The biblical phrase “God is love” is sometimes used to chastise Christians for “condemning” people by teaching that certain behaviors are sinful. Of course the fact that “God is love” should affect everything we say and do, but before we can draw any conclusions from the phrase, we must first understand what God’s love looks like. Kevin DeYoung explains:
[W]e cannot settle for a culturally imported understanding of love. The steadfast love of God must not be confused with a blanket affirmation or an inspirational pep talk. No halfway responsible parent would ever think that loving her child means affirming his every desire and finding ways to fulfill whatever wishes he deems important. Parents generally know better what their kids really need, just like God always knows how we ought to live and who we ought to be. Christians cannot be tolerant of all things because God is not tolerant of all things. We can respect differing opinions and treat our opponents with civility, but we cannot give our unqualified, unconditional affirmation to every belief and behavior….
God is love, but this is quite different from affirming that our culture’s understanding of love must be God. “In this is love,” John wrote, “not that we have loved God but that he has loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Love is what God did in sending his Son to be our substitute on the cross (Rom. 5:8). Love is what we do when we keep Christ’s commands (John 14:15). Love is sharing with our brothers and sisters in need (1 John 3:16–18). Love is treating each other with kindness and patience (1 Cor. 13:4). Love is disciplining the wayward sinner (Prov. 3:11–12). Love is chastising the rebellious saint (Heb. 12:5–6). And love is throwing your arms around the prodigal son when he sees his sin, comes to his senses, and heads for home (Luke 15:17–24).
The God we worship is indeed a God of love. Which does not, according to any verse in the Bible, make sexual sin acceptable. But it does, by the witness of a thousand verses all over the Bible, make every one of our sexual sins changeable, redeemable, and wondrously forgivable.
God’s love does not look like “blanket affirmation.” This is what God’s love looks like:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we 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. (John 4:7-11)
God’s love didn’t affirm and celebrate everyone’s choices. God’s love acknowledged sin. God’s love suffered for the sins of others. God’s love sought repentance and redemption. In the same way, for Christians, the goal of warning people about sin isn’t to condemn, it’s to redeem.
It’s easy to affirm someone’s behavior and go on your way. It’s much harder to act as Jean Lloyd exhorts us to act in an article about her former sexual sin:
Although I appreciate the desire to act in love, [automatic affirmation] isn’t the genuine love that people like me need. Love me better than that! … Don’t compromise truth; help me to live in harmony with it.
This cry should be echoed by each and every one of us, because each of us is a sinner living among sinners. Loving in this way involves effort, sacrifice, and sometimes even suffering. But how can we do less when the love of God suffered for others?