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HOW THE INFINITE GOD CARES FOR HIS CHILDREN
By R. C. SPROUL
David C. CookCopyright © 2012 R. C. Sproul
All rights reserved.
GOD IS LOVE
Love. This simple, four-letter word is magical. Its very utterance conjures up a host of images that are as diverse as the tiny colored pieces of glass that are configured into dazzling patterns by a kaleidoscope. By a mere turn of the tube, the glass pieces tumble into new arrangements. But magic depends on illusion for its potency; it has no real power. Likewise the empty word love can never evoke its reality. Indeed, the word staggers before its task of even describing the reality.
What is love? Is it the mystical essence exploited by the likes of Elmer Gantry, when he called it the inspiration of philosophers and the bright and morning star? Is it a warm feeling in the pit of the stomach associated with the sight of a cute puppy? Is it an attitude of acceptance that makes saying "I'm sorry" an unnecessary exercise? Is it a chemical response to the presence of an alluring member of the opposite sex?
If philosophers argue that the word God has suffered the death of a thousand qualifications, how much more must that be said of the word love? The elusive character of love has prompted far more than a thousand definitions. It has been used to describe so many things that its ability to describe a single thing has been sapped. A word that means everything obviously cannot mean anything. So, because the term love has been layered with so many diverse and sentimental associations, do we assume that it has lost all potency for communication and must be discarded to the scrap heap of useless vocabulary? By no means. The term is too rich and its usage so rooted in the history of human discourse that it would be catastrophic to abandon all hope of its reconstruction.
What is needed is the philosophy of the second glance, by which we look closely and carefully once again at what the word love signifies so we can separate the dross from the fine gold of its meaning. We need to distinguish between what love means and what it emphatically does not mean. This requires discerning the authentic from the counterfeit, the true from the false.
The problem we face is exacerbated when we realize that our interest is not limited to defining love in the abstract but defining it specifically as an attribute of God Himself. If we confess that love is an attribute of God, then our understanding of the nature of God is only as accurate as our understanding of the love we are attributing to Him. Neither may we retreat into a cavern of safety by declaring that although love is an attribute of God, it is not an important attribute, and therefore its distortion does no serious harm to our full understanding of God. Though it is a dangerous error to construct a hierarchy of attributes of God, the attribute of love is so important that if we do not get it right, we fail to have a sound understanding of God. Of course, that could also be said of the other attributes of God, such as His omniscience, immutability, infinity, and so on. In a word, all of the attributes of God are important. To say that His attribute of love is no more important than the others is not to say that it is less important or that it is unimportant. The Scriptures so clearly declare the importance of the love of God that to neglect it, negate it, or minimize it in any way would do violence to the sacred text.
To see how seriously the Bible takes the attribute of God's love, we need only to look at John's statement in his first epistle:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. 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. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (4:7–11)
In this text, John made the remarkable assertion that "God is love." We notice immediately that he did not say simply that God is loving or that God loves. Rather, he said that God is love. What are we to make of this?
The word is, which is a form of the verb to be, sometimes forms a tautology. A tautology is the unnecessary repetition of an idea wherein there is nothing in the predicate that is not already present in the subject. For example, we could say, "A bachelor is an unmarried man." (This may also presuppose that the bachelor has never been married in order to distinguish him from a divorced man or from a widower.)
Was John stating the link between his subject, God, and his predicate, love, as an equation or an identification? I think not. If he had meant to declare an equation or identity, he would have said something like this: "God = love." Let us think for a moment about how an equal sign (=) functions in simple arithmetic. If we say that 4 + 3 = 7, we see an equal identity on both sides of the equation. Nothing would be distorted if we reversed the order of the equation so that it read 7 = 4 + 3. Essentially, there is no difference between 7 and 4 + 3. They are identical in numerical value and content.
