WESTERN CULTURE IS HOPELESSLY CONFUSED ABOUT BIBLICAL LOVE. The expression “hate crimes” is the first evidence. Hate and love are opposites. Today, hatred means disagreeing with someone about their politics or their moral stance on a subject like abortion or an LGBTQ issue. If hatred is a disagreement, then love must be agreement, the willingness to go along with another, not to stir up trouble. In other words, to be loving means to be “nice.” 

We also associate love with making people feel good. The opposite is to make them feel bad. Therefore, it is loving to supply drug addicts with needles or give free housing and food to people even though they refuse to work. It is unloving to apply corporal discipline to children or practice church discipline. In his book Martin Luther and the Christian Life, Carl Trueman sums up our contemporary confusion—

 Love has become almost the only transcendent moral imperative in our society. Yet, we use love to justify abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and adultery. This list in itself should indicate that it has become a virtually contentless term and, like its opposite, hate, can be used to justify anything and silence all objections. The result is that Christians who wish to develop a Christian ethic need more than the word love at their disposal. Love needs content if it is to be anything more than empty sentiment.[1]

The purpose of this essay is to give love Christian “content.” Nothing could be more important to Christians who want to live biblically in our muddled world. 

Love Prioritized

At the Last Supper, Jesus made love his priority. 

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”

John 13:34

Later, both John and Paul insisted that love is the one necessary virtue. It is the litmus test of our spirituality. 

We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death (1 John 3:14). 

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing

(1 Corinthians 13:1–3)

These are strong words. No matter how much we believe, if we are not growing in love, we are still spiritually dead. And even though we exercise spiritual gifts, have great faith, and possess a masters in divinity, without love we are, spiritually speaking, a “clanging cymbal,” or worse—“nothing.” 

Therefore, a growing capacity and desire to love is not optional. To do that however, we need a clear definition of biblical love. 

Love Defined

God’s love has three qualities. First, it is not sentimental: it is centered in action. Second, it includes affection, and third, it always loves people for God’s sake. God is its priority.

Action Not Feelings

For contemporary culture love is sentimental and therapeutic. It’s center is both my feelings and the feelings of the person loved. I don’t want to feel hurt, and I don’t want others to feel hurt either. Therefore, I will disobey God to preserve my feelings and theirs. I will not confront their sin. I will not practice church discipline, and I will not separate from them when they become apostate. Because it doesn’t feel good, I will not love an enemy, and I will not forgive those who have wounded or betrayed me.  

By contrast, God’s love is not sentimental. It is centered on action, not feelings. If God’s love is a train, the engine is action, and the caboose is my feelings. God’s love is always your good, even if necessary, at my expense. In his book, Seeing God, Professor McDermott says it this way— 

For the authors of scripture and for Jesus, love is not a feeling. It will sometimes involve feelings, but in its essence, it transcends feelings. Love is a commitment to do what is good for another.[2]

Therefore, when it is in their best interest, God’s love is willing to hurt those it loves. If it will further their long-term good, it will let them feel stress, need, or rejection. 

“True love …is not simple friendliness, but a strong inclination to do good to another. It is not an emotion, but a powerful movement of the soul reflected in action, thinking and (often but not always) feelings.”

Gerald McDermott, Seeing God, pg 36

Since it’s not primarily about feelings, it will override its feelings and forgive and love enemies. In fact, proof that we understand the gospel is our willingness to love and forgive enemies. That is because God loves his enemies. If he didn’t, you wouldn’t be saved because you were his enemy when he died for you (Romans 5:10). 

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect

(Matthew 5:43–48, emphasis mine)

In other words, the first proof of new birth is the willingness to do something non-Christians will never do—love when it doesn’t feel good. That is how the Bible defines love. It is all about action!  

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 

(1 John 3:16)

“He laid down his life for us.” He acted. He did something, and what he did, astonishingly, he did for his enemies. 

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 

(Colossians 1:21)

[We were] by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind. 

(Ephesians 5:3)

This means that Christ went to the cross for “children of wrath.” Most Christians think Jesus died for us because he liked us. But nothing could be further from the truth. He died for his “enemies”—people for whom he felt anger, not affection. He loved his enemies by acting, and that’s why he tells us to do the same. 

