The Meanings of Love in the Bible
Love in the Bible, as in our everyday usage, can be directed from person to person or from a person to things. When directed toward things, love means enjoying or taking pleasure in those things. Love towards persons is more complex. As with things, loving persons may mean simply enjoying them and taking pleasure in their personalities, looks, achievements, etc. But there is another aspect of interpersonal love that is very important in the Bible. There is the aspect of love for persons who are not attractive or virtuous or productive. In this case, love is not a delight in what a person is, but a deeply felt commitment to helping him be what he ought to be. As we will see, the love for things and both dimensions of the love for persons are richly illustrated in the Bible.
As we examine the Old Testament and the New Testament in turn, our focus will be on God’s love, then on man’s love for God, man’s love for man and man’s love for things.
Love in the Old Testament
Jesus said that the greatest commandment in the Old Testament was, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind” (Matthew 22:36ff; Deuteronomy 6:5). The second commandment was, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39; Leviticus 19:18). Then he said, “On these two commandments hang all the law and prophets” (Matthew 22:40). This must mean that if a person understood and obeyed these two commandments, he would understand and fulfill what the whole Old Testament was trying to teach. Everything in the Old Testament, when properly understood, aims basically to transform men and women into people who fervently love God and their neighbor.
You can tell what a person loves by what he devotes himself to most passionately. What a person values most is reflected in his actions and motivations. It is plain in the Old Testament that God’s highest value, his greatest love, is his own name. From the beginning of Israel’s history to the end of the Old Testament era God was moved by this great love. He says through Isaiah that he created Israel “for his glory” (Isaiah 43:7): “You are my servant Israel in whom I will be glorified” (Isaiah 49:3).
Thus when God delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt and preserved them in the wilderness it was because he was acting for his own name’s sake, “that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations” (Ezekiel 20:9, 14, 22; cf Exodus 14:4). And when God drove out the other nations from the Promised Land of Canaan, he was “making himself a name” (2 Samuel 7:23). Then finally at the end of the Old Testament era, after Israel had been taken into captivity in Babylon, God plans to have mercy and save his people. He says, “For my name’s sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you…For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another” (Isaiah 48:9, 11 cf. Ezekiel 36:22, 23, 32). From these texts we can see how much God loves his own glory and how deeply committed he is to preserving the honor of his name.
This is not evil of God. On the contrary, his very righteousness depends on his maintaining a full allegiance to the infinite value of his glory. This is seen in the parallel phrases of Psalm 143:11, “For thy name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life! In thy righteousness, bring me out of trouble.” God would cease to be righteous if he ceased to love his own glory on which his people bank all their hope.
Since God delights so fully in his glory—the beauty of his moral perfection—it is to be expected that he delights in the reflections of this glory in the world. He loves righteousness and justice (Psalm 11:7; 33:5; 37:28; 45:7; 99:4; Isaiah 61:8); he “delights in truth in the inward parts” (Psalm 51:6); he loves his sanctuary where he is worshipped (Malachi 2:11) and Zion, the “city of God” (Psalm 87:2, 3).
But above all in the Old Testament, God’s love for his own glory involves him in an eternal commitment to the people of Israel. The reason this is so is that an essential aspect of God’s glory is his sovereign freedom in choosing to bless the undeserving. Having freely chosen to establish a covenant with Israel, God glorifies himself in maintaining a loving commitment to this people. The relationship between God’s love and his election of Israel is seen in the following texts.
