What is Love?
"All we need is love."
"Love is love."
What is love? There are myriads of both technical and colloquial definitions of the term. There are all sorts of ideals and worldviews about love. But there is one thing our culture seems to agree on: love is the most important thing. This seems to be universally understood. In our culture love is the trump card at the moral and theological table--it's the royal flush. “Love wins.” “All we need is love”. “Love is love”.
Certainly, the Bible teaches us that love is the highest virtue. There is no greater commandment than love (Mark 12:28-31). Love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:8). Jesus commanded us to love like he loved us (John 15:12). Among faith, hope, and love; the greatest is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Yet, what is love? How do we know even what love is?
A phrase often used for championing the supremacy of love is “God is love.” The phrase is often used as a moral license. God approves of our love ethic, our love morality, our love relationships, and love desires because “God is love.” God always approves of love!
But is God love? He isn’t. At least not the way we sometimes think of him.
In 1 John the word “love” is used 32 times in the nineteen verses of 4:7-5:5. Its there that we find one of the most often quoted phrases: “God is Love”. But we need to be very careful with how we understand this phrase or we will be idolators.
Often this phrase is used to define God. What is God like? Well, “God is love”. God loves love more than anything because God is love. By attributing love to God we derive a moral license to exercise our love. I know that God approves of what I am doing, thinking, saying, contemplating, dreaming, or desiring when it is done in love because….God is love. Drench it in love and God is good with. He is love.
But that is not at all how John intends those words.
The entire book of 1 John is written to help Christians discern that which is truly of God and that which is deceptive and false teaching. This is the thrust of the whole book:
2:26 “I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you…”
2:22 “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ….”
3:16 “By this we know love…”.
3:17 “By this we shall know that we are of the truth…”
4:2 “By this you know the Spirit of God…”
4:13 “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us….
5:2 “By this we know that we love the children of God….”
John is helping the church discern truth from lie, love from hate, and light from darkness.
John is not discerning the true God from a false god. Rather, true love from false love. If anything is assumed in this passage it is the nature of God and not the nature of love.
See how John begins this section in 1 John 4:7-8, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
We use this phrase to answer the question, “What is God like?”. But he isn’t answering that question. John is helping Christians discern what love is. “To truly discern what love is”, John is saying, “see God.” Again, John is answering the question, “what is love?” not “what is God?”.
We learn love from God. Our theology must precede our love-ology. Right theology leads to right understanding of love.
Next, John tells us how God made his love manifest among us. How can we know God’s love? He is in the heavens and we are here on earth! What is God’s love like?
See what John says next, 1 John 4:9, “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.”
God’s love is seen in Christ on the cross for sinners. Love comes from God and God’s love comes to us in Jesus Christ dying for our sin. So, before we quickly answer the question “what is love?” John would have us know a few things:
- God and Love are Inseparable. God is love. (4:8) We cannot say that we know what love is if we do not know God. Love comes from him.
- We Cannot Know Love Without Knowing Christ. The way in which we know God’s love is not by feeling it in our hearts, it does not spring up from within naturally. It was manifested among us in Jesus on the cross as a propitiation for our sins.
- Love Always Has a Right Relationship With Sin. Love is not indifferent to sin or casual toward sin. It doesn’t ignore sin or approve of it. God’s love, the love that comes from him, is seen in Jesus coming to be a propitiation for our sins. This means Jesus became the means of our forgiveness, Jesus comes between us and the judge. Love doesn’t enjoy sin, it pays the price for sin.
- We Cannot Love Well Without Being Good Theologians. We get our ideas of love from our understanding of God, not our ideas of God from our understanding of love. God is love and therefore we must know God to know love. If we don’t love, its because we don’t know God.
This ultimately means that using love as a venue to understand God may actually lead us to idolatry rather to the living God. When we use human ideas of love to shape our ideas of God we miss God. Love comes from him.
What is love? God is love! "Little children, keep yourselves from idols" ( 1 John 5:21).
For His Glory,