By E.H. “Jack” Sequeira
When the Bible says that “God is love” [1 John 4:8, 16], it doesn’t mean that one of His attributes is love. It means that He is love. It means that love is the essence of His nature. Because of this, we need to understand everything about God and all that He does in the context of this love. Even His law and His wrath must be understood in the context of His love [see Matthew 22:36-40; Romans 1:18-32]. Paul defines God’s wrath passively as a love that will not coerce, but allows us to go when we deliberately choose our own way [see Romans 1:24, 26, 28].
We must understand as well that the basis of our salvation is also found in God’s nature of love. Apart from this love there would be no gospel, no good news [see John 3:16; Ephesians 2:4-7; Titus 3:3-5; 1 John 4:9]. Therefore, if we are going to understand and appreciate the good news of our salvation, we must be rooted and grounded in God’s love [see Ephesians 3:14-19].
Paradoxically, the greatest stumbling block we have to understanding God’s love is our own human love. Most of us make the mistake of projecting human ideals of love on God. We reduce God’s love to a human level, thus misrepresenting Him and distorting the gospel of His saving grace in Christ. That is why Paul urges us to understand “this love [of Christ] that surpasses knowledge” [Ephesians 3:19].
Our modern languages aggravate this problem of understanding God’s love. English, like most modern languages, has only a single word for love. This makes it very difficult, when we read of God’s love in our English Bibles, to understand the full range of meaning; it makes it difficult to distinguish between God’s love and our human concepts of love, all of which are polluted with self. God’s love (agape) completely contradicts human love (philos). We cannot compare the two, only contrast them [see Isaiah 55:8-9; Matthew 5:43-48; John 13:34-35; Romans 5:6-8].
Agape and Philos
The New Testament writers had four Greek words to choose from when describing divine and human love. These four are:
The New Testament writers wrote in Greek, so they had these four words to choose from in order to distinguish God’s love from human love, or even to distinguish between different types of human love. And they did. The word most commonly used in the New Testament to describe human love is philos. (The word eros does not appear in the New Testament at all.) And all the New Testament writers chose the infrequently used word agape to define God’s love. (The New Testament does use philos at times to describe God’s love, but always in the context of agape.) They took this word and infused it with new meaning based on the revelation of God’s love that they saw demonstrated in the life and history of Jesus Christ and which He displayed supremely on the cross [see Romans 5:6-10]. As used by the New Testament writers, this divine agape love of God stands in complete contradiction to human love in at least three ways.
In complete contrast, however, God’s agape love is unchanging. To the unfaithful Jews, God declared, “I have loved you with an everlasting love” [Jeremiah 31:3]. In Paul’s classic description of divine love, “[agape] never fails” [1 Corinthians 13:8]. Jesus demonstrated this beyond all doubt on the cross when, “having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them [agapao] the full extent of his love” [John 13:1].
When we realize this unchanging, unchangeable nature of God’s love for us, we will become “rooted and established in love [agape]” [Ephesians 3:17]. We will say with Paul,
“Who shall separate us from the love [agape] of Christ? ...For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love [agape] of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” [Romans 8:35, 38-39].
God’s love is the exact opposite. It is self-sacrificing, self-giving. That is why Christ did not cling to His equality with the Father, but emptied Himself and became God’s slave, obedient even to death on a cross [see Philippians 2:6-8]. All during His life on earth, Jesus demonstrated His Father’s agape love. This is “the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father,” that the disciples saw in Him [John 1:14]. He lived for the benefit of others; He actually became poor for our sakes, that we, through His poverty, might be rich [see 2 Corinthians 8:9].
There is no self-love in God’s love. This love, reproduced in the lives of Christians through the Holy Spirit, is the most powerful witness of the transforming, saving power of the gospel [see John 13:34-35].
The supreme manifestation of God’s self-sacrificing love was demonstrated on the cross when Jesus Christ died the second death for all humanity [see Hebrews 2:9]. The second death is the complete cessation of life; it is saying good-bye to life forever. It’s obvious that this is the death Jesus submitted to for us, since Christians who are justified in Christ still have to die the first death (the “sleep” death), but will be exempted from the second death [see Revelation 20:6]. On the cross, Jesus was willing to be deprived of life forever, not just for three days, so that we could live in His place. Such self-emptying love transformed His disciples. Before the cross, they were dominated by self-interest [see Luke 22:24]. After the cross, they were willing to follow Jesus’ example in sacrificing themselves for others. In the same way, when we see the self-sacrificing love of Jesus shining from the cross, we, too, will be transformed [see 2 Corinthians 5:14-15].
In summary, then, human love is conditional; God’s love is unconditional. Our human love is changeable; God’s love is changeless. Our human love is self-centered; God’s love is self-sacrificing. Not until we recognize this three-fold quality of God’s agape love will the gospel become unconditional good news to us. And not until we become “rooted and grounded” in His agape love will we be able to cast out all fear and serve Him with unselfish motives [see 1 John 4:7, 12, 16-18].
Agape and The Great Controversy
Satan’s rebellion against God in heaven was, in reality, a rebellion against God’s agape love, which was the principle underlying the law [see Matthew 22:36-40; Romans 13:10; Galatians 5:13-14]. Lucifer found the idea that love (agape) “is not self-seeking” [1 Corinthians 13:5] too restrictive. He rebelled and introduced the principle of self-love or eros [see Ezekiel 28:15; Isaiah 14:12-14]. Ever since his fall, Satan has hated the concept of self-sacrificing love. When God restored this principle to the human race through the preaching of the gospel, Satan naturally fought against it with all his might [see Revelation 12:10-12]. The very first thing he attacked in the Christian church was not the Sabbath or the state of the dead. His onslaughts against these truths came later, but he focused first on the concept of God’s agape love.