When Moses wanted to see God’s glory, God responded that he would proclaim his glorious name to him. An essential aspect of God’s name, his identity, was then given in the words “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33:18, 19). In other words, God’s sovereign freedom in dispensing mercy on whomever he pleases is integral to his very being as God. It is important to grasp this self-identification because it is the basis of the covenant established with Israel on Mount Sinai. God’s love for Israel is not a dutiful divine response to a covenant; rather, the covenant is a free and sovereign expression of divine mercy or love. We read in Exodus 34:6-7 how God identified himself more fully before he reconfirms the covenant (Exodus 34:10): “The Lord … proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin …’”
Thus the Mosaic Covenant, as with God’s oath to the patriarchs earlier (Deuteronomy 4:37; 10:15), was rooted in God’s free and gracious love. It is wrong, therefore, to say that the Mosaic Law is any more contrary to grace and faith than are the commands of the New Testament. The Mosaic Covenant demanded a lifestyle consistent with the merciful covenant God had established, but it also provided forgiveness for sins and thus did not put a man under a curse for a single failure. The relationship which God established with Israel and the love he had for her was likened to that between a husband and a wife: “When I passed by you again and looked upon you, behold, you were at the age for love; and I spread my skirt over you, and covered your nakedness: yea, I plighted my troth to you and entered into a covenant with you,” says the Lord God, “and you became mine.” This is why Israel’s later idolatry is sometimes called adultery, because she goes after other gods (Ezekiel 23; 16:15; Hosea 3:1). But in spite of Israel’s repeated unfaithfulness to God, he declares, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore, I have continued my faithfulness to you” (Jeremiah 31:3; cf. Hosea 2:16-20; Isaiah 54:8).
At other times, God’s love to his people is likened to a father for a son or a mother to her child: “I will make them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my first-born” (Jeremiah 31:9, 20). “Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15; 66:13).
However, the love of God for Israel did not exclude severe judgment upon Israel when it lapsed into unbelief. The destruction of the Northern Kingdom by Assyria in 722 B.C. (2 Kings 18:9, 10) and the captivity of the Southern Kingdom in Babylon in the years following 586 B.C. (2 Kings 25:8-11) show that God would not tolerate the unfaithfulness of his people. “The Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:12). In fact, the Old Testament closes with many of God’s promises unfulfilled. The question of how God’s undying love for Israel will express itself in the future is picked up in the New Testament by Paul. See especially Romans 11.
God’s relationship to Israel as a nation did not mean that he had no dealings with individuals, nor did his treatment of the nation as a whole prevent him from making distinctions among individuals. Paul taught in Romans 9:6-13 and 11:2-10 that already in the Old Testament “not all Israel was Israel.” In other words, the promises of God’s love to Israel did not apply without distinction to all individual Israelites. This will help us understand such texts as the following: “The way of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but he loves him who pursues righteousness” (Proverbs 15:9). “The Lord loves those who hate evil” (Psalm 97:10). “The Lord loves the righteous” (Psalm 146:8). “His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man; but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love” (Psalm 147:10, 11; 103:13).
In these texts, God’s love is not directed equally toward all. In its full saving effect, the love of God is enjoyed only by “those who hope in his steadfast love.” This does not mean that God’s love is no longer free and unmerited. For on the one hand, the very disposition to fear God and obediently hope in him is a gift of God (Deuteronomy 29:4; Psalm 119:36) and on the other hand, the appeal of the saint who hopes in God is not to his own merit, but to God’s faithfulness to the lowly who have no strength and can only trust in mercy (Psalm 143:2, 8, 11). Therefore, as in the New Testament (John 14:21, 23; 16:27), the full enjoyment of God’s love is conditional upon an attitude appropriate for receiving it, namely, a humble reliance upon God’s mercy: “Trust in the Lord and he will act” (Psalm 37:5).
Man’s Love for God
Another way to describe the stance which a person must assume in order to receive the fullness of God’s loving help is that the person must love God. “The Lord preserves all who love him; but all the wicked he will destroy” (Psalm 145:20). “Let all who take refuge in thee rejoice, let them ever sing for joy; and do thou defend them, that those who love thy name may exult in thee” (Psalm 5:11; cf. Isaiah 56:6, 7; Psalm 69:36). “Turn to me and be gracious to me as is your way with those who love you” (Psalm 119:132).
These texts are simply an outworking in the life of the stipulations laid down in the Mosaic Covenant (the Abrahamic covenant had its conditions too, though love is not mentioned explicitly: Genesis 18:19; 22:16-18; 26:5). God said to Moses, “I am a jealous God, showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:6; Deuteronomy 5:10; Nehemiah 1:5; Daniel 9:4). Since loving God was the first and all-embracing condition of the covenant promise, it became the first and great commandment in the law: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5).
