The love of God is the benevolent disposition or inclination in God that stirs him to bestow both physical and spiritual benefits upon those created in his image (and is thus in this respect synonymous with grace), the most exalted of all such benefits is God’s selfless gift of himself to his creatures in Jesus Christ.
The love of God is the benevolent disposition or inclination in God that stirs him to bestow benefits both physical and spiritual upon those created in his image (and is thus in this respect synonymous with grace). We see the love of God most clearly in that he gave himself to us in his Son, through which God gave us the most enthralling, beautiful, and eternally satisfying experience possible, that is, the knowledge and enjoyment of God himself. Although the love of God can be discussed in at least five different ways, this is the love of God in its particular, sovereign, and saving form. This eternal love of God for his people is what secures the adoption of the saints into the family of God, the loving discipline of the Father for his children, and the presence of the Spirit of love in their lives as Christians.
Of all that we are justified in saying about God, perhaps the most foundational truth of all is that he is love. Love doesn’t simply come from God. It is more than what he does. As John states so clearly, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Carl F.H. Henry rightly declares that love “is not accidental or incidental to God; it is an essential revelation of the divine nature, a fundamental and eternal perfection. His love, like all other divine attributes, reflects the whole of his being in specific actions and relationships” (see Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, Volume VI: God Who Stands and Stays, 341). Sadly, though, “love” is one of the least understood and most widely abused concepts in our world, even in the church. What, then, does it mean to say that God is love?
Love is the benevolent disposition or inclination in God that stirs him to bestow benefits both physical and spiritual upon those created in his image (and is thus in this respect synonymous with grace). The most exalted of all such benefits is God’s selfless gift of himself to his creatures. The preeminent expression of love is when the lover, at great personal cost, gives or imparts to the beloved the most enthralling, beautiful, and eternally satisfying experience possible. The latter, of course, would be the knowledge and enjoyment of God himself. So, when Jesus prays that the Father would glorify him so that he in turn might glorify the Father, he is demonstrating his love for us (John 17:1). He is asking the Father to give us that one experience that alone can satisfy our souls forever, far beyond any other gift or sight or experience. Seeing and savoring and being satisfied with the glory and majesty of God is the most loving thing God could ever do for us.
The Characteristics of God’s Love
D. A. Carson identifies five distinguishable ways in which the Bible speaks of the love of God (see D.A. Carson, “On Distorting the Love of God”). There is, first, the peculiar love of the Father for the Son (John 3:35; 5:20) and of the Son for the Father (John 14:31). Second is God’s providential love over all of his creation. Although the word “love” is itself rarely used in this way, there is no escaping the fact that the world is the product of a loving Creator (see the declaration of “good” over what God has made in Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). Third is God’s saving love toward the fallen world (John 3:16). Then there is, fourth, God’s particular, effectual, selecting love for his elect. The elect may be the nation of Israel, or the church, or specific individuals (see esp. Deut. 7:7–8; 10:14–15; Eph. 5:25; 1 John 3:1). Finally, the Bible speaks often of God’s love toward his own people in a provisional or conditional way. Carson points to how the experience of God’s love is portrayed as something that is conditioned upon obedience and the fear of God. This doesn’t have to do with that love by which we are brought into a saving relationship with God but rather with our capacity to feel and enjoy the affection of God (Jude 21; John 15:9–10; Ps. 103:9–18).
Love as Grace
Our focus here is on the fourth expression of God’s love, namely, the affection he displays toward his elect people, the beloved of God. We must remember that, insofar as not all of God’s creatures receive and experience his love in precisely the same manner or to the same degree, one cannot speak of the love of God without qualification. It seems inescapable, both from Scripture and experience, that we differentiate between the love of God as manifested in common grace and the love of God as manifested in special grace.
The love of God as manifested in common grace is the love of God as creator which consists of providential kindness, mercy, and longsuffering. It is an indiscriminate and universal love which constrains to the bestowing of all physical and spiritual benefits short of salvation itself. It is received and experienced by the elect and non-elect alike (see Matt. 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-38).
The love of God as manifested in special grace is the love of God as savior, which consists of redemption, the efficacy of regenerating grace, and the irrevocable possession of eternal life. It is a discriminate and particular love that leads him to bestow the grace of eternal life in Christ. It is received and experienced by the elect only.
Therefore, like grace, the saving love of God is undeserved. The love of God for sinners, which issues in their salvation, finds no obstacle in their sin. God loves us while we were yet sinners precisely in order that the glory of his love might be supremely magnified. It was when we were still “weak” (or powerless) that “Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). Indeed, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). The sole cause of God’s saving love for sinners is God himself!
