Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.
In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4:7-18)
“God is love” is a most popular teaching, as well as a slogan, that has been taken from the Bible to assert the opposite of what the Bible teaches. The confusion results from a case of equivocation, where men have inserted unbiblical ideas of love into the biblical text and then inferred whatever they wished from it. So they think that because God is love, men will not be condemned to hell, or that men can remain ignorant of Jesus Christ or even reject him with impunity.
Suppose I say, “Mr. Lee is the very picture of generosity, since he founded a scholarship to send ten students to college.” From this, it would not be right to declare, “Mr. Lee is the very picture of generosity; therefore, feel free to break into his home and take whatever you want.” The meaning and application of generosity are defined and restricted by the initial statement. Just as one cannot alter “ten” to “five million,” or “students” to “mechanics,” or “college” to “Japan,” the statement does not permit one to interpret generosity any way he likes.
Likewise, just as we learn that God is love from the Bible, we must also learn what love is from the Bible. If the Bible defines and restricts the meaning and application of love, then we may infer nothing different or beyond the boundaries that it sets on the term. Since the Bible teaches that multitudes of people will suffer damnation, God’s love is evidently consistent with his sending people to hell and torturing them forever. That is, whatever the Bible means by love, it is not something that extinguishes hellfire. It may be contrary to what non-Christians think that love should be, but if they rob Mr. Lee, they will be hauled to jail just the same. God’s jail is a bit hotter.
Just as the initial statement about Mr. Lee’s generosity is specific and restrictive, “God is love” also appears in a context that defines this love. Next time someone says, “Well, after all, God is love,” perhaps to excuse sin, unbelief, and heresy, demand from him, “Where is this in the Bible? What is the context of the verse? And what does love mean in that context? Tell me!” As his jaw drops and his eyes glaze over, you can tell him what I am about to show you.
John first says it in verse 8: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” And then he immediately explains this love in verses 9 and 10: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Therefore, by “love” John refers to God’s sending of Jesus Christ and the purpose for sending him.
He says that God sent his “one and only Son,” which refers to the deity of Christ, which in turn means that the sending refers to the incarnation, of deity being “sent” to dwell in humanity. And then he says that God sent his Son to make “an atoning sacrifice,” or propitiation, “for our sins.” Thus the very character of this love assumes human depravity and divine wrath, else there would be nothing for which to make atonement. The atonement entails the death of Christ, and since the Bible teaches that the resurrection is the proof that Christ has fulfilled this sacrifice and that God has accepted it, it also entails the resurrection of Christ.
John says this is how God “showed his love among us.” How much detail this contains is one issue, but it is indisputable that when John says, “God is love,” he refers to a love that is inseparably associated with and defined by the sending of Jesus Christ and the redemptive work that he accomplished. Since the topic is God’s love, and since this love is defined by his work of salvation through Jesus Christ, all other biblical passages that explain redemption become relevant, including Romans 9. There Paul shows us that God’s redemptive love entails many casualties. The passage will help us see what is taken for granted by John.
Paul writes, “Just as it is written: ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated'” (Romans 9:13). He mentions this to make the point that God’s love, which in relation to us is a redemptive love, is not indiscriminate but is directed to specific individuals according to God’s own choice. Thus he continues, “For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion'” (v. 15). The demonstration of this love is salvific and specific.
If God’s love is directed toward specific individuals, what does this love mean for the reprobates? Paul answers, “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath – prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory – even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?” (v. 22-24).
He states that God has the right to make some people for noble purposes, and in this context, this means to receive his mercy, and that he has the right to make some people for common use, and this means to suffer his wrath. This is to address the issue of justice – God can do whatever he wants. Then, Paul explains the reason for creating and tolerating the reprobates, who are “prepared for destruction.” He writes that God chooses “to show his wrath and make his power known…to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory.”
In other words, since his chosen people are saved from God’s wrath and will therefore never experience this aspect of divine glory, God made the reprobates so that he can show off all that he is by damning them, punishing them, and torturing them in hell. This proceeds from his redemptive love. He does this precisely because he loves those he has chosen to receive his mercy. If I want to show my son how skillful I am with a rifle, I am not going to shoot him in the face with it. No, I will shoot a deer or a bear, whose life is dispensable. And I will do this because I love my son and want him to know more about me.
This is God’s love, and this love always wins, because God always wins. And this means that, because God is love, the reprobates – those who are non-Christians and will remain non-Christians because of God’s foreordination – can never escape hellfire. No matter how hard non-Christians strive to save themselves, God will catch them and send them to hell, where he will actively torture them with endless pain and anguish. God’s love (for himself, for his Son, and for his chosen people) guarantees the eternal damnation and suffering of all non-Christians. He will see to it that it happens.
Then, later in his passage, John says it again: “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him” (1 John 4:16b). As with the earlier instance, this appears within a context that defines the love and restricts its meaning and application. Immediately before this, he writes, “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us” (v. 15-16a). The apostle indeed writes that “whoever lives in love lives in God and God in him,” but in this context this refers only to a Christian kind of love, a love that affirms Christian theology: “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.” The love that we must walk in is a love that “acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God.” Only Christians can walk in the kind of love that the Bible commands.
Thus on God’s end, love is inseparably tied to his sending Jesus Christ. And on our end, love in inseparably tied to our receiving Jesus Christ. John adds, “We know and rely on the love God has for us.” God’s love never fails. We can count on him to save us through Jesus Christ, and we can count on him to damn the unbelievers to hell. This is what it means when the Bible says, “God is love.”