When the world accuses Christians of being unloving, one of several things may be true. One, they may be referring to nominal (in-name-only) Christians. Two, they may have caught some believers in the act of being unloving. Three, they may be wrong. This third option is a possibility because love is defined by the nature of the Lord whom unbelievers do not know.
Two parameters for love are 1) God’s law and 2) the gospel. These parameters are explained in more detail here and here. The third parameter by which sinners and believers growing in sanctification can understand and define love, so we can then implement it in our own lives, is the character of God. Notice how closely the nature of God and love are linked in 1 John 4:7-11.
“Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.”
The gospel saturates these verses from 1 John. It ought to; the nature of God’s love is demonstrated uniquely through the gospel. Indeed, it is impossible to separate the character of God from the gospel (and, for that matter, his law). However, it is necessary to broaden a discussion of love grounded in the nature of God to passages that we might not immediately identify as either gospel passages or law passages.
Describing love from the character of God is more about citing examples than creating an exhaustive list; there is always something more for the Spirit to teach us from Scripture. However, defining love from God’s character as revealed in the Scriptures is a worthwhile task; not only do we learn who God is, we also can refine our understanding of love.
What then can we learn about love from God who is love? First, we learn that love does not treat all people equally. God does not deal identically with humans. He chose the nation of Israel over other nations (Deut. 32:8-9). He gave Moses privileges most Israelites did not have. Jacob, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, and Paul were given prominent places in his plan over others. Yet Scripture affirms repeatedly that God is no respecter of persons (Deut. 10:17; 2 Chron. 19:7; Rom. 2:11; Eph. 6:9). How do these reconcile?
Respecting persons is when two individuals or groups who ought to be treated the same are treated differently. Wealth and position do not make people different under God’s law (Deut. 1:17), or grant status in the gospel as the example in James 2 testifies. However, God does distinguish people according to their relationship to him. Sons of God—those who have received Christ—are brought near on the merits of Christ (Heb. 7:19). Believers who regard sin in their hearts, however, are unable to pray freely (Ps. 66:18). Within God’s people, God appoints different gifts, callings, and roles. The servants in Jesus’ parable were given five, two, and one talent. There are diversities of gifts, while the recipients share the same Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4).
Among the unsaved, for whom he still sent his Son, God exalts some to position, whether Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, or a U.S. President. Some are rich and some beg. However, God will sacrifice the lives of the wicked for the sake of the good of his people. “For I am the LORD thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Savior: I gave Egypt for thy ransom, Ethiopia and Seba for thee. Since thou wast precious in my sight, thou hast been honorable, and I have loved thee: therefore will I give men for thee, and people for thy life” (Isaiah 41:3-4).
Just as God differentiates by relationship, so does human love distinguish by relationship. We are commanded to love our enemies, following the example of God who does good to just and unjust alike (Matthew 5:44-45); if we have opportunity to bless an adversary, out of love we must. However, if an aggressive adversary threatens wife and children, the adversary will die for the sake of loving the relationships that have priority. Believers are instructed to do good to the household of faith first, and then to the world (Gal. 6:10). A father loves his own children in priority to loving others’ children, just as God loves his own children by redemption in priority to those who he has created who still lie outside of Christ. The nature of the relationship determines the nature of the love.
Another lesson from the nature of God is that love is generously gives both longsuffering and goodness (Rom. 2:4). The patience of God is evident from Scripture; it is how he describes himself (Ex. 34:6; Num. 14:18). Our own experience abundantly bears this out. We are likewise to be full of longsuffering with the sins and faults of others; “charity suffereth long” (1 Cor. 13:4). The length of time an authority is to be longsuffering depends, as it does with God, on the nature of the sin, the response of the individual in repentance or rebellion, and the type of authority relationship. However, longsuffering and mercy are hallmarks of godly love.
Generous goodness is also a hallmark of godly love. “The earth is full of the goodness of the LORD” (Ps. 33:5). All believers should be quick to do good to anyone who qualifies as their neighbor—which Jesus defined in the parable of the Good Samaritan as anyone to whom we might do good. While we are not to be a respecter of otherwise equal persons in our goodness, the nature of the relationship once more affects how the goodness is shown.
A third lesson about love from the character of God, who is love, is that the foundation for love is the plan of God. By nature, no person is more worthy of God’s love than another. God loved Israel, he told them, not for their merit, but simply “because the LORD loved you” and because he had sworn an oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Deut. 6:8). Similarly, God has established a permanent relationship with believers in Christ for the sake of his offer of salvation. Nothing besides God’s own character compelled him to offer salvation to sinners or to receive those who believe on him as sons (John 1:12).
Similarly, God has placed people into our lives to love, according to his plan: wife, husband, children, fellow church members, next-door neighbors, relatives. While our choices affect who we form these relationships with, they are also part of the plan of God. That God has put them into our life is reason to love them.
Many more lessons about love may be learned from the character of God as seen in the gospel, his law, and in his working in the world. Study the Bible and find more! The most important lesson to learn is that love is defined by God, not by ungodly culture. Know the God who is love, and you will know love.
The above article was written by Jonathan Kyser. He is a pastoral assistant at NorthStone Baptist Church in Pensacola, FL. To offer him your feedback, comment below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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