Love and the Death of Christ
This love of God, then, is the source or cause of the atoning work of Christ. God does not love people because Christ died for them; Christ died for them because God loved them. The death of the Savior is not to be conceived as restoring in people something on the basis of which we might then win or merit God’s love. The sacrifice of Christ does not procure God’s affection, as if it were necessary, through his sufferings, to extract love from an otherwise stern, unwilling, reluctant deity. On the contrary, God’s love compels the death of Christ and is supremely manifested therein. In a word, the saving love of God is giving. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16a). Again, as Paul states, “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20b; see also Eph. 5:1–2, 25; 1 John 4:9–10)
Love as Sovereign
The saving love of God is also sovereign. John Murray explains as follows:
Truly God is love. Love is not something adventitious; it is not something that God may choose to be or choose not to be. He is love, and that necessarily, inherently, and eternally. As God is spirit, as he is light, so he is love. Yet it belongs to the very essence of electing love to recognize that it is not inherently necessary to that love which God necessarily and eternally is that he should set such love as issues in redemption and adoption upon utterly undesirable and hell-deserving objects. It was of the free and sovereign good pleasure of his will, a good pleasure that emanated from the depths of his own goodness, that he chose a people to be heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ. The reason resides wholly in himself and proceeds from determinations that are peculiarly his as the “I am that I am” (see Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, 10).
Thus, to say that love is sovereign is to say it is distinguishing. It is, by definition as saving love, bestowed upon and experienced by those only who are in fact saved (i.e., the elect). Although there is surely a sense in which God loves the non-elect, he does not love them redemptively. If he did, they would certainly be redeemed. God loves them, but not savingly, else they would certainly be saved. All this is but to say that God’s eternal, electing love is not universal but particular.
Love and Adoption
The love of God is what accounts for our adoption as sons. It was “in love” that God “predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:5a; cf. 1 John 3:1). This love of God is rightly described as “great.” It was because of the “great love with which he loved us” (Eph. 2:4b) that God made us alive together with Christ. It is a great love because it can never be exhausted, its depths never plumbed, its purpose never thwarted by the sin of man (Eph. 2:4–5).
Love as Eternal
The saving love of God is eternal. It was “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4–5) that he set his saving love upon us and predestined us unto adoption as sons (cf. 2 Thess. 2:13). Charles Spurgeon describes this eternal love:
In the very beginning, when this great universe lay in the mind of God, like unborn forests in the acorn cup; long ere the echoes awoke the solitudes; before the mountains were brought forth; and long ere the light flashed through the sky, God loved His chosen creatures. Before there was any created being; when the ether was not fanned by an angel’s wing, when space itself had not an existence, where there was nothing save God alone — even then, in that loneliness of Deity, and in that deep quiet and profundity, His bowels moved with love for His chosen. Their names were written on His heart, and then were they dear to His soul. Jesus loved His people before the foundation of the world — even from eternity! and when He called me by His grace, He said to me, “I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee (see Autobiography: Volume 1, 167).
This love is not only eternal in its conception, it is irrevocable in its purpose. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom. 8:35). Nothing! The Apostle Paul can speak of such confident hope on no other ground than that God has loved us in Christ. It is because he loved us when we were yet his enemies, a love demonstrated by the sending of his Son, that his love for us now that we are his friends is unshakeable (see Rom. 5:8–11). J.I. Packer sums up well both the eternal and irrevocable nature of this divine love:
To know that from eternity my Maker, foreseeing my sin, foreloved me and resolved to save me, though it would be at the cost of Calvary; to know that the divine Son was appointed from eternity to be my Saviour, and that in love he became man for me and died for me and now lives to intercede for me and will one day come in person to take me home; to know that the Lord ‘who loved me and gave himself for me’ and who ‘came and preached peace’ to me through his messengers has by his Spirit raised me from spiritual death to life-giving union and communion with himself, and has promised to hold me fast and never let me go – this is knowledge that brings overwhelming gratitude and joy (see “The Love of God: Universal and Particular,” in Celebrating the Saving Work of God: The Collected Shorter Writings of J. I. Packer, 1:158-59).
Love as Discipline
The sanctifying discipline of our heavenly Father, no less than the eternal life he bestows, is a product of divine love: “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb. 12:5b–6). The Hebrew Christians to whom these words were addressed had mistakenly come to think that the absence of affliction was a sign of God’s special favor and, therefore, that suffering and oppression were an indication of his displeasure. On the contrary, so far from being a proof of God’s anger or rejection of us, afflictions are evidence of his fatherly love. Discipline, writes Philip Hughes, “is the mark not of a harsh and heartless father but of a father who is deeply and lovingly concerned for the well-being of his son” (see his Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 528).
God’s Love and the Christian Life
The eternal and irrevocable love which God has for his people also secures far more than merely the reconciliation of estranged sinners. The love that God has for us also makes possible our love for one another: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12; see also 1 John 2:5).
Finally, the love of God for his people is not simply a doctrine to proclaim but a vibrant affection in the heart of God that he wants us to experience. Therefore, Paul prays: “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ” (2 Thess. 3:5). If we are to experientially enjoy being loved of the Father, it is the Father himself who must (and will) act to remove every obstacle and clear away every encumbrance to that inexpressible experience.
God’s love for us has been “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5). Paul’s effusive language points to the unstinting lavishness of God’s gift. As Charles Hodge put it (quoting Philippi), God’s love “does not descend upon us as dew drops, but as a stream which spreads itself abroad through the whole soul, filling it with the consciousness of his presence and favour” (see his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 210). God wants our hearts to be inundated by wave after wave of his fatherly affection. This is why Paul can pray that we might “have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:18–19a).
- D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God
- Gerald Bray, God is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology
- J. I. Packer, “The Love of God: Universal and Particular,” in Celebrating the Saving Work of God: The Collected Shorter Writings of J. I. Packer