Honestly . . . how do you react, deep down in your gut, when someone invokes that little quote from John’s first epistle? I believe most thoughtful evangelicals are like me on this, if honest. We have a hard time trusting love, don’t we?
Whenever any kind of apologetic or doctrinal debates turn toward love, don’t we (the theologically “in” crowd) at least internally start rolling our eyes and maybe even squirming. And for us older guard, what leaps to mind immediately is the “L” word (liberal), or from the more recent decade the “P” word (postmodern), or to the latest (and already fading) scapegoat, the “E” word (emergent . . . feel the shudders). When love is appealed to, we basically nod our heads impatiently, and with a wave of the hand dismiss sentimentality as diversion, redirecting thought and word with a simple, but all too telling, “Yes, but . . .”
In our objectively absolute, modernist evangelical’s way-of-the-worldview, love is an excuse for mushy thinking and diluted theology. When it comes down to it, we suspect it’s an attempt to minimize sin and therein God’s wrath and justice. In our guts, we know the guilty are just trying to avoid their rightful come-uppance.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I know whereof I speak—because I’ve been among the greatest of evangelical sinners in this regard . . . for decades. When my atheist friend protests, “You Christians say God is love, but we’re not feeling it from the likes of you,” before the opponent can take another breath, I’m there with, “Yes, but we’re all sinners too; just saved by grace.”
Then there’s that agnostic’s furtive glance from around his newspaper, headlined “Death Toll in the Thousands,” with his particularly bitter quip, “For a God who is so loving and omnipotent, he sure has a knack for inflicting arbitrarily brutal disasters.” And perhaps with not quite so much relish, I’ll still retort, “Yes, but that’s God’s wrath upon fallen, sinful humanity.” At least I avoid tossing out for good measure the exhausted cliché, “Yes God loves sinners, but he so hates sin.”
I’m also finding these days that my rationales are not so quick to the political draw when a homeless mother on the street corner, with her marker-scrawled cardboard sign, fixes her eyes on mine and (without a word) asks, “Why me, and not you?” Or when that middle-aged, unemployed friend sitting next to me in our men’s Bible study, falters in voice mid-prayer-request and awkwardly rolls his glazing eyes away from us. Seems he can’t put into words the hopelessness of this latest installment in eighteen months of rejection. Thankfully I can’t bring myself to “yes-but-provident-God” him.
I am getting better at keeping my “yes buts” to myself . . . on these occasions, at least.
The Good News Must Be Love
So of late I’ve been mulling through some very familiar scriptures, and I believe God’s Spirit has shifted them for me toward a rare certainty in the inescapable and ineffable profundity that God himself is love. By definition—that everything he has been about and is about is uncompromisingly love.
We of all people must not distrust love—we should never find ourselves responding to love with anything less than “yes, absolutely.” So how is a church elder to respond to my friend when she corners him in the back of the sanctuary after service and, in tearful, pleading whispers, once more brings up her alienated lesbian daughter: “Do you think she could come and just be a part of this church?”
Should he simply respond, “Yes, absolutely”? Shouldn’t he rather, in all good evangelical conscience at least qualify, “Yes, but she cannot be a member.” Isn’t it worth the implicit “Yes, I suppose; but she’ll never be accepted as long as she remains . . . you know, in sin”? It must be worth the qualifying of love so that we can be certain at least everyone knows where we stand on absolute truth and justice, mustn’t it? Can we really trust that love is sufficient without performance conditions?
After all, we’ll certainly agree that if there is any core or essence to the Gospel, it is love. But love alone? I’ve found it no small challenge in some of my late musings to convince my evangelical brethren that love is the sole essence of spirituality, of all morality, of holiness—that the Gospel is no less than entirely about it. (Think about it—everything that matters in Christianity: faith, spirituality, morality . . . all are about persons relating to persons with more or less love.)
Sure, we can generally agree that love is the purpose and means by which Christ came into the world, and that it was love’s failing in human terms for which he came to redeem us. We might even agree (at least we should) that sin in its essence is one’s not being in right love relationship with God; and by application, not being loving amounts to sin in all of its various forms toward other people (most of all toward the person of God).
