I have made it my goal to write short posts reflecting on my devotional reading every day. These posts are composed off the cuff, in 30 minutes or less. The following is one such post. Before writing this post, I read: 1 John, Psalm 41, Ecclesiastes 10.
Summary: God is love—but God is not corrupted human sentimentality. He is holy, and his love and justice run hand in hand.
Our culture has a fixation on the idea that “God is love.” I remember a conversation I had the first weekend I arrived at the University of Oklahoma, most of a decade ago, in which I was discussing with others how God could possibly be a God of love and yet still judge anyone. Likewise, I had another conversation with a friend a few years later in which he argued that this statement in 1 John was the central statement of the character of God. In both cases (as in many others since), it seemed the idea was that this statement was a trump card that overruled anything that contradicted the idea of love held by those pointing to this view.
There are of course many problems with the idea that “God is love” trumps everything else in the Scriptures. First of all, it is not the only statement of God’s character. Quick to mind for anyone familiar with the scriptures are other statements. Right here in the same book, we have “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). And of course we have passages throughout the Bible reminding us emphatically that “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh Almighty” (see e.g. Isaiah 6:3). So yes, God is love… and he is light, and he is holy, and so on. Indeed, it is his holiness that comes on display throughout the Scriptures most often.
But there is another problem with the idea that God’s love is somehow in tension with historic Christian ideas about sin and the need of salvation. That problem is the entire rest of the book of 1 John—and for that matter, the rest of this verse:
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 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. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:8–10)
God’s love is not a mushy, sappy thing easily turned to overlook sins. It is the kind of love that pursues reconciliation fiercly, and which does not brook rejection lightly. It is the kind of love that dies on behalf of the beloved— but to what end? To make propitiation for sins. Our sins needed to be propitiated. So yes, God is love—but God is not corrupted human sentimentality. The same author who wrote that God is love half a chapter later says:
Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. (1 John 5:10b–12)
This is not the sort of thing that fits nicely in a hyper-“tolerant” view of the world, in which no offense may be condemned (save perhaps condemnation). It is, however, a beautiful and magnificent picture of a God who loves so fiercely he would die to deal with his beloved’s offense, though that offense be against him. It is a picture of a God whose love does not conflict with his justice but runs hand in hand with it. It is a picture of a Savior who laid down his life for his sheep and who will not lightly see that salvation scorned. It is a picture of a real God who really is reigning over all in wisdom and goodness— goodness that is not mere fondness or tolerance, but which passionately seeks the good of the whole universe, including every man and woman.
Hallelujah. We have a great God.