To us it is almost a commonplace. But to the times in which it was first spoken and to the people who first heard the words, it was the most astounding, the most startling revelation that had ever fallen upon human ears. In a way I could wish that somehow we might be plunged back into that heathen era so that we, ourselves, might hear those words for the first time – those words which we take so much for granted that their meaning for the most part eludes us entirely; that we might hear them in their pristine freshness when first they fell upon this earth – “GOD IS LOVE!”
It is helpful to understand how men viewed their God; the way in which they conceived of Him who created them. Would that we could go back to those ancient days in India or China or Japan and see the hideous idols with their grimacing countenances, their devouring teeth, their many arms and sharp claws, something of the devouring, hateful nature of their deities – or go back to the cruel Assyrians or Babylonians or Egyptians and the monstrosities, the tyrannies, which they worshipped as gods.
If you will examine the ancient pagan literature, you will find the concept of a loving God was alien to people. We take that so much for granted. Why, of course, God loves us! I want you to know that until Jesus came, people did not know that. They knew God according to superstition, or after the law. They knew that God was angry with people. God punished people. God woke up and threw thunderbolts at people. But that God loved them? God would accept their sacrifices. God would even put up with them, and they would propitiate Him and appease Him (or so they thought!), but they did not love God. But now our relationship with God is one of a Father infinitely loving a son. You can see this, for example, in one of the famous Confucian stories that our missionaries discovered when they got to China. It is a story about a young man of a wealthy father, who one day stole a large portion of his father’s wealth and ran away from home. He took that money and wasted it in riotous living. The years passed, and finally it was all gone, and he came into destitution. Finally, through an intermediary, he appealed to his father to take him back again. With open arms, his father accepted him back into the home and prepared for him a great feast. Does this sound familiar? As they sat feasting together, all eyes were fixed upon the son. There was a big smile beaming on the face of the father, which broadened, as a look of horror suddenly spread across the countenance of the son. He grasped at his throat, finally realizing too late that he had been poisoned! And Confucius says, “So it shall be with every son that dishonors his Father.” How infinite is the gap between that and the story Jesus told of the prodigal son! Jesus came to reveal the FATHER’S LOVE.
The Greeks had a little different conception. They viewed God in terms of beauty or truth as revealed in their architecture or sculpture or their philosophy. The Romans who were led in a thousand battles by the Caesars, had become convinced that the Roman eagle never turned backward. They conceived of their god in terms of might and strength. God was might! Even the Jews, as they looked back to the time of Moses when God descended upon Sinai and caused the mountain to quake and poured out upon them His law, conceived of God, basically, as the great Lawgiver and Judge.
It waited for the apostle John – that one who had leaned his head upon the breast of Jesus, that one who had stood before the cross to drop those words which no man had ever dared to dream before. These words were the most startling revelation when they were first spoken – “GOD IS LOVE!” We all know that, you say! Do we indeed? It is my deep conviction that for most of us the words are so trite that we haven’t the faintest conception of what they mean, nor have they ever begun to grasp our hearts as they should.
Since it is an everlasting truth that men become like the god they worship, so this revelation, the unveiling of the face of the Father in heaven in the person of Jesus Christ, has done more to soften and conquer the hearts of mankind than anything that man has ever discovered. It has brought more love and more genuine progress to civilization than anything else. Without it we might still be as the Assyrians who worshipped cruel and merciless gods and, therefore, when they descended upon their foes they placed thousands of sharpened stakes in the ground, picked up their adversaries and left them impaled to die an agonizing death. Those they did not impale they flayed alive and covered the walls of their captured towns with the skins of their victims because that was the kind of god they worshiped.
But have we really made that much progress? The same beloved John who wrote so extensively of God’s marvelous love left us this solemn warning, “Little children, keep yourselves from IDOLS (that is, false gods, or false ideas and representations of the true God)” (I Jn. 5:21). Do we have false ideas about God? I fear we do. We say that God is all-wise, all-knowing, and all-powerful, and then turn around and deny it. We say that God “so loved the world” and that Jesus is “the Saviour of the world” and then turn around and say that only a few will be saved while God sends the vast majority to suffer the excruciating pains of fire and brimstone for all eternity without His feeling any concern for their suffering – without mercy! We say that God is all-powerful, and then turn around and say that God has “provided” salvation for all men, that God is “trying” to save the world, that God is “pleading” with men to repent, but the devil who blinds and possesses men’s souls is so much more powerful than God that he will carry captive into eternal hell countless billions of men for whom Christ died!
