Love Explored – Part 4: The Last Battle of Love’s War
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 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.”
– 1 John 4:7-10
Where We’ve Been
Our cursory exploration into the nature of love as a window into the nature of God now moves into its final verse. In verse 10, John drills down into what he has already said about the nature of love in verse 9, so before we move on, let me briefly summarize what we saw last time.
In verse 9 John explains in what way the love of God was climatically manifested to creation, namely, in the outpouring of Himself in the Son to the end that we might know God in Christ and so live. The love of God gives God in full that we might know God, or said again: God made known through God outpoured is the Love of God to those who are not God. God Himself given in the Son and outpoured on the cross is the act of love and by perceiving this act, God is made known to us, which is the fruit of love. This understanding of love carries dual implications for us.
First, John has already told us that “God is love.” This doesn’t mean that God conforms to some standard outside of Himself called “love.” Rather, it means that the thing called “love” is only a manifestation of Who God Is. When we discern “love” it is—though perhaps severely distorted almost beyond recognition—an echo of the Trinitarian melody that is the life of God. With this in mind, John’s initial definition of love as “God made known through God outpoured” helps us not just to understand love, but also to understand God. The outpouring of Himself in love to the beloved must be a central element of what makes God God…and yet, how can the giving of Himself be essential to God’s nature (and thus essential to His “completeness”) if He needs no other being in order to be complete?
The answer is, of course, found in the fact that God is Triune; One God in Three Persons. Only the Trinitarian God of scripture can be love in the sense that John defines it here because only a Triune God can eternally pour Himself out in love to Himself all while remaining contained within Himself. John’s explanation of love pushes us to think of God as Father, Son, and Spirit and reminds us that a Monad god like Allah cannot be love in his own nature. Only the God who has eternally known the communion of love within Himself can be love and so manifest love to His creatures. There is much more we could say on these things, but this post is not the place. Perhaps in the future.
The second implication of John’s definition of love is that true love always involves the giving of self and always results—immediately or eventually—in the communication of Who God Is. This means that an act of “love” that opposes the nature of God or transgresses His revealed will or belittles the supremacy of His Name, is not and cannot be love. Love will always align with Who God Is, and not just who we think He is, but who He has revealed Himself to be in His word. I will leave you to work through the further implications of this truth, suffice to say that—when run through this sieve—much of what our culture labels as “love” is revealed to be a mannequin-like impersonation of the reality.
So, in verse 9, John uses a broad brush stroke to paint the contours of God’s love for us. Now in verse 10 He takes out His inking pen and fill in some of the details.
In This Is Love
“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”
Verse 9 explains to us in what way the love of God was made manifest among us (by God sending His Son so that we might know God), but verse 10 gets more specific and tells us that “in this is love…” We have been circling around the center for a few verses now and we’ve finally come to it. With his next few words, the apostle John is going to draw back the veil, as it were, and lead us by the hand into the white hot core of love, the inner sanctum of God’s own heart. And as we begin our final ascent, what do we see?
First, we see that the wellspring of love is with GOD and not HUMANITY. John says in this is love, he does not qualify it by saying, “in this is the love of God.” He simply says “in this is love”. However, he follows that up by saying, “not that we have loved God, but that He loved us.” In other words, the essence of love within the sphere of creation—all love, not just “God’s love for us,” but love itself—is found in God loving us. Love originates in the divine heart. It enters creation from outside, just as the water in a valley has its origins in a mountain spring. Love is “supra-creational.”
Second, notice that love is something that initially travels from God to humanity. In order for true and eternal love to be known or shown by a human, they must first receive what God gives. We are the submissive and receptive party in this most foundational of love relationships; we do not do, earn, prove, or give, rather we receive what is done for and given to us.
These first two points reiterate and solidify points that John has already made, namely that love necessarily originates in God and is received by humanity. Having established the “origin question,” John now pushes into the very center. We are about to see the essence of love in its unveiled glory: “fiery, sharp, bright and ruthless, ready to kill, ready to die, outspeeding light…” And so we turn to Calvary.
The Center of Love
God sent His Son….again, as in verse 9, we see that out-pouring of self (God gives Himself in the Son) is essential to the nature of love. Recall that verse 9 said this self-giving was “so that we might live through Him.” In the previous blog post, I argued that when John says that Jesus was sent “so that we might live,” he is talking about eternal life, and that eternal life—for John—is knowing God in His Son (John 17:3). So, what we said concerning verse 9 is that the self-giving of God in the Son communicated Who God Is to the world and so granted eternal life to all who would see and believe. Verse 9 tells us that God’s love is made manifest through God’s self-giving in His Son (initially in the incarnation and climactically at the cross) which makes God known and so gives life.
But now in verse 10, though the beginning is parallel to verse 9 (“sent His Son…”), the second part—where we would expect to read, “so that we might live,” or “so that we might know God”—is startlingly different. Since verse 10 is taking us into the heart of love, it doesn’t focus on the results of God’s love but on the root and essence of it. In this is love. In this we are given eternal life. In this the God—who is love—is made known to us….
