In what seems like eons ago, under a different political dispensation than the one we’re experiencing now, then-President Barack Obama tweeted the following:
Retweet if you believe everyone should be able to marry the person they love. #LoveIsLove
I’m not writing here about the wisdom or morality of same-sex marriage. Instead, I mention the former president’s tweet as a trampoline to a larger conversation about our definition of love. While perhaps catchy and tweetable, the sentence “Love is love” is both meaningless and weightless, unable to accomplish anything or persuade anyone who doesn’t already agree with the assumptions of the speaker.
Of course, crude definitions like this are of the zeitgeist, where virtues such as authenticity and self-actualization reign. If it’s indeed true that “love is love,” then it’s also true that we’ve become love’s arbiter and our intuitions about it are above reproach, beyond the prying tentacles of laws and institutions and others’ arcane opinions.
But using language like this stretches and re-stretches important concepts into utter subjectivism. The result: love is emptied of its meaning and weight, and subsequently replaced by a lesser good—something ersatz and manmade, something wobbly and even capricious. “Love” is now a universal term for nothing in particular, which makes conversations about it difficult.
Thinking ourselves wise, we made a bad deal. We’ve been snookered, sure that we were upgrading when in truth we were sold a clunker.
But enough with the finger-pointing. Being right about others being wrong is useless unless we’re willing to correct ourselves by turning to God’s Word.
Here are five things the Bible says about love.
1. Love Originates in God
The first and most important thing we must recognize about love is that it’s all about God. Love both originates in and is exhausted by our triune Maker—Father, Son, and Spirit.
Jesus lets us peer into this reality in John 17. Here, in what’s sometimes called the “High Priestly Prayer,” Jesus prays for Christians both present and future. He asks for the Father to grant his people unity and love, and that he would keep us until the end amid the world’s inevitable hatred.
Jesus also prays for himself, specifically about his imminent death: “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” A few verses later, he continues: “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.”
Press pause for a second. Imagine you didn’t exist. In fact, imagine nothing had ever existed—no people, no places, no things.
Is anything left?
According to Jesus, there is. There’s love. Love between the eternally loving, eternally secure, and eternally complete Godhead.
Without the Father loving the Son and the Spirit; without the Son loving the Father and the Spirit; and without the Spirit loving the Father and the Son—all “before the creation of the world”—we would know nothing of love, because love would have never existed.
So what must we say about love? We must begin where the Bible begins, and the Bible finds the foundation of love in the Trinity.
2. Love Descends to Earth
While God’s love for himself is the white-hot nucleus of love, there’s more to see. God’s love for God “boomerangs” out and affects everything else.
Consider the Bible’s most famous verse: “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” (John 3:16). How did God show his love for us? By sacrificing his Son for our eternal good.
In Scripture, love is entwined with substitutionary sacrifice. We find this connection’s apex in the death and resurrection of Christ, the perfect one who died and rose again, victorious. The cross is proof of the Son’s sacrifice; the empty tomb is proof of the Father’s acceptance of that sacrifice. Both together display God’s love.
3. Love Extends to Others
The thrust of Scripture is vertical, meaning it primarily deals with the relationship between God and man, Creator and creation. Often, however, God clarifies the vertical via the horizontal, using horizontal imperatives—“Do this”—as a test for the presence of vertical realities.
So it is with love. Just as God’s love for us in Christ was sacrificial, so should our love be for each other: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
The same is true of Paul at the outset of Philippians 2, where he connects the Christian ethic of love to the sacrifice of Christ. “Being of the same mind” and “having the same love” rivets us to the same person: Jesus Christ. He has set the example; he is our trailblazer on the path toward love and humility. The arithmetic is simple: God loved us sacrificially in Christ; therefore, we love others sacrificially.
4. Love Obeys the King
It’s also important to note that “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” is immediately followed by “You are my friends if you do what I command.” Jesus’s clarification introduces an element of authority into the definition of love, a clarification that grates against both our culture at large and our desire for self-rule, even as Christians not-yet-glorified. But this contrast must be stressed because any definition of love with no room for authority is simply sub-biblical.
Having a relationship with God means submitting ourselves to his lordship, under his good authority. We don’t become Christians so we can run up a massive debt on the sin card and expect Daddy to bail us out. It doesn’t work that way.
Instead, our disposition toward sin and holiness changes. We switch teams because we’re no longer committed to our own autonomy; we’re now united to Christ by faith, such that what is his by merit is now ours by grace. This is Paul’s point in Romans 6: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” Why? Because we’ve died to sin and are now slaves of God.
‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ is immediately followed by ‘You are my friends if you do what I command.’ . . . Any definition of love with no room for authority is simply sub-biblical.
It’s impossible to “love” Christ while clinging to our own unfettered freedom. To desire this setup is to desire a mirage, a trick of the Devil. All of us are under the authority of some master. It’s merely a question of whether that master is harsh, fickle, and impossible to please (like sin) or gracious, constant, and pleased by trust (like God). Our King loves us by enabling us to live under his rule.
5. Love Looks to Heaven
Finally, love looks toward heaven. It doesn’t just have the “now” in mind. This manifests itself in at least two ways.
First, Christians love by reminding one another of their unchangeable status in Christ and by pointing one another to the cross, the empty tomb, and Jesus’s promised return.
Second, because conversion is real and Christians are “new creations,” when occasion requires, they love by reminding each other of the seriousness of sin and, with God’s help, push each other toward holiness. This is why it’s almost always from a place of love—not judgment or nosiness—when a brother- or sister-in-Christ confronts us regarding our sin, even if the delivery leaves something to be desired. Though it may wound our pride, bristle our self-surety, and tempt an argumentative response, deep down we should know it comes from a place of kindness, intended by God for our good.
These kinds of confrontations can be tricky, especially when they test our relationships with non-Christians or those who claim to be Christians but, by all accounts, appear self-deceived. And yet, even in these situations love looks toward heaven. Christians love non-Christians with “heavenward” love by warning them of their eternal state, commending the gospel, and holding out Jesus as Savior. If non-Christians were to read this article—welcome!—I hope they’d find it as forthright and engaging as it is disconcerting and confrontational.
Similarly, Christians love professing Christians mired in unrepentant sin by calling them to hold fast both to Christ and to the substance of their profession. Based on their response, we either rejoice in their repentance or continue the process laid out for us in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5. In the regrettable occasions when a professing believer persists in his or her sin, Christians love by excluding him or her from their number “so that their spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” Even this—church discipline, as it’s often called—is an act of heavenward love.
Puddles and Oceans
The world and former president of the United States are right: love is love. But the God of the Bible—not us—tells us what this self-referential sentence actually means.
He tells us of love’s origin—that love is essentially riveted outside ourselves, to the nature and character of the triune God. Second, he shows us his love in the sacrifice of his Son: a love that is both gracious because it is contra-conditional and authoritative because it changes us, bestowing on us through the Spirit the very things it requires. Finally, the Bible’s definition of love changes the ways we love others—believers, non-believers, and professing believers stuck in sin.
The Bible says a lot about love, but most of all it raises our expectations and subverts our paradigms. It paints an ocean while the world’s busy splashing around in a puddle.