Also, folk who claim that they are true to the Bible say that God the Creator and God the Redeemer are the very same God, but they deny it in their attitude toward the question of the salvation of all men. As Dr. Hurley has written, “They have an infinite Creator, but a very little Redeemer. Their Christ is a comparatively helpless and puny Saviour who is going to lose most of those for whom He died. He can pay the price for the sins of the whole world, but the stubborn will of man makes it ineffective. Man’s will is mightier than God’s will. God is infinite to create, powerless to redeem! But either God is all-powerful, or He is not. Either God is all-wise, or He is not. Either God is all-loving, or He is not. Either God’s will is sovereign, or it is not. Either God’s grace is infinite, or it is not. Isn’t it time for the Church of Christ to decide one way or the other, and then make her theology fit her expressed faith?” -end quote.
“Little children, keep yourselves from false ideas of God!” False ideas about God. How the world and the Church are filled with them! Many people view God as a schoolboy did: “…the sort of person who is always snooping around to see if anyone is enjoying himself and then trying to stop it.” Then others make God out to be a tyrant, or a vengeful, wrath-filled FIEND. The Riverside Daily Press had an Associated Press report from San Francisco as follows: ” ‘A Father’s Curse’ was the legacy left by Dennis Donohue III, fifty-four, member of a well known family here, to his two daughters by a former wife, in a will filed for probate in Superior Court. ‘And to my two daughters, Frances Marie and Denise Victoria Donohue,’ he wrote in his own hand, ‘by virtue of their unfeeling attitude toward a doting father, and because they have repeatedly thwarted my efforts to see them, I leave the sum of one dollar to each and a father’s curse. May their respective lives be fraught with misery, unhappiness and poignant sorrow. May their deaths be soon and of a lingering, malign, and torturous nature. May their souls rest in hell and suffer the torments of the damned for eternity.’ ” I am sure that my readers agree with me that such an attitude is not that of a true father; it is only that of a fiend. But what may not be clear to all is that, in this respect, he is a perfect example of the God of popular theology! Because His children were unfeeling He consigns them to the torment of hell fire for ever! We loathe such a character when we see it in a mere mortal, but justify it as the character of our God who IS LOVE!
But the Bible knows of no such God. No more terrible insult was ever given to the God of all grace who came in Jesus Christ reconciling THE WORLD unto Himself. This story is told about a little girl. After she had heard her father preach a sermon on the awful wrath of God, and that the unsaved would go to a red hot, sizzling, burning hell the moment they died, and that they would twist in agony and torment forever, without mercy, this little girl said, “I wish Jesus were as good and kind as my father.” God does bring judgment upon sinners – swift, strong, effective, coffective judgment – but never meaningless, sadistic torture.
Do you know what God wants more than anything else? “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; who WILL HAVE ALL MEN TO BE SAVED, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:3-4). His mercy runs so deep that He sent Jesus as the Redeemer of the race, and has mapped out a beautiful and comprehensive “Plan of the Ages” in which to reconcile all things unto Himself. He has revealed that His tender mercies are over all His works; that He hates nothing that He has made; that it was all made for His pleasure; that He is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil; and that He has provided a way that even the banished may return to Him — self-banished though they may be by sin. This unquenchable and eternal love of God our Father for all His creation is the great center of all Christ’s teaching. He said, “For GOD SO LOVED the world…” He said, “I say not unto you that I will pray the Father for you; for the Father Himself loves you.” He is not pleading with the Father to love us or any man in the world, for He came from that Father with the Gospel, with the glad tidings of the Father’s love; that He so loved the world that He sent His son into it, not to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. What compassion! What wisdom! What love! What a God!
“He that loves not knows not God; for God is love. And we have known and believed the love that God has to us. God is love; and he that dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him” (I Jn. 4:8, 16). Charles H. Pridgeon wrote, “When Edgerton Young, a successful missionary in Northwestern British America, taught some of the Indians to read by the simple syllabic characters, he wrote on the rock for them to read the words, ‘God is Love.’ One old Indian chief looked and pronounced the characters, and as soon as he uttered them he caught their import. He arose to his great height and said, rubbing his eyes, ‘Has there been sand in my eyes all these years? I have seen the Great Spirit in the lightening, I have heard Him in the thunder, but I never knew till now that GOD IS LOVE.’ How many have really learned this truth?” -end quote. You see the old Indian chief knew something of the attributes and greatness of God, but he had never KNOWN WHAT GOD I-S.
