Love in the Bible
by Bob Burridge ©2011
We hear the word “love” used in so many ways. It can be used in a casual way when we speak of how much we love pizza or a good movie. It is used of that special devotion and care that unites a man and woman in marriage. It can be used profoundly when we express our devotion to our God as Creator and Redeemer.
It’s popular to talk about God’s love and our love for one another without a good definition of what it means. To some God’s love means that he could not hold us accountable for our sins, or that he would not uphold justice in the eternal punishment of those of us who remain unredeemed by the work of our Savior. Some believe that loving your neighbor means being easy on law breakers, but shows a disregard for their victims.
1 Corinthians 13 contains familiar words, but it teaches a profoundly different kind of love than what the world understands.
In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus was asked what was the foremost of all the commandments. His answer, quoting the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, was this …
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”
If Jesus said that love is a summary of all the law and prophets, then we need to know what it means to love, what love looks like when it is present, and how to develop love in our lives.
Some years ago I was challenged to piece together the main elements of love in the Bible. To summarize what I found, I put together this definition of love as it appears in God’s word:
“Love is a disposition implanted into needful human hearts by the prevailing grace of God whereby we are enabled joyfully to obey the revealed desires of our Creator; both toward the Lord himself, and toward others.”
As fallen creatures, the disposition of legitimate love is missing from our souls. It needs to be implanted in us by a work of God’s grace. As fallen people we are separated from God’s fellowship by our guilt. In this alienated condition love is replaced by selfish attitudes and behaviors. Until we’re changed by the work of Christ, we do things that offend God, harm ourselves, and take advantage of others.
Even passing civil laws can’t keep us from doing unloving things. Laws don’t stop law breakers. Crimes continue even though there are statutes against them. Laws can’t make us love, or stop us from being unloving. We need them to restrict lawlessness, punish crimes, and to protect victims, But laws haven’t ended racial bigotry, theft, lying, pornography or other vices. Laws and national policies don’t stop bad people from doing horrible things. It’s our fallen nature, alienated from God, that makes us do unloving things.
Biblical love begins when spiritual life is implanted in regeneration. The Bible says, “we love because He first loved us.” If God hadn’t first sent his Son to redeem us, love, as God reveals it, would be completely unknown in our world. The only thing that can change the way people behave is by a change of heart that impels them to do right rather than to do wrong.
Galatians 5:22 says that love is a fruit produced in believers by the Holy Spirit. In fact, love is the first item in the list of the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Only when the fallen creature is restored by grace through faith in Jesus Christ can anyone begin to realize love as the Creator intended it to be. Unless a person in born again, regenerated by grace, he can’t produce the fruit of the Spirit. What he calls love is a tragic imitation.
Even after the Spirit implants love into our redeemed hearts we need to nurture it the way God tells us so that the fruit grows. The same grace that implants love enables us to grow in our obedience to God’s word. This means that the redeemed have to know what God tells us is right. They need to act trusting in his promises as their only hope of success.
The Bible tells us that the disposition of love produces obedience. Obeying what God’s desires toward himself, and toward others involves a lot.
In one word, love summarizes the way the Bible says believers should live. We need to know how to be loving at home, at school, at work, at play, in worship, socially, while shopping, and when we’re fixing things … in every situation. It needs to become a part of what we are and what we do all the time.
The Bible directly defines love as doing what God has commanded:
John 14:21 Jesus said, “He who has my commandments, and keeps them, he it is who loves Me”
John 15:12 “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.”
John 15:14 “You are My friends, if you do what I command you”
So love isn’t just a feeling. It’s a disposition that compels us to real moral obedience.
1 John 5:2-3, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments, and His commandments are not burdensome.”
God’s word tells us specific things to work on to encourage love to grow in us. It defines what we do when we love God and our neighbors.
In the next section of this chapter, in verses 4-8, Paul mentions 16 qualities of love:
“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 Love never fails.”
People who are loving in these ways are bearing Love’s fruit. They show that it has been implanted in their hearts by the work of the Holy Spirit.
In God’s covenant promise he tells us that when redeemed people obey, he will bless them richly with inward satisfaction and joy. The general form of his covenant promises is this: “Do and be blessed.”
It is this effect of love, the feeling, that the world craves but can only imitate. They want the feeling without first having a changed heart. So they expect that the feeling comes first, then the obedience. When they feel love, they decide to act lovingly toward a particular person.
But that’s backwards and self-centered. It confuses love with our normal sexual urges, with the emotion involved in romance, with the benefits a person gets from being with certain people. It’s no wonder then, that when the benefits fade away, and when challenges come, the feelings a person thought was love also disappear.
This kind of love only lasts as long as the person gets what he wants. When challenges come along, or when the companionship is disrupted, there’s no inner cause producing kindness and patience so it ends.
This is just an imitation of the love lost in the fall of Adam. It’s the artificial substitute that can be experienced in broken fellowship with God. Until that sin barrier is removed by trusting in Christ, a person is isolated from the source of real love, he’s separated from God.
So fallen man tries to replace the real thing by conjuring up feelings. He runs from church to church, from job to job, from marriage to marriage, community to community, club to club — looking for love, but finding only disappointment.
Outside of what God provides for his redeemed children, love is only an illusion, it’s not real. But this kind of love isn’t just artificial, it is a cruel costume for selfish evil.
Love isn’t just an added benefit believers in Christ hope to find in their lives. Jesus said in John 15:17, “This I command you, that you love one another”
It is a necessary obedience that either shows that a person is redeemed by grace, or the lack of it makes us doubt that our faith in Christ’s work is sincere. It is an essential evidence of regeneration Jesus spoke of in John 13:35 when he said, “by this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
God tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. He commands husbands to love their wives. He commands us all to love one another.
If love is implanted by the work of the Holy Spirit, it’s fruit can grow in us. This is good news! It means that for those who trust in Christ, they can grow in love.
The excuses used by the world fade into meaninglessness. You can’t say, “I just can’t love that person”. — Yes, you can. But you need to love them in the way the word love is used in the Bible.
Maybe you can’t accept some of their rude and sinful ways. Love doesn’t mean you have to approve of every imperfection you see in others. No one is perfect. But you can treat them in a way that honors God. You can understand the sin that holds them captive. You can discover the peace that God gives you when you obey him in how you treat others.
First the disposition of love needs to be implanted by grace through Christ. Then it needs to be prayerfully and diligently nurtured into obedience by the means God has given us, and enables in us. It can not be just an outward obedience. It needs to be one that comes from a changed heart. When we treat others so that they are helped to benefit from God’s promises, we also receive the blessing of inner joy that only a true and active love can bring.
There’s a moral crisis in our world today. It does not come from the music industry, or from the drug peddlers, or from pornographers. Those businesses wouldn’t be profitable if there was a change in the consumer’s hearts.
The real crisis underlying the moral crisis is a deficit of the real biblical kind of love. Without a love for God and a true love that does what pleases God toward our neighbors, there are no laws or political solutions that can stop the disease of immorality.
We have a gospel that can implant love and obedience into fallen souls. We who say we’re born again in Christ can stop that crisis at our own doors. If our love for God is genuine, we will be impelled to do something about it. If we don’t care, then we should first of all make our own salvation sure. We need to diligently work on nurturing the love Christ puts into us.
Note: The Bible quotations in this syllabus are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.