Defining Love

haiti-heartFrom John Lennon’s “All you need is love” to Rob Bell’s Love Wins, there is no shortage of discussion on love. In particular, there is much talk for Christians on loving God and loving one another (Matthew 22:34-40). Within Christian circles and outside of them too, you hear some rendition of the phrase “Just love, don’t judge”. Indeed, if we are to reflect the character of God, we must be loving people. 1 John 4:8 says, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” But, wait a minute…what is love? See, the problem with the two references above in this discussion on love is they do not have a biblical understanding and definition of love. Some may affirm 1 John 4:8 “God is love” but will, in all truthfulness, mean “Love is god”. As we, Christ-followers, continue to discern as we learn, we must follow-up “What is the gospel?” with the subject of love.

Love Misdefined

We currently live in a culture, and the church is guilty here too, that speaks much about love without describing what love actually is. Yet, seeing this “love” in action, we can detect a few false notions of how people perceive love. Tony Merida does a fantastic job addressing this in his book Ordinary (pages 18-19):

  • False View #1: Love is tolerance

Please don’t misunderstand me here; when I say the first false view of love is tolerance, what I am not saying it that tolerance is wrong. Once again, defining tolerance is important. Nevertheless, tolerance does have a rightful place when defined rightly. However, in this day and age, if anyone calls sin sin, in accordance with what the Bible teaches, that person is labeled as “bigoted” or “narrow-mined” (Merida 19). Therefore, this view of love says those who are truly loving will not talk about sin and call out sin and certainly not give a call to repentance. No, they want to equate love with tolerance. They want to hear love spoken but without the context of truth.

  • False View #2: Love is merely Eros

Hollywood movies and songs portray this view of love as if it is merely a romantic and erotic love. What this view of love fails to capture is the commitment that goes in to defining love. Casual sex and sleeping around are not descriptions of true love but of lust. Real love takes commitment. Even so, marriage is commitment. Marriage is a covenant. Love is not merely a romantic love based on casualness but a love based on commitment and covenant. We see the latter in the Word of God as He has a covenant love for His people and is committed to them.

  • False View #3: Love is sentimentalism

A third false view of love surely can be tied in with number two. Nevertheless, this view emphasizes love as the feelings we have. Love is simply an emotion. Love is, as stated, sentimentalism. Wrong! While emotions do play a part in love, it is foolish to say love is merely feelings. Consequently, to do so result in a selfish sort of love. Love because about your feelings and it centers on self. Real love does the opposite (see 1 Corinthians 13). Along with point #2, love is commitment. It is committing and acting on behalf of another for their good. There are those in need around the world, such as orphans, who are desperate for love, not needing merely feeling but for someone to take action (Merida 19).

Love Misapplied

When love is misdefined, the implication is love will be misapplied. If we see love as merely tolerance, we will not dare to speak on sin. If we do not speak on sin, then there will be no reason for anyone to repent. If there is no reason to repent, then there is no need for the gospel. You see the chain of reaction here? Applying one of these faulty views of love not only damages and mars the true character of God, but it removes the reality of the gospel from our lives.

Love Aligned

When love is misdefined and misapplied, we run the risk of losing the gospel. The only way to align love back to its correct understanding is to get back to the biblical understanding of love. J.I. Packer profoundly hits on this in his book Knowing God and declares, “God’s love is holy love” (Packer 110). Dr. David Wells does the same in his work God in the Whirlwind, reiterating God’s love is best described as holy-love. Dr. Wells further reminds us we must begin with God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture, not what our initial inclinations want us to think of who he is (Wells 81). We speak of love as without content, a love without definition, and a love without action. To align love back in its place, we do need to affirm 1 John 4:8 that “God is love” but we need to read on into verses 9-10:

 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.

Love aligned is a love centered and rooted in the gospel. It is holy-love. True love confronts sin, calls sinners to repent, and trust in the One who is love. God, in line with His holiness, had to punish sin and the rebellion of man, and His love brought forth the sending of Jesus Christ. Mercy and justice, holiness and love, met on the cross. God’s love is not some abstract love without any meaning. God’s love is a sacrificial and sanctifying love. God’s love is a holy-love. Biblical love will not keep us where we are at; it will drive us to greater intimacy with God and growth in Christ-likeness. It is fitting, then, to close with a quote from J.I. Packer, defining God’s love:

God’s love is an exercise of His goodness towards the individual sinners whereby, having identified Himself with their welfare, He has given His Son to be their Saviour, and now brings them to know and enjoy Him in a covenant relation. (page 111)

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