The subject of love is sorely misunderstood today. Consequently, those of us who are called upon to even love our enemies, sometimes fail to love those we would consider much more friendly. In this short study, an effort is made to understand biblical love or “agape.”
The Law Of Agape
by: Allan Turner
The Bible tells us that God is love (I John 4:8). It tells us His love is great (Ephesians 2:4), infinite (Ephesians 3:18,19), eternal (Jeremiah 31:3; Ephesians 1:4,5), and dependable (Romans 8:35). If the theme of the Bible is man's redemption, then the central word of the Bible is love. In fact, the Bible tells us that God loved mankind so much that He was willing to give His only begotten Son so fallen man could be redeemed (John 3:16; I John 4:9). But, what kind of love would do such a thing? To understand this, we must realize that God's love for mankind is a distinctive kind of love that the New Testament calls agape (pronounced ah-gah-pay). What is agape? Primarily, agape is good will toward others. It is deep, tender, and warm concern for the happiness and well-being of another; it is charity toward those who are in need. When the Bible says, “God loves us,” it means that He really cares about us and always does what is best for us. Agape is different from other kinds of love in that it seeks to give and not to get. It seeks to satisfy not some need of the lover, but rather the need of the one who is loved.
Agape is unique in that it is universal. Going back to Genesis 1, we learn that ever since the creation of the first man and woman, the objects of God's love have been the entire human race. God loves mankind because man, His creature, is made in His image, and although it is true that God hates sinners as sinners, nevertheless, He loves them as His creatures. Actually, the fatherhood of God is grounded in the creation (Malachi 2:10), “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us?” Consequently, the Father's “goodness” or “lovingkindness” has abounded toward His creatures from the very beginning (Psalm 33:5). (In this connection, notice how verses 6-9 are a summary of God's creative work.)
Agape is unique in that it is unconditional. God's love is not a respecter of persons; it does not favor some above others. The Bible says, “He makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). At Lystra the apostle Paul told pagan idol-worshipers that God had not left Himself without witness, “in that He did good, gave [them] rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling [your] hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17). In James 1:17, we are informed that every good and perfect gift comes down from the “Father of lights.” Therefore, God's love is not based upon some condition or quality in the one being loved. It has nothing to do with attractiveness or loveliness. It is, instead, a genuine concern for all people, even the unloveliest and meanest. God does not love us because we have done what He has commanded us to do; instead, He loves us in spite of our rebellion: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This sacrifice was not just for “the elect,” as our Calvinist friends believe, but for the “whole world” (I John 2:2).
Agape is unique in that it is more than feelings. It is more than an internal concern for the well-being of another; it is the externalization of that concern into action. God's love is active. He loved sinful mankind so much that He “gave” His only begotten Son, “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Consequently, the cross of Christ is the ultimate in self-giving action. It has been said, “Only at the cross does God show His love fully and without ambiguity.” Actually, it is difficult to find a verse in the New Testament that mentions God's love that does not also mention Christ's death on the cross. That God loves us and delivered Himself for us just seem to naturally go together (Galatians 2:20). Almost two thousand years ago the cross of Christ demonstrated the full meaning of agape, and today it continues to teach us what true love really is.
Love And Law
According to the Bible, the greatest commandment of God is, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Love, then, is a commandment. Better yet, love is the law. Not only are we commanded to love God, but verse 31 says, “And the second like it, is this: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” Love, then, is a duty. In fact, it is man's only duty: “Fear [venerate/love] God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). Concerning the keeping of these commandments, the apostle Paul wrote, “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:14), and in another place, “He who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). Love, then, is the essence of the law. The commandments of the law are the instructions we need to put love into action. The law tells us how a loving person acts. What this all means is that love is simply the summary of all God's laws. In other words, there has never been a law against “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Galatians 5:22,23).
Without love there would be no fulfilling of the law. Oh, there might be some insignificant keeping of the lesser aspects of the law, but the real important things, like faithfulness, justice, and mercy, would be neglected without true love (cf. Matthew 23:23). New Testament Christianity is truly a “heart-felt” religion. It is a religion that is “obeyed from the heart” (Romans 6:17), and is manifested by keeping the commandments. If we love God and our neighbor, there will be no “evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, evil eye, blasphemy, pride, [or] foolishness” (Mark 7:20-23).
Unfortunately, the notion seems widespread that love and law are mutually exclusive. According to this view, love is gentle, pliable, unconstrained by rules, and completely unconcerned with law; on the other hand, law is, by nature, rigid, harsh, inflexible, and unloving. Those who hold this position believe justice (law) and mercy (love) are incompatible, and that God must choose either one or the other. If He chooses to be just, then He must be unloving; if He chooses to be merciful, then He must be unjust. Therefore, God is caught in a “Catch-22.” Nevertheless, those who hold this position would view God's choice of mercy over justice not as a failure or inconsistency, but as a triumph of love over law.
