This article is taken from my book, Real Imitation.
There is probably not a single greater attribute of God that has motivated more change in more people’s lives than the love of God. Love is not only one of God’s supreme attributes; it is also a command for every Christian. The scripture is replete with commands and admonitions to:
“Love the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6:5)
“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)
“Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44)
“Love the brothers” (John 13:35, I John 3:14)
To love the church is implied in Ephesians 5:25. Love is given as the first fruit of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, signifying its primary importance among Christian character traits. Jesus remarked that people would understand us to be his disciples if we “have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Yet for all of these admonitions of love, including Jesus' command for us to love one another as he loved us (John 13:34), there are times when love is inappropriate, even wrong. Paul's words in I Corinthians 13 describe the attributes of love from both a positive and negative view. From a positive view: “Love is patient and kind...[love] rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all thing” (I Corinthians 13:4, 6, 7).
But, notice also Paul's negative admonitions about love: “Love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoings” (I Corinthians 13:5-6). In fact, Paul says more about what love is not than he does about what love is.
In this lesson we will learn about God’s character attribute of love, how he expresses it, and how we can become people who love unconditionally, as God loves.
God: Love is His Supreme Attribute
Let’s begin with a short definition of what God’s love is, then expand upon that by looking at various declarations and examples from the Bible about the subject of God’s love.
Love is that superior attribute of God whereby we understand God’s feelings, thoughts, and acts toward man. God is love. It was because of God’s love that he created the universe and all that is in it, including us! Ephesians 4:10 reveals, “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world.”
Since God is a God of love, he needs someone to whom he can demonstrate his love. God’s love requires an object to pour out his love upon. Before the creation of the world, the Trinity was the object of God’s love. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit always acted in love with one another. That love was eternal and always perfectly expressed and received. However, with the creation of man we are also the object of God’s love. I John 4:10 tells us: “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.” As such, we can rest in the knowledge that God wishes to act toward us from the depths of his love. “We have come to know and have believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (I John 4:16).
There are many ways that the scripture says God has expressed his love for us. Sometimes his expression of love comes through divine protection during times of peril. At other times, God expresses his love by extending mercy to the guilty or comfort to those in sorrow. He also expresses love when he disciplines his people. However, the primary way that God has demonstrated his love is through suffering and sacrifice—specifically, the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross for our sins. “God demonstrates his own love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “Christ also loved you and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God, a fragrant aroma” (Ephesians 5:2).
The Extent of God’s Love
There are many religions and philosophies around the world that hold lofty views about God and his love. But, no religious system other than Christianity has ever expressed the idea that God proactively loves those who hate him. Yet, this is precisely what the Bible teaches about God’s love.
God loves those who love him, and God loves those who do not love him.
Christianity is unique among all religions in that only Christianity asserts God’s love for both the righteous and the sinner. The Apostle Paul said in Romans 5:10 that while were “Enemies,” God loved us. In fact, the scripture teaches that it is because of God’s love that the sinner becomes righteous. “God, being rich in his mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4-5).
From this biblical evidence we can infer that God’s love is not simply a quality of emotion, but God’s love is proactive. His love always moves him to take actions grounded in his love for us.
What God Does Not Love
This is that part of our study where we must put in a qualifier. The idea that God loves us, even when we are bad, is very comforting. Most people, even those who do not know God personally, like the idea of a God who loves because they assume that a God who loves them will not punish them. But, nothing could be further from the truth.
We had parents who loved us, but they sometimes hurt us with discipline. They did these things because, just like God, they were displeased with our behavior. There were certain things we did while growing up that they did not love, even though they loved us. This is very similar to God’s character of love.
Though God is love and loves both the righteous and the sinner, there are certain things that God does not and cannot love. God’s love great, but it is not without boundaries. In the Old Testament, when God appeared before Moses to reveal his character to him, he declared that he was, “Compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7).
However, in the same declaration God told Moses there was a limit to the expression of his love and forgiveness. In the same breath he told Moses that he would, “By no means leave the guilty unpunished” (Exodus 34:7).
God’s character traits of righteousness, justice, goodness, and truth require that he not love certain things. In fact, there are certain behaviors that God always hates and never loves. “There are six things that the Lord hates, yes, seven which are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devices wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil, a false witness who utters lies, and the one who spreads strife among brothers” (Proverbs 6:16-19).
These behaviors, and others, are what God calls, sin. It is because of sin that we are separated from God. It is impossible for God to love sin. He still loves the person who sins, because he does not want us to continue in our sin. He wants the best for us. But, the sin that we commit is evil in God’s sight. As long as we continue in a life of sin, rejecting God’s ways, then we can never experience the fullness of his love.
- Love is that superior attribute of God whereby we understand God’s feelings, thoughts, and acts toward man. God is love
- God loves those who love him, and God loves those who do not love him
- Though God is love and loves both the righteous and the sinner, there are certain things that God does not and cannot love
Jesus is God’s Expression of Love
Let’s apply the principles about love to Jesus Christ and see what we discover. Keeping in mind that Jesus is the one and only son of the one and only God, we can expect his nature to be just like his father’s. In fact, the scriptures teach that, we recognize the reality and superior nature of the Lord Jesus because of His love.
Jesus was unlike any person who ever lived. He is superior in every way—his identity, his abilities, his moral perfection, but he is especially superior in his love. Jesus revealed the extent of his love for us when he told his disciples, “Greater love has no one than this: that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Of course, it was Jesus who laid down his life for us, demonstrating his love. “We know love by this: he laid down his life for us” (I John 3:16).
Jesus had the power and authority to punish all of mankind for its sin, instead he chose suffering and sacrifice on our behalf. God chose for his demonstration of love to be the supreme expression of his character. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have everlasting life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).
