All over the world today the body of Christ is awakening to a new understanding and experiential awareness of the love of God the Father, the grace of God, and the significant change from the Old to the New Covenant. This is great! It’s a much-needed antidote for decades (if not centuries) of inaccurate misrepresentation of God as harsh, judgmental, and demanding—an eternally unhappy heavenly taskmaster with a whip and measuring stick.
However, just as there was a snake in Eden, there’s a snake lurking in the current renewed emphasis. If we’re not careful, ruination is ahead. The snake in the present hour is the tendency in the Church throughout the ages to swing from one extreme to the other in reaction to past under or over emphasis on any given facet of God’s character. The hazard regarding the love of God is embracing a concept that is Western, sentimental, psychological, individualized, and emotive rather than biblical.
God’s love must always be understood and presented within the context of Christ and Him crucified. God’s love may accrue to us without merit, but that does not mean it is without cost. The reason we can experience God’s love is because a Lamb was slain before the foundations of the world.[i] If we do not maintain a Christ-centered presentation of the love of God, we will drift into some very unhealthy places both objectively regarding Truth, and subjectively in our own experience. Let’s remember some things from the Scripture.
No one would argue that Christ spoke of and embodied the Father’s love and our sharing in it.[ii] It is, however, very significant that when the Scripture describes the essence of what that love looks like in human form, love itself is not mentioned. Jesus is described as being full of grace and truth.[iii] There’s no mention of love. As the incarnation of God’s love, Jesus called people names and insulted them. [iv] That does not fit our cultural definition of love. Our culturally conditioned ideas of the nature of the love of God in Christ Jesus bear no resemblance, at all, to the biblical Jesus.
It is also fascinating to me to read the words of someone who saw Him, heard Him, handled Him, lived and ate with Him, and find no reference to the love of God in the experience of it[v] – just reference to light and life. That such an experience with the Living Word would not include by default, a primary revelation of the love of God, is inconceivable to us today.
Paul and John
Paul did not preach the “love of God” as a topic. He preached (and admonished others to do the same) Christ and Him crucified, which is the manifestation of the love of God. Paul did not admonish young preachers to “make sure you preach the love of God to them.” His last words to Timothy were to remember the incarnation and resurrection of Christ,[vi] and the judgment at His appearing again.[vii] In Acts 20:21-25 we have Paul’s departing words to the Ephesian elders. He would never see them again. If there was ever a moment to emphasize the importance of preaching the love of God, this would have been it. Instead, Paul tells us the essence of his message:
- Repentance toward God, faith toward Christ
- The gospel of the grace of God
- The kingdom of God
John is amazing on the essence of the “message” from his perspective. In 1John 1:5ff he describes it in terms of light, darkness, truth, sin, forgiveness, blood, cleansing, fellowship, etc. There’s no mention of the love of God until he starts talking about obedience in the truth and our responsibility to one another. Wow, the so-called “apostle of love” himself, not even mentioning it in priority as we would. He presents the message first, then in later chapters, its source and outcome: love. We can argue the significance and application, but not the facts.
The Book of Acts
As much as the Scriptures speak of the love of God, the specific phrase “God loves you” is never used. It was never preached by any apostle. One would think by looking at the road signs of churches in America that “God loves you” is the apostolic message. I once did a categorized compilation of all the messages preached by the apostles in the book of Acts. I was shocked to discover what they preached, and what they didn’t. The love of God is not mentioned once in the book of Acts. They preached (primarily) the resurrection.[viii] That’s a record of 30+ years of apostolic preaching and God’s love is never mentioned.
Now, this will get people squirming (maybe manifesting?) Again, we can (and probably will!) argue about the significance and how it applies, but it is a fact. It is irrational for us to have New Testament Church and book of Acts expectations for revival, if we don’t even preach what they preached in the Book of Acts!
God’s love accrues to us as the result of the apostolic preaching of Christ and Him crucified, raised from the dead. “God loves you” is not the apostolic message. It is the apostolic motive behind the message[ix] and the experiential fruit of the message. Yes, God is holy love, and that love is manifested at Calvary. We appropriate it through faith in Christ’s work, not as a freestanding metaphysical cosmic commodity that exists solely so we can feel good about ourselves.
Certainly there’s a healing and therapeutic element that accrues to us personally as we understand and enter into the wonderful love of God. However, the love of God in its full expression involves more than the joy and psychological benefits that accrue to me personally. The love of God is manifested by our care for others. We experience the biblical love of God in one-anotherness, not in Western individualism. Our relationship to one another determines if we are in the biblical love of God or not.[x] The biblical love of God is not some warm feeling I may subjectively experience in a meeting after a preacher has worked the crowd into an amening frenzy. The biblical love of God derives from Calvary and is expressed through Calvary, in and through you and I.
Love never fails and is the cement of maturity. However, love is not an emotive feeling. In John 3:21: truth is a verb—something we cannot even express in English. The tense is “truthing it” (KJV: doing truth). Someone who is “truthing it” is abiding in the light, and the love of God.[xi] Truth and love are inextricably linked. Sacrifice truth, and you do not have the love of God. Any concept of the love of God that diminishes the importance of truth is not biblical.
I realize that as soon as these things are said, many voices will be raised about how doctrine divides, and doctrine is the problem, and we just need to emphasize love and not theology, etc. These are all subjective comments from individuals’ past bad experience. The Scriptures themselves speak favorably about the role of doctrine and the apostolic commands to maintain it. Any expression of love that requires the diminishing or downplaying of doctrine and a commitment to Apostolic Truth is not genuine love from God, regardless of how wonderful it may feel. By doctrine I do not mean monolithic agreement to every nuance of Scripture, or the dead cerebral presentation of propositional truths. I mean a commitment to, reverence for, and the primacy of the disciplined study and presentation of Scripture and a relationship with Him who is the Truth. The Scripture is not an end in itself. The Scriptures are the revealer of Christ and point the way to have relationship with God and humanity through Him.
I am aware how threatening this article could be to many who are currently enjoying a wonderful and legitimate season of being renewed in the love of God. To them, it might sound like I am trying to take them back to some abusive experience and faulty understanding of God in their past. I accept that many will misconstrue what I have said. However, I believe I have accurately presented the Scriptural record. We either believe the Scriptures are unique, or we do not. If we don’t, well, the floodgates are open and nothing I say herein matters anyway.
I’m very concerned for unhealthy trends I see emerging across a broad spectrum of the body of Christ regarding the love of God. Danger is lurking. Let’s not ruin something divinely prescribed for good with undisciplined attitudes toward Scripture and our own culturally influenced ideas about the nature of God’s love.
[i] Rev. 5:6.
[ii] John 17:21-23 for example.
[iii] John 1:14
[iv] Matt. 16: 23, John 8:44, Matt. 23:33, Luke 24: 25 KJV: “fools” – Gr. idiotes – English – idiots! – those who are morally and intellectually deficient and responsible for their condition. There are many other examples.
[v] 1 John 1:1-10.
[vi] 2Timothy 2:7-9
[vii] 2Timothy 4:1 ff.
[viii] An Excel spreadsheet of my work in this regard is available to the interested upon request.
[ix] He loved us first when we did not love Him, and in His love He sent His son.
[x] John 2:711, 1John 3:16-17.
[xi] 1John 2:8-9.
Copyright 2011 Dr. Stephen R. Crosby www.drstevecrosby.wordpress.com. Permission to copy, forward, or distribute this article is granted as long as this copyright byline is maintained in all duplications, copies, and link references.