The Biblical truth that “God is love” has been distorted into a humanistic theology that says, “Love is god.” According to this philosophy, represented by such thinkers as Joseph Fletcher et al., a warm, gentle, flexible, unconstrained by the rules, and totally divorced from law “feeling” has replaced the commandments of God. In fact, Fletcher, in his book, Situation Ethics: The New Morality, states unequivocally that Jesus and Paul replaced the precepts of law with the living principle of love (page 69). All such activity should be seen for the idolatry it really is—the making of God in man's own image (cf. Romans 1:23).
Our Love Is A Response
Our love is always a response to God's love. “We love [God and, in turn, our fellowman] because He first loved us” (I John 4:19). Paganism creates many gods who are admired and feared, but nowhere is there a God to be loved because He first loved us. This is why pagans in India and other places around the world are excited about hearing and obeying the gospel. The fact that the Almighty God of the universe loves them and has proved it by sending His only begotten Son to die in their stead is an absolutely overwhelming realization. What we Westerners seem to nonchalantly take for granted totally enthralls those in the east. In all their many gods there are none like Jehovah. Praise God for His great and magnificent love!
Because our love of God and our fellowman is a response to God's love for us, it does not war against God's law, but delights in being molded by it (Psalm 119:97; cf. Psalm 19:7-11). Our unconditional love for our fellowman, even our enemies, is but a loving response to God's unconditional love for us: “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Highest. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful” (Luke 6:35,36). Yes, God's commandment to love Him and our fellowman is a law. As we have already said, it is actually the summary of all God's laws. But, and this is very important, God's love for us is the motivation for keeping His commandments. We love Him because He first loved us (I John 4:19), and because we love Him, we keep His commandments (John 14:15; I John 5:3).
There must be no mistake about it, the New Testament speaks of being under “law to Christ” (I Corinthians 9:21), as well as mentioning the “law of faith” (Romans 3:27-31), the “law of the Spirit” (Romans 8:2), the “law of liberty” (James 1:25), and the “royal law” (James 2:8,9). Anyone who thinks that law has been eliminated in the Christian system is totally ignorant of the teachings of Jesus Christ and His apostles. Far from being mutually exclusive, both love and law are necessary to true religion, i.e., “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).
Because He is love, some are inclined to think that God does not, and will not, become involved with punishment. Punishment, it is believed, is somehow inconsistent with love. We are told that if God were to inflict punishment, He would no longer be a God of love. Those who take this position exhibit their ignorance of both the character of God and the nature of punishment.
The God of the Bible identifies Himself as a God of love (I John 4:8) and a God of wrath, vengeance and punishment (Romans 1:18; II Thessalonians 1:6-9). Now, if God identifies Himself as being both a God of love and wrath, then who are we to argue with Him? Instead of arguing against it, we ought to try to understand how these two attributes coexist.
When God executes wrath, vengeance, and punishment, it is only in a judicial sense that He does so. When God, as lawgiver, executes judgment, justice demands that one be either vindicated or punished, i.e., one receives either a “blessing” or a “curse” (cf. Deuteronomy 11:26-28; James 4:12). In this sense, punishment is retribution (viz., “the wages of sin...,” Romans 6:23) to vindicate Law and satisfy Justice, and is, consequently, an action based upon the principle of Righteousness (“It is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you,” II Thessalonians 1:6).
Without reward and punishment, there is no justice. Without justice, there is no judgment. Without judgment, there is no law. Without law, there is no lawgiver. Finally, if there is no lawgiver, then there is no God like the one described in the Bible. Consider what the Bible has said on this: “Because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained” (Acts 17:31); “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men...” (II Corinthians 5:10,11a).
Too often, punishment is thought to be remedial. In other words, many think the primary purpose of punishment is to make one better. Although it is true that correction or reform can be—and in some cases is—a residual effect of punishment, it has as its major objective the vindication of Law and the satisfaction of Justice. If this is not true, then our atonement through Jesus' vicarious death is eliminated. This ought to be obvious. If the punishment the Lord experienced on the cross was actually designed to make those who rightly deserved it better—and not to vindicate Law and satisfy Justice—then there was no way He could have experienced that for us. On the other hand, if punishment was designed to uphold Law and satisfy Justice, then it was possible for Christ to be “the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:10). This is exactly what happened. The vicarious death of Jesus on the cross made it possible for God to give those who actually deserved the punishment a clean slate as a result of their faith in His Son. Because Jesus paid the full price for our redemption, Justice was done (i.e., God remained just) and God was able to justify those who exercise faith in Jesus (Romans 3:25,26).
There is absolutely no reason why man cannot keep God's Law perfectly. The Bible makes no excuse for man's sinfulness. It simply teaches us that although man has the capacity to do so, he has not, does not, and will not keep Law perfectly, i.e., “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (cf. Romans 3:20, 23). Sin, we are taught in the Bible and know in our hearts, is not forced or coerced, but is clearly a voluntary action (James 1:14,15) committed by creatures of free will (Joshua 24:15), who will be judged by a just God Who will vindicate His Law (Deuteronomy 32:35; Hebrews 10:30).
