Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
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God’s Love

Herman Hoeksema


That the love of God may be considered under the general heading of God’s holiness may easily be recognized. God’s absolute and pure self-centeredness is expressed and manifest especially in His love, for God is love (1 John 4:8). Especially of love it may be said with emphasis that “of Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things” (Rom. 11:36).

Herein is love, and herein one may find the very essence of love: not that we love Him, but that He loved us (1 John 4:10). In God, love has its source, and out of Him, as its source, love operates in and through us to return unto God. Love is of God—that is, all true love, wherever it may be found, has its source in Him (v. 7). It is His love above all that God reveals in the sending and delivering of His only begotten Son. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, that He sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him (v. 9): “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” (John 3:16).

Because love is so uniquely divine, love on our part is the surest evidence that we are of God. He who hates is in darkness, but He who loves His brother is in the light (1 John 2:9-11). Everyone who loves is born of God (1 John 4:7). Love is, therefore, the greatest of all, greater even than faith and hope, more sublime than all the gifts of knowledge and prophecy (1 Cor. 13:2, 8, 13). God is love.

The Old Testament uses especially two words for love: חָשַׁ֧ק (ḥā-šaq) and אָהַב֙ (’ā-haḇ). The Hebrew word חָשַׁ֧ק (ḥā-šaq) seems to denote love as a bond of union or fellowship. Its root meaning is “to fasten, to bind, to join together.” It is also used intransitively with the meaning of “to adhere, to stick together.” Besides, it implies the idea of delight. Applied to love, the idea of delight is probably related to that of joining together as cause to the effect. One delights in another, longs for him, seeks him, and cleaves to him in love. According to the meaning of חָשַׁ֧ק (ḥā-šaq), love is the bond of fellowship that unites two parties who have a delight in each other. The word is used in Deuteronomy 7:7 of the love of God to His people: “The Lord did not set His love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people” (cf. Deut. 10:15; Deut. 23:5; Ps. 91:14).

The Hebrew word אָהַב֙ (’ā-haḇ) refers to the living action of love rather than to the essence of it as a bond of fellowship. It has the root meaning of “to breathe after, and thus to long for, strongly to desire.” Deuteronomy 6:5 uses this word: “And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” God, as the sole good, the implication of all perfections, must be the object of our strong desire and the longing of our whole being. It is the language of love that is heard in Psalm 73:25: “Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside Thee.” It is the strongest expression of love that is employed in the figure of Psalm 42:1-2: “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?”

In Deuteronomy 4:37, the word is used also to denote the love of God for His people: “And because He loved thy fathers, therefore He chose their seed after them, and brought thee out in His sight with His mighty power out of Egypt.” Love as denoted by these two Old Testament terms, is a spiritual bond of fellowship by which two parties cleave to each other and long after each other with mutual delight.

The New Testament has the words ἀγαπάν (agapan) and φιλεῖν (philein)—both translated “to love.” Only ἀγαπάν (agapan) needs to be considered here, because it and the corresponding noun ἀγάπη (agapé) are the only terms that the New Testament uses to express the love of God. φιλεῖν (philein) is much weaker and denotes a tender affection, an affection that is emotional rather than volitional.

It is well known how the two words are characteristically used in John 21:15-17, the passage that narrates the restoration of Peter at the Sea of Tiberias after the resurrection of the Lord. Three times the Lord asked His humiliated disciple whether he loved Him. Twice the Lord employed the stronger word ἀγαπάν (agapan). The apostle, however, conscious of his recent boast and miserable manifestation of his weakness and unfaithfulness, did not dare to use the stronger word ἀγαπάν (agapan); in his reply to the Lord’s questions, he constantly employed the weaker word φιλεῖν (philein). The third time the Lord took over the weaker word that had been used by the apostle, as if the Lord meant to remove the last vestige of Peter’s self-confidence and to make him reflect whether even this were true: that Peter loved the Lord with that weaker affection that is denoted by the word φιλεῖν (philein). Although this passage clearly brings out that there is a sharp distinction between ἀγαπάν (agapan) and φιλεῖν (philein) and that the former is undoubtedly the stronger word, it does not inform us about the true meaning of ἀγαπάν (agapan). For this, we shall have to turn to other passages of the New Testament.

