Many people in our culture have a grave misunderstanding concerning the love of God. They attribute to God this squishy, all-encompassing love that never demands repentance, never addresses sin, and would surely never be expressed in righteous anger. What does the Bible say about God’s love?
One of the most famous passages that describes God’s love comes from 1 John 4:1-7 which states: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 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.”
From this passage, John gives us four essential aspects of God’s infinite love that we would do well as Christians to embrace. First of all, God is love. He is the ultimate expression of love. He initiates love, He defines love, and He loves us first. Our capacity to love does not come intrinsically from within ourselves, but comes outside of ourselves through God. One of God’s chief attributes is love.
God revealed this Moses and it became the repeated theme of God’s character all throughout the Old Testament. Exodus 34:6–7 says, “ The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” God is gracious, loving, kind, patient, and yet, we also find that He will by no means clear the guilty, but will punish sinners for their repentance.
The danger many Christians make is to elevate the love of God as His one and ONLY attribute and fail to see that God is also holy, just, and righteous and cannot tolerate sin. Is God love? Absolutely! Is God holy and righteous? Absolutely. We cannot divorce these two attributes and pit them against each other. If we focus too much on God’s love, we can tend to drift into flimsy liberalism where anything goes and God just winks at sin and loves everybody unconditionally. If we focus too much on God’s justice, we can tend to drift into rigid legalism where we never hold out the hope of grace for the sinner.
The second essential characteristic of God’s love is that a sinner has to be truly born again in order to experience that love. John says that whoever loves “has been born of God”. This is none other than sovereign regeneration whereby God grants those who are spiritually dead new life in Christ through being born again. There is not one single person born into this world who is automatically in a positive relationship with God and inherently righteous. The Bible says that we are all spiritually dead and under God’s condemnation and we desperately need new life implanted into us through God’s Holy Spirit. So if we truly want to express the love of God to other people, we need to honestly tell them that without Christ they are helpless, hopeless, and hell-bound and need God to cause them to be born again so that they can experience His infinite love.
The third essential teaching from this passage about God’s love is that it is fully expressed in Jesus Christ as the ONLY way of salvation. God sent His only Son Jesus so that we might live through him. Jesus Himself was very emphatic in John 14:6 that He is THE way, truth, and life; not one of many ways or simply a good way, but the absolute and only way to heaven. It is not loving to give a person a false assurance that God loves them outside of Jesus. When we downplay the exclusivity of Christ, we deny His Lordship and do not show love to those who will die in their sins without Him. The most loving thing we can do is to tell a sinner that Jesus is their ONLY way of hope.
Finally, God’s love is manifested through wrath. At first glance, this may not make sense. In verse 10 of our text it says that Jesus was the “propitiation” for our sins. The word propitiation means that Jesus (while on the cross) absorbed the full wrath of God against sin as our Substitute so that we would not have to endure that righteous anger. God’s wrath is not that He is some out of control deity like Zeus who explodes with infantile tempter tantrums and capriciously throws lightning bolts down on humans because He had a bad hair day! God’s wrath is His settled and righteous anger that comes as a result of His absolute holiness. Since God is holy and just, He must punish sin. The beauty of the gospel is that God punished sin in the body of Christ. If a sinner repents and believes in Jesus, his or her sins were propitiated by Jesus. In other words, we will not have to suffer wrath in hell for eternity because Jesus suffered that wrath in our place. Yet on the other hand, if you do not repent and believe in Jesus as the only way of salvation and you die in your sins, you will face God’s wrath forever in hell.
God’s love is too immense and expansive to reduce down to this popular idea that He loves you “just the way you are”. “Just the way we are” leads us straight to hell because “just the way we are” means that we are sinners condemned under His wrath. God loves us too much to let us stay “just the way we are”! He sent Jesus to die for our sins so that by faith in Him we could be transferred from spiritual death to spiritual life to spend eternity with Him in heaven.
If you claim to be a Christian, may I appeal to you to fully proclaim the love of God for sinners? But at the same time, would we also fully proclaim God’s holiness and justice and show sinners that God’s love and God’s wrath meet wondrously in the cross of Christ. God does not simply love us “just the way we are”. It is a greater love than that. His love is a saving love that transcends our sinfulness and through Christ makes us into what He wants us to be for His glory. In other words, He loves us too much to allow us to stay “just the way we are!”