On the way home from church one Sunday, John and I found ourselves trying to witness to the rather belligerent para-transit driver. The more we presented the Gospel, the angrier he got. Through clenched teeth, he repeatedly snarled, “God is love,” in his desperate efforts to deny that the Lord had any objections to certain behaviors. As far as he was concerned, a loving God wouldn’t send anyone to hell. Surely John and I misrepresented Him!
This man said nothing I hadn’t heard countless times before. I’ve heard the same objections to the Gospel countless times since, and expect to hear them countless more times before the Lord takes me to heaven. Like so many people, that angry man understood love as unconditional approval of others, no matter what life choices they make. And God, more than anyone else, gives this approval without reservation because (after all) He is love!
So let’s think about that statement, “God is love.” Yes, it comes from the Bible. That being the case, maybe we should open that Bible and think about the context of the assertion.
7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. 10 In this 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 also ought to love one another. 12 No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. 13 By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. 14 We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. ~~1 John 4:7-14 (NASB95)
Verses 7 and 9 sound pretty innocuous. The man arguing with us definitely wouldn’t have any problem with them. I’m quite sure he considered himself a loving person, and it never would have occurred to him that his anger was unloving (see Matthew 5:21-22). But then verse 9 introduces the uncomfortable idea of Christ being a manifestation of God’s love by coming as a propitiation for our sins.
The term propitiation refers to an appeasement of wrath. So God sent His Son to serve as an appeasement for the wrath that our sins evoke in God. Well that pretty much blows the narrative of an indulgent God Who lets His children do anything that suits our fancy! This God loves His children enough to deal with our sins and still maintain His holiness.
It helps to flip back a chapter. The same apostle John who said “God is love” prefaced that statement by contrasting Christians with people who willfully practice sin without repentance.
4 Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. 7 Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; 8 the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. ~~1 John 3:4-8 (NASB95)
God is love, but God is also righteous. He unapologetically associates sinners with the devil! Although Christians certainly do fall into sin, John refers here to non-Christians (and possibly false converts) who live in sinful patterns without confessing their behavior as sin or turning from it. This passage shows that God doesn’t tolerate rebellion against His law.
Love, then, isn’t the squishy, malleable emotion that the para-transit driver supposed it to be. Like many people, he imagined God’s love as having shed any holiness. But when we try to force such a separation, we end up marring the true beauty of God’s love.
God knows the depth of our rebellion against Him. He realizes, better than we do, how tightly we clung to the world, the flesh and the devil before His Holy Spirit opened our eyes to the glorious truth that Jesus took our sin on the cross. The amazing aspect of God’s love lies in the fact that we deserve nothing but His wrath. Against the backdrop of that holiness, His love sparkles!