We also must agree (though some of us more begrudgingly) that Jesus insisted no less than love for God and love for one’s neighbor is the sum total and hinge-point for everything else that is the biblical “law” (modernist evangelicals, read “theology” and “doctrine”). Love is the significance of the faith that was counted as righteousness unto Abraham and all other patriarchs. Their faith was the measure of their love for the one true God. And no less than love is the essence of the Old Testament Wisdom Literature’s “fear of the Lord” mantra.
It is even at the heart of “God’s wrath.”
To deny the centrality and primacy of love is to deny the New Testament Gospel as well. What’s more, to distrust love is to distrust the Gospel. That’s because the Gospel is all about God’s love, our inability to love (sin), and God’s sacrificial remedy (love incarnate). All we must do is believe in his means of redemptive love (Jesus Christ and his Gospel story) and respond in kind.
Sin + Wrath = God’s Love
But we evangelicals know this like the back of our collective hand—that’s the problem. We need to be reminded (constantly) that Christ himself came because God “so loved,” so that humanity could respond to God’s love with love for him.
I think, though, if we can be even a little more honest with ourselves, the need for reminding is more than passive negligence or distraction—there’s an “aggressive” to that passivity. For example, if we can just set aside the vitriol over concerns for strains of universalism, we should really have to admit it is hard and even bitter irony that anything labeled “love wins” could create such a tightening of the Evangelical gut, rather than a rousing “Amen!” I think many of us would even have to admit that deep down, we elder-brothers-to-the-prodigal are afraid the likes of those questioning hell are going to let sinners off too easily (as if God doesn’t).
“But” (there it is!), chime in the theologically shrewd, “what of God’s propitiation?” And I agree—to refuse salvation is to deny propitiation and remain in God’s wrath.
But what requires appeasement? There’s the rub.
Isn’t it, necessarily first and foremost, the original sin, which has been passed on down from generation to generation? And isn’t the essence of Adam’s and Eve’s first sin-act the very same state we’re all born into: God’s love estranged, distrusted, and then unrequited by disobedience? This is the state of every unbeliever’s existence: we all are born into “God’s wrath” because we are from without in respect to his love. To be sure, with our inherited state of both original human sin and God’s wrath, come all of the inevitable, unlovely, unloving consequences known as sins, from generation to generation. But it’s our corporate original sin—humanity’s great divorce from God—that occasions the need for God’s appeasement.
So naturally (literally), the unbeliever who remains in God’s wrath has chosen to remain in that general condition of humanity that is itself the byproduct of estrangement from God’s love. Being “in sin” is being in the state of God’s wrath—the just and only logical alternative to being in his love (as darkness is simply the state of being without light). Likewise, God’s justice is meaningful only in terms of his love—it is the fulfillment and consequence of God’s love (hell included).
This is why the only remedy to being without, with respect to God’s love, is . . . to be in it (that is, “grace”: God’s unconditionally unearned love).
So how else should that evangelical elder welcome the daughter, who is all-too-familiar-thank-you with the common wisdom of (and religion’s zeal for) God’s wrath? How other than with, “Yes, absolutely she is welcome! She would be so loved here. I guarantee she will be unconditionally accepted by this local body of Christ.”
And what’s more, imagine he could be just that confident, without even a thought or motive toward “but.”
Taste and See Some Familiar Scriptures
Here compiled are a few familiar biblical reminders for why love must necessarily be the foundation and premise of everything authentically Christian:
1. God preemptively loved the world. It’s so familiar, we can easily miss the profound implications, particularly with respect to those “wicked” who are under God’s wrath: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). God has loved, from Adam and Eve to this present day, all of us wicked who have been and will yet be in his wrath—the wrath from which he would yet save (still future tense when Jesus spoke these words into time). In the very context of an Adam-and-Eve-fallen world, God so loved it.
After all, God has always been in love with the yet-sinners: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him” (Rom. 5:8-9). Interesting, isn’t it, how God’s justice and wrath must be described in the context of his love? God’s wrath is not an exception or counterpart to his love—if anything, it is a consequence of it.