What would happen if we treated John's declaration in this manner? We could then reverse the subject and the predicate so that we could say either "God is love" or "Love is God." This is dangerous business indeed. If we can reverse the two sides of the equation, we can conclude that love is God. This could legitimize every conceivable heresy, including self-deification. If I have love, I must have God or actually be God. How easily we could move to exalting human eroticism to a divine plane, as indeed has happened with countless religions that have confused sexual pleasure with sacred devotion to God. The phenomenon of sacred prostitution flourished in ancient religions and is still practiced in modern cults. If one can do something in "love," it is blanketed with a divine sanction. It is clear that we do not want to infer from this text that any act of love is a divine act or that anything associated with our understanding of love must be of God.
At the same time, however, we do not want to dismiss lightly the dramatic statement John made in the text. He obviously had something important in mind when, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he penned the words "God is love." At the very least, we conclude that what is being communicated here is that God, in His divine being and character, is so loving that we can say He is love. This would merely indicate emphasis, not necessarily identity.
We also could conclude that John was saying God is the fountain or source of all true love. This approach would be similar to how we would handle Jesus's statement that He is "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). Obviously, when Jesus spoke these words, He did not merely mean that He spoke the truth. Again, we face the question of equation or identity because of Jesus's juxtaposition of the verb to be with the predicate truth. If we reversed these, we would have to conclude that any truth is Jesus. This would mean the word truth means the same thing as the word Jesus. Rather than heading into such a linguistic morass, it is more appropriate to conclude that Jesus is the ultimate source, standard, or fountainhead of truth. This is how the Scriptures frequently speak of the relationship of God to things such as wisdom, beauty, knowledge, and goodness. God is not only wise; He is the ground of wisdom. He is not only beautiful; He is the source and standard of all beauty. He is not merely good; He is the norm of all goodness.
When we apply this manner of speaking to John's declaration that God is love, we see a literary device that points to God as the source, the ground, the norm, and fountainhead of all love. We recall that the biblical context in which John said "God is love" is an exhortation or commandment regarding how we are to behave toward one another. John wrote, "Beloved, let us love one another." This is the imperative before us. When John sought to provide a rationale for this commandment, he added, "For love is of God."
To say that love is of God means that love belongs to or is the possession of God. He possesses it as a property of His divine being, as an attribute. It also means that love is ultimately from God. Wherever love is manifested, it points back to its ground, its owner, and its source, God Himself. Again, this does not mean that all love is God, but it does mean that all genuine love proceeds from God and is rooted in Him.
The love John was describing obviously is not just a generic love. It is a particular kind of love. He spoke of it in restrictive terms. It is restricted to those who are born of God and who know God. He went on to say that the person who does not love in this restrictive sense does not know God and presumably is not born of God.
The restrictive type of love that characterizes God is awakened in those who have been born of God. It is a supernatural gift with a supernatural origin. It is found only in the regenerate, for all who exercise it and only those who exercise it are born of God.
When we consider love as an attribute of God, we recognize that it is defined in relation to all the other attributes of God. This is true not only of love but also of every other attribute of God. It is important to remember that when we speak of the attributes of God, we are speaking of properties that cannot be bifurcated from one another. One of the first affirmations we make about the nature of God is that He is not a composite being. Rather, we confess that God is a simple being. This does not mean that God is "easy" in the sense that a simple task is not a difficult task. Here, simplicity is not contrasted with difficulty but with composition. A being who is composite is made up of definite parts. As a human creature, I am composed of many parts, such as arms, legs, eyes, ears, lungs, etc. But God, as a simple being, is not made up of parts as we are.
This is crucial to any proper understanding of the nature of God. It means God is not partly immutable, partly omniscient, partly omnipotent, or partly infinite. He is not constructed of various segments of being that are assembled together to compose His whole being. It is not so much that God has attributes but that He is His attributes. In simple terms (as distinct from difficult terms), all of God's attributes help define all of His other attributes. For example, when we say God is immutable, we are also saying that His immutability is an eternal immutability, an omnipotent immutability, a holy immutability, a loving immutability, and so on. By the same token, His love is an immutable love, an eternal love, an omnipotent love, a holy love, and so forth.
