The statement made twice by John in his first letter, “God is love,” seems so simple and familiar that we can miss its profound theological and relational implications. For this extraordinary and wondrous statement to be appreciated, we must first understand what it means in the language in which it was originally written; koine Greek.
“Ho Theos (the God) agape (love) estin (he is)” actually equates God with love. Love is what God is. “Love,” like “God” in this sentence is a noun. The sentence isn’t saying, “God is loving”(adjective) or “God loves” (verb) or “God has/extends love,” even though these are also true statements and well testified in Scripture. “God is love” encompasses and transcends these concepts. Please bear with the little bit of grammar required to really get this. In 1 John 4 verses 8 and 16, “God” takes the definite article (“the”) so we know John is talking about the one and only true God, YHWH, the Being One. “The God” is in the nominative case which makes it the subject of the sentence. So God is the One who is (something). The thing that God “is,” is love, which is also in the nominative case. We know that the sentence cannot mean “Love is God” or “love is divine” because the abstract noun “love” has dropped its article and is placed before the verb. This makes it the complement in the sentence, the thing which God is. This is the same structure as John 1:1 which equates the Word with God.
In what sense do we understand that God “is” love? Love is a relational term. God is, in his character and essence, love. For God to be love presupposes relationship, one (or more) who loves and one (or more) who is loved. Love has no existence apart from the relationship between lover and beloved. We can, to a very limited extent, understand God’s relational love now, because there are many statements in Scripture that describe God loving his Son (John 3:35; 5:20) and his adopted children (Rom 1:7; 8:39; Eph 2:4; 1 John 3:1 and the world from which he calls us (John 3:16; Rom 5:8; 1 John 4:10). God is the God of love (2 Cor 13:11, 14), not in the crass sense of the Graeco-Roman so-called god Eros, the patron and proponent of eroticism. “Love” is not the portfolio of a deity. Rather, God is the source of all genuine, relational, self-giving “agape” love, because he is, in his essence, love. Not only is the Father the source of love, but the Son (Eph 3:19; 5:2) and the Spirit (Rom 15:30) also love profoundly and mutually.
So then, if love is relational, does God’s love, his very loving-ness, depend on his creation? Are we the entire focus of what it means for God to love, indeed to be love in and of himself? This cannot be the case, for God is not dependent on his creation, he made it all and he is wholly separate from it (Isa 40:25, 28; 45:18; Heb 1:10-12; Rev 4:11). He existed through all eternity before he began to create (Gen 1:1; John 17:24). Because God is Creator, we must not worship created things and we must not love the world (1 John 2:15). That would be idolatry; everything except God has been created by him; as the Uncreate, he alone is worthy of worship (Rom 1:25; Matt 4:10; Rev 19:10). God is not dependent on his creation, which he formed for his glory (Psa 50:10-12; Neh 9:6; Isa 43:7; Acts 17:24-25). God is the Being-One (“I am”/ “I will be” and he is unchanging (Psa 90:2; 102:27; Mal 3:6; Heb 1:10-12; 13:8; James 1:17). This essential loving kindness (Hebrew hesed) has always been God’s eternal nature (Ex 33:19; 34:6–7).
This then begs an important question for those who question the doctrine of the Trinity. If, prior to creation, God the Father was the sole identity in existence; one person, one substance — in what sense was God “love”? How did “love” exist without eternal relationship? Or did God not “become” love until he created, because before he created there was nothing and no-one to love? The answer is, that God has always been love, even before creation, because he has eternally been in relationship. Throughout eternity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit have been in a relationship of love. This relationship was and is self-sufficient and in no way lacking. God did not need to create, out of boredom or loneliness! God does not need anything apart from himself (Acts 17:25). Trinitarian love describes God’s inner life, through eternity, apart from any reference to his creation. Jesus refers to this eternal love when he prays, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17:24; to insist this only speaks of the Father’s foreknowledge of Jesus is to ignore the context, and the profound personal relationship expressed here).
This love which has characterized God through eternity is now directed toward God’s creation (John 3:16) and supported by the jealousy proper to an exclusive and loving relationship. This is why God’s people are sometimes described in terms of a bride or children of God and why the rejection of God by his people causes him such grief. The proper response to the love of God is to imitate it, in loving relationship with God and with each other (Matt 22:37–39; John 13:34–35). In so doing, we share in the life of God (John 17:23; Rom 5:5; Eph 5:1–2; Phil 2:1–2).
Probably the most complete discussion of the love of God is found in the first letter of John, chapter 4. God being love, love originates with God, and his love for us must bear fruit in reciprocal love.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us…
God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us… And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:7–21)
Throughout eternity the divine life has been characterized by the reciprocal love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, this love that is now poured out into our hearts by the Spirit. Love unites the Godhead, and love unites the community of believers to God, because God first loved us. To deny the eternal Trinitarian relationship, therefore, is to make God dependent upon his creation for the expression of the fundamental attribute of his character; love. As theologian Stany Grenz explains ( Stanley J. Grenz,Theology for the Community of God, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994, p 72):
Viewed theologically, therefore, John’s statement, “God is love,” refers first of all to the intra-trinitarian relationship within the eternal God. God is love within himself: The Father loves the Son; the Son reciprocates that love; and the love between the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit. In short, through all eternity God is the social Trinity, the community of love.
In that God is love apart from the creation of the world, love characterizes God. Love is the eternal essence of the one God. But this means that trinitarian love is not merely one attribute of God among many. Rather, love is the fundamental “attribute” of God. “God is love” is the foundational ontological statement we can declare concerning the divine essence. God is foundationally the mutuality of the love relationship between Father and Son, and this personal love is the Holy Spirit.
Because throughout eternity and apart from the world the one God is love, the God who is love cannot but respond to the world in accordance to his own eternal essence, which is love. Thus, this essential characteristic of God likewise describes the way God interacts with his world. “Love,” therefore, is not only the description of the eternal God in himself, it is likewise the fundamental characteristic of God in relationship with creation. With profound theological insight, therefore, John bursts forth, “For God so loved the world that he gave . . .” (John 3:16)