God is love.

by K.W. Leslie, 24 August 2021

No doubt you’ve heard “God is love” before. If we wanna understand it better, it helps to read St John’s context, from his first letter.

1 John 4.7-16 KJV
7 Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. 8 He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. 9 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. 10 Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. 12 No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. 13 Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit.
14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. 15 Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God. 16 And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.

John wrote his letter to address the problem of gnostics in Ephesus—and really throughout the Roman Empire—who claimed all sorts of things about God and who he is, about Jesus and whether he’s even human, and about how to identify God’s followers through their secret knowledge—whereas the scriptures teach us to identify fellow Christians by our fruit. The most obvious fruit is love, and if we don’t have that, we quite obviously don’t have the Holy Spirit within us, because above all else, God is love.

How do we know God is love? Duh; before we even knew to love him, he sent Jesus to die for our sins. And when we repented and confessed and turned to him, he gave us his Holy Spirit—who is God himself. If a person has the Holy Spirit within them, and is actually following the Spirit like we should, there should be obvious signs of it. Namely God’s love. “Love is of God.” 1Jn 4.7

And if we don’t see love—and sad to say, there are a lot of Christians in whom we really don’t—John doesn’t go so far as to say these people doesn’t really have the Spirit in ’em. He only says “He that loveth not knoweth not God.” 1Jn 4.8 If we knew God, we’d know love’s a big big deal to him. Because it’s who he is. God is love.

John says the words ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν/o Theós ayápi estín, “God is love,” twice in this passage. 1Jn 4.8, 16 There’s no ambiguity in them. God is, present tense, love. And ayápi is the same word the KJV elsewhere translates as “charity,” and St. Paul defines thisaway:

1 Corinthians 13.4-7 KJV
4 Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, 5 doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; 6 rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; 7 beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

More than one preacher has noted this is a pretty good description of God himself.

Those who think he’s not.

There are all kinds of pagans, and some of them most definitely believe God is love. He loves everybody! Loves us so much, these pagans are entirely sure God would never, ever, ever send anyone to hell; that hell was invented by Christians as part of a money-making scheme. (To be fair, some of us definitely use it as one.)

Other pagans aren’t so sure about God being love. Bad stuff has happened to them and they believe God’s behind it—exactly as deterministic Christians are quick to claim. If God’s actually pulling all the strings in the cosmos, and he’s behind such unloving things as dead puppies and parents—and natural disasters, wars, crime, viruses, and every evil thing in our evil world—it’s kinda insane to claim he’s love. What kind of psycho definition of “love” are we talking about? Tough love?

And y’know, some Christians are right there with the skeptical pagans. They’re not so sure God is love either.

Yep. Despite the Spirit’s fruit being an accurate reflection of God’s character. Despite Jesus’s teachings about how much the Father loves us. Despite John’s statements that God is love. Despite all these things, we have too many Christians who won’t believe God is love. As you can see by their fruit. They don’t love others. Don’t love fellow Christians, don’t love neighbors, certainly don’t love enemies. They don’t speak or preach about love much, either; and when they do it’s to justify their behaviors and claim they’re done in love. Like how they trash-talk their friends, and claim it’s okay because they love ’em… even though love is kind, and mockery isn’t. Love builds up, and these guys tear down.

They justify their behavior by claiming God doesn’t really do love. That he might describe himself as love… but what’s far more important to him than love, apparently, is justice. God is so anti-sin, he’s gotta stamp it out once and for all, and if it means he’s gotta destroy billions of humans in so doing, oh well.

For evidence they point to God’s various judgments in the Old Testament: How, after hundreds of years of tolerating and forgiving people’s sin, he finally gives them a deadline, then sends forth a plague, a natural disaster, or an invading army. (Nevermind the hundreds of years of forgiveness.) And if we don’t learn from their example, they warn us, God’s wrath will come upon our nation too. For God can not abide wickedness forever. ’Cause he’s just.

Okay, but what does God say about himself? Well when Moses asked the LORD to reveal himself, the LORD revealed part of himself—lest too much of his glory kill the 80-something Moses.

Exodus 34.5-9 KJV
5 And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. 6 And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, 7 keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation. 8 And Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped. 9 And he said, If now I have found grace in thy sight, O Lord, let my Lord, I pray thee, go among us; for it is a stiffnecked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for thine inheritance.

The LORD answered Moses’s request and did go with the Hebrews to Palestine—but lemme remind you how the LORD described himself. The main point of his statement is found in verse 6. The problem is all the Christians who skip it, and only fixate on verse 7, where the LORD states he doesn’t excuse the guilty. They use it to describe God as a vengeful God, an angry God. Even an unfair God: He lets children suffer the consequences of their parents and grandparents’ sins. Why should descendants have to suffer for their ancestors’ sins, which they didn’t commit? I’ll get to that.

Our compassionate, gracious God.

