Without doubt the love of God is one of the great themes of the Bible. It may also be one of the more misunderstood themes as well. This is not the place to enter into a fully-orbed discussion of this crucial topic. But I want to look at a few aspects of it nonetheless.
This reflection arises out of a recent discussion I had with a believer about what we as believers are called to be and to do. The particular occasion for the discussion concerned yet another homosexual attempt to push their lifestyle onto our children. I said this should be a matter of concern to all parents, whether Christian or not. He replied by asking, “Yes, but isn’t Christianity all about love, acceptance, grace and tolerance?”
That is a very good question. My short answer to this is ‘yes and no’. Yes, Christianity is about all those things. And since we are all sinners alienated from God, it is a good thing too. We desperately need God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. Without those things, none of us could stand in his holy presence.
So yes, that is what God is about, and we believers should attempt to reflect those attributes as much as possible in our dealing with others. But that is not the end of the story. One needs to look more closely at the biblical understanding of love. And to get that right, one must also look more closely at the biblical understanding of God. We cannot understand love properly until we first understand God properly.
God is love, we are told in Scripture (1 John 4:16). He demonstrates how great a love this is by sending his son to die in our place so that we can escape our just punishment for sin, and be restored to a love relationship with him. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
In a world starving for real love, we need to always demonstrate and proclaim the love of God. But it must not be a sentimental, mushy, unbiblical sort of love. That helps no one. What people need is a love which cares enough to confront, and does not wink at sin or dismiss evil. The love of God always involves a rejection of that which hurts people, enslaves people and deceives people.
Biblical love, in other words, is about willing the highest good for the other person. It is not about making excuses for sin, condoning sinful behaviour, or pretending that sin does not matter. Sin matters big time. It hurts the one sinning, and it hurts others. Loving a sinner (which we all are) means wishing to see him or her set free from sinful behaviours and their ravaging effects.
For example, if someone we know is addicted to heroin, what does biblical love entail in this situation? Does it mean we say the behaviour is OK? Does it mean we just accept this behaviour, and the obvious harmful consequences? Or does it mean we care enough about the individual that we seek to set him free of this life-threatening and life-shortening addiction?
Really loving an addict means doing all we can to help the addict get off harmful drugs. Really loving any sinner means we want them to turn from their harmful life of sin and come to a new life in Christ. That is what God wants of sinners, and that is what we should want of sinners as well.
It may sound unpalatable to modern ears, and to the ears of Christians who have soaked up the values of the surrounding culture, but God very much hates sin. In part, he hates sin because he so much loves sinners. And so should we. As D.A. Carson once said, “Just as we are called to imitate God’s love in various ways, so are we called to imitate God’s wrath and hatred in various ways”.
And there is no incompatibility between the love of God and his wrath against sin. Plenty of passages speak about the love of God. But numerous passages speak of God’s hatred of evil as well. Consider but a few examples:
“This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: You saw the great disaster I brought on Jerusalem and on all the towns of Judah. Today they lie deserted and in ruins because of the evil they have done. They provoked me to anger by burning incense and by worshiping other gods that neither they nor you nor your fathers ever knew. Again and again I sent my servants the prophets, who said, ‘Do not do this detestable thing that I hate!’ But they did not listen or pay attention; they did not turn from their wickedness or stop burning incense to other gods. Therefore, my fierce anger was poured out; it raged against the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem and made them the desolate ruins they are today.” (Jer. 44:2-6)
“You love righteousness and hate wickedness.” (Psalm 45:7) Interestingly, this passage is quoted in the New Testament and applied to Jesus: “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness” (Heb 1:9). Thus the attempt to argue that the Old Testament God is mainly a God of wrath, and is different from the New Testament God (supposedly only a God of love) is untenable. God is equally a God of love and wrath in both Testaments.
And Scripture makes it clear that those who love God are to hate evil: “I hate those who cling to worthless idols; I trust in the LORD” (Psalm 31:6). “Let those who love the LORD hate evil” (Psalm 97:10). The New Testament also teaches this: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (Rom 12:9). Jesus tells the church at Ephesus: “But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Rev 2:6).
It is not in the least difficult for God to be fully loving while hating evil. It is quite difficult for us however. We must nonetheless seek to be, and do, just that. The old adage about “loving the sinner while hating the sin” seeks to get at this balance. It is not always easy or clear how this works out in practice. But it must be attempted.
Various “tough love” programs, often run by secular groups, more or less seek to get at this kind of balance. When dealing with young people with behaviour problems, such as drug addiction, they deal harshly with a person because they love them enough to get them out of their destructive behaviours.
So even non-religious folk have a sense of this sort of thing. They know that love must be tough at times, and bad behaviour must be confronted and challenged, not coddled or ignored. That is what believers are called to do. We can love individuals, while warning them about the danger they are in, the harm they are doing, and the consequences they will face.
That includes denouncing bad behaviours, and warning people of an eternity without God if they persist in their sin. Biblical love involves many things: compassion, acceptance, forgiveness and mercy. But it also involves rebuke, admonition, correction, and warning.
Most Christians would argue that the supreme example of the love of God is the cross, where Jesus died as a substitute for our sins. But if this is the ultimate example of God’s love, it is also the ultimate example of God’s wrath.
I already appealed to John 3:16 as a wonderful expression of God’s love. But the verse must be read in the context of the whole chapter. For example, the last verse (v. 36) must also be read and affirmed: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him”.
As Bruce Milne comments on this verse, “God is not endlessly passive about the presence of evil in his world, or the despite it does to his great glory. If we are regularly able to express wrath in reaction to extreme brutality or injustice, how much more is that felt by him whose love for the brutalized and oppressed is so much more than ours! God is not mocked – ‘It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (Heb. 10:31; Gal. 6:7-8).”
Loving God and loving others means – among other things – that we stand up for that which is right, and reject, or fight against, that which is evil. This may be difficult to do, and it will require much prayer, much wisdom, and much discernment. But the fullness of the doctrine of biblical love must be both believed and practiced. Any truncated version of his great love will be insufficient and unhelpful, and will only result in a distortion of who God is and what he wants to achieve in the world.