God is love then love cannot sin, without in any way noting that love has many forms. I also found it banal in my Reader training that attempts to redefine the traditional understanding of scripture were usually prefaced by ‘if God is a God of love then ….’
    So when I considered this it suddenly occurred to me that love didn’t figure in the proclamations of Acts; in fact the word is not used once in the whole book. As John Stevens points out the emphasis is on repentance, faith in Jesus and obedience to God’s commands. The love of God as a phrase is only mentioned twice in the gospels. In fact my commentary flags up that John 3:16 may not even be the words of Jesus but an authorial comment; this ties in with the 1 John usage too.

    It’s interesting, Ian, how you reflect on your conversion. I’m convinced now that my conversion probably was a process over 3 years. I responded as one who firstly believed in Jesus, but the reality of repenting came with time. I think a feature of the proclamations of Acts which is easily missed is the fear of God. I always assume that the fear of God was largely present in people at the time and would account for the recorded reactions – ‘cut to the heart’, Ananias and Sapphira, the attitude of Cornelius to the gospel, etc. I see no conflict with fearing God and experiencing the love of God poured into the heart by the Holy Spirit.

  15. Alas, Some good Anglicans who vary the Common Worship confession might not hear John 3.16 for months! Come back ‘comfortable words’, all is forgiven…

  16. Colin,
    What an excellent point, and well made.
    An overseas missionary addressed our church with the same point, but widened it to say that you must tap into each individual culture.
    Tim Keller has made the same point you made about honour cultures, as they formed part of his Redeemer Church in Manhattan. His point is that the Gospel can encompass all cultural keys (including age differences).

  17. Apologies, this is worse than usual, I’m not at home, and am cackhanded on phone
    Encourage by the J John course on evangelism, two older church members, for the first time, last weekend, joined, a taster session, as Street Pastors, Observers, in the nearby nationally recognised (I think) party City. They were greatly enthused by the experience, the number of people asking questions of belief and faith. They were challenged by how to respond and work out what they actually believed.
    Settling and culture is indeed key. Is evangelism a process, in which there are certain crisis points in individual lives
    Surely it’s not just. abstract biblical theological, scriptural patterns, or methods, but God using, people, means to accomplish his purposes, in individual.
    Do we think Jesus is a good listener, does he Bind up. On a course, I met man who could, “listen for England”. Again I met him some years later, and as I listened, it was clear he was a broken man. Jesus is our broken Redeemer.
    On other occasions, I’ve been struck, convicted, shaken by It is a fearful thing to fall into the Hands of the living God, at others how I was braying nails into Jesus on the cross, and the hymn. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord”, becomes real.
    And at other times how anyone could not want the reality of Ephesians 1&2. How could anyone resist.
    A multi dimensional gospel, indeed.

  18. I recently read David Pawson’s ‘Is John 3:16 the gospel?’ Similarly to some of this it was extremely challenging – he argues that the Bible *never* says that God loves the world – only ever his people – except in one verse and in one particular sense, focusing on the word ‘so’; ie God didn’t love the world ‘so much’, God loved the world ‘thusly’: on that day, on that cross, Jesus died for our sins.

    He challenges his readers to find a verse that specifically says God loves the kosmos/world, other than in this Good Friday sense. Even when Paul says God loves us ‘while we were sinners’, he is talking to Christians.

    Pawson therefore has a particular understanding of election – I suppose like the old adage ‘pray like a Calvinist, preach like an Arminian’. It’s challenging to read – mostly because of how prevalent ‘God is love’ has become – and I’m not sure we can take it quite to the extreme he does, but I think he makes some excellent points about the translation of John 3:16 and what it actually means.

  19. Actually, Ian, contrary to your explicit denial in this thread, Jesus did talk about ‘Love’ – certainly in his summary of the Law and, specifically, when he told his followers that they would be recognised as his disciples “By your love”. Is that not the basic Good News?