An important passage in this connection is Colossians 3:14. Here love is called “the bond of perfectness.” We would probably be overstating the matter if we would call this a definition of love; yet it would seem to approach the nature of a definition. By “bond of perfectness” I understand a bond or union that is characterized by perfection in the ethical sense, such as truth, righteousness, and justice. According to this phrase, then, love is a bond that can exist only in the sphere of moral perfection. There is no love in the sphere of darkness. They who love darkness cannot love one another in the true sense.

Love is profoundly ethical. If, as we have gathered, love is the bond or fellowship that is caused by the mutual delight of two parties in each other, by their longing for each other and seeking after and finding of each other, then we learn from Colossians 3:14 that the cause of this delight and longing must be found in the ethical perfection of the loving parties. He who loves in the true sense has his delight in ethical perfection, in moral goodness, and in truth and righteousness, and he moves in the sphere of the light. Both he who loves and he who is loved must be perfect. Since love is the bond of perfection, it is the bond that unites ethically perfect parties only. Love is an ethical bond and, therefore, a personal virtue. It can exist only between personal beings, and these personal beings must be perfect.

It is true that the word is used in Scripture as referring to the very opposite of ethical perfection for its object when Scripture speaks of men who love darkness rather than light (John 3:19) and who love the glory of men more than the glory of God (John 12:43). But this merely emphasizes the perversion of love in the natural man, even as it is not love, but adultery, when a husband is unfaithful to his wedded wife and is said to love another woman.

Love is profoundly ethical and is a bond that unites only the ethically perfect. It implies a definite choice of the will and is the very antithesis of hatred. A man cannot serve two masters: for he must love the one and hate the other (Matt. 6:24). God love Jacob, Esau he hated (Rom. 9:13). Love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:10). The love of God is the first and great commandment, while the love of the neighbor is like unto it. For this reason the Lord emphasizes that he who loves Him does keep His commandments, while he who loves Him not will not keep His sayings (John 14:23-24). The ethically perfect character of love constitutes the basic note of that well-known eulogy of love found in 1 Corinthians 13. Love rejoices not in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth (v. 6).

If we bear this in mind, we can easily understand that Scripture emphasizes that God is love (1 John 4:8). Love is always of God; wherever you may find love, even among men, its source is always in God (v. 7); God is a God of love (2 Cor. 13:11). He is pure perfection as the Holy One who is consecrated to Himself as the sole good. His very essence is holiness and is the bond of perfectness. He is a light, and there is no darkness in Him at all. He is righteousness, He is truth, He is justice, and He is the implication of all infinite perfections.

Hence God loves in Himself, of Himself, through Himself, and unto Himself. He loves Himself. All the love and delight of His divine nature is directed toward His own infinite perfections. Also in His love, God is perfectly self-sufficient. He has no need of men’s hands to be served; He is not in need of a man’s heart to be loved; He needs no object outside of Himself to love, because, let us remember here, God is triune. He is one in being, but three in persons. He knows Himself as Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit. Constantly, eternally, He beholds Himself, contemplates Himself with infinite delight in His own perfections. Hence the three persons of the holy Trinity are united in the bond of perfectness and live the life of infinitely perfect love. The Father loves the Son (John 3:35), and the Son would have the world know that He loves the Father (John 14:31).


God’s Love Defined

Recapitulating, we may state that the following elements are essential to love.

First, love is a bond of fellowship, a virtue and power that unites, draws and fastens.

Second, love is ethical in character and therefore requires an ethical object and an ethical subject. Animals or inanimate objects cannot properly be the objects of love.

Third, love can exist only in the sphere of ethical perfection. Love requires an ethically perfect subject as well as an ethically perfect object. When Scripture admonishes us to love our enemies—those who persecute us as children of light—the act of love must be one-sided. The meaning in that case cannot possibly be that we must exercise fellowship with those who are ungodly, but that we shall bestow such acts on them as will manifest that we live in the sphere of perfection: we shall bless them and pray for them (Matt. 5:44). Only in those cases in which this blessing and praying becomes effective can the fellowship of love be established.

Fourth, love as an act of the perfect subject in relation to the perfect object is delight in perfection; love is therefore the longing of the perfect subject for the perfect object and their cleaving to each other in the sphere of perfection.

We may define love as the spiritual bond of perfect fellowship that subsists between ethically perfect, personal beings, who, because of their ethical perfection, have their delight in, seek, and find one another. The love of God is the infinite and eternal bond of fellowship that is based upon the ethical perfection and holiness of the divine nature and that subsists between the three persons of the holy Trinity.

(Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics [Grandville, MI: RFPA, 2004], vol. 1, pp. 148-153)