When a voice in the crowd asked Jesus about his greatest priority he answered with a defining call from the Torah: “Love God.” And, as its direct corollary, “Love your neighbor.” His answer still alerts us to God’s overflowing Triune love. And we get to respond to him with our own love.
The apostle John elevated this call in his gospel, especially in John 3:16. And again in the later flourish of John 17. If love functions like a waterfall, this latter chapter makes Niagara Falls jealous. Paul also elevated God’s love as a spreading goodness in Romans 5:5 noting there how God pours out his love in the hearts of everyone who has his Spirit. Paul also affirmed love as greater than faith and hope in 1 Corinthians 13. As all who know God’s love will affirm, this bond is the motor of life.
John applied this in 1 John, a letter to a church divided by some false leaders trying to seduce the faithful followers of Jesus to a new faith. The perpetrators of the split tried to manipulate their former friends by withholding love. John answered by insisting that real Christians never use that ploy. Love is genuine and persistent because “God is love” and to know him is to share his faithful love. He states “God is love” twice in 1 John 4. And this love is only found in genuine children of God as the Spirit “anoints” them. We love because he first loved us.
This place of love is crucial even if it may be dismissed or ignored by many. It remains obvious to everyone who loves Jesus. And that’s crucial: he doesn’t call us to “love love.” The experience of love, in other words, isn’t the goal. The object of love for believers is Jesus himself as he shares his Father. Love emerges, as he said in John 8, in all those born of God and who “abide in [Christ’s] word.” And, in John 13:35, we learn that true faith always maintains mutual love with other believers. Always!
So here’s an odd fact. Systematic Theologies—primary textbooks for pastoral training—virtually ignore God’s love. Look at the table of contents of any major ST and notice that God’s love is neither a major nor a minor topic. Instead we find a variety of rational constructs that engage human themes of faith, or various Christian dogmatics. They illuminate and inform but generally operate as ongoing religious conversations about God. And with that they tend to describe God’s capacities rather than to ask about God’s motives or his relational interests. Even though these latter themes are—as I’m happy to insist from my own reading—the main message of the Bible. And, unfortunately, many who follow traditional theological guides also understate love.
Some works, including those of Anders Nygren (decades ago) and Gerald Bray (recently), are exceptions. But Nygren imported some questionable assumptions. And Bray and one or two others like him are unlikely to turn the tide of disaffected academic religion.
Here’s one reason for the huge imbalance. Humanity has been holding conversations about the supernatural realm—including the nature of gods and God—from the beginning of time. The products of this search are philosophy and theology. And these perspectives and priorities still hold sway. Human questions about God have prominence rather than his stated values and self-disclosures. He’s the ultimate communicator but if we don’t listen well we lose track of this.
Thankfully for many who are “born again” there is a spontaneous heart to heart alignment with God. This is what David modeled, in part, long ago, and what Jesus displayed completely in his life. As a counterpoint, though, some will only maintain the form of religion, not its substance. Fallen human instincts prefer a God who doesn’t insist on “all” our hearts, minds, and souls.
Our point isn’t to disparage others—but to point to the Bible primacy of love. And a “love” not based on duty but as a heart response to Christ’s Spirit. As a fruit of the Spirit.
Jesus was right when he promoted the pathway of love. And that carried him to the cross for us. He still invites us to enduring communion with him in the kingdom still to come. So here’s an invitation for all of us. Keep in step with the Spirit who happily shares the Father-Son love with us. And use the cross as a reference point for true love. It changes everything.