  20. To state the obvious (sorry) and repeating points already made: the right answer to “should we proclaim that ‘God is love’?” is (should be) influenced by the right answer to the prior question “What is the truth about God and about people and about the relationship between God and people since the Fall of Man?”
    In his article Ian comments, “ John entitles his blog post ‘Evangelicalism divided’, and I think he is right: whether or not we prioritise a message of God’s love is quite divisive, and appears to divide churches very neatly into two quite contrasting groups, with little middle ground in between”.
    Underlying what we prioritise in teaching and preaching and personal witness is what we believe is the right answer to this prior question. One part of that right answer is the wonderful truth that God and Christ sincerely and genuinely invite, exhort, command, beseech all people to submit to Christ in his atoning death and life-giving resurrection; submit in repentance, faith, love, obedience and fear. Most (all?) evangelicals believe that. Another part of the right answer to the prior question is the terrible truth that people are faced from birth onwards with the wrath and condemnation of God which ends in eternal retribution unless God saves them. I surmise (I cannot prove it) that only a minority of ordained persons in the Church of England believe that part of the right answer. As I have said I would be glad and humbled and put in my place to be proved wrong in this surmise. How many evangelicals believe this terrible truth is a serious question. Being candid, based on posts to other threads, it would appear that Ian does not believe the ‘eternal’ bit of this terrible truth and Stephen Travis does not believe in the ‘retribution’ bit. Both Ian and Stephen believe that wrath is only ‘effectus’ not ‘affectus’, rather than both. (I am open to correction if I am misrepresenting their views).
    As Warfield commented on Elijah’s experience, as I have posted before:
    ‘….it is not the Law but the Gospel, not the revelation of wrath but that of love, which saves the world. Wrath may prepare for love; but wrath never did and never will save a soul.’
    I emphatically agree. And it may take some time for Christians whom God has saved to realise the awful truth of what they have been saved from. But that awful truth has to be mentioned sooner or later.
    Phil Almond

  21. The speeches in Acts begin with an emphasis that precedes the declaration of what God has done in Christ, that John Stevens emphasises. Paul preaching in Lystra in Acts 14:17 speaks of God ‘filling you with food and your hearts with joy’; in Athens (17:28) quoting ‘we too are his offspring”, or Peter at Pentecost starting with God’s widely inclusive pouring out of the Spirit.

    The starting point in each case is to establish God’s beneficence towards us, which surely implies his loving disposition. There is more content to then follow that prologue, but establishing that assumption provides important ground for then declaring what God has done in Christ.

  22. This seems to be a conversation where some evangelicals are guarding strongly against a mushy love-centric liberalism, and other evangelicals are guarding strongly against a mean-spirited fundamentalism. Are we just putting the emphasis in different words in the core gospel news that “Jesus is Lord”?

    We can stress that “Jesus is LORD” – he is God, creator, king, ruler, judge, Messiah etc, and stress his power and authority over against any other possible lords. We are therefore called to repent from idols and self-centredness to worship and follow him.

    But we can also stress that “JESUS is Lord” – the one who has been raised from the dead and is in charge of the universe is the gentle, compassionate, kind, barrier-breaking, humble one who full of love went to the cross for sinners like us. That is why “Jesus is Lord” is GOOD news, rather than just brute reality that we have to live with.

    That appears to me to be one place where God’s love fits into the gospel as proclaimed by the apostles. The fact that Jesus is identified as LORD/Yhwh should also immediately remind us of passages like Exodus 34:6-7 where Yhwh defines himself by his love.

  23. I love this blog, Ian.
    I’m neither a theologian nor a preacher, but it seems to me that Jesus offered the ‘carrot’ before he offered the ‘stick’, and that this drew people to him in a big way – I think for instance of Luke 4:16-20 and Mark 1:32-34.
    When I first became a Christian more than 25 years ago, the Lord certainly offered me the ‘carrot’ first, for which I am deeply thankful, and the ‘stick’ came later, though in my case it has been more of a nudge, tap or prod rather than a stick!
    I am convinced that both ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ are deeply rooted in God’s love for us, and that He graciously gives us His abundant love in greater measure than He speaks of that love.

  24. Great article, very helpful. Thank you Paul.
    I did some study on ‘love’ in 1 John whilst doing my MA on Clark Pinnock’s hermeneutic.
    I noted that the only time agape is used as a verb, is God loving – crucially in the context of the atonement.
    I wonder if this provides some kind of synthesis between what you and John Stevens have been saying? The atonement/cross concerns sin and judgment and the call to repentance and faith. Yet it also shows God’s grace and love and astounding passion for the lost/lonely/sinner/sufferrer/etc.

    I really appreciate your writing, Paul. Thank you.

  25. Excellent post and comments. I want to add one further point. The question “Should we proclaim that God is love?” has been addressed here largely in terms of verbal communication (preaching, testifying). I think it is worth reflecting on the question whether it is possible and advisable to proclaim that God is love using words only. NB: In evangelistic contexts of the sort we hear reported in Acts preachers like the apostle Paul encounter people cold and so it is a case of “using words only” at least to start with.

    There is a difference between waxing lyrically about God’s love, maybe even warming people’s hearts, and effectively communicating it. It is related to the difference between “show” and “tell”. God showed his love in that while we were sinners Christ died for us. He did not preach about it in so many words. Not that I support a false dichotomy – words of love can be very appropriate in contexts where there is also non-verbal experience of love – but what I want to add to this discussion is the reminder that words can do some things better than others in encounters where a context first needs to be established.

