The Heart of God’s Character

by John MacArthur, January 10, 2020

God is love.

That statement doesn’t only reflect popular modern sentiment. It is actually a direct quote from God’s Word—1 John 4:8, to be precise. But in what sense is it true?

There are many ways to misunderstand John’s meaning. In fact, 1 John 4:8 seems a particular favorite of cultists. All kinds of false sects from Christian Science to the Children of God have misapplied this verse to support wildly heretical notions—the former using it to portray “God as divine Principle, Love, rather than personality” [1]; and the latter using it to justify sexual promiscuity. [2] It is important that we understand and reject not only those doctrines, but also the false ideas on which they are based, lest we be led astray in our own thinking.

First, the expression “God is love” is not meant to depersonalize God or portray Him as a force, a sensation, a principle, or some sort of cosmic energy. He is a personal being with all the attributes of personality—volition, feeling, and intellect. In fact, what the apostle is saying is that God’s love is the highest expression of His person. Therefore, to use this text to attempt to depersonalize God is to do great violence to the clear meaning of Scripture. Such an interpretation actually turns this text on its head.

Second, this verse by no means identifies God with everything our society labels love. Gordon Clark wrote, “John is not saying that all sorts of emotions called love are from God. The romanticism of Goethe, and much more the present sexual debauchery, are not from God.” [3] In fact, those who cite this verse to attempt to legitimize illicit forms of “love” are about as far from the apostle’s intent as it is possible to get. The love of which he speaks is a pure and holy love, consistent with all the divine attributes.

Third, this is not meant to be a definition of God or a summary of His attributes. Divine love in no way minimizes or nullifies God’s other attributes—His omniscience, His omnipotence, His omnipresence, His immutability, His lordship, His righteousness, His wrath against sin, or any of His glorious perfections. Deny any one of them, and you have denied the God of Scripture.

There is certainly more to God than love. Similar expressions elsewhere in Scripture demonstrate this. For example, the same apostle who penned these words also wrote, “God is spirit” (John 4:24). Scripture also says, “God is a consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24Hebrews 12:29). And Psalm 7:11 says, “God is a righteous judge, and a God who has indignation every day.” The simple statement “God is love” obviously does not convey everything that can be known about God. We know from Scripture that He is also holy and righteous and true to His Word. God’s love does not contradict His holiness; instead, it complements and magnifies it and gives it its deepest meaning. So we cannot isolate this one phrase from the rest of Scripture and attempt to make love represent the sum of what we know about God.

Notice, by the way, that this phrase “God is love” is not even the only such statement in John’s first epistle. In the introduction to the epistle, at the very outset, John gave this shorthand statement of the message he wanted to declare: “That God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5, emphasis added). When the apostle says, “God is Light,” he encompasses several ideas, including holiness, truth, and divine splendor. So as we read from this epistle, remember that these two statements, “God is Light” and “God is love,” must be kept in balance at all times. God is love, but having said that, we have not said everything that is true about God.

Nevertheless, we dare not minimize the force of this crucial text. By saying “God is love,” the apostle is making a very strong statement about the character and the essence of God. It is God’s very nature to love—love permeates who He is. Or, as John Stott has written, “God is love in His innermost being.” [4] Stott calls the apostle’s declaration that God is love “the most comprehensive and sublime of all biblical affirmations about God’s being.” [5]

This statement, “God is love,” is so profound that no less than Augustine saw it as an important evidence for the doctrine of the Trinity. If God is love—that is, if love is intrinsic to His very nature—then He has always loved, even from eternity past, before there was any created object for His love. Augustine suggested that this love must have existed between the persons of the Trinity, with the Father loving the Son, and so on. So according to Augustine, the very fact that God is love corroborates the doctrine of the Trinity.

Clearly the love this text describes is an eternal reality. It flows from the very nature of God and is not a response to anything outside the person of God. The apostle does not say, “God is loving,” as if he were speaking of one of many divine attributes, but “God is love”—as if to say that love pervades and influences all His attributes.

For example, we know that God is holy, “undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens,” (Hebrews 7:26). As a holy being, He would be perfectly righteous to view all sinners with the utmost contempt. But His is a loving holiness that reaches out to sinners with salvation for them—the antithesis of aloofness or indifference.

Love surely tempers even God’s judgments. What a wonder it is that He who is a consuming fire, He who is unapproachable light, is also the personification of love! He postpones His judgments against sin while pleading with sinners to repent. He freely offers mercy to all who will repent. He shows longsuffering and goodness even to many who steel their hearts against Him. Divine love not only keeps divine wrath in check while God appeals to the sinner—but it also proves that God is just when He finally condemns.

And even when He condemns, “God is love.” Our God therefore shows Himself to be not only glorious but also good; not only spotlessly holy, but also wondrously compassionate; not only righteous, but also a God of matchless love. And that love emanates from His very essence.

(Adapted from The God Who Loves)

Author: Narrow Path Ministries

Non-denominational, Independent, Bible believing Church

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