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October 2021 Credo

In the first epistle of John, we find one of the most profound statements about God in the whole of Scripture: “God is love” (4:8). Love is the very essence of God. Love sums up His whole being. Love is what God immutably is.

This assertion is radical because no other religion apart from the Judeo-Christian faith has this understanding of God. So profound is this proposition that the German theologian of the last century, Emil Brunner, could say that this “is the most daring statement that has ever been made in human language”. [1]

The Apostle of love goes on to write: “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (4:11). The love that we have received from God should spur us to love one another.

John uses the same Greek word—agape—to describe God’s love for us and our love for each other. This suggests that we should love one another in the same way that we have been loved by God!

In his fascinating book Love Within Limits, Lewis Smedes describes agapic love as “the power that moves us to respond to a neighbour’s need with no expectation of reward… It is not interested in the odds of getting some self-satisfaction in return for its efforts”.[2]

Other types of love expect some reciprocity for their object. But according to Lewis, agapic love is different in that it “is not a seeking, grasping, holding love, but a giving love, a love that lets go. It is not the love of need, but the love of power. It is the power to move us toward another person with no expectation of reward”.[3]

Is it really possible for human beings to love unconditionally in this way? Can a human love ever reflect God’s love?

To many modern ears this idea of love sounds a little too quixotic. Such selfless love sounds somewhat surreal, the stuff of pious talk, maybe, but in actual fact far removed from our common experience.

To be sure, such love is indeed impossible if we were to rely on our own resources. The great fifth century theologian, Augustine, describes the fallen human being as homo incurvatus in se, a person who—as it were—is curved in on himself, totally self-absorbed. The sinner is driven by self-interest. And this manic egoism distorts the way the sinner sees the other.  He does not regard the other as an end in himself or herself (i.e., as someone to be loved), but as a means to an end (i.e., as someone who can be manipulated and used).

The true source of agapic love, John tells us, is God. God’s love is the source from which all real love flows. And by God’s grace, those who believe in him have the ability to display—to some extent, at least—His exceptional love in their lives.

And yet, the love that grace makes possible in the Christian is always also a task. It is a command that the Christian must strain to obey (1 John 4:21).

John stresses that loving one another in this way is important because it authenticates our love for God. “If any one says, ‘I love God’, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother who he has seen, cannot love God who he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).

But for John, the love that Christians have for each other is also important in another sense. It is a compelling form of Christian witness. Our love for one another shows that God abides (KJV: “dwells”; NIV: “lives”) in us (4:12). In other words, by our love we show that God is real!

This was how the early Christians bore witness to Christ to their pagan neighbours. Tertullian describes this in a famous passage in The Apology:

It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See how they love one another, they say, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready to die for one another, they say, for they themselves will sooner be put to death.[4]

And this also how Christians today must proclaim Christ to the cultured-despisers of Christianity.


[1] Emil Brunner, Dogmatics, Vol 1, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1950), 185.
[2] Lewis Smedes, Love Within Limits: Realising Selfless Love in a Selfish World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), 126.
[3] Ibid, 21.
[4] Tertullian, The Apology, 39.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.