    We are called to love our neighbours. I hope and pray that I do but when I recently met our new neighbour for the first time it did not occur to me to greet her with “hi, I love you!” I am wondering whether “hi, God loves you!” is similarly inappropriate as a verbal message in first encounters and not only because modern English may have a more limited vocabulary for love than Attic Greek. No doubt, it can sometimes “do the trick” as God provides a context but I think we need to distinguish between being called to proclaim God’s love and being called to speak about God’s love alongside distinguishing between speaking about God’s love within the context of the church and doing so in communicating to outsiders.

  26. Ian,
    Thank you for your writing and this post – excellent. I have been reading for a while but haven’t commented. I’m three quarters way through a BST on The Message of Love so this conversation is particularly fascinating.

    On gospel in Acts – it is the only book in the NT in which love is not mentioned once. All the various gospel sermons are framed without love being part of the content. I think I’d want to tweak the outline given in the post. Yes, judgement and guilt are there, but they do not start there (and no mention of hell at all if I recall). Their tone and focus is on the great good news of promise to Israel fulfilled, the Messiah come, resurrection, kingdom, atonement, faith, repentance forgiveness, and new life in the Spirit which restores relationship with God and empowers and transforms for life in a new community. The shape of that life in the rest of the NT is overwhelmingly a life of love. Paul’s ethics can’t be reduced down to love, but not far off. John’s pretty well can. [does Jesus’ Upper Room Discourse not negate your comment that “we never once hear the proclamation of God’s love as the content of the preaching of the first followers of Jesus? Or indeed of Jesus himself?”]

    So I think your comment about distinguishing between the message (gospel) and its motivation and outcomes is spot on. The gospel is a distinct message around the good news of a person – the risen Lord – yet the purpose of that gospel is to create communities of love, empowered by the Spirit. John (uniquely) says God is love and that his motivation for sending the Son is love. The cross is a demonstration of love. Christians, as recipients of the Spirit, are to ‘do everything in love’ (1 Cor 16:14) – you can’t get much more all-embracing than that. Without love the entire purpose of the gospel is null and void (1 Cor 13).

    So yes, we should joyfully proclaim that God is love. And unapologetically emphasise and teach about the essential place of love in the Christian love (including how hard it is).
    I think many Christians’ uneasiness with the word ‘love’ comes from how, over history, it has morphed from ‘God is love’ to ‘love is God’. A brilliant book on this story is Simon May, Love: A History.

    • ‘it is the only book in the NT in which love is not mentioned once’ How very interesting!

      On the upper room, this is internal conversation, not a record of proclamation, isn’t it?

  27. Thank you for this thought-provoking piece, Ian.

    In support of your main argument about the lack of teaching or proclamation of God’s love in the NT, I wonder whether more could be made of Romans 1:18-4:25, where explicit mention of God’s love is absent? While there is a lot on God’s truth and justice in these verses, the notion of God’s love only appears from Romans 5, as you say. There is, however, mention of God’s promise in the section on Abraham. It seems to me that God’s covenantal promises are more of a feature in early apostolic proclamation (e.g., the speeches recorded in Acts). Here, perhaps, is somewhere where we see God’s love more than implicitly.

    Going back to the Romans verses, there are naturally a plethora of views… my (current) view is that these verses reflect highly ordered, crystallised Pauline thinking about the differing salvation histories of Jews and Gentiles. This in turn is reflected in the differences between the speeches in Acts delivered in predominantly Jewish contexts and Gentile ones. It is indeed curious that love does not feature strongly in initial apostolic teaching and proclamation to both ethnic groups. Of course, cultural understanding of love is different today and fascination with love maybe even more prevalent… I’ll leave that area to the ethicists though!

  28. Hi Ian

    I wonder if the love of God in the New Testament is rather misunderstood. Exploring the four Greek words for love may be unhelpful since the apostles were not Greek in their thinking but Hebrew – the text that is the context for the New Testament is the Hebrew scriptures – and the concept the New Testament writers are expressing is ???, ‘hesed’ or ‘chesed’- which means ‘faithfulness to the covenant’ – and often rendered ‘elios’ (mercy) in the Septuagint (and in the New Testament?). Depending on the context English translations render this ‘grace’, ‘kindness’, ‘loving-kindness’, ‘love’, ‘mercy’, ‘loyalty’, ‘compassion’ etc. – see e.g. the wide variations on the English translations of the refrain to Psalm 136 (‘for his mercy endureth forever’).