Let me first say the concept of the Old Testament God being wrathful and legalistic, compared with the New Testament God being forgiving and gracious, is crap. There aren’t two Gods in the bible. This is the same God throughout. This is the Father of Christ Jesus. This is Christ Jesus, since we recognize Jesus is God. God didn’t undergo a radical personality transplant between the Old and New Testaments. Some Christians actually claim this—that God used to be royally pissed at humanity ’cause sin, but once Jesus dealt with our sin, God’s all happy and blood-sated, like a lioness after a kill. But what they’re really doing is projecting their bloodlust upon God in the Old Testament—and in Revelation—’cause it’s much harder to do this when we read about God in the gospels and apostles.

God has these merciful characteristics throughout the bible. Whenever we see God judge or punish people, recognize it took him a long time to get to smiting anyone. Bible history is mighty condensed. Decades and centuries went by before God decided enough was enough, and flooded the planet, or stamped out the Canaanites, or let the Assyrians and Babylonians and Romans have at the Hebrews. Arguably it’s true even after the bible… if we assume God permitted the Vandals to sack Rome, or the Moors to push back the Europeans, or the Japanese to slaughter the Chinese. But y’notice the closer we get to the present day, the more controversial this idea becomes; nor should we just assume God permitted these atrocities, because freewill means humans can be atrocious on our own. Wars and disasters aside, the gist is God is still forgiving and gracious, and it takes a long time before he withdraws his hand and lets our enemies pounce. And here, he says so: “Keeping mercy for thousands.” Turn back to him, and he forgives.

Moses and the Hebrews experienced “the LORD God, merciful and gracious,” firsthand. He didn’t abandon them to Egyptian slavery. Nor did he wipe out the Egyptians for enslaving them. Nor did he wipe out the Hebrews after their idolatry with the gold calf. And before he sent the Hebrews to invade and conquer Canaan, he gave the Canaanites three centuries after Abraham (and untold centuries before Abraham) to repent. God gives second, third, fourth, fifth, and seventy-by-seventh chances. Especially to those who love him.

The LORD is “abundant in goodness and truth”—he sticks with his people through everything. When God punished Israel, it’s only after they chose not to be his people, but to follow other gods—or just participate in the nastier parts of other gods’ worship, but follow no one. But when people follow God, they always find him available.

The LORD is “keeping mercy for thousands.” Sometimes this is translated “kind to the thousands who follow him.” Sometimes people try to create a comparison between the generations God judges, and claim this means a “thousand generations who follow him”—although history seems to demonstrate otherwise. Still, there’s never been a time, since Jesus first proclaimed his kingdom, when there’ve not been Christians, when God hasn’t had our back. Yeah, we’ve been persecuted and we’ve suffered, but God still lavishes unfailing love to us. Generation after generation of us can attest to this.

The LORD is “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” All these things are offenses against God and against one another. It’s pretty much everything God could forgive. He’s left nothing out. He didn’t say he’d forgive one thing but not another. He forgives everything.

How does this not sound like the God of the New Testament?

Our actions have consequences.

Now yeah, the LORD also says he “will by no means clear the guilty.” But that also sounds like the New Testament. Read again what Jesus teaches about those people who are headed for hell. Read Revelation. God forgives all, but when people reject his forgiveness, when we never repent nor follow him nor even acknowledge him, there are consequences. Of course. Saving grace is for people who turn to him, not people who persist in their rebellion.

And sometimes our actions have consequences which affect our kids. I’ve met pagans who know absolutely nothing about God, ’cause they were raised pagan. Their parents didn’t know God either. Their own parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents, might’ve been Christian, but didn’t pass down their religion. This has happened in my own family: My great-grandmother was Christian, but her son, my grandfather, wasn’t. His kids—my mom, uncle, and aunt—weren’t. They are now; Mom became Christian before she had kids, and we’re Christian, as are most of our kids. But a majority of my cousins, and their kids and grandkids, aren’t. Mom acknowledges her grandmother “planted seeds,” but to my mind the bulk of those seeds found themselves in hard soil, and somebody else had to plant new ones.

This is what happens when you don’t pass down your faith. You leave a heritage of chaos. Is it my cousins’ fault they’re pagan? Not at all; not till the Holy Spirit tries to work on them personally, and they reject him because they know no better. Is that fair? Nah; life isn’t fair. That’s why we Christians have to fight for justice and try to make things fair. It won’t be fair on its own. The world is full of sin. But God is full of grace.

And because God is love, he offers his grace to everyone. We don’t have to die in our sins; he offers forgiveness! We don’t have to fall deeper and deeper into chaos and despair; he offers a pathway out, and healing and power and restoration. The world is awful, but he’s gonna invade the world, save it, and fix it. He’s not gonna abandon us to our own evil and despair. Or abandon his people to everyone else’s evil and despair.

Yeah, there are Christians who fixate on the world’s evil. Christians who think God deterministically makes it happen, or think God’s gone away and left us to rot, and won’t interact with humanity till after we die. Christian pessimists aplenty. Including Christians who covet power, and think that’s God’s most defining characteristic; not his love. But when God revealed himself to Moses, look what he prioritized: His mercy, grace, patience, goodness, and truth. His good fruit, which the Spirit is trying to duplicate in his followers. His love.

God is love. That’s his defining attribute. Nothing else he has the power to do, none of his actions in the past or future, takes precedence over that.