This love is not a service done for God to earn his benefits. That is unthinkable: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty and terrible God who is not partial and takes no bribe” (Deuteronomy 10:17). It is not a work done for God, but rather a happy and admiring acceptance of His commitment to work for those who trust him (Psalm 37:5; Isaiah 64:4). Thus the Mosaic Covenant begins with a declaration which holds great promise for Israel: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 20:2). The command to love God is a command to delight in him and to admire him above all else and to be content with his commitment to work mightily for his people. Thus, unlike God’s love for Israel, Israel’s love for God was a response to what he had done and would do on her behalf (cf. Deuteronomy 10:20-11:1). The response character of man’s love for God is seen as well in Joshua 23:11 and Psalm 116:1. In its finest expressions, it became the all-consuming passion of life (Psalm 73:21-26).
Man’s Love for Man
If a person admires and worships God and finds fulfillment by taking refuge in his merciful care, then his behavior toward his fellow man will reflect the love of God. The second great commandment of the Old Testament, as Jesus called it (Matthew 22:39), comes from Leviticus 19:18, “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” The term “neighbor” here probably means fellow-Israelite. But in Leviticus 19:34 God says, “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as a native among you and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
We can understand the motivation of love here if we cite a close parallel in Deuteronomy 10:18, 19, “God executes justice for the fatherless and the widow and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” This is a close parallel to Leviticus 19:34, because both refer to Israel’s sojourn in Egypt and both command love for the sojourner. But most important, the words “I am the Lord your God” in Leviticus 19:34 are replaced in Deuteronomy 10:12-22 with a description of God’s love, justice and mighty deeds for Israel. The Israelites are to show the same love to the sojourners as God has shown them. Similarly, Leviticus 19 begins with the command, “You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Then the phrase, “I am the Lord,” is repeated fifteen times in chapter 19 after the individual commands. So the intention of the chapter is to give specific instances of how to be holy as God is holy. Seen in the wider context of Deuteronomy 10:12-22, this means that a person’s love for his fellow man should spring from God’s love and thus reflect his character.
We should notice that the love commanded here relates to both outward deeds and inward attitudes. “You shall not hate your brother in your heart” (Leviticus 19:17). “You shall not take vengeance (deed) or bear any grudge (attitude)” (Leviticus 19:18). And to love your neighbor as yourself does not mean to have a positive self-image or high self-esteem. It means using the same zeal, ingenuity and perseverance to pursue your neighbor’s happiness as you do your own. For other texts on self-love see Proverbs 19:8; 1 Samuel 18:1, 20:17.
If love among men is to reflect God’s love, it will have to include the love of enemies, at least to some degree. For God’s love to Israel was free, unmerited and slow to anger, forgiving many sins that created enmity between him and his people (Exodus 34:6, 7). And his mercy extended beyond the bounds of Israel (Genesis 12:2, 3; 18:18; Jonah 4:2). Therefore, we find instructions to love the enemy. “If you meet your enemy’s ox or ass going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the ass of one who hates you lying under its burden, you shall not leave him with it, you shall help him lift it up” (Exodus 23:4, 5). “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls” (Proverbs 24:17). “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat” (Proverbs 25:21). See also Proverbs 24:29; 1 Kings 3:10; Job 31:29, 30; 2 Kings 6:21-23.
But this enemy-love must be qualified in two ways: First, in the Old Testament, God’s way of working in the world had a political dimension which it does not have today. His people were a distinct ethnic and political group and God was their law-giver, their king and their warrior in a very direct way. Thus, for example, when God decided to punish the Canaanites for their idolatry he used his people to drive them out (Deuteronomy 20:18). This act by Israel cannot be called love for their enemies (cf. Deuteronomy 7:1, 2; 25:17-19; Exodus 34:12). We should probably think of such events as special instances in redemptive history in which God uses his people to execute his vengeance (Deuteronomy 32:35; Joshua 23:10) on a wicked nation. Such instances should not be used today to justify personal vindictiveness or holy wars, since God’s purposes in the world today are not accomplished through an ethnic political group on par with Israel in the Old Testament.