“[God] sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
Love at War
A helpful way to understand the word “propitiation” is as a wrath absorbing sacrifice. Consider what that means for our understanding of love and the God of love…In this the white-hot center of Love is revealed within the sphere of creation, in this: God gave His Son as the wrath absorbing sacrifice for our sins. Often times people will try to pit the wrath of God (His holy anger against sin) against the love of God…but 1 John 4:10 teaches us that attempting to create a tension between wrath and love is nonsensical; wrath is at the very heart of love’s revelation within created reality.
Remember that, from all eternity, God is Love. Without beginning or end, the Father Son and Spirit have rejoiced in an unbroken communion of love. However, with the creation of “Not-God” (i.e., created reality) eventually came opposition to God (i.e., sin), and God’s response to sin (i.e., wrath). Wrath is simply “love at war for the beloved,” and since God’s beloved is—ultimately—Himself, His Intra-Trinitarian love moves Him to wage immaculate war against all that opposes Him.
Holding our hands near a fire will comfort us, but plunging them in will burn us, swallowing a mouthful of water will quench our thirst but swallowing a river full will drowned us; similarly, the love of God will turn to wrath if we oppose the God who is Himself Lover, Beloved and Love. If someone argues for a wrathless God, they will eventually find themselves with a loveless God….a distant, unengaged, null entity.
However, the cross of Christ is the zenith of love not just because it reveals God’s love at war on sin, but because, at Calvary, we see Love Himself bring this war to its final, bloody, terrible and beautiful end. In the flesh and soul of God Incarnate infinite love surrendered swallows infinite love offended. The fullness of Who God Is descends in the Father’s love-war against human sin even as the fullness of Who God Is ascends in the Son’s love-death, absorbing both sin and war into Himself, while the fullness of Who God Is binds Father and Son in unbroken love-union through the Spirit.
The war is over, Love has indeed won. But Love wins not because wrath doesn’t exist, Love wins because the wrath that is God’s love at war for the Beloved (God Himself) is satisfied in the death that is God’s love giving itself for the Beloved (both Father/God, and the Bride/Church). And while it may seem that the cross pits love against itself, it must be remembered that the swallowing up of Love (The Father’s wrath) by Love (The Son’s death) that happens at the cross is itself a manifestation of the bond of Love between Father and Son—who is, I would argue, the Spirit. The highest, deepest, fullest revelation of Love within the sphere of creation comes to us at the cross of Jesus Christ, where Love’s sovereign war against sin is embraced and exhausted by Love’s obedient death in the place of sinners.
Two Brief Implications
There is so much to say about these things! However, I will leave you with just two more implications to ponder.
First, as was mentioned above—within fallen creation—wrath is at the center of Love’s self-revelation. This is because sin is an affront against God’s infinitely beloved One: Himself! Therefore, if the God who is love is to reveal His love to those who have declared war against His beloved, it will be revealed in wrath. If God had no wrath against sin then He would have no love for Himself and so no love for anyone else….if we deny wrath we eviscerate love.
But the revelation of God’s love does not come via wrath only. God’s love also seeks to draw us in, to make us—as it were—His Beloved, to unite us to Himself (without our ever becoming God!). And He does this in His Son. At the cross we are counted both God’s enemy and God’s beloved. He treats us as the enemy of His Beloved by crushing His Son in our place, and He treats us as His Beloved by pouring Himself out in love to us through Christ.
Second, the cross teaches us that love—contra the present western culture—is not simple acceptance. Oh yes, love draws all, even the least deserving, to itself (see how God has made us His children!) but at the same time it abhors all that opposes God. As Paul says in Romans 12:9, genuine love abhors evil and clings to good. Evil is unlike-God-ness and Good is Like-God-ness. This means the true love will not affirm unlike-God-ness in the beloved. Rather it will, in varying degrees of gentleness and severity, make humble war against what opposes God in the other. But let it be said that the primary “beloved” whom we must search for unlike-God-ness and against whose sin we are to war is ourselves. The cross teaches us that—even while love is ready to die for all—it does not affirm all. In the climactic revelation of love on Calvary, the lowest and most ill-deserving are welcomed into the heart of God Himself even as their God-opposing nature is damned in the death of the Son. True love seeks to align itself and the beloved to the Wellspring of Love: The Triune God Himself.
All this brief 4 part study has done is to press a bit into the surface tension (not breaking through it) on the ocean that is the love of God…there are so many more questions to pursue even from the few issues that we’ve addressed, but I hope that some of these musings will be fuel for your own thought on the subject. And I hope that both you and I will—by grace—continue to search God’s heart in His Word, and to know more of Him in His Son, and to see the Beauty of His Love in the unveiled face of the Lord, and so be transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to the next.
 Lewis, Clive Staples. That Hideous Strength. Scribner, 1996. 320