It is probably true to say that the idea that God is love is one of the most widely held and widely misunderstood of the Christian doctrines. “The man in the street” unhesitatingly subscribes to it, although he has only a hazy idea of what he means by God and he has never taken the trouble to think through what he means by “love.” For him it mostly boils down to a vague general idea that God is benevolently disposed, and accordingly he has nothing to fear in an ultimate sense. Again, few Christians have given the matter much attention, and it may be well for us to notice some of the more important points.
It is an interesting fact that the New Testament writers use for love the word agape, which, while not completely new, was very rarely used before them. In passing over the more usual words it seems as though they felt that these were to convey the new and grand idea that had been conveyed by the Christian writers if we compare it with the more usual ideas.
Other Words for Love.
Thus storge basically means “natural affection,” the attitude we expect to find among members of the same family, the regard of parents for children, and children for parents. This word does not occur in the New Testament, although its opposite, meaning “without natural affection” is twice condemned. Romans 1:31, 2 Timothy 3:3.
Another word for love is philia which is the typical word for the bond of friendship, and applies commonly to love between equals. This is a not unworthy love, and there are many who owe much to it. The present writer, for example, can never forget that under God he owes his conversion largely to the efforts of two friends, and there are many of us who can similarly testify to what one can do for another in the bonds of friendship. But for all that, this is not the specifically Christian idea of love.
A third and very important word is eros a word which has a wide range of meaning. It is often used of sexual love, sometimes being very close in significance to epithumia (lust), but it may also denote the purest passion of young man for maid. In general it is coupled with desire, the idea that the loved object is worth having, linked with the desire to possess it. This type of love may, as we have noted, degenerate into something crude and selfish, but on the other hand it may be elevated into something very attractive, as in the love of the good or the beautiful. It is nothing to a man’s discredit, very much the reverse, when he appreciates goodness for what it is, and desires it with all his heart. But it remains true that eros, even at its highest and best, is not Christian love.
God’s Nature to Love.
Eros is always the desire for that which is worthy, or that which one thinks worthy. But the characteristic thing about agape is that it is independent of worthiness in the object of love. Its classic expression is in Romans 5.8 ‘God commendeth his own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.’ God loves, not because men are, on the whole, worthy of being loved, but despite the fact that, being sinners, they have no merit in His sight. He loves because it is His nature to love, because He is that sort of God. Emil Brunner has suggested that if one talks about radium and omits to mention that it is the radiant element, one has passed over that which is really characteristic and similarly if one omits to say that it is the nature of God ever to give Himself in love, one has passed over the really significant thing. Imagine for a moment a man who is compounded of all the vices you most detest, a liar, a cheat, proud, ungrateful and all the rest, and then reflect that the gulf that separates you from such a one is not nearly as great as the gulf that separates you from the spotless purity of God. Yet God’s attitude to you is not one of disgust, but of love. Your unworthiness cannot prevent Him loving you because it is His nature to love.
This does not mean that we can reason “since God’s love to man is independent of man’s sin, it does not matter whether I sin or not”. God’s love is independent of man’s sin, but it is not indifferent to that sin. True love can never be indifferent to the loved one’s best interests, and thus in one aspect God’s wrath is nothing other than His love breaking out in fiery opposition to every evil in the beloved. Indeed we only know what love is like because of God’s action in the face of sin. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Agape may not be known from men’s attitude to one another, or to God, but from God’s action in sending His Son to deal with the problem posed by man’s sin.
We Condemn Ourselves.
Thus agape by its very nature presents us with a challenge. Once we have seen what real love is as we are confronted with God’s saving action in Christ we must respond to it, or reject it. If we respond to it we accept joyfully salvation as God’s free gift yielding ourselves freely to Him, to be remade in accordance with the Divine agape. But if we refuse to respond to that great love then by that very fact we condemn ourselves to remain outside the scope of its saving activity. The more fully we appreciate the true nature of agape the less possible does it appear that we may be saved by simply ignoring it.
Thus the idea that God is love must not be thought of as a kind of spiritual “soothing syrup.” While it has its comforting side as it assures us that nothing we can do will ever shake God’s steadfast love for us, yet in its essential nature it presents us with such a challenge to wholehearted response as does nothing else in all of life.
From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, October 14 1954.
When originally published this article was accompanied by the following explanation:
“Know Your Faith!” is the general title of a series of articles which will appear in every second issue from the pen of the Vice-Principal of Ridley College, Melbourne. Mr. Morris first graduated in Science at Sydney University and while serving after ordination with the Bush Church Aid Society in the outback secured the degrees of B.D. and M.Th. of London University. Since his appointment to Ridley College he has been to England where he obtained the degree of Ph.D. in Theology at Cambridge University.