The second qualification of the enemy-love is required by the psalms in which the psalmist declares his hate for men who defy God, “who lift themselves up against thee for evil! Do I not loathe them that rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.” (Psalm 139:19-22). The psalmist’s hate is based on their defiance against God and is conceived as virtuous alignment with God’s own hate of evildoers (Psalm 5:4-6; 11:5; 31:6; Proverbs 3:32; 6:16; Hosea 9:15). But as strange as it may seem, this hate does not necessarily result in vengeance. The psalmist leaves that in God’s hands and even treats these hated ones kindly. This is seen in Psalm 109:4, 5 and 35:1, 12-14.
There may be two ways to justify this hate. On the one hand, it could sometimes represent a strong aversion toward the ill will that seeks the destruction of person. On the other hand, where there is a will for destruction expressed, it may represent the God-given certainty that the evil person is beyond repentance with no hope of salvation and therefore under the just sentence of God expressed by the psalmist (compare 1 John 5:16).
Besides these more religious dimensions of love, the Old Testament is rich with illustrations and instructions for love between father and son (Genesis 22:2; 37:3; Proverbs 13:24), mother and son (Genesis 25:28), wife and husband (Judges 14:16; Ecclesiastes 9:9; Genesis 24:67; 29:18, 30, 32; Proverbs 5:19), lovers (1 Samuel 18:20; 2 Samuel 13:1), slaves and masters (Exodus 21:5; Deuteronomy 15:16), the king and his subjects (1 Samuel 18:22), a people and their hero (1 Samuel 18:28), friends (1 Samuel 18:1; 20:17; Proverbs 17:17; 27:6), daughter-in-law and mother-in-law (Ruth 4:15). Especially worthy of note is the Song of Solomon, which expresses the wholesome delight in the sexual fulfillment of love between a man and a woman.
Man’s Love for Things
There are a few instances in the Old Testament of simple, everyday love of things: Isaac loved a certain meat (Genesis 27:4); Uzziah loved the soil (2 Chronicles 26:10); many love life (Psalm 34:12). But usually when love is not directed toward persons it is directed to virtues or vices. For the most part, this sort of love is simply an inevitable fruit of one’s love for God or rebellion against God.
On the positive side, there is love for God’s commandments (Psalm 112:1; 119:35, 47), his law (Psalm 119:97), his will (Psalm 40:8), his promise (Psalm 119:140) and his salvation (Psalm 40:16). Men are to love the good and hate evil (Amos 5:15), love truth and peace (Zechariah 8:19) and love mercy (Micah 6:8) and wisdom (Proverbs 4:6). On the negative side, we find people loving evil (Micah 3:2), lying and false prophecy (Psalm 4:2; 52:3, 4; Zechariah. 8:17; Jeremiah 5:31; 14:10), idols (Hosea 9:1, 10; Jeremiah 2:25), oppression (Hosea 12:7), cursing (Psalm 109:17), laziness (Proverbs 20:13), foolishness (Proverbs 1:22), violence (Psalm 11:5) and bribery (Isaiah 1:23). In short, many people “love their shame more than their glory” (Hosea 4:17), which is the same as loving death (Proverbs 8:36). The sum of the matter is that satisfaction is not to be had in setting one’s affections on anything but God (cf. Ecclesiastes 5:10; 12:13).
Love in the New Testament
What makes the New Testament new is the appearance of the Son of God on the scene of human history. In Jesus Christ we see as never before a revelation of God. As he said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9; cf. Colossians 2:9; Hebrews 1:3). For in a real sense, Jesus was God. (John 1:1; 20:28).
But the coming of Christ not only brings about the revelation of God. By his death and resurrection Christ also brings about the salvation of men (Romans 5:6-11). This salvation includes forgiveness of sins (Ephesians 1:7), access to God (Ephesians 2:18), the hope of eternal life (John 3:16), and a new heart which is inclined to do good deeds (Ephesians 2:10; Titus 2:14).