Would that my tongue were eloquent enough to explain it, or that my mind were great enough to comprehend it. But neither is sufficient. I would ask that you join me as we descend into the great wealth of the glittering mine of God’s attributes. As we look into this mine we find that it is scattered everywhere with precious jewels of the attributes of God that glitter and scintillate in the light that comes in behind us. Pick up one and examine it and perhaps you shall see something more of the greatness of God. Pick up the jewel of God’s power and look at that. As you look into that gem you see omnipotence beyond comprehension – God speaks, and the universe leaps out of nothing into existence! God thinks, and vast myriads of beings spring into being to sing His praises! By a thought He creates; by a thought He could think them into nothingness and they would disappear as the foam on the ocean wave sinks back into the sea as if it had never existed at all. Our mightiest telescopes through which our astronomers gaze cannot begin to pierce the length and breadth of this universe which God in His omnipotent power has created. We cannot in our finite minds begin to comprehend the power of Him who can create the Milky Way or even the solar system we know. And yet, as limitless and infinite as the power and omnipotence of God is, even so limitless is HIS LOVE. It is without measure and without boundary. It is absolutely illimitable. You might as well try to drink up the ocean until it is dry as to ever exhaust the infinite love of God who sent Jesus to be the Saviour of the world.
Or consider God’s wisdom. Pick up that jewel and gaze into its many glittering facets and you will behold something that will benumb your mind. God who knows all things that ever were, are, or ever shall be, is a God whose omniscience enables Him to comprehend not only what is, was, or shall be, but even contingent things: what might have been under all possible circumstances. There is nothing that escapes His mind. We are told that there are birds that fly high in the sky, who have not only microscopic but telescopic vision, and yet they are gropingly blind compared to the eye of God who sees all things; who sees the flashing neurons in your brain as the thoughts flash through your mind; who knows everything about you. And yet, as vast and incomprehensible as the wisdom and omniscience of God is, even so vast and incomprehensible is HIS LOVE through which He reconciles us to God!
When we speak of God’s attributes we may say, and many do, that God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. This is a very beautiful definition; but it largely defines only God’s attributes, whereas the text, “God is Love,” tells us WHAT HE HIMSELF IS. This text reveals His nature, His state of being. For instance, in speaking of justice, we know that God has justice as one of His attributes, but He is not justice; God IS love. This fact gives us a revelation of GOD’S VERY NATURE.
This brings us face to face with the great central message of the Bible which is a message of love. We need to remember that the Personage about whom the Bible is written IS LOVE – a Being whose very nature is love. In our day that is something that can become distorted because we live in an age of distortion; we live in a time when even the truth of anything, whether it be the nature of God or the nature of human sexuality, is distorted and perverted. The fact that God is love is perverted into some sort of a mish-mash that God is a wishy-washy old grandfather who would never punish his grandchildren lest they stop coming to see him. We have met some brethren in this end-time move of the Spirit who have exaggerated the bright side of the love of God out of all proportion to its other aspects. The love of God has been presented in such a way that it is a weakness rather than a strength. It has been presented on the sunny side of the street with nothing on the other side ever mentioned. There is a “love” of God preached that sounds to me like the doting indulgence of rather senile grandparents instead of the vital and vigorous concern of a Father for the best interests of a son. They have used the old shopworn cliché “God is love, God is love, God is love” until love has become such a one-sided, mushy, gooey, syrup-sweet thing, and they have not told about the dark side of the love of God: “Whom the Lord loves, He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives” (Heb. 12:6). They have watered love down, making it sickening rather than stimulating, causing it to slop over on every side like a sentimental feeling rather than an abiding concern for the object of love. Some have no concern at all, they have settled into a drowsy complacency, into a do-nothing, don’t-care disposition, for, they say, “Everything will turn out alright in the end, anyhow!” They have no passion for lost souls anymore, they have thrown judgment and hell out the window, and would not lift a finger to warn any man to flee from the wrath to come. Sometimes where we would endeavor to teach the whole truth of God, we might lean so far to the other side of the boat to balance it, that again the truth might be lost. The balance in the love of God was summed up by the sweet singer of Israel thus: “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Ps. 85:10).
In the conception of God that we have found and created in our own mind, if anything other than love is paramount, we have a distortion and an idol of the mind. If we have a concept where the justice of God becomes greater than His love, a concept where the omnipotence of God overrules His love, where the sovereignty of God outshines His love, and the omniscience of God puts His love into the shadows, then we have a false concept of God. For we have been told by one who knows, that God IS LOVE! That does not mean that He is not just, righteous, sovereign and wise, but all these are rooted in the fact that He is preeminently THE LOVING CREATOR AND REDEEMER OF THIS WORLD!