What About Affection?

What about affection? Affection isn’t absent. It’s just the caboose not the engine. God’s love includes affection. Jesus died to “propitiate” his Father’s wrath so that he could feel affection for us. He went to the cross so that he and his Father could lavish us with filial affection. And that is what God does for every Believer. 

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!.

(Romans 8:15)

If you are a Christian, God’s wrath is removed. God the Father feels the deepest affection for you, and he constantly lavishes it on you. But that affection came to us through an infinitely costly act of wrath-propitiating love. 


Last, priorities are crucial. Only those who love God more than people can love people biblically. Love can be man-centered or God-centered. God-centered love prioritizes God over people. Love that is man-centered loves people more than God. Man-centered love is idolatry. Man-centered love will violate God’s will to love relate to others. God-centered love will suffer the rejection of others to love them as God desires. 

A lawyer approached Jesus with a crucial question. Which is the greatest commandment. Here is Christ’s priorities. 

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. 

And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37–39). 

The key to loving people biblically is keeping the first commandment first. Love God more than people. Those who do this will love people as God wants us to love them. In other words, God’s word will motivate and direct their love. 

God’s love is sometimes “tough-minded.” But understanding and applying it transforms marriage and parenting. It vitalises local churches. It strangles the temptation to enable sin. As a result, our love becomes potent, life-giving, and transformative. “When first things [God] are put first,” observed C.S. Lewis, “second things [love for people] are not suppressed but increased.”[4]

God-centered love puts first things first. It loves people according to the relationship. We love our spouse differently than we love our children. We love our children differently than our employer. Love is relationally specific. 

Although we love all people sacrificially, God asks wives to love their husbands uniquely—by submitting to them and respecting them (Ephesians 5:22ff). 

God asks fathers to love their children by teaching and discipling them (Ephesians 6:4). This implies obedience to Proverbs 13:24—

Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” In other words, sparing the rod is hating my son. On the other hand, applying the rod is loving him. 

God tells us to love the lazy by not enabling them. “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). This mean it is not loving to enable your thirty-two-year-old son to live in your basement, if he is fully capable of working but unwilling to do so. 

God commands husbands to love their wives with sacrificial service (Ephesians 5:25ff). They are to wash their wives with the word. 

God commands us to love unrepentant church members by excommunicating them (Matthew 18:15-20). 

God commands us to love employers by submitting to their authority—serving them even when unjust (Ephesians 6:5-9). (But when it gets bad enough, it’s also OK to find a job somewhere else). 

God’s word commands us to honor our parents even when they mistreat us or disappoint us (Exodus 20:12). 

The Cross

 Christ, who perfected this love, is our model. The text, “God is love” perfectly described him. Yet, he loved people as God desired, not as they or he desired. Feelings were not primary. They were secondary. When a gentile woman asked him to cast a demon out her daughter, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, Jesus responded.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. She came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly” . 

(Matthew 15:24–28)

He called this poor woman a “dog” and refused to help her. How was this loving? We don’t know because we don’t know the circumstances, but God did. Although Christ’s response hurt, it was loving. 

Jesus loves us the same way. In the Garden, Jesus pleaded with his Father for a way around the cross. He wanted to love us without the pain. When the Father said, “no,” Jesus obeyed. He loved God more than he loved us. He loved us as God willed, not as he willed. 

Last, his cross is the ultimate example of loving with action.

“By this we know love, he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” 

(1 John 3:16)

Whether it feels good or not, whether our culture approves or not, God commands us to “lay down our lives for the brothers.” This starts in our marriages. This means action not feelings. Ultimately it will include affection for those we serve. It means loving God more than we love people. 

In all of this, Christ’s cross is our model.

[1] Trueman, Carl R. (2015-02-28). Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Theologians on the Christian Life) (p. 174). Crossway. Kindle Edition. (Italics mine). 

[2] Gerald McDermott, Seeing God, pg 172 (Vancouver, Regent College Publishing, 2000) 

[3] Gerald McDermott, Seeing God, pg 36  (Vancouver, Regent College Publishing, 2000) 

[4] Letters of CS Lewis, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1966) pg. 248