2. In no uncertain terms, God the Son affirmed what even the Pharisees knew to be the foundational, preeminent law of the entirety of Scriptures—love. It’s the same significance as what James affirms to be the “Royal Law” (2:8). Unequivocally, the entirety of the Bible’s good news message is love (Matt. 22:34-40; see also Mark 12:28-34). In fact, as Paul echoes in his letter to the Galatians, the whole of Scriptures can be summed up in that single word: “Through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (5:13-14).
3. Significantly, per John’s first epistle, without love one cannot make a legitimate claim to the Gospel, or even its application to his or her own salvation. One has to question salvation itself if he or she would deny love as God’s motive or (more concerning) refuse to be about loving neighbors (1 John 4:7-9).
4. This is so much the case, that God’s response to his own wrath, in the form of his “propitiation,” is itself motivated by and all about his love (vv. 10-12). God’s wrath and propitiation 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 Father God.) John is clear on this—you don’t legitimately love neighbors or God out of fear of his wrath (vv. 18-20).
So in love, God preemptively provided propitiation (no alliteration particularly intended). And the only response he requires is that we return to him the love for which we were created in the first place. That is the glory of God for which we were created, and that is very good news.
Putting Away Childish (Unloving) Things
One cannot discuss the preeminence of love without at least citing 1 Corinthians 13. But it has struck me recently how rare it is that I hear verses 11-13 (the “put away childish things” reference) cited in the context that Paul intended. Love’s preeminence is actually what God inspired Paul to represent as the measure and mark of Christian maturity. Childish religion is about mere performance of good works, sin management, protectionism, and fear. The Christian who would be in right relationship with God will put away such immature and inadequate motives, because from beginning to end, faith and hope are all about love (vv. 11-13).
So when next challenged to sum up the Good News of Jesus Christ, how much will we really believe (without qualification or caveat) that it must amount to very little more than this? God loves you so much that he [his Son] died and resurrected for you, enabling you to accept and requite his love, and in turn love those he puts in your proximity.
Still, many of my evangelical brethren will protest, “I agree that love was the motivating factor and that the cross is the ultimate display of love. But . . . that being said, the good news is only ‘good’ to those in a bad situation, else it would just be ‘news,’ not ‘good news.’ So what is the bad news, according to Scriptures? And should the bad news be acknowledged within the presentation of the good news?”
I know this protest first hand; and I also know that in my case, honestly, I was protesting way too much. I’ve since come to know that sin too must be understood in terms of love. So even the bad news is that people are not in love with God (i.e., original sin), and they accordingly act out unlovingly (personal sin) against God and other people.
See, even the bad news can only be understood and framed in the context of good news of God’s love. Sin is meaningless without love (not the reverse).
Likewise my sense of justice is meaningless without love. To the homeless mother’s unspoken, “Why not you,” I dare not look away and don my default theological and political postures—could I just bring myself to engage her gaze and somehow respond in so many words (if any), I don’t know, and even, What do you need? Or to my unemployed friend’s ashamed glancing off, can I for once keep my Eliphaz mouth shut and simply touch him . . . put my hand on his shoulder, and just affirm either by word or deed, This is just so wrong, or, You do not deserve this. (Or must I one more time opine in thought, “Rabbi, who sinned—this man or his parents, that he should be unemployed?”)
Because love is not rude—it cannot roll its eyes up against hers, which accuse from the street corner. Neither is it self-seeking, rationalizing away the dreadful implications of the unemployed not somehow deserving this. Love keeps no record of wrongs, even of daughters unrepentantly the objects of God’s wrath, “living in sin.” And love never (ever) delights in any of their come-uppance (never, “God, I thank you that I am not like [these] other people”).
The more I realize it is all about love, the more I grow in authentic faith, putting away childish rationalizations and hyperboles of justice, wrath, guilt, and fear. There is no counterpoint or equal in God’s economy to love. Everything that is truth comes down to love and is measured by it—everything! There is not a single piece of Scripture that should be understood without the context of God’s love.
It should sadden us deeply that we evangelicals can be so prone to distrust love—to always be responding (in effect), “Well yes, love; but . . .”
If Christianity is not all about love, it is nothing other than one more impotently human religious construct—a loud and annoyingly clanging cymbal. For grown-up Christian thinking, there can be no alternative. There is no “but” to God’s love.