By remembering that God is a simple being and that He is His attributes, we can resist the temptation of pitting one of God's attributes against another. God does not come to us like a chef who operates a smorgasbord restaurant. We cannot take our plates and help ourselves to only those attributes of God we find tasteful and pass by those attributes we find unpalatable. In practice, this is done every day. It is the basis of idolatry; we first deconstruct God by stripping Him of some of His attributes and then refashion Him into a different God more to our liking. An idol is a false god that serves as a substitute for the real God.
In antiquity and in contemporary primitive societies, we see idolatry practiced in crude forms. The idol maker who fashions a deity out of a block of stone or wood, then addresses it as if it is alive or has the power to do anything may seem somewhat foolish or stupid to us, for we live in more sophisticated times and are not quite as prone to worship the works of our hands in such a crass manner. But we have not yet escaped the propensity to worship idols created by our minds. We must guard against a facile dismissal of the threat of idolatry. We must remember that the proclivity for idolatry is one of the strongest inclinations of our fallen natures.
The Apostle Paul described the universal human need for salvation and spelled out the basis for the universality of human sin in his letter to the Romans:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.
Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. (1:18–25)
Here Paul spoke of the twin sins that are fundamental to fallen human nature: idolatry and ingratitude. By refusing to honor God as God, we substitute an idol for the true God. This is what is meant by exchanging the truth of God for a lie; such an exchange results in serving the creature rather than the Creator.
The need to be vigilant with respect to our natural instincts toward idolatry is especially acute when we are considering the love of God. I doubt there is another attribute of God more fraught with the peril of idolatry than this one. It is the attribute we most often select at our theological smorgasbord.
When I lecture on the holiness of God, the sovereignty of God, the justice of God, or the wrath of God, many times I am interrupted by someone who comments, "But my God is a God of love." I hasten to assure the person that I also believe in a God of love. But I often note in the protest a thinly veiled suggestion that the love of God is somehow incompatible with His holiness, sovereignty, justice, or wrath. These protesters isolate the attribute of love from God's other attributes so that it becomes the only attribute by which God is known. It subsumes or swallows up all of His other attributes.
This is precisely what happens when we conceive of God as a composite being rather than a simple one. We have a structure that allows us to pick and choose attributes, which gives us a license to construct a god who is an idol. If the Bible is our primary source for God's revelation of His nature and character, and it declares that God is holy, sovereign, just, and wrathful, as well as loving, we need to understand the love of God in such a way that it does not negate or swallow up these other attributes.
If we are to avoid a god who is an idol, it is imperative that we not only listen to what Scripture says about all of God's attributes, but also seek to understand each of those attributes in biblical terms. At this point, we encounter perhaps our greatest difficulty concerning the love of God. If we are to accurately understand God's love, then we must listen carefully to how God Himself defines love.
At the beginning of this chapter, I pointed out that our cultural definition of love is colored by a myriad of human feelings, passions, and concerns, which may have nothing to do with how the Bible describes love. Though the secular culture uses the word love just as the Bible does, this by no means indicates that the secular meaning of the term is identical to the biblical meaning. On the contrary, the two meanings are not only often different; they are often antithetical and incompatible.
Though the Bible uses the word love as a noun, it uses the word more often as a verb. That is, the Bible seems to be more concerned about what love does than what love is. In today's secular culture, the opposite is commonly the case. We tend to think of love more as a noun than as a verb. It is more often related to a feeling than an action. Of course, a feeling of affection is integral to the biblical concept of love, but that is not where the New Testament places the accent.
In secular usage, love is also more passive than active. Love is something that happens to us, something over which we have no control. We speak about "falling in love." We equate falling with an accidental action, not with a decision. We fall when we slip or are pushed or otherwise knocked over. The old ballad declared, "I didn't slip, I wasn't pushed, I fell ... in love." Another old standard celebrated the passive power of love with the words "Zing went the strings of my heart." Our heartstrings do not go "zing" because of a conscious decision of the mind to engage in a certain action. This view of love portrays it as a romantic episode that "comes over us" like influenza. It has a magical, romantic power that creates flutters in the heart, trembling in the knees, and flip-flops in the stomach.
Excerpted from GOD'S LOVE by R. C. SPROUL. Copyright © 2012 R. C. Sproul. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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