This series was first published in June, 2016. —ed.
At first glance, God’s love doesn’t appear to be much of a theological problem. First John 4:8 couldn’t be clearer: “God is love.” Of all the ways to describe God, that is certainly the most endearing and widely-accepted.
How many times have we heard the phrase, “A loving God would never ____”? What that person is really saying is that I have my own idea of what love is, and I will only accept a god who loves on my terms. That is the subtle form of idolatry that many people—even many churchgoers—buy into today.
The issue isn’t whether or not God loves, but whether the people proclaiming His love have the first clue what they’re actually talking about. True, God is love. But let’s not make the egregious error of assuming that’s all He is, or all He wants us to know about Him.
The problem with God’s love, then, is that the discussion of it is being clouded and confused by people who don’t know what love is or who God is, and yet speak with assumed authority on both.
More than a Feeling
You’d be hard-pressed to find a solid, working definition of love in today’s culture. Most people skip defining it altogether, instead trusting their senses to simply know what it feels like. But in a world overrun with power ballads, chick flicks, and speed dating, the public perception of love is fluid at best.
John MacArthur laments the gulf of separation that lies between the sensual understanding of love and the biblical worldview:
The love we hear about in popular songs is almost always portrayed as a feeling—usually involving unfulfilled desire. . . . Most love songs not only reduce love to an emotion, but they also make it an involuntary one. People “fall” in love. They get swept off their feet by love. They can’t help themselves. . . .
It may seem a nice romantic sentiment to characterize love as uncontrollable passion, but those who think carefully about it will realize that such “love” is both selfish and irrational. It is far from the biblical concept of love. Love, according to Scripture, is not a helpless sensation of desire. Rather, it is a purposeful act of self-giving. The one who genuinely loves is deliberately devoted to the one loved. True love arises from the will—not from blind emotion.  John MacArthur, The God Who Loves (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001) 25-26.
Attraction, affection, and desire do not constitute true love—they can actually be distractions from the real thing. The apostle Paul describes love as sacrificial and selfless, not driven by emotions and sensuality:
Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4–7)
First Corinthians 13 is not an obscure or overlooked Bible passage—it’s the go-to passage at almost every wedding I’ve ever attended, even for unbelievers. It’s usually embraced as a feel-good salve, when it should instead be considered with great trepidation.
Paul’s list is full of painful self-sacrifice and self-denial. We’re not prone to such things—we’re used to love that meets our needs, not the other way around.
Real love is difficult. In fact, if we’re honest, Paul’s standard is too difficult for us. We simply can’t fulfill that lofty standard on this side of heaven.
The only One who has is God Himself.
God Is Love, But He’s Not Only Love
Christ is the ultimate expression of God’s love (John 3:16). But many people make the mistake of assuming Christ’s incarnation was a turning point for God—that it marked a transition in His character, toward love and away from wrath.
But God never changes. “For I, the Lord, do not change” (Malachi 3:6, cf. Hebrews 13:8). God is—and always has been—love, but not to the exclusion of His other attributes.
God’s love doesn’t dispense with His hatred of sin. In fact, the opposite is true. The very meaning of God’s love is bound up in, and magnified by, our guilt: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
It’s equally erroneous to assume God’s love opposes or eradicates some of His “less popular” attributes. D. A. Carson believes that such a malleable view of God is rampant in the modern church:
Today most people seem to have little difficulty believing in the love of God; they have far more difficulty believing in the justice of God, the wrath of God, and the noncontradictory truthfulness of an omniscient God.  D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000) 12.
Moreover, John MacArthur argues that a failure to preach God’s wrath is actually a failure to understand God’s love:
We have lost the reality of God’s wrath. We have disregarded His hatred for sin. The God most evangelicals now describe is all-loving and not at all angry. We have forgotten that “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). We do not believe in that kind of God anymore. . . .
We must recapture some of the holy terror that comes with a right understanding of God’s righteous anger. We need to remember that God’s wrath does burn against impenitent sinners (Psalm 38:1–3). That reality is the very thing that makes His love so amazing. We must therefore proclaim these truths with the same sense of conviction and fervency we employ when we declare the love of God. It is only against the backdrop of divine wrath that the full significance of God’s love can be truly understood. That is precisely the message of the cross of Jesus Christ. After all, it was on the cross that God’s love and His wrath converged in all their majestic fullness. . . .
Ironically, in an age that conceives of God as wholly loving, altogether devoid of wrath, few people really understand what God’s love is all about! The God Who Loves, 10-11.
The love of God is not a theological blanket that smothers everything else the Bible says about how God relates to us. God’s love is actually one of the most challenging doctrines in all of Scripture. And it’s a challenge we’ll embrace in the days ahead by bringing clarity and harmony to the biblical tensions that so many choose to shy away from.