I have had twelve years of formal theological training. For the vast majority of those years, I considered the love of God as a moral characteristic, or attribute that God possessed, which meant my starting point was elsewhere, typically within the Greek categories of omnipotence or omniscience. As time went on, I increasingly felt the tension of something being not quite right, like a hand going numb, or a dull, persistent pain. As I moved deeper into an understanding of God’s love, both cognitively and experientially, I began to recognize that placing the love of God anywhere other than the center resulted in skewed views of God, myself, others, and the world we live in.
Yet, regardless of how often or creatively we try, the love of God cannot be reduced down to a secondary attribute, or characteristic he possesses. That would be like trying to take the wetness out of water, or to have air without nitrogen and oxygen. Good luck with that. “Agape [love] does not refer to some supererogatory (more than what is required) ethical ‘extra’ attributed either to the humanity of Christ or to the divinity of God. It constitutes an ontological category . . . the argument of John is that it denotes the being, the ousia, the essentia (essence) of God . . .”1 In fact, the self-giving, others-focused essence of God is what allows us to refer to God at all, for if God’s ousia was not love we would not even exist and the deity would be stuck in a self-focused narcissism capable only of destruction, not creation (C. S. Lewis’s Jadis, the last Queen of Charn in The Magician’s Nephew is a good example of this). God’s essence is what enables us not only to exist in the first place, but also to know (ginosko) the love of God.2
Not only are we able to know the love of God, Scripture also makes it clear how we can recognize the real thing in a world of counterfeits. First John 3:16 says, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” If we are to know what real love is, we must begin with the cross, for there is found the fullest demonstration of love. Jesus’ crucifixion stands as the greatest example of love not because he is a martyr for a cause or a stand-in for a family member or friend. He is giving his life for his enemies. As the Roman executioners drove the spikes into his flesh he cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). The quality and type of love that is God’s looks like Jesus laying down his very life for the people who would steal it from him, not just the Jewish leaders or the Roman prefect but all of humanity. Paul argues in Romans 5 that Jesus died for us “while we were enemies” as an ongoing demonstration of the love of God in the present (Rom 5:8,10). I often hear people translate Romans 5:8: “God demonstrated (past tense) his love . . .” This is wrong. Sunistemi (to demonstrate, or “to provide evidence of a personal characteristic or claim through action” BDAG) in Romans 5:8 is a present tense verb that refers to a past event . . . this past event is a constant demonstration in the present. As my friend Dan Wallace said, “We can know that God loves us now because of what Christ did for us then . . . the notion that we need to sense God’s love demonstrated to us every day or we should begin to doubt it is utterly annihilated by Romans 5:8. God’s love is demonstrated now by what Christ did then . . .”3
God did not just love us in one moment in the past. To borrow language from The Jesus Storybook Bible: God’s persistent, “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love” was not accomplished on the cross, it accomplished the cross. The infinite love of God is the ontological reality that motivated Jesus to “set his face toward Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51, ESV).4 Indeed, it was the very reason Jesus was born, something the Chalcedonian Creed gives us a glimpse into: “for us and for our salvation.” Jesus’ sacrifice was a totally unique expression of God’s eternally constant love, one the specific historical situation required, and one that continues to demonstrate God’s love for us every day.
God’s love, which is so far removed from today’s completely bankrupt prevailing opinions on the subject, cannot be relegated down to preference or opinion, and it definitely can’t be reduced to mere sentimentality. While emotions can and should flow from love, love is not primarily an emotion. Interestingly, when emotion drives love instead of the other way around, it destroys love and then destroys itself. Emotion serves us well as an indicator of our interior lives, but it is a horrible master. On the contrary, real love is persistent, others-focused selflessness born out of the desire for the greatest good of the object.5 God is love, the real kind of love. The selfless kind of love revealed in Jesus, which “constitutes the essential ground of our affirming agape of God. This means that to affirm that God is agape is to affirm that God is what God is toward us in Christ . . .”6
The self-giving essence of God is seen in the relationship between the Father and the Son. The Father hands over “all things” (Matt 11:27, 28:18, Lk 10:22, Jn 5:22, 13:3, Eph 1:22, Heb 1:2) to the Son, who reconciles “all things” (Col 1:20), then gives the kingdom back to the Father, having subjected “every rule and every authority and power” (1 Cor 15:24, ESV).7 This love between Father and Son is so dynamic it cannot help but proceed from the selfless bond they share, and there has never been a time it has not proceeded from the Father and the Son.
This all-embracing love, which epitomizes the relationship between the Father and the Son, is a divine person, coequal with the Father and the Son. It has a personal name. It is called the Holy Spirit. The Father loves the Son and pours himself out in the Son. The Son is loved by the Father and returns all he is to the Father. The Spirit is love itself, eternally embracing the Father and the Son.8 If we are to understand not only who God is but what he is like, we must begin with the essence and nature of the triune Godhead, and before all communicable and incommunicable attributes of God we must affirm first and foremost the love between the Father and Son, who embraces and proceeds from them.9 If God has always been a loving Father begetting the Son, and if the Son has always loved the Father in joyful obedience, and if the Spirit has always proceeded from the unity of the Father and Son, energizing and binding together, then we must affirm this flawless, others-focused, self-giving unity is the essence of God. “God is love” is the sine qua non (lit. “without which, not,” or essence) of all true theology.10
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