So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. – 1 John 4:16 ESV
1 John 4:7-21
John has already told us that God is light (1 John 1:5). Now he lets us in on another significant reality about God’s divine character. He is love. He doesn’t just love. He is love. It is His very nature. In fact, all that He does is done as an expression of His love. But that raises some interesting and somewhat mind-boggling contradictions for us as human beings. It causes us significant confusion because we have a hard time reconciling the images of God’s wrath, judgment, and punishment as revealed in the Bible. These seeming contradictions raise questions that usually begin with the words, “But how could a loving God …” We wrestle with stories from the Old Testament that picture God as demanding the annihilation of entire groups of people. We struggle with the concept that God would punish people by condemning them to an endless existence in a place of perpetual torment. Trying to comprehend these two extremes has caused many to either reject God altogether or to attempt to rationalize and reconstruct their image of God. Many believers, uncomfortable with the concept of God as a judge who metes out justice and judgment, have simply re-imagined Him, eliminating His less-attractive characteristics and recreating Him as the all-loving, all-accepting, all-inclusive, all-for-us, all the time God. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar and popular author and speaker, represents many who have chosen to rethink their view of God. “We must get this clear, together, to see real progress. Is God good? Is He Loving, Peaceful? Does God look like Jesus, who forgave 7×70 times, even to the point of death, and lived a non-violent, non-retributive life? Or… Is God angry? Is He violent and warring? Does God look like the god portrayed in the Old Testament, commanding wars, genocide and destruction? Does He look like a retributive, end-times Jesus who will ‘kill millions upon His return,’ seemingly having a cut-off point’ to His own teaching on forgiveness?” Unable to reconcile the two seeming extremes of God as portrayed in the Scriptures, Richard Rohr and others have simply chosen to construct their own view of God. They prefer to camp and count on the all-loving version. Why? Because they are uncomfortable with what they refer to as the schizophrenic God of the Bible. They say, “He cannot be a warring, genocidal maniac, and then a loving servant Savior who forgives and includes all – especially the most undesirable – and finally a bloodthirsty, horse-riding, sinner-slayer who enacts ‘justice’ in ‘the end.’” So they recreate Him in their own image. But doing so requires that they view the Sciptures no longer as God’s revelation of Himself to man, but as man’s attempt to reveal their marred and somewhat immature understanding of God. The Bible becomes nothing more than a collection of human stories revealing mankind’s growing and progressively enlightening view of God. And Jesus becomes no longer a Savior from sin, but a seer who helps man see the truly loving side of God.
But the problem with all this is that John and the other apostles tell us, “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 4:10 ESV). John is not afraid to talk about sin. And he is most certainly not afraid to testify that mankind needs a Savior from sin. In fact, as far as John was concerned, the greatest expression of God’s love for mankind was the selfless, sacrificial, undeserved death of His own Son. The brutal execution of Jesus was God’s love on display. Hard to understand? Difficult to comprehend? You bet. Sounds harsh and barbaric doesn’t it? It assaults our sensibilities. But just because we can’t reasonably rationalize how a loving God could require the brutal death of His own Son in order to pay for sins He didn’t even commit, doesn’t mean we should totally reconstruct the scenario to better suit our sensibilities. Jesus Himself told us, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 ESV). Death as an expression of love. It is God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice that make His love all that more incredible. Paul reminds us, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ESV). Our sin separated us from God. Our sin required a just and holy God to do the right thing and mete out judgment and the deserved punishment. But God loved. When man couldn’t live up to the holy standards of a righteous God, He stepped in and did something about it. He loved us when we were at our worst. But His love didn’t overlook our sin. He didn’t just dismiss our guilt and ignore our debt. To do so would have required Him to be less than God. No, God remained just, holy, and righteous while loving us at the same time. But to do so, someone had to die. Someone had to pay the penalty. His own Son. The sinless Son of God. And it is that remarkable act of LOVE that should motivate and inspire our love for others. We don’t make God more loving by attempting to make Him less judgmental. For God to ignore our sin would not have been loving, anymore than a father to ignore the rebellion of a child. God’s love shines greatest when we see man’s sin at its darkest. Man is sinful. Sin is rebellion against God. The penalty for sin is death – eternal separation from God. But God loved. He paid the penalty by sending His Son to die – out of love. As an expression of His love. Because He loves. Love is at its most beautiful when juxtaposed against a backdrop of unloveliness and undeservedness. Loving the unlovely isn’t just hard. It’s impossible. Without the love of God.