God’s love for sinners is a well-documented historical fact. Its verification doesn’t hinge on the consensus of theologians, nor does its validation rest on something we feel. The apostle John points us to the cross as the consummate and undeniable proof of divine love: “God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him” (1 John 4:8–9).
We would not be doing justice to this verse if we limited our discussion of divine love to abstract terms. It is dynamic, active, vibrant, and powerful. God has “manifested” His love, displaying it in a particular act that can be examined objectively.
In other words, Scripture does not merely say “God is love” and leave it to the individual to interpret subjectively what that means. There is a very important doctrinal context in which the love of God is explained and illustrated. To affirm that God is love while denying the doctrine underlying and defining that truth is to render the truth itself meaningless.
But that is precisely what many have done. For example, our adversaries, the theological liberals, are very keen to affirm that God is love; yet they often flatly deny the significance of Christ’s substitutionary atonement. They suggest that because God is love, Christ did not actually need to die as a substitutionary sacrifice to turn away the divine wrath from sinners. They portray God as easy to mollify, and they characterize the death of Christ as an act of martyrdom or a moral example for believers—denying that it was God’s own wrath that needed to be propitiated through a blood sacrifice, and denying that He purposely gave His Son in order to make such an atonement. Thus, they reject the consummate manifestation of God’s love, even while attempting to make divine love the centerpiece of their system.
I commonly encounter people who think that because God is love, theology doesn’t really matter. A young man recently wrote me a letter that said in part, “Do you really think God is concerned about all the points of doctrine that divide us Christians? How much better it would be if we forgot our doctrinal differences and just showed the world the love of God!”
But that position is untenable, because many who call themselves Christians are deceivers. For that reason the apostle John began the fourth chapter of his first epistle with these words: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
And since an important body of doctrine underlies what Scripture teaches about divine love, it is a fallacy to think of divine love and sound theology as in any way opposed to each other.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote about this very thing:
The great tendency in this present [twentieth] century has been to put up as antitheses the idea of God as a God of love on the one side, and theology or dogma or doctrine on the other. Now the average person has generally taken up such a position as follows: “You know, I am not interested in your doctrine. Surely the great mistake the church has made throughout the centuries is all this talk about dogma, all this doctrine of sin, and the doctrine of the Atonement, and this idea of justification and sanctification. Of course there are some people who may be interested in that kind of thing; they may enjoy reading and arguing about it, but as for myself,” says this man, “there does not seem to be any truth in it; all I say is that God is love.” So he puts up this idea of God as love over and against all these doctrines which the church has taught throughout the centuries.  D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), 51.
Such thinking has been the predominant mood both in popular thinking and in much of organized religion for the last hundred years. That mindset in many ways has become the hallmark of the visible church in the twenty-first century.
Lloyd-Jones points out that according to 1 John 4:9–10, “people who thus put up as opposites the idea of God as love and these basic, fundamental doctrines can, in the last analysis, know nothing whatsoever about the love of God” (emphasis added).  Lloyd-Jones, The Love of God, 52.
Indeed, looking at these verses again, we discover that the apostle explains the love of God in terms of sacrifice, atonement for sin, and propitiation: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10, emphasis added). That word speaks of a sacrifice designed to turn away the wrath of an offended deity. What the apostle is saying is that God gave His Son as an offering for sin, to satisfy His own wrath and justice in the salvation of sinners.
This is the very heart of the gospel. The “good news” is not that God is willing to overlook sin and forgive sinners. That would compromise God’s holiness. That would leave justice unfulfilled. That would trample on true righteousness. Furthermore, that would not be love on God’s part, but apathy.
The real good news is that God Himself, through the sacrifice of His Son, paid the price of sin. He took the initiative (“not that we loved God, but that He loved us”). He was not responding to anything in sinners that made them worthy of His grace. On the contrary, His love was altogether undeserved by sinful humanity. The sinners for whom Christ died were worthy of nothing but His wrath. As Paul wrote, “Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6–8, emphasis added).
Because God is righteous, He must punish sin; He cannot simply absolve guilt and leave justice unsatisfied. But the death of Christ totally satisfied God’s justice, His righteousness, and His holy hatred of sin.
Some people recoil at the thought of an innocent victim making atonement for guilty sinners. They like the idea that people should pay for their own sins. But take away this doctrine of substitutionary atonement, and you have no gospel at all. If the death of Christ was anything less than a guilt offering for sinners, no one could ever be saved.
But in Christ’s death on the cross, there is the highest possible expression of divine love. He, who is love, sent His precious Son to die as an atonement for sin. If your sense of fair play is outraged by that—good! It ought to be shocking. It ought to be astonishing. It ought to stagger you. Think it through, and you’ll begin to get a picture of the enormity of the price God paid to manifest His love.
The cross of Christ also gives the most complete and accurate perspective on the balance between God’s love and His wrath.
At the cross His love is shown to sinful humanity—fallen creatures who have no rightful claim on His goodness, His mercy, or His love. And His wrath is poured out on His beloved Son, who had done nothing worthy of any kind of punishment.
If you’re not awestruck by that, then you don’t yet understand it.
If you do catch a glimpse of this truth, however, your thoughts of God as a loving Father will take on a whole new depth and richness. “God is love”—and He demonstrated His love for us in that while we were sinners in rebellion against Him, He gave His only Son to die on our behalf—and so that we might live through Him (Romans 5:8; 1 John 4:9–10). That is the very heart of the gospel, and it holds forth the only hope to those in bondage to their sin: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
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