Therefore, when dealing with love, we must try to relate everything to Jesus Christ and his life, death and resurrection. In the life and death of Christ we see in a new way what God’s love is and what man’s love for God and for others should be. And through faith, the Spirit of Christ, living in us enables us to follow his example.
God’s Love for His Son
In the Old Testament we saw that God loves his own glory and delights to display it in creation and redemption. A deeper dimension of this self-love becomes clear in the New Testament. It is still true that God aims in all his works to display his glory for men to enjoy and praise (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14; John 17:4). But what we learn now is that Christ “reflects the very glory of God and bears the stamp of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). “In him dwells all the fullness of deity” (Colossians 2:9). In short, Christ is God and has eternally existed in a mysterious union with his Father (John 1:1). Therefore, God’s self-love, or his love for his own glory, can now be seen as a love for “the glory of Christ who is the likeness of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4; cf. Philippians 2:6). The love that God the Father has for the Son is expressed often in the Gospel of John (3:35; 5:20; 10:17; 15:9, 10; 17:23-26) and occasionally elsewhere (Matthew 3:17; 12:18; 17:5; Ephesians 1:6; Colossians 1:13).
This love within the Trinity itself is important for Christians for two reasons: First, the costly beauty of the incarnation and death of Christ cannot be understood without it. Second, it is the very love of the Father for the Son which the Father pours into the hearts of believers (John 17:26). The ultimate hope of the Christian is to see the glory of God in Christ (John 17:5), to be with him (John 14:24) and to delight in him as much as his Father does (John 17:26).
God’s Love for Men
In Romans 8:35 Paul said, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” In verse 39 he says, “Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This change from “Christ” to “God in Christ” shows that under the heading “God’s love for men” we must include Christ’s love for men, since his love is an extension of God’s.
The most basic thing that can be said about love in relation to God is that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16; cf. 2 Corinthians 13:11). This does not mean that God is an old-fashioned name for the ideal of love. It suggests, rather, that one of the best words to describe God’s character is love. God’s nature is such that in his fullness he needs nothing (Acts 17:25) but rather overflows in goodness. It is his nature to love.
Because of this divine love, God sent his only Son into the world so that by Christ’s death for sin (1 Corinthians 15:3; 1 Peter 2:24; 3:18) all those who believe might have eternal life (John 3:16; 2 Thessalonians 2:16; 1 John 3:1; Titus 3:4). “In this act we see what real love is: it is not our love for God, but his love for us, when he sent his Son to satisfy God’s anger against our sin” (1 John 4:10). Indeed, it is precisely God’s wrath from which believers are saved by faith in the death and resurrection of Christ (Romans 5:9). But we must not imagine that Christ is loving while God is angry. “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). It is God’s own love which finds a way to save us from his own wrath (Ephesians 2:3-5).
Nor should we think of the Father forcing the Son to die for man. The repeated message of the New Testament is that “Christ loved us and gave himself for us” (Galatians 2:2; Ephesians 5:2; 1 John 3:16). “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1; 15:9, 12, 13). And the love of the risen Christ guides (2 Corinthians 5:14), sustains (Romans 8:35) and reproves (Revelations 3:19) his people still.
Another misconception that must be avoided is that the love of God and Christ can be merited or earned by anyone. Jesus was accused of being a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 11:9; Luke 7:34). The answer he gave was, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Mark 2:17). At another time when Jesus was accused of eating with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 15:1, 2) he told three parables of how it gladdens the heart of God when one sinner repents (Luke 5:3-32). In this way, Jesus showed that his saving love aimed to embrace not those who thought they were righteous (Luke 18:9) but rather the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3) like the tax collector who said, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). The love of Jesus could not be earned; it could only be freely accepted and enjoyed. Unlike the legalism of the Pharisees, it was a “light burden” and an “easy yoke” (Matthew 11:30).
The reason Jesus demonstrated a love for those who could not merit his favor is that he was like his Father. He taught that God “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45), “he is kind to the grateful and to the selfish” (Luke 6:35). Paul too stresses that the unique thing about divine love is that it seeks to save even enemies. He describes it like this: “While we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8).
