The True Nature of Love, God’s and Ours: Love is from God and Imitates Him

The True Nature of Love, God’s and Ours: Love is from God and Imitates Him

In all discussions of love, we must begin with God, not man. And more, we must come to understand the manifold nature of his love, so that as Paul says, we would “be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph. 5:1)…we must keep our eyes on the Lord and his Word, and we must imitate God’s love in the way he has revealed. 

God’s Love Is the Measure of Human Love

Because the Creator fashioned us after his likeness, God gives us his qualities, including his moral attributes, but all with creaturely limitations, now corrupted by sin. All these qualities and attributes God gives us are analogical to his, not identical. The Creator’s character and ours do not differ in mere quantity. Rather, there is a qualitative difference in God’s character and our own. God is holy. God is good. God is love. God is righteous. God is just. We would be wrong to say that God is simply more holy, good, loving, than we are in each of these attributes. God is qualitatively different from us. These qualities belonging to God are what Christian theologians describe as “communicable attributes,” transmittable to us, his image-bearers, to reflect the attributes of our Creator (cf. Col. 3:8–10; Gen. 1:26–31). Every quality and every moral attribute that constitutes us creatures “after God’s likeness” is, by definition, analogical, not identical to his moral attributes.

God’s redeeming work is restoring the full array of God’s likeness in us. This God-likeness is what we properly call godliness. So, when we consider love, whether a human or divine attribute, we must always do so in correlation with God’s full character, especially his holiness and goodness, never isolated from these attributes. Also, we must first ponder God’s love as integral to his moral perfections and then consider the exercise of his love in deeds and actions.

In his classic, Knowing God, J. I. Packer correctly argues that while Scripture twice affirms, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16), this affirmation is regularly misunderstood and distorted.[1] Distortions occur primarily because people isolate God’s love from his other attributes, especially his holiness, justice, and self-sufficiency. Sin-corrupted reasoning also has a proclivity to project onto God creaturely qualities, limitations, and emotions. Thus, many conceive of God only as a more perfect human.

Thus, Christians must rigorously avoid distortions when we speak of God’s love and our love, which must imitate his. To help us in that endeavor, we turn to D. A. Carson’s little book, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God.[2] Published in 2000, Carson’s slim volume punches above its weight class as it guides believers to represent accurately God’s love and, thus ours. As Carson shows, the Scriptures portray God’s love in diverse yet complementary ways. True, God is love, but to grasp the breadth and depth of this statement, Scripture portrays God’s love with varying forms concerning how he relates to his creation. This should not be a difficult concept to apprehend because our creaturely love consists of different facets also.[3]

Varied Forms of God’s Love

Carson proposes that God’s Word depicts God’s love as having five discernible forms. I offer a short summary here, followed by a further development below.

  1. The unique love the Father has for the Son and the love the Son has for the Father (John 3:35; 5:20; 14:31).
  2. God exercises a providential love for his whole creation. This love is often called God’s common grace. God, who is pleased with what he created (Genesis 1:31), bestows kind provisions and care over all creation (e.g., animals [Job 39; Matt 10:29]) and humans (Matt. 10:30–31; Acts 14:14–18; 17:24–29).
  3. God manifests his love in his redeeming posture toward his fallen world corrupted by sin and now dwelling under his curse (Ezek. 33:11; John 3:16).[4]
  4. God’s love obligates reciprocation. Thus, his redeeming love for us is conditioned on obedience.[5]
  5. When Scripture affirms, “God first loved us,” it means that God set his love upon not every human without exception but only upon those whom he calls his “elect ones” (e.g., Israel, church, individuals (Deut. 7:7–8; 10:14–15; Mal. 1:2-3; Eph. 1:4–6; 5:25; 1 John 4:8–10). That God “first loved us” obligates a response in kind—just as Scripture affirms, “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19). God’s unconditional, electing love establishes his covenantal relationship with us, which stipulates conditions concerning how his people are to come to him. God requires our belief, our obedience, and our steadfast faithfulness.

Carson rightly insists that Scripture refuses to allow us to treat any of these aspects as absolute. Instead, Scripture presents them as complementary, holding them together in proper proportion. This obligates us to apply these truths thoughtfully and carefully to ourselves and our relationships. For example, God’s perfect intra-trinitarian love is distinctive; it differs from how the Trinity relates lovingly toward the whole of creation, including toward humans.[6] Our focus in what follows will be on the latter four forms of God’s love that Carson identifies.

God’s Loving Care for Creation

When we consider God’s loving care toward his creation, called divine providence, we must account for the universal presence of God’s curse. God’s providence does not nullify God’s imposed frustration upon his created order, nor does his curse invalidate his loving care for his creation. “Frustration” and the “bondage of decay” characterize God’s created order in this “present evil age.” Their presence accounts for God’s new creative activity through Jesus Christ progressing inexorably toward creation’s liberation from its bondage and decay which is tied inextricably to the glorious redemption of God’s children, descendants of Adam who rebelled (Rom. 8:18–21).

Thus, temporary though they are, alive today but devoured by animals or flames tomorrow, God adorns the lilies and grasses of the fields with glorious vestments. Likewise, God feeds the animals that roam the forests and meadows and he cares even for the raven’s hatchlings (Ps. 147:9; Job 38:41; Matt. 6:26; Luke 12:24). Lions roar as they stalk their prey, devouring the flesh of other creatures that the Lord God gives to them (Ps. 104:21). All this comes from God’s loving providence so that even when animals, including a sparrow, fall to the ground to become food for other creatures and insects, they do so only by God ordaining it (Matt. 10:29–31).

God’s Loving Care for Humans: Three Forms

If God’s providential love for his animals tends to the minutest of details, how much grander is his providential care for humans he made after his own likeness? Yet, when we ponder Scripture’s portrayal of God’s love toward us who bear his image, we must acknowledge that God’s love toward humans entails three different but wholly integrated forms, forms of affection reflected in our love for God and for others.

First—God holds a loving posture toward fallen humanity.

John 3:16 succinctly expresses this: “God so loved the world that he gave his Son.” Here, “the world” entails the entirety of morally corrupted humanity. Regularly, many who quote the verse, including Bible translators, mistakenly presume that “God so loved” portrays the magnitude of God’s love. It’s true that other portions of Scripture do portray the vastness of God’s love, but the adverb “so” (houtōs) in John 3:16 does not speak of magnitude (“so much”) but of manner (“how”).[7] Thus, the verse does not say, “God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son” (CEV). Instead, the verse announces, “God loved the world in this way, [namely,] that he gave his only Son.” What is the way God shows his love toward the world of sinful humans? The verse explains—“he gave his only Son.”

God’s love displayed in the crucifixion of his Son beckons and stipulates a reciprocal response of love expressed this way—“that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” God’s love for sinful humans does not reduce to a love that is formless and permissive. Indeed, the thrice-holy God stands in judgment over sinful humanity, but he also stands ready to remit the sins of everyone who repents. God sent his Son into a world hostile against him so that wicked humans would indict his righteous Son, condemn him to death, and execute him. They did not realize that they were carrying out God’s purpose and design by which he would redeem everyone who heeds his gospel’s command to acknowledge his risen Son as the only savior of the world (John 4:42). To the rebellious world, God’s message is clear: “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 33:11).

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