God is love

Unwrapping a not-so-simple statement

1 John 4:8–10

Being a pastor’s kid can be a horrific ordeal, but my experience was pretty positive.

My memories are similar to those of other kids growing up in a good Christian home in the 90s. I remember flannel-graphed Sunday school classes, church picnics, Veggie Tales videos and recovering from Psalty the Singing Songbook nightmares.

However, as a pastor’s kid, I knew I was growing up under the watchful eyes of … well, everyone. In addition to being known primarily as “Ray’s son,” I was involved in leadership at school and church throughout my teens. My faith was a public spectacle long before it was ever a private reality.

Wrestling with Scripture

It wasn’t until my time at Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford, B.C., as an unknown first-year commuter, that I seriously wrestled with what I believed. This wrestling occurred through listening to lectures, reading, writing and engaging in theological conversations with students and professors alike.

During these conversations, it struck me that a certain phrase is often used as an ace-up-our-sleeve to prove a point. The phrase? God is love.

True love

It makes sense why we use this phrase. It’s in the Bible after all!

The phrase comes from 1 John 4:8: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

John continues by saying: “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 hilasmos for our sins” (vs. 9–10).

English versions of the Bible differ regarding their translation of hilasmos. The NIV and NRSV use atoning sacrifice, the NLT uses sacrifice, and the ESV, NASB and NKJV use the word propitiation. Regardless of its various English translations, we need to consider what John means when he uses the Greek word hilasmos.

John evokes an image of a sacrifice that turns wrath into favour. God demonstrates that he is love by turning his just wrath toward us into his favour because of the self-sacrificial work of Jesus Christ.

Jesus was not unclear about his mission. His Jewish audience believed the Messiah’s mission would reach its climax when he delivered Israel from the oppression they faced because they were enslaved to their powerful masters – the Romans.

However, Jesus knew the cross was the crux of his life and ministry (Mark 8:31, 10:45) and that through it he would deliver his people from the wrath and condemnation they faced because they were enslaved to a more powerful master – sin (John 3:16–18; Romans 5:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:10, 5:9).

Substitution

Christianity stems from the cross. At the heart of our Christian faith lies the atoning work of Christ on the cross, and the core of our theological identity as evangelical Anabaptists is the scandalously substitutionary nature of the cross. Or, in the words of Mennonite Brethren leader and theologian Walter Unger, “Substitution is the non-negotiable foundation of the atoning work of Christ.”

Upon reflection on the importance of this passage in my life, I’ve realized something.

As a pastor’s kid growing up, the congregation saw me in relation to my parents. I stood before the congregation with my identity based on my parent’s faithfulness. I didn’t know it at the time, but the experience of being a pastor’s kid provides a helpful, albeit imperfect, image of what it means to be a son or daughter of the King.

The Father sees us in relation to his Son. We stand before the throne of God with our identity based on Christ’s faithfulness. The perfect and eternal Jesus demonstrated God’s love by suffering as the hilasmos for our sins, so that through him, we could experience a perfect and eternal relationship with God.

The phrase “God is love” is so much more than a trump card in our theological conversations or a bumper sticker on our minivans. It’s a phrase that shatters our idols and rids us of our self-righteousness.

We ought to be humbled and amazed at the radically selfless way God pursues and redeems us by being both just and also the one who justifies (Romans 3:26). The fact that “God is love” ought to stir up worship in our hearts. This worship should express itself through both our words about the wondrous cross, and also through a life of discipleship that necessarily includes reflecting the loving, others-focused, self-sacrificing and other-cheek-turning nature of the cross.

When we understand what it means that “God is love,” we realize it’s the best news anyone could ever hear.

It’s news that demands a response.

Regardless of whether you’re a pastor’s kid or not.

—Greg Harris serves as a teaching associate pastor at Northview Community Church in Abbotsford, B.C.

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