Jesus’ claim to be the one and only son of the one and only living God was met with extraordinary proofs. Unlike all other religious teachers and philosophers, Jesus made claims about himself that he backed up with evidence. The greatest evidence that touches the hearts of men and women is his love—expressed through his sacrifice for us on the cross.
Jesus: Loving Friends and Enemies
God’s love is unlike any other love. While men love their friends and hate their enemies, Jesus’ character is unique in that Jesus loved both his friends and his enemies so much that he sacrificed himself on behalf of them both.
When Jesus went to his death on the cross, he asked God to forgive his enemies for their act of murder. Look at what the Gospel writer, Luke, records about Jesus’ attitude when he was crucified: “When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. But Jesus was saying, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:33-34).
The Apostle Paul was moved deeply by God’s expression of love for his enemies and wrote about this unparalleled expression of love by Jesus. Look at how Paul describes this incredible act of love. “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But, God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his son, much more having been reconciled we shall be saved by his life” (Romans 5:6-8,10).
Since it was the sinner and enemy of God that needed mercy, Jesus Christ provided that mercy through his atoning death on the cross for our sins. Jesus loves the sinner for whom he died. Jesus also loves the sinner who receives his sacrifice on his behalf.
Love Requires Hatred of Sin
Now it is here that we must exercise caution in our interpretation of what God’s love means for us. It is one thing to say that God loves us, but it is another thing to say that God accepts us. In fact, though God loves both the righteous and the sinner, practically speaking, he does not accept all whom he loves. This may be a hard concept to understand, so let’s walk through it together carefully. Jesus died for sin, but his death on our behalf does not mean that we can continue to live in sin or excuse it. Love for Jesus requires that we hate sin.
It was because of our sin that Jesus died. When we receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, his death wipes clean our guilt before God. However, if we reject Jesus, if we choose not to believe in him, then there can be no solution to our sin problem. “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:26-27).
God will always love the sinner, but he will be to us like a parent that loves his or her child only to have that child reject the parent forever.
It is also important for the Christian to understand that to continue in a life of sin after receiving Jesus Christ is equally offensive to God. Once the blood of Jesus has been applied to our lives, we must live a life of holiness; otherwise, we demonstrate that we might not have truly given ourselves to Christ. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2)
By living a life of righteousness before God, we demonstrate that we love him. Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love; just as I have kept my father’s commandments and abide in his love” (John 15:10).
Remember, Jesus sacrifice was made for us because of his great love for us! Therefore, it is proper for us to respond to God by giving him our obedience and fleeing from temptation.
- We recognize the reality and superior nature of the Lord Jesus because of His love
- Jesus loved both his friends and his enemies so much that he sacrificed himself on behalf of them both
- Jesus died for sin, but his death on our behalf does not mean that we can continue to live in sin or excuse it. Love for Jesus requires that we hate sin
Our Lives can Express God’s Love
Let’s take everything we’ve learned so far and bring it down to a level of practical application. Since we have learned that love is the superior attribute whereby God expresses himself, therefore, we help others recognize the reality of the Lord Jesus because of our love for one another, and our love for Christ.
When we express God’s love to others, we demonstrate God’s character. Our behavior toward others is an important element in offering living proofs for the identity of Christ. Jesus taught this to his disciples when he said, “By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
More than any other attribute, God’s love changes people’s lives. As we express God’s love in and through our lives we can also see other people’s lives transformed in the same way our lives are transformed.
We Must Love Our Enemies
Earlier we learned that God not only loves those who love him, but he equally loves those who do not love him. His expression of love toward his enemies is often what transforms his enemies into his friends. Therefore, to express the love of God in our lives we must love our enemies as well as our friends. We cannot love with God’s love without loving our enemies.
We must never harbor ill intentions toward those who hate us. We must be willing to bless when cursed. Sometimes people view the Old Testament as a book full of the judgments of God against sin. Yet in the Old Testament God commanded that his people express love in the way that he did. “You shall not hate your countrymen in your heart” (Leviticus 19:17).
In the New Testament Jesus was even more direct. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I said to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you that you may be sons of your father who is in heaven; for he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43-46).
This is exactly the way that Jesus behaved when persecuted, and even upon the cross as he died. While being crucified on the cross Jesus prayed and asked God, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
We can know that we are experiencing and fully expressing God’s love only when we love our enemies.
Some Things We Must Never Love
Sometimes the idea of love is mistakenly thought to excuse certain behaviors. From the Bible’s perspective, nothing could be farther from the truth. Christians must be very careful not to allow the desire to express love for others to become a motivation for excusing sin. Therefore, though we are commanded to love God and love even our enemies, there are certain things, such as sin, that we are never to love, permit, or excuse.
Sometimes it can be hard to express love for those who are deeply committed to a life of sin. Sin blinds people and clouds judgment. Because Jesus died for sin, we must never use love as a motivation to excuse sin. Doing so would be an insult to the sacrificial death that Jesus died to do away with sin. Therefore, we must never love, or excuse sin.
When writing to Timothy, the Apostle Paul noted that those who do not love God would live lives committed to various sins. “Men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (II Timothy 3:1-4).
The Apostle John says that these behaviors are part of what the Bible refers to as the world system. Those who love the world cannot love God or know him. “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life, is not from the father, but is from the world” (I John 2:15-17).
James goes further, noting, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore, whoever wishes to make himself a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).
We must never excuse sin in any form. However, we must be careful to express the difference between hating sin and loving the sinner who commits it—just as God did through Jesus Christ.
- We help others recognize the reality of the Lord Jesus because of our love for one another, and our love for Christ
- To express the love of God in our lives we must love our enemies as well as our friends. We cannot love with God’s love without loving our enemies
- Though we are commanded to love God and love even our enemies, there are certain things, such as sin, that we are never to love, permit, or excuse.