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The Essence of God

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


  1. Alan J. Torrence, “Is Love the Essence of God?” in Nothing Greater, Nothing Better: Theological Essays on the Love of God, edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, 114-137 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 131. Aquinas wrote: “The being of God in his will by way of love is not an accidental one–as it is in us–but is essential being.” Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 4: Salvation, translated by Charles J. O’Neil (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), 118 (emphasis mine). See also Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity, 23, 41.
  2. Torrence, “Is Love the Essence of God?”, 137.
  3. Daniel B. Wallace, “An Excruciating Gift,” DTS Chapel Podcast (MP3 podcast), February 14, 2019, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/an-excruciating-gift/id90696516?i=1000430207573.
  4. Steridzo (to be inwardly firm or committed) here has a sense of purpose or determination. It paints the image of someone clenching his jaw and narrowing his eyes, focused on accomplishing something difficult. BDAG, 768.
  5. Paul describes love as patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not proud, not dishonoring, not self-seeking, not easily angered, keeping no record of wrongs, not delighting in evil, rejoicing with the truth, protecting, trusting, hoping, persevering. 1 Cor 13:4-7. This is what God’s love looks like.
  6. Torrence, “Is Love the Essence of God?”, 131; Daniel D. Williams, The Spirit and Forms of Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 155; Bray, God Is Love, 107.
  7. J. Scott Horrell, “Persons’ Divine and Human: The Concept of Person in and Beyond Nicaea for Today” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Denver, CO, November 14, 2018), 16.
  8. Henri J. M. Nouwen, Making All Things New: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1981), 49 (emphasis mine). “Necessarily, therefore, does the love by which God is in the divine will as a beloved in a lover proceed both from the Word of God and from the God whose Word He is.” Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 118.
  9. “If the fundamental principle of our theology is that God is love, then we must start with the divine persons and not with the unity of God’s being. The concept of love implies that there must be someone or something to be loved.” Bray, God Is Love, 107.
  10. “John’s declaration, when all is said and done, is the most fundamental of all ‘articles of faith.’” Anthony J. Kelly, God Is Love: The Heart of the Christian Faith (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012), 1.

About the Author

Nathan Wagnon is the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Eden Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to retraining people to connect deeply with God, self, and others. Nathan received his BA in Biblical Studies from Ouachita Baptist University (2001), and his ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary in New Testament Studies (2006).

Following seminary, he joined the U.S. Army as an infantryman and deployed twice to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF X, XII). During his time in the military, he co-authored a mentoring book for young men titled Checkpoints: A Tactical Guide to Manhood (NavPress).

In 2013 Nathan moved his growing family back to Dallas and joined the staff of Watermark Community Church as the Director of Equipping & Apologetics. During his time at Watermark, Nathan earned his Doctor of Ministry (Discipleship) degree from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, focusing on how people emotionally experience God, and how that unique relational dynamic either encourages or suppresses spiritual formation. After 9 years of vocational ministry, he transitioned off Watermark’s staff to start Eden Project in 2022.

Nathan is married to his wife, Margaret. They have four children: Nate, Miles, Jules, and Joy.
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