1. God’s love is incomprehensible.
No human mind can comprehend God. We cannot define God. We cannot provide a comprehensive account of who he is. He “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Tim. 6:16). If God is incomprehensible, then so is his love. While we may and must speak truthfully about his love, we can never fathom it, because it is divine love, as different from our love as his being is different from our being.
2. God’s love can be known.
We cannot define God in the sense of delimiting exhaustively who he is, but we can nonetheless describe him truthfully. We can do so because he has made himself known to us in his Word and he opens our eyes to that Word by his Spirit. How is that possible, given the divine difference? It is possible because God makes himself known to us in creaturely reality. He takes up the things he has made and uses them to describe himself to us. Thus he is a lion, a rock, fire, even moth and dry rot (look it up!).
3. God is known by analogy.
When God uses created things like lions to speak about himself in the Bible he is speaking analogically. This means that the things he uses to describe himself are neither identical with him, nor utterly different from him. He is a rock, for example, not because he is made of stone. When he says “rock” of himself, we are not to map all the rockiness of a rock onto him point-for-point. But nor are we to think that he is he entirely unrocky, discontinuous in every way with rocks. When he says that he is a rock he means some of what we mean when we say that a rock is a rock: he is not made of stone, but he is solid and reliable. How is it possible for created things to image God for us like this? It is possible precisely because he created them. It is as if his fingerprints are left on the things he has made, so that each of them contains a pale reflection of some of his divine attributes. Our fallen minds cannot piece together a picture of God from what he has made—indeed we suppress his natural revelation—but in his inspired Word he himself can use those things to describe himself, and then he can illuminate our minds to understand and believe those descriptions. This all applies to God’s love: when we read “God is love” we know something of what love is from what he has made, but his love is never to be identified point-for-point with any created love that we already know.
4. The pictures of God in the Bible regulate themselves, including pictures of his love.
A pressing question then arises: how do we know which aspects of each picture that God draws of himself we are to apply to him and which we are not? How do we know that we are not to infer that his love might ebb and flow as human love can, even that it might fail? This may seem obvious to us, but that is only because we have to some extent already learned how to read the Bible properly. What, when we stop and think about it, is the reason that we do not infer this? The reason is that other ways in which God describes himself prevent us doing so—for example, his repeated self-description as a covenant-keeping God who makes solemn oaths to his people. The Bible is a self-interpreting book: what it says in one part shows us how we are to read another part. Its many pictures of God form a self-interpreting mesh of images. And that includes its pictures of his love.
5. We quickly leap to the wrong conclusions about God’s love.
We are often less alert to the ways in which the love language is to be interpreted in the light of God’s other descriptions of himself. This comes out very clearly when someone says something like, “If I were a God of love then I . . . ” The reasoning that follows is usually unfastened from God’s wider portrayal of himself in Scripture. When we do this God becomes in effect just a massive projection of our own selves, a shadow cast onto a screen behind us with all of our own features magnified and exaggerated. Whereas it may be immediately obvious to us that God will not decide to stop loving us, for some reason it is less obvious that his love is different from our love in other ways, such as in being self-sufficient, sovereign, unchanging, all-knowing, just, and passionless (yes, rightly understood).
6. God’s love must be “read” within the rest of what Scripture teaches about his divine attributes.
We are not free to pick up the ball of “God is love” and run with it wherever we will. The statement must remain tethered within its immediate context in 1 John 4, within the broader context of John’s writings, and within the ultimate context of God’s entire self-description in Scripture. The local context immediately reminds us (in verse 10) of the connection between love and propitiation, which requires that we understand God’s love alongside his justice and wrath. The ultimate context of Scripture will bring alongside his love all of the other attributes of God. Together they will form a self-regulating mesh of meaning.
7. God’s love must be “read” especially within what Scripture teaches about his triune life.
Further, the wider context in John’s writings will repeatedly connect the love of God to his triune life. John delights to write of the Father’s love for the Son and the Son’s love for the Father. He even records the Lord Jesus saying that the Father loves him because he lays down his life (John 10:17). Love is not unique for being a trinitarian attribute: all the attributes of God are the attributes of the one God who is three persons, but we must never miss the trinitarian character of the love of God.
8. Reading God’s love in its wider context keeps us from error.
Love is perhaps the most obvious attribute for consideration from a trinitarian perspective, but we more readily observe that than grasp the theological consequences of it. What a difference it will make if, for example, we recall that the love of God is rooted in the Father’s love for his Son and his resulting will to see the Son honored (John 5:22–23). Then we will not infer from “God is love” that he easily overlooks sin, because we will grasp that Christ-dishonoring sin is itself an offense against the very heart of God’s love. From God’s love for his Son will follow his wrath against sinners. It is only when we read the love of God like this that we will be prevented from reaching false conclusions from it by making our own natural minds the context in which we interpret it.
9. Understanding the different manner of God’s love helps us to see its immeasurable magnitude.
The consideration of the love of God in its proper biblical contexts is not an exercise in abstraction of interest only to obscurantist systematic theologians. It may be easier just to think “God is love” and to fill that statement with whatever our human minds suggest. Certainly it requires less mental effort just to let our own minds generate our theology, rather than to subject them to the disciplined study of God’s self-revelation in Scripture. But at the end of the day a god who is little more than a projection of my own mind can never satisfy me. Worshipping such a god would be like being locked in a room with only myself as company, a kind of theological solitary confinement, a terrible narcissistic solipsism, and ultimately a form of self-worshipping idolatry akin in some ways to hell itself. There is no satisfaction on this road, only bitter disappointment. It is meditation on the authoritative self-revelation of God in its fullness that will bring rest for our souls, the rest of finding in him one who infinitely exceeds our own puny finitude, one whose delights can never be exhausted.
10. God’s love truly perceived always draws out from us a response of love.
The contemplation of divine love in its biblical fullness is never something that ends in itself. Our rest in God never finds its fulfilment in ourselves but always leads us out of ourselves toward him and toward others. The love of God is to be lived as well as learned. The love of God for us begets love in us for him and for others. The true Word of love that we have in the Bible, if we have it truly, will abide in us, and will not return empty as, by miracles of grace, we make glancing reflections of the immeasurable love of God visible to others in our own lives.