When God’s Word says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8), it’s NOT saying there is this thing out there called ‘love’ and God measures up to it. There is no external standard of love to which God is accountable. There was no existing definition of love that existed before God’s love. God himself provides the essence and definition of love. So, if it was possible, dictionary writers ought to study God first then provide their definition of ‘love.’ The same is true of us. We ought to study God first, then provide a definition of love. The opposite is what happens. And it happens within the church as well.
We need to remember the Scriptures talk about God’s love in a very nuanced fashion. We might say there are “five senses” to God’s love. First, there is the love God has for himself (John 3:35; 14:31). Second, we see God’s general love over all he has made (Matthew 5:43-45). Third, is God’s yearning love for the salvation of the world (John 3:16). Fourth, there is God’s particular, selecting love towards his elect (Malachi 1:2-3; Ephesians 5:25). Fifth, is God’s conditional love for his people (Jude 21; John 15:10).
What difference does this make? Christian cliches are interesting, but ultimately simplistic. To say, “God loves everybody the same” may be true when talking about the second “sense” of God’s love, but it’s certainly not true when talking about the fourth “sense” of God’s love. To say, “There’s nothing I can do that will make God love me more than he already does” may be true of the fourth “sense” of God’s love, but it’s certainly not true of the fifth “sense” of God’s love.
There are a couple of takeaways for us here. First, in order to know the Lord, as he has revealed himself to us, we will need long, sustained, thoughtful times reading his Word to us. There simply is no substitute nor shortcut. Second, this rich, nuanced understanding of God is practically helpful. To tell a Christian who is entrenched in sin “God loves everybody the same” is to do them a disservice. Such Christians need to be reminded they will remain in God’s love only if they do as he says. To tell a Christian riddled with insecurity over their standing with God that his love is conditional is to overburden them. Such Christians need to be reminded of God’s particular, selecting love towards his elect.