After the apostles passed from the scene, the leadership of the Christian church fell into the hands of the church “fathers.” Most of these men were of Greek origin, and they felt insulted that the New Testament writers had ignored what they considered to be the highest form of love — Plato’s “heavenly eros” — in favor of an obscure agape. They felt that, because the apostles of Jesus were all Jews (with the exception of Luke), they didn’t really understand the Greek language and that a correction needed to be made.
Marcion, who died around 160 A.D., was the first to attempt a change. Next, Origen, who died in 254 A.D., actually altered John’s sublime statement, “God is love [agape]” to “God is love [eros].” However, the battle didn’t end there. It continued until the time of Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa during the fourth century A.D. and one of the great “fathers” of Roman Catholic theology.
Augustine realized how futile it was simply to substitute eros for agape. Instead, he did something much more clever and dangerous. Using arguments from Greek logic, he combined the concept of agape with the idea of eros and produced a synthesis which he called, in Latin, caritas. (This is the source of our English word “charity,” which is the word the King James Version of the Bible most often uses to translate agape.)
Christendom accepted Augustine’s formulation, and caritas became the key definition of divine and Christian love in Roman Catholic theology. Since Augustine’s idea was a mixture of agape and eros, the gospel became perverted from “Not I, but Christ” [see Galatians 2:20] to “I plus Christ.” This concept of the gospel is still prevalent today. The moment the pure meaning of agape was corrupted, the gospel became perverted with self-love, and the Christian church lost its power and plunged into darkness. Not until the Reformation of the sixteenth century, when Martin Luther realized the problem and tried to undo Augustine’s synthesis, did the church begin to emerge into the light of the pure gospel once again. Unfortunately, the Christian church today is still, to a large degree, groping in the darkness, trying to understand the true meaning of agape and, thus, of the gospel.
The Three Gospels
So we see that there are three concepts of love: eros, or self-love; agape, or self-sacrificing love; and caritas, which is a mixture of self-love and self-sacrificing love. Each of these concepts of love has produced its own gospel.
The various religions of the pagans, who are steeped in eros, or self-love, are based on a gospel of works. As the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote: “Salvation is the movement of the creature toward God.” Plato, likewise, believed that God saves only the lovable. The eros gospel teaches that human beings must save themselves by pleasing God through sacrifices and good works. This is legalism, or salvation by works. It is the basis of all non-Christian religions.
The gospel based on caritas teaches that we must first show through our good works that we want to be saved, then, when God sees this evidence, He will meet us halfway and save us. In other words, we must do our best to meet God’s ideal, and Christ will make up the difference. The Galatian Christians fell into this trap [see Galatians 3:1-3], and so have many Christians today. The gospel of faith plus works, or justification plus sanctification, is at the heart of Roman Catholic theology. It is a subtle form of legalism.
The gospel of the Scriptures, however, is neither the eros gospel nor the caritas gospel. In complete contradiction to both, the apostles taught that, while we were helpless, ungodly sinners — even “enemies” — God demonstrated His agape love toward us through the death of His Son Jesus Christ, and that that death fully reconciled us to Him [see Romans 5:6-10]. This is the clear teaching of the New Testament on the gospel [see John 3:16; Ephesians 2:1-6; 1 Timothy 1:15; Titus 3:3-5]. The following diagram represents these three competing gospels:
Faith Plus Works
Both the eros gospel and the caritas gospel can be described as only conditional good news. Each depends on our fulfilling certain conditions before God extends His grace to us. Only the agape gospel is unconditional good news, resting solely on God’s undeserved favor. That is why this gospel turned the world upside down as the apostles went about proclaiming the glorious message of salvation in Jesus Christ [see Acts 17:6]. This is the same gospel that the world so desperately needs to hear today. This is the gospel that will lighten the earth with God’s glory before the end comes [see Matthew 24:14; Revelation 14:6-15; 18:1].
Agape and Self-Worth
One of the effects of sin in our lives is that it tends to produce a sense of low self-worth. Our modern, complex world with its competitive lifestyle has magnified this problem. One result is that those in the counseling business have more work than ever. I don’t minimize the value of counseling in certain situations. However, I hope in this book to introduce you to the “wonderful counselor” [Isaiah 9:6] who alone has a permanent solution for low self-esteem.
As we have already seen in chapter 1, the Bible puts little value on our sinful human natures. Jesus said to Nicodemus, whose religion put so much emphasis on human achievement, “Flesh gives birth to flesh” [John 3:6]. By this Jesus meant that our human nature of itself cannot produce anything that God considers good or meritorious [see Romans 7:18]. Everything we do, in and of ourselves, is polluted with self-love. That is why there is no one who is good, no one who is righteous, apart from Jesus Christ [see Romans 3:10-12].
For this reason, Paul warned the Philippian Christians not to have any confidence in the flesh [see Philippians 3:3]. Of course, all this is devastating to the human ego. It makes it very hard for us to face ourselves, much less God. The result is a poor self-image, low self-esteem. But the Bible also has good news for us, and that good news is God’s unconditional agape love. The only permanent solution to the problem of low self-esteem is a clear understanding of God’s unconditional love and His saving grace in Jesus Christ. He declares through Isaiah that, in spite of our sinfulness, He will make us more precious than the fine gold of Ophir [see Isaiah 13:12]. And He has done that in Jesus Christ, as we will see in the next chapter.