While it is true that God in one sense loves the whole world in that he sustains the world (Acts 14:17; 17:25; Matthew 5:45) and has made a way of salvation for any who will believe, nevertheless, he does not love all men in the same way. He has chosen some before the foundation of the world to be his sons (Ephesians 1:5) and predestined them for glory (Romans 8:29-30; 9:11, 23; 11:7, 28; 1 Peter 1:2). God has set his love on these chosen ones in a unique way (Colossians 3:12; Romans 11:28; 1:7; 1 Thessalonians 1:4; Jude 1) so that their salvation is sure. These he draws to Christ (John 6:44, 65) and makes alive (Ephesians 2:4, 5); others he leaves in the hardness of their sinful heart (Romans 11:7; Matthew 11:25, 26; Mark 4:11, 12).
There is a mystery in God’s electing love. Why he chooses one and not another is not revealed. We are only told that it is not due to any merit or human distinctive (Rom 9:10-13). Therefore, all boasting is excluded (Romans 3:27; 11:18, 20, 25; Ephesians 2:8; Philippians 2:12, 13), it is a gift of God from start to finish (John 6:65). We deserved nothing since we were all sinners, and everything we have is due to God who has mercy (Romans 9:16).
The way one finds oneself within this saving love of God is by faith in the promise that “whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). Then Jude 21 says, “Keep yourself in the love of God” and Romans 11:22 says, “Continue in God’s kindness.” It is clear from Romans 11:20-22 that this means keep on trusting God: “You stand fast only through faith.” So one never earns God’s saving love; one remains within it only by trusting in the loving promises of God. This is true even when Jesus says that the reason God loves his disciples is because they keep his word (John 14:23), for the essence of Jesus’ word is a call to live by faith (John 16:27; 20:31).
Man’s Love for God and Christ
Jesus sums up the whole Old Testament in the commandments to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40). The failure to love God like this characterized many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day (Luke 11:42). Jesus said this was the reason they did not love and accept him (John 5:42; 8:42). He and the Father are one (John 10:30), so that loving one with all the heart involves loving the other, too.
Since the “greatest commandment” is to love God, it is not surprising that very great benefits are promised to those who do. “All things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). “No eye has seen nor ear heard … what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9; cf. Ephesians 6:24). “If one loves God, he is known by God” (1 Corinthians 8:3). “God has promised a crown of life to those who love him” (James 1:12; 3:5; cf. 2 Timothy 4:8). But on the other side there are grave warnings to those who do not love God (2 Timothy 2:14; 1 John 2:15-17) and Christ (1 Corinthians 16:22; Matthew 10:37-39).
Now the question arises: If the same benefits depend on loving God and Christ which at the same time depend on faith, what is the relationship between loving God and trusting him? We need to recall that love for God, unlike love for a needy neighbor, is not a longing to supply some lack on his part by our service (Acts 17:5). Rather, love for God is a deep adoration for his moral beauty and his complete fullness and sufficiency. It is delighting in him and a desire to know him and be with him. But in order to delight in God, one must have some conviction that he is good, and some assurance that our future with him will be a happy one. That is, one must have the kind of faith described in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.” Therefore, faith precedes and enables our love for God. Confidence in God’s promise grounds our delight in his goodness.
There is another way to conceive of loving God: not just delighting in who he is and what he promises, but wanting to please him. Is there a place for this love in the life of the believer? Indeed, there is (John 8:29; Romans 8:8; 1 Corinthians 7:32; 2 Corinthians 5:9; Galatians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:1); however, we must guard very closely here against dishonoring God by presuming to become his benefactors. Hebrews 11:6 shows us the way: “Without faith it is impossible to please God. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he becomes the rewarder of those who seek him.” Here the faith which pleases God has two convictions: that God exists and that to find him is to be greatly rewarded.
Therefore, in order to love God in the sense of pleasing him, we must never approach him because we want to reward him, but only because he rewards us. In short, we become the source of God’s pleasure to the extent that he is the source of ours. We can do him a favor only by happily accepting all his favors. We best express our love for him when we live not presumptuously, as God’s benefactors, but humbly and happily as the beneficiaries of his mercy. The person who lives this way will inevitably keep the commandments of Jesus (John 14:15) and of God (1 John 5:3).
