God is love. You’ve heard it a thousand times from individuals who really mean “my idea of love is god.” And if you’ve heard this statement used in this way, you’ve probably heard the same person question a view of God that allows for his wrath and justice.

The question is, are they exclusive (not the people – the atributes of God)? Can God be both loving and just? I suppose a further question could be raised: Can I even ask these questions? I have spoken with folks who say that beyond “God is love”, we can’t really define God if we remain biblical. (Nevermind every book in the Bible that ascribes or implies things about the Lord… but I digress.)

A while back I realized that we are given catagories besides love even in this verse with which to understand God. In fact, it is necessary in order to understand “God is love” that we think of him as holy. The context of “God is love” demands it.

“…God is love. 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 propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:8b-10, ESV)

So a critical part of “God is love” is how we know it, that is, in the person of Christ. This seems obvious, but apart from God’s sending his Son we would not know him as loving – we would still be children of wrath. But notice the emphasis of this loving incarnation is on the propitiatory work of Christ! The love of God is known through the coming and sacrifice of Christ to take away the wrath of God and make us pleasing to him.

Why is it so important that God’s love is tied to propitiation? Plainly, his wrath is what is expiated, carried away, with Christ’s sacrifice. Why is God wrathful towards us? We are sinners, hopelessly corrupt in our ungodliness and unrighteousness. God is rightfully furious against us in ungodliness and unrighteousness because he is perfectly holy and good. So the banner statement of “God is love”, is couched in the context of God’s holiness here by John.

I suppose that leaves us with a little more to consider when we causually reference God’s love. His love really isn’t seperated from the majesty of the rest of his character. When talking with my pastor recently about this, he said it well: any understanding of ‘God is love’ that denies his wrath is biblically unsatisfactory. (Note the lack of quote marks there.)

So, the next time someone beats you with the prooftext stick of “God is love”, lovingly ask them read a little further, and explain propitiation with the “my idea of love is god” theology.