Punishment, then, is “the just recompense of reward” one receives for unrighteousness (Hebrews 2:2). Therefore, those who would make arguments against God's punishment of those who violate His law because such would make Him, in their opinion, less a God of love and more like a vicious ogre, fail not only to understand the character of God and the primary purpose of punishment, but they really fail to appreciate the most magnificent manifestation of God's love ever bestowed upon man-kind—the sacrificial death of His only begotten Son (John 3:16; I John 4:10).
God's love, mercy and grace abounded unto us through Jesus Christ, our Lord. The sacrifice of God's Son was the only means whereby God, Who loved us, could save us from the punishment we all justly deserved. If man would but see his predicament (“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God”), he would appreciate what God has done for him (“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life”), and there would be no misunderstanding of either God's love or His need to vindicate Law and satisfy Justice. “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24,25).
How well do we really know the Lord? As we have already learned, true love is caring about the other person, wanting to please him, wanting to make him happy, and not wanting to hurt him. In order to love God we need to know Him. In order to know Him, we need to know not just what makes Him happy, but what hurts Him as well. What hurts God? The Bible tells us that our sins hurt Him. Consequently, if we really love God, we will want to avoid sin. What makes God happy? The Bible says our obedience pleases Him. Therefore, if we really love God, we will do the very best we can to obey His commandments.
Unfortunately, there are too many misconceptions of Jehovah. Much of man's indifference and lack of response to the gospel is because he exaggerates God's love, goodness, and mercy. Do not misunderstand. I am not trying to limit God's love. As we have already pointed out several times in this study, the Bible tells us that “God is love.” In John 3:16,17, we learn of the great love of our Heavenly Father in sending His only begotten Son to live and die for us. But, many have deluded themselves into believing that because of God's magnificent love, goodness, and mercy, He will actually save them in spite of their disobedience to His will. This is a serious mistake!
In Psalm 103:17,18, David said: “But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children's children, to such as keep His covenant, and to those who remember His commandments to do them.” Although the Bible informs us that the Lord is “longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9), nowhere has He promised to bestow His mercy upon those who will continue to disregard His law. This should be a sobering fact to all who would rely too heavily upon the Lord's love, goodness, and mercy, while disregarding their obligation to be obedient to His will.
Many seem content with the one-dimensional god (idol) they have created in their own minds. “Because God is love,” they are fond of saying, “He could never punish anyone in hell, He could never exercise His wrath, He could never actually execute vengeance on those who break His commandments. Therefore, in spite of man's disobedience and disregard for His will, God will eventually save all men in the end.” Of course, the question is: Who would serve such a weak and ineffectual god? Who would serve faithfully a god who could make laws but could not enforce them? Such a god would not be the God of the Bible. Instead, he would be nothing more than an idol constructed in the minds of those who do not want to do what is right and good. This circumstance is as old as the ages. Mankind throughout the centuries has “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25).
It ought to be obvious that the personality that loves can also hate. The characteristic of mercy is exhibited by one who can feel vengeance, wrath, and anger. While relying on the goodness, mercy, and love of God, one also needs to learn that His wrath can be kindled and provoked! In contemplation of this fact, the apostle Paul wrote, “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (II Corinthians 5:11). Although it is true that we do not serve a god of anger, we do serve a God who can and does get angry! Here, now, is wisdom. If we know what makes God angry, not only do we avoid painful penalties, but we come to a better appreciation of the character of God. The better we know Him, the better we will be able to do what pleases Him. And if we really love Him, we will certainly want to please Him. If idolatry angers God, then true worship is pleasing to Him; if broken vows anger Him, then integrity pleases Him; if denying Christ as the Savior of the world draws the wrath of God, then following Jesus as Lord and Savior is the key to pleasing Him. In II Corinthians 5:10, the apostle Paul wrote, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” If we are all one day going to appear before the Lord to give an account, then it is certainly to our advantage to know what both pleases and displeases Him.
To the church at Ephesus, the apostle Paul wrote: “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God...I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears” (Acts 20:26,27,31b). Why? Because although he was well acquainted with God's love, mercy, and goodness, he also knew of the “terror of the Lord.” Paul tried to persuade men and women to obey the gospel of Jesus Christ because he knew one day the Lord would come “in flaming fire taking ven-geance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired by all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed” (II Thessalonians 1:8-10).
The appeal of the gospel is not only to appreciate God's magnificent love, goodness, and mercy, but to respect His anger, wrath, and terror as well. One is saved because of the mercy of God in conjunction with one's obedience to His will. To enjoy the Lord's love and goodness, one must yield submissively to His word. Without love—God's love for man and, in turn, man's love for God—there could be no salvation.