Testosterone and estrogen…pheromones, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin…oxytocin and vasopressin….
—“Love, Biological basis,” Wikipedia (2013)
The Internet abounds with descriptions and definitions of love. Most center on emotion; some include acceptance and commitment. Love is…
- Deeply euphoric.
- Passionate desire and longing.
- An innocent fluttering feeling.
- A deep, tender, ineffable feeling of affection and solicitude.
- Unconditional affection with no limits or conditions.
Ann Landers’ description also remains popular: “A friendship that has caught fire.”
While there is or can be some truth in these descriptions, they all lack a frame of reference. They lack foundation. They lack an absolute, objective standard in terms of which they can be applied, measured, or critiqued. After all, morphine can leave one in deep euphoria. Greed can rightly be called a passionate desire and longing. Freefall in a carnival ride induces a fluttering feeling. Something “ineffable” is by definition something beyond definition. And an expression like “no limits or conditions” must itself be conditioned, or it becomes license for unspeakable perversions and atrocities.
But what is true of these few definitions is true generally for any definition that humanism—in any of its forms—can propound. Whether we are speaking of secular humanism, which reduces love to biology and chemistry, or pantheistic humanism, which blurs all into One, we are in the end left without ethics, let alone an absolute model. We are left only with what is. And without an absolute ethical standard, what is, is “right.”
God Is Love
Scripture, however, grounds love in the holy Trinity. For Scripture, love begins among the Persons of the Triune God. From eternity the Father loves and rejoices in His Son. The Son loves and honors His Father. The Holy Spirit is the Personal, divine Breath breathed forth from Father to Son and from Son to Father. He is the living, existential Love shared between the Father and Son. In this Godhead there is perfect unity and therefore complete transparency and intimacy. Among these three Persons there is perfect communication, communion, and commitment.
When we consider God’s decrees for this world, we see more of this divine love in action. For the Father, wishing to honor His Son, planned a redemption and a history in which His Son would be the Hero. The Son, wishing to honor and glorify His Father, joyfully took up this role. Each understood that this plan included the Cross. The Father would give up His Son to divine wrath; the Son would suffer His Father’s wrath, all for the joy and glory that lay beyond. Each sacrificed to glorify the other. And the Spirit, being Himself divine Love, became the active Agent who makes all of this work. He glorifies the Son, so the Son can glorify His Father and the Father can glorify the Son (see John 14—17).
It is this eternal Love that God calls His people to in Christ. Jesus loved His Church, and gave Himself for it (Eph. 5:25). He calls us to love Him because He first loved us (1 Jn. 4:19). He commands us to love one another as He has loved us (John 13:34; 15:12). He defines and describes this love for us in Scripture.
Love and Law
Jesus inextricably intertwined true love with God’s law when He said that the two greatest commandments of God’s law are “Love God with all your heart” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In fact, He said that all the other commandments, indeed all of prophetic revelation, hang on (depend upon, develop, explain) these two great commandments (Matt. 22:34-40). Or, to put it the other way around, love works itself out in terms of the law of God revealed in all of Scripture.
Moderns and postmoderns often have a hard time with this. They connect love with spontaneity and deep emotion, not with obedience and duty. But consider what God’s law actually requires. The Ten Commandments, for example, tell us that we are to keep the vows and oaths we make to others; that we are to give those under our authority rest one day in seven; that we are to honor those in authority over us; that we are to protect the life, marriage, property, and reputation of our neighbor. The Tenth Commandment tells us that we are not even to harbor ill attitudes toward our neighbor. This is why Paul could write, “Love worketh no ill toward his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:8-10). Love keeps the commandments of God with regard to other people. Love serves others and so fulfills the law of God (Gal. 5:13-14).
In Scripture, love is clearly “more than a feeling”… it is an evangelical virtue. It is the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), something wrought in the human heart by God’s grace. Paul describes love at length in 1 Corinthians 13: “Charity” or love (agape) surpasses all the gifts of speech, knowledge, and supernatural faith. It surpasses acts of martyrdom and public benevolence (what we usually call “charity”). Charity suffers long; is kind; does not envy; does not put itself forward; does not behave itself in an unseemly fashion; does not seek its own interests; is not easily provoked; does not think evil of others without just cause; does not delight in wickedness, but rather delights in the truth. Charity does not fail. Charity is greater than faith or hope, because charity is divine and eternal. There is nothing here of sloppy sentiment or uncontrollable passion. True love—agape—seeks the best interests of the one loved, even at great personal cost. (For Jesus, it meant the Cross.) Love plays by the rules. Love keeps the commandments of God (1 Jn. 5:2-3).
Godly Romantic Love
Scripture, of course, recognizes that love is of various sorts. We love our friends, our parents, and our children. These all have an important place in God’s kingdom. But romantic love, the love between a husband and wife, ought to be the fiercest and toughest of all human loves. Solomon, in his Song of Songs, describes this love with these words:
Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.
In the ancient world, seals marked ownership in a public way. They also warned against interference and tampering. Commentator Dennis F. Kinlaw writes this:
An engraved stone or metal seal was a mark of ownership in the ancient world. Possession of another’s seal indicated mutual access and possession. [The Bride’s] love is so total and so strong that she wants their mutual possession of each other to be as lasting as life. It is a strongly poetic demand for “until death do us part.”
“Love is as strong as death,” Solomon says. Nothing but God Himself can dissolve it.
When Solomon speaks of jealousy, he doesn’t mean suspicion or enslaving possessiveness. Jealousy here is zeal or ardor in protecting the bond of marital love. The man who is jealous for his wife, the wife who is jealous for her husband, will guard their relationship on every hand, will chase away interlopers, and will allow no sin or seducer to dim its passion. Such jealousy is as cruel or hard as the grave. It will no more yield to meddling or manipulation than the cemetery will release its dead to life.
Such love is like fire, fiercely alive with power and energy. Love acts. It moves; it encourages; it creates; it builds; it nourishes. It is never quiescent or stale, never self-absorbed or bent inward. Love is fruitful, like God Himself.
True love can’t be bought off. Not for a million dollars. Not for all the gold that used to be in Fort Knox. Obviously, then, it shouldn’t be betrayed for convenience or pleasure or fame or advancement. It’s beyond price, and the godly man and woman will regard it as such.
True love is rooted in and modeled after divine love—first, the love shared among the Persons of the Trinity; second, God’s love to His people in Christ. Husband and wife are to play out on a finite and imperfect level the love between Christ and His Church. The Bible explains what this means in practical terms. The Spirit-empowered gospel makes such love possible and real.
For Further Reading:
Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991 reprint).
Dennis F. Kinlaw, “Song of Songs,” Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994).
William Kirk Kilpatrick, “Love” in Psychological Seduction (New York: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983).
Greg L. Bahnsen, “Theonomy and Grace, Faith, Love” in Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1977).
J. I. Packer, Keeping the Ten Commandments (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007).