A famous preacher of yesteryear related the following story. “I was visiting one day with a religiously divided family. The wife was a devout Christian; the husband, a hard, rancorous unbeliever. He was hardly courteous to me. Why should he be? As a minister of the Word of God I was in his eyes little better than a fool. When the evening paper came, he grasped it eagerly as a fortunate escape from what he considered a boring conversation. I had been talking with his wife about the marvelous love of God. Suddenly he threw the paper in front of me. ‘Look!’ he shouted, pointing to the headlines – THOUSANDS ARE SLAUGHTERED IN BIG PUSH – ‘how can you say that God is. love? Nonsense! If He were alive and loving as you say, would He not stop it all?’ His question was put very sharply, but it was not new. It was as old as the race” -end quote.
Any thinking mind will be quick to consent that the problem in the world today is not with God – it’s with MAN! The vast majority of the pain, sorrow, suffering, cruelty, heartache, war, bloodshed and despair in the world today really reveals nothing at all about the nature of God it merely points out the barbarity, selfishness, ruthlessness, brutishness, and savageness of MAN! It is MAN who wars, lies, exploits, divorces, deserts, deceives, cheats, ignores, intimidates, does drugs, steals, murders, and breaks the hearts and destroys the lives of those about him. Not GOD!
Why should men doubt the love of God? How dare they place a question mark after His beneficence? What reasoning has brought them to this fearful interrogation? Betimes their doubts have arisen because they have listened to the ambiguous oracles of nature, rather than the revelation of God in Christ Jesus. Nature impresses men with the awful mystery, power and wisdom of God. The storm with its jagged lightenings and rolling thunders, the proud mountains with their dizzy heights mantled in snow, the heaving bosom of the ocean with its foam-crested waves, yes, and the tiny violet on the hillside – these eloquently proclaim a God of infinite power, wisdom and riches; but they do not convince the unconverted heart of God’s infinite love. The forces in nature that sometimes work for our good often turn about and seem to work for our ruin and destruction. The sunlight that warms our fields to produce the golden harvests also beats down unmercifully upon the earth and produces a dust bowl making thousands homeless and hungry. The warm rains that help to germinate the seed that has been sown sometimes come in ruinous abundance, producing floods in whose wake are destruction, disease, despair and death. How apparently contradictory! Possibly in the midst of some tragedy you, too, are asking the question, “Is God loving?” “Why does God permit war?” you ask. “If He is a loving God, why does He permit the roar of bombers and the barking of guns to silence the joyous laughter of innocent children? If God is a God of love, yes, why does He not stop it all?”
We do not have the answer to many of the dark questions of life, for our vision is so limited, and unlike God, we cannot see the end from the beginning. Ah! If only we could see the end – God’s glorious end, THEN we would understand all the “whys” and “wherefores” and how even all of these things WORKED TOGETHER FOR OUR GOOD. We do not have the answer to many of the dark questions of life because we cannot fully understand the wonderful interplay of God’s justice, chastisement and mercy. We only know that man has sinned, the whole planet is in rebellion, mankind continually rejects the ways of the Lord and spurns the love of God, and sin takes its awful toll, and all of nature is thrown into chaos in the process. The ambiguous testimony of nature alone cannot supply you with an adequate answer. Only those elect saints who are spiritually enlightened can discern the love of God, even in the adverse and fearful demonstrations of nature, and in the terrible judgment that stalks through the earth. Ah, let us turn from these oracles with their double answers and turn to a LIVING DEMONSTRATION of the loving nature of God – a demonstration that all the ages have not been able to contradict, namely, the great fact of the Incarnation, the deathless, eternally glorious fact that “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:16).
From childhood most of us have heard these blessed words, yet they are so freighted with heaven’s riches that one instinctively shrinks from talking about them. Who presumes to be able to measure the magnitude of God’s love? “God so loved the world.” Charles Spurgeon once struck off a bold figure when he exclaimed, “Come, you surveyors, bring your chains, and try to make a survey of this word so. Nay, that is not enough. Come hither, you that make our national surveys and lay down charts for all nations. Come you, who map the sea and land and make a chart of this word so. Nay, I must go further. Come hither, you astronomers, that with your optic glasses spy out spaces before which your imagination staggers, come hither and calculate imaginations worthy of all your powers. When you have measured between the horns of space, here is a task that will defy you – ‘God so loved the world!’ ” Although we may completely despair of calculating the love of God, there are nevertheless in these classic words of Jesus some very clear statements that help us compute, to some extent, the greatness of the heart of God. This little word so finds its definition, I think, in the object and the gift of God’s love.