Man’s Love for Man
Jesus’ second commandment was, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31, 33; Luke 10:27). We already discussed what this meant in Leviticus 19:18. The best interpretations of it in Jesus’ own words are the Golden Rule (“As you wish that men would do to you, do so to them,” Luke 6:31) and the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). It means that we should seek the good of others as earnestly as we desire good to come our way. This is the most frequently cited Old Testament commandment in the New Testament (Matthew 19:19; Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:28; James 2;8).
After this commandment, probably the most famous passage on love in the New Testament is 1 Corinthians 13. Here Paul shows that there can be religiosity and humanitarianism without love. “If I give away all that I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3). This raises the question of what this love is if one could sacrifice his life and still not have it.
The New Testament answer is that the kind of love Paul is talking about must spring from a motivation which takes into account the love of God in Christ. Genuine love is born of faith in the loving promises of God. Paul says that “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). More positively he says, “Faith works through love” (Galatians 5:6). Or as John puts it, “We know and believe the love God has for us …. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:16, 19). Therefore, Christian love exists only where the love of God in Christ is known and trusted. This profound link between faith and love probably accounts for why Paul mentions the two together so often (Ephesians 1:15; 6:23; Colossians 1:4; 1 Thessalonians 3:6; 5:8; 2 Thessalonians 1:3; 1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 1:3; 2:2; Titus 2:2; 3:15; cf. Revelations 2:19).
But why is it that faith always “works through love”? One of the hallmarks of love is that it “seeks not its own” (1 Corinthians 13:5). It does not manipulate others in order to win their approval or gain some material reward. Rather, it seeks to reward others and build them up (1 Corinthians 8:1; Romans 14:15; Ephesians 4:16; Romans 13:10). Love does not use others for its own ends; it delights to be a means to their welfare. If this is the hallmark of love, how can sinful men, who by nature are selfish (Ephesians 2:3), ever love each other?
The answer of the New Testament is that we must be born again: “the one who loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). To be born of God means to become his child with his character and to be transferred from death to life: “We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the brethren” (1 John 3:14). God himself abides in his children by his Spirit (1 John 3:9; 4:12, 13) so that when they love it is because his love is being perfected in them (1 John 3:7, 12, 16).
Paul teaches the same thing when he says love is a “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22; Colossians 1:8; 2 Timothy 1:7), that it is “from God” (Ephesians 6:23) and is “taught by God,” not men (1 Thessalonians 4:9). The fact that love is enabled only by God is seen in Paul’s prayers also: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all men” (1 Thessalonians 3:12; Philippians 1:9).
Now we are in a position to answer our earlier question: Why does faith always work through love? Faith is the way we receive the Holy Spirit, whose fruit is love. Paul asks, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of law or by hearing with faith” (Galatians 5:2)? The answer is clearly faith. This means that the essential characteristic of the person who has been born again and is being led by the Spirit of God is faith (John 1:12, 13). Therefore, while love is a fruit of the Spirit, it is also a fruit of faith, since it is by faith that the Spirit works (Galatians 3:5).
To understand fully the dynamics of this process, another factor must be brought in: the factor of hope. Faith and hope cannot be separated. Genuine faith in Christ implies a firm confidence that our future is secure (Heb. 11:1, Romans 15:13). This essential oneness of faith and hope helps us grasp why faith always “works through love.” The person who has confidence that God is working all things together for his good (Romans 8:28) can relax and entrust his life to a faithful Creator (1 Peter 4:19). He is free from anxiety and fear (1 Peter 5:7; Philippians 4:6). So he is not easily irritated (1 Corinthians 13:5). Rather, he is freed from self-justifying, self-protecting concerns and becomes a person who “looks to the interest of others” (Philippians 2:4). Being satisfied in God’s presence and promise, he is not bent on selfishly seeking his own pleasure, but rather delights “to please his neighbor for his good to edify him” (Romans 15:1, 2).