    Anyone writing in Greek has the same problem – which word to choose. What lies behind all these ideas, so essential to communication of the gospel both in the first century and today is the covenant. Jesus comes to renew and uphold the covenant – this is how the New Testament consistently, expressly, and implicitly understands who Jesus is – and why ‘love’ is an important word in expressing something of what the gospel means. But ‘love’ divorced from an understanding of the covenant is almost bound to lead to distortion and misunderstanding of the gospel message – one of the reasons for the huge ethical crisis that is dividing the church today – and no accident that the sermon at the royal wedding sought to finesse precisely this issue.

    • Did you mean to write ‘failed to finesse’? Some listeners thought Curry did not finesse enough!

      On your first point, I am sure you are right—though I seem to recall that agape and philia are used interchangeably in translation of Hebrew terms.

    • Paul,

      You wrote “Exploring the four Greek words for love may be unhelpful since the apostles were not Greek in their thinking but Hebrew”…… but it is very highly unlikely that they were Hebrew in the sense of the Old Testament either. Even many of the pseudepigraphal writings between the times of Old Testament and New Testament (and indeed overlapping with New Testament) are predominantly in Koine Greek.

      • Surely the huge number of Old Testament quotations and allusions in the New – quite apart from the argumentation in the New Testament which is rooted in the Old – is sufficient to create a presumption that the modes of thought of the writers of the New Testament was Hebrew and in continuity with the Old Testament (even if the language of their discourse was Greek)? There are relatively few quotations in the New Testament to from pseudepigrapha – but in any case the theology of the New Testament is expressly in continuity with the Old – from the opening words of the gospels onwards.

        • But interestingly most of the quotations where we can tell the difference seem to be from the Old Greek translation of the Bible rather than from the Hebrew.

  29. One final thought: at the end of many of our services we say together the Grace, which you all know, but I’ll cite the scripture reference anyway – 2 Corinthians 14:13 . It’s not part of a sermon, I know, and more a prayer than a proclamation, but we welcome this part of the service.

  30. I also find it interesting that in the NT, no one is ever praying for non believers to come to know Jesus. The only prayers in the NT are for Christians.

    • that IS interesting. dang. I have been praying 2 Tim 2:25 – “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” over unbelievers in my life. Looks like this, “In Your mercy, Lord, grant ‘Jason’ repentance leading him to a knowledge of the truth, through Christ our Lord”
      But as I think more on this, in addition to the lack of precedent in the NT, perhaps this is taking away from my “in person” expectation to evangelize. Unconsciously “well, I’ve prayed for them so I don’t have to be so bold in person with my words…”

  31. Tim – your statement surprised me, but really got me thinking and its true there is certainly not much to go on by way of prayer for non believers to believe – except the clear description of Paul praying for the salvation of his Jewish kin: Romans 10:1 ‘my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.’

    Do you draw a Calvinist inference from this? I was once a university missioner and heard a very conservative chap in the prayer meeting pray “Lord, save the elect” – interestingly no appeal for the elect to come and be saved was made at any of the main (hardly) evang events but enquirers were invited to sign up to attend a Bible study course

  32. (1) ‘The difference between Muslims and Christians from his experience is that Muslims talk about loving people but he has seen that Christians actually do it.’
    Among the three or four words for ‘love’, I do get the impression that ‘agape’ denotes active love, not primarily a feeling. There is something of the same ambiguity in the word ‘care’, though it is closer overall to ‘agape’. A carer is someone who loves actively.
    (2) There are many places where we are commanded also to love God, but as Ian says, there are few places where we are told God loves us, least of all as a feeling. That’s why I can’t concur that ‘we should joyfully proclaim that God is love’. When John affirms this, it is in a letter to Christians, with the injunction ‘let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth’.
    (3) ‘The only time agape is used as a verb, is God loving.’ It appears often as a verb referring to us loving each other and loving God, not least in 1 John.
    (4) To add a little to the point made by David Pawson, if I may, the phrase ‘God so loved the world’ is now a mistranslation because our language has moved on: ‘so’ could translate ‘houtos’, i.e. ‘thus, in this way’, in the time of King James, but now it implies ‘with such emotional intensity’. The apostle goes on to say that ‘Whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him’. This verse is not often repeated.
    (5) ‘Fear is an appropriate response to God, to His word and to His message.’ To underline the point, here are places in the NT where fear of God is commended as the beginning of wisdom: Matt. 10:18, Luke 18:2, Luke 21:26, Acts 9:31, Acts 10:2, Acts 10:35, Acts 13:26, Romans 3:18, 2 Cor. 7:1, Eph 5:21, Phil. 2:12, Heb. 12:28, I Peter 2:17, Rev. 14:7, Rev. 15:4, Rev. 19:5.


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