The title is more of a rhetorical question. In fact, its a question posed with an increasing chagrin as I see love fought against in the quest to avoid the slippery slope of liberalism. I started to name the title Love Really Does Win and I bet that would have raised the hackles on the backs of many necks. Why? Because when we hear that title, we think of Rob Bell and liberalism (which usually means anything to the left of what we believe). And we get concerned about love.
But here’s the thing: love really did and does win. When I read scripture about God’s reconciling work with his creation accomplished in his Son, I can’t help but see that everything he did was out of love (Romans 5:8; John 15:13; 1 John 3:1 ). It is because God loves us that we can love him (1 John 4:10). We are commanded to love him with all of our being and love neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:27). Jesus said the way that his disciples would be known is because of their love for another (John 15:12) and John is quite emphatic that without it the love of God is really not manifest in our lives (1 John 2:10; 3:10). Paul insists that our gifts and contributions to the body are meaningless without love (1 Corinthians 13) and desires for our love to grow in the knowledge of God towards each other (Phil 1:9). Peter compels us to love one another deeply because love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 1:22; 4:8)
I observe that Christians of the conservative stripe, who really care about not losing truth and sound doctrine tend to downplay it. In fact, I think in some cases there is this fear that if we talk about love too much it will somehow unravel our theology. If we let love be our motive that somehow propels us into liberalism. Why is this? Why do we fear losing something of sound theology if we talk about love too much?
I can’t help but think that the fear of love stems from the threat of losing justice, as if they can be separated. But justice can only be wrought because of God’s active love. Just because there is an emphasis of love does not mean one is sliding down a slippery slope.
Craig Bubeck wrote this piece on love in Christianity Today from an obvious Wesleyan perspective. While I am not Wesleyan, I appreciate what he had to say as it struck at the nerve of what concerned me. He cites many instances of the biblical motive and command for love and indicates that does not mean a lack of justice in this section here;
God’s wrath is not an exception or counterpart to his love. Rather, it is a consequence of it. From their beginning, the Scriptures are clear that we must weigh the significance of the Fall itself on the scale of God’s love. The essence of Adam and Eve’s original sin act is the very same state we are all born into: God’s love distrusted, rejected, and unrequited.
The real concern for God’s wrath should be far more about our being born into it, over and above anything we could have done to earn it. Out of this inherited original divorce come all of the inevitable, unlovely, unloving consequences popularly known to be sins. Furthermore, it is this very state of our existence in God’s wrath that occasions his sacrificial love. It’s why he himself, God the Son, breaches the chasm that is sin, making our returning his love even possible.
In John’s first epistle, he makes this inescapably clear: “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” (4:10, NASB). So in love, God preemptively provided propitiation. This atonement, this appeasement cannot merely be a Savior Son rescuing sinners from the hands of an angry God. Of all things in which God the Father, Son, and Spirit must be one, it is “that he loved us.”
It’s not so much a matter of appeasing an angry God as restoring within us the capacity to love. When we respond in faith, we return to him the love for which we were created. Tragically, those who choose to remain “in sin” are simply “without” in respect to God’s love.
This is exactly why God’s wrath cannot be about eliciting fear, as if salvation were about avoiding the frightening prospects of God’s retribution or hate—as if Jesus actually came to save us from some monster God. John is clear on this: You don’t legitimately love God or neighbors out of fear of wrath (1 John 4:18–20). We love because God first loved us, not because he threatened or scared us into something we call faith.
Did you catch that last paragraph? Fear is not the motive of love. Now I understand the concern for those who twist the definition of love to suit selfish and even sinful desires and acts while not properly appropriating a biblical definition. I get that some have truncated love and reduced it to some type of existential emotion. I’ve heard a number of times that ‘love’ is usually the code word for lax doctrine. In some cases, this is true. But just because some mis-define, undermine or twist what love from a biblical perspective does not mean we can ignore how comprehensively the bible speaks of it, both from God’s character and our commands. There is no need to pit doctrine and sound theology (I prefer consistent theology) against love. If God is love and his acts were motivated by love, then theological articulations simply express a careful reflection on how this is manifested that needn’t rob the full array of attributes.
So I ask again, can we please stop fearing love?
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