In other words, having our hope pinned on the promises of God frees us from the attitudes that hinder self-giving love. Therefore, Paul said that if there were no Resurrection hope, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). If God has not satisfied our deep longing for life, then we may as well try to get as much earthly pleasure as possible, whether it is loving to others or not. But God has in fact given us a satisfying and confident hope as a basis for a life of love. Therefore in Colossians 1:4, 5, hope is the ground of love: “We always thank God … because we have heard of … the love which you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in Heaven.”
Thus, we conclude that faith, when understood as a deep contentment in the promises of God, always works through love. Therefore, the way to become a loving person is to set our hope more fully on God and delight more fully n the confidence that whatever is encountered on the path of obedience is for our good.
The love that is born of faith and the Spirit is especially manifest in the Christian home and in the community of believers. It transforms husband-wife relationships on the pattern of Christ’s love (Ephesians 5:25, 28, 33; Colossians 3:19; Titus 2:4). It is the fiber in the Christian community that “knits everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14; 2:2; Philippians 2:2; 1 Peter 3:8). It enables the members to “endure one another” in meekness and lowliness when wronged (Ephesians 4:2; 1 Corinthians 13:7). But more importantly it is the force behind positive deeds of spiritual edification (Romans 14:15; 1 Corinthians 8:1; Ephesians 4:16) and the meeting of material needs (Luke 10:27-37; Romans 12:13; Galatians 5:13; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8; Hebrews 13:1-3; James 1:27; 2:16; 1 Peter 4:9; 1 John 3:17, 18).
Love is not to be—cannot be—restricted to friends. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44; Luke 6:27). This same concern was carried into the early church in verses like Romans 12:14, 19-21; 1 Corinthians 4:12; Galatians 6:10; 1 Thessalonians 3:12; 5:15; 1 Peter 3:9. The great desire of the Christian in doing good to his enemy and praying for him is that the enemy might cease to be an enemy and come to glorify God (1 Peter 2:12; 3:14-16; Titus 2:8, 10).
Toward friend and foe, love is the attitude that governs the Christian in “all things” (1 Corinthians 16:14). It is the “most excellent way” of life (1 Corinthians 12:31). And since it does not wrong anyone, but seeks the good of all, it fulfills the whole law of God (Romans 13:19; Matthew 7:12, 22:40; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8; compare Romans 8:4 and Galatians 5:22). But it is not automatic; it can cool away (Matthew 22:12; Revelation 2:4). Therefore, Christians must make it their aim (1 Timothy 1:15) to “stir one another up to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24). We must pray for God to cause our love to abound more and more (Philippians 1:9; 1 Thessalonians 3:12, 13).
We must concentrate on the examples of love in Christ (John 13:34; 15:12, 17; Ephesians 5:2; 1 John 3:23; 2 John 5) and in his saints (1 Corinthians 4:12, 15-17; 1 Timothy 4:12; 2 Timothy 1:13; 3:10). In this way, we will make our call and election sure (2 Peter 1:7, 10) and bear a compelling witness in the world to the truth of the Christian faith (John 13:34, 35; 1 Peter 2:12).
Man’s Love for Things
On the one hand, the New Testament teaches that the things God has created are good and should be enjoyed with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:3; 6:17). But on the other hand, it warns against loving them in such a way that our affections are drawn away from God.
The great danger is that the love of money (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:14; 1 Timothy 6:10; 2 Timothy 3:2; 2 Peter 2:15) and earthly pleasures (2 Timothy 3:4) and human acclaim (Matthew 6:5; 23:6; Luke 11:43; 3 John 9) will steal our hearts from God and make us insensitive to his higher purposes for us. John says, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15-17). And James echoes this: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity toward God” (James 4:4; cf. 2 Timothy 4:10)? The “world” is not any particular class of objects or people. It is anything which lays a claim on our affections to be loved other than for Jesus’ sake. Saint Augustine offered a prayer that catches the New Testament spirit on this issue: “He loves thee too little who loves anything together with thee which he loves not for thy sake.”
© Desiring God Foundation. Distribution Guidelines
Share the Joy! You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in physical form, in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For posting online, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. For videos, please embed from the original source. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. © Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org