God loved “THE WORLD” – the world that then was and now is, the world rebellious against God, morally depraved and lost in degradation and shame. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and send His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him” (I Jn. 4:9-10). You see, it was while we were dead in trespasses and sin, while we made no response to God, while friendship with Him was cut off and the urge of faithfulness and goodness lay smoldering in the grave of our depravity – it was then that the love of God’s great heart embraced us. God so loved the world – that means His love sweeps around the whole earth and flows out to men of every race and tongue and nation; but it means more. It means He loves the men and women of the world who by their own evil have wrenched themselves away from Him. It means that He loves the blaspheming atheist, the scornful skeptic, the lecherous outcast, the criminal behind the bars, the grafter who swaggers about as a good citizen and the unscrupulous leeches who drain the very lifeblood of widows and orphans. God so loved THE WORLD. ALL of it! And He loves it still. He loves the men living now upon the earth, and He loves those who have lived and died in dim and distant ages past. He loves them on earth and He loves them in hell. God so loved! Herein is manifested the love of God: He loves the unlovely, the unloving, and the humanly unlovable! Let holy and powerful angels from the extended galleries of heaven sing it! Let the redeemed in rapturous wonder take up the song and let sinners fall prostrate in penitence before the almighty Creator and Redeemer!” God IS LOVE!” Do you believe it?
Love has been described as AN ETERNAL WILL TO ALL GOODNESS. This is THE ONE ETERNAL, IMMUTABLE GOD that, from eternity to eternity, changes not, that can be neither more nor less, but an ETERNAL WILL TO ALL GOODNESS that is in Himself and come from Him, so that as certainly as He is Creator, so certainly is He the blesser of every created thing, and can give nothing but blessings, goodness, and holiness from Himself, because He has in Himself nothing else to give. The judgments of God can never be rightly understood apart from His nature of love. If God’s judgments spring not from His love then they come not from God at all, for He IS LOVE. What ought this to teach us about His judgments! The pen of inspiration wrote, “My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when you are rebuked of Him: for whom the Lord LOVES He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives … for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness” (Heb. 12:5-10). God doesn’t go around purposelessly punishing or vindictively torturing any of His creatures. But He does go about precise paths of bringing forth correction UNTO RIGHTEOUSNESS, as the prophet says, “When Your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will LEARN RIGHTEOUSNESS” (Isa. 26:9). God’s judgments, whether upon saints, nations, or the wicked in general are all corrective in nature, accomplished by the motivation of His nature which is LOVE.
“Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son … beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. No man has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwells in us, and HIS LOVE IS PERFECTED IN US” (I Jn. 4:10-12). Can words make it plainer that God’s love in Christ is given to pass into us and to become our life? We shall then love God as He loved us. We shall then love one another as Christ has loved us. And we shall then love the world with the same love which God in Christ revealed upon the cross!
Some who read these lines may be bruised and battered by life. Some of you may be lonely and cast down. Some of you may feel all alone. If you are a father, or a mother, then you know something of the love of a parent for a child. You know something of a love that reaches out after a child, even in its waywardness; a love that reaches out to a child that has been hurt; a love that reaches after a child who has deserted its family; a love that NEVER LETS GO. All of that tender compassion of a parent’s love is but the faintest shadow of the infinite love of God which knows no measure; a love that, indeed, could never let us or any man go. When we become children of God, we enter into that parental love of God. How sad that so many who call themselves children of God are, as the apostle warned, “without natural affection,” stubbornly willing to consign the vast majority of God’s wayward sons to everlasting damnation, yea, demanding, as judge and jury, that they be damned, rather than loving them infinitely and omnipotently as God loves them!
While reflecting upon the parental love of God, a story came to mind that I read some months ago. In this story a man who was entirely careless of spiritual things died and went to hell. And he was much missed on earth by his old friends. His business manager went down to the gates of hell to see if there were any chance of bringing him back. But, though he pleaded for the gates to be opened, the iron bars never yielded. His cricket captain went also and besought Satan to let him out just for the remainder of the season. But there was no response. His minister went also and argued, saying, “He was not altogether bad. Let him have another chance. Let him out just this once.” Many other friends of his went also and pleaded with Satan saying, “Let him out, let him out, let him out.” But when his mother came, she spoke no word of his release. Quietly, and with a strange catch in her voice, she said to Satan, “Let me in.” And immediately the great doors swung open upon their hinges. For love goes down through the gates of hell and there redeems the damned! Our Father and God, incarnate in the Person of Jesus Christ, holds in His nail-pierced hand the keys of death and hell. O grave, where is Your victory? O gates of hell, you shall not prevail, for the Redeemer of Israel and the Saviour of the world, the God who IS LOVE holds in His triumphant hand your key!