Five Different Ways the Bible Speaks of the Love of God

The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God's Story, DA Carson


  1. There is love of God-I don't know how else to say this-within the Godhead, within the Triune God. The Bible explicitly speaks of the love of the Father for his Son and the love of the Son for the Father. Two chapters back we noted that John's Gospel, the fourth book in the New Testament, says that the Father loves the Son and has placed everything into his hands (see John 3:35) and has determined that all should honor the Son even as they honor the Father (see John 5:23). Explicitly, then, the Bible says the Father loves the Son. It also tells us, equally explicitly, that the Son loves the Father and always does whatever pleases him (see John 14:31). Why Jesus goes to the cross is first of all because he loves his Father and does his Father's will. This love within the Godhead (what people call God's intratrinitarian love-if God can be referred to as the Trinity, then what we are thinking of is the love that flows among the members of the Godhead, of the Trinity) is a love that is perfect. Each person of the Trinity finds the others adoringly, perfectly lovable. It is not as if the Father says to the Son, "Frankly, you really are a hopeless case, but I love you anyway." The Son is perfectly lovely, and the Father is perfectly lovely, and they love each other perfectly. This is one way the Bible speaks of God's love.
  2. God's love can refer to his general care over his creation. God sends his sun and his rain upon the just and the unjust. That is to say, it is providential and nondiscriminating. It is an amoral love (not an immoral love). He sustains both the godly and the ungodly. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus can use God's providential love to draw out a moral lesson. He says, in effect, "If God sends his sun and his rain upon both the righteous and the unrighteous, then why should you be making all these terribly fine distinctions between who is your friend and who is your enemy, choosing to love only your friends while hating your enemies?" (see Matt. 5:44-47). So there is a sense in which God's love generously extends to friend and foe alike. Here is a second way in which the Bible speaks of God's love.
  3. Sometimes the Bible speaks of God's love in a kind of moral, inviting, commanding, yearning sense. So you find God addressing Israel in the Old Testament when the nation is particularly perverse, saying, in effect, "Turn, turn, why will you die? The Lord has no pleasure in the death of the wicked" (see Ezek. 18:23, 32; 33:11). He is that kind of God.
  4. Sometimes God's love is selective. It chooses one and not another. "I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated" (Mal. 1:2-3). This is very strong language. In remarkable passages in Deuteronomy 7 and 10, God raises the rhetorical question as to why he chose the nation of Israel. He ticks off the possibilities. Because they are more numerous? No. Because they are more mighty? No. Because they are more righteous? No. He set his affection on them because he loved them-that is, he loved them because he loved them. He did not love all the other nations just the same way. In the context, God sets his affection on Israel as opposed to the other nations because he loved Israel. It is his sovereign choice.
  5. Once God is in connection with his own people-usually this means he has entered into a covenant-based relationship with them-then his love is often presented as conditional. Consider, for example, the second-to-last book of the Bible, a little one-page book called Jude. Jude, a half-brother of Jesus, writes, "Keep yourselves in God's love" (Jude 21), which shows that you might not keep yourself in God's love. In such passages there is a moral conditionality to being loved by God. Indeed there are a lot of passages in both Testaments where God's love or Jesus's love for us is in some sense conditional ditional on our obedience. Even the Ten Commandments are partly shaped by conditionality: God shows his love, he says, "to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments" (Exod. 20:6). So there are contexts in the Bible where God's love is cast in conditional terms.
Do you see how subtle this necessarily becomes? Inevitably one starts asking ing how these different ways of talking about God's love fit together. It helps to think of human analogies. I could say with a straight face, "I love riding my motorcycle, I love woodwork, and I love my wife." But if I put all three together in the same sentence too often, my wife, quite understandably, will not be pleased. And they really have different weight. Or again, I can say, "I love my children unconditionally." I have a daughter in California who works with disadvantaged kids. If instead she became a hooker on the streets of LA, I think I'd love her anyway. She is my daughter. I love her unconditionally. I have a son who is a Marine, and if instead he started selling heroin on the streets of New York, I think I'd love him anyway. He is my son. I love him unconditionally. Yet in another context when they were just kids learning to drive, if I said to one of them, "Make sure you are home by midnight," and they weren't, they faced the wrath of Dad. In that sense my love was quite conditional on their obeying me and getting the car home on time. In other words, despite the fact that we are dealing with the same kids and the same dad, the different contexts change the use of the love language. It was not that my love for them, in one sense, became less unconditional, for there is a framework in which that love remains constant. But there can be another framework where agreements and family responsibilities prevail-or, in biblical terms, covenantal obligations-and here the dynamics change somewhat.
Comment: From chapter 9, The God Who Loves. See The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. Image Source

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