St. John’s twice-repeated statement, “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8, 16), is one of the most tremendous utterances in the Bible—and also one of the most misunderstood. False ideas have grown up round it like a hedge of thorns, hiding its real meaning from view, and it is no small task cutting through this tangle of mental undergrowth. Yet the hard thought involved is more than repaid when the true sense of these texts comes home to the Christian soul. Those who climb Scotland’s Ben Nevis do not complain of their labor once they see the view from the top!
Happy indeed are those who can say, as John says in the sentence preceding the second “God is love,” “we know and rely on the love God has for us” (v. 16). To know God’s love is indeed heaven on earth. And the New Testament sets forth this knowledge, not as the privilege of a favored few, but as a normal part of ordinary Christian experience, something to which only the spiritually unhealthy or malformed will be strangers. When Paul says, “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Rom 5:5 KJV), he means not love for God, as Augustine thought, but knowledge of God’s love for us. And though he had never met the Roman Christians to whom he was writing, he took it for granted that the statement would be as true of them as it was of him.
A FLOOD OF LOVE
Three points in Paul’s words deserve comment. First, notice the verb shed abroad. It means literally poured (or dumped) out. It is the word used of the “outpouring” of the Spirit himself in Acts 2:17-18, 33; 10:45; Titus 3:6. It suggests a free flow and a large quantity—in fact, an inundation. Hence the rendering of the NEB, “God’s love has flooded our inmost heart.” Paul is not talking of faint and fitful impressions, but of deep and overwhelming ones.
Then, second, notice the tense of the verb. It is in the perfect, which implies a settled state consequent upon a completed action. The thought is that knowledge of the love of God, having flooded our hearts, fills them now, just as a valley once flooded remains full of water. Paul assumes that all his readers, like himself, will be living in the enjoyment of a strong and abiding sense of God’s love for them.
Third, notice that the instilling of this knowledge is described as part of the regular ministry of the Spirit to those who receive him—to all, that is, who are born again, all who are true believers. One could wish that this aspect of his ministry was prized more highly than it is at the present time. With a perversity as pathetic as it is impoverishing, we have become preoccupied today with the extraordinary, sporadic, nonuniversal ministries of the Spirit to the neglect of the ordinary, general ones. Thus, we show a great deal more interest in the gifts of healing and tongues—gifts of which, as Paul pointed out, not all Christians are meant to partake anyway (1 Cor 12:28-30)—than in the Spirit’s ordinary work of giving peace, joy, hope and love, through the shedding abroad in our hearts of knowledge of the love of God. Yet the latter is much more important than the former. To the Corinthians, who had taken it for granted that the more tongues the merrier, and the godlier too, Paul had to insist that without love—sanctification, Christlikeness—tongues were worth precisely nothing (1 Cor 13:1-3).
Paul would undoubtedly see reason to issue a similar caveat today. It will be tragic if the concern for revival that is stirring at the present time in many places gets diverted into the cul-de-sac of a new Corinthianism. The best thing Paul could desire for the Ephesians in connection with the Spirit was that he might continue toward them the Romans 5:5 ministry with ever-increasing power, leading them deeper and deeper into knowledge of the love of God in Christ. The NEB rendering of Ephesians 3:14-16 is somewhat free but brings the sense out well: “I kneel in prayer to the Father . . . that . . . he may grant you strength and power through his Spirit in your inner being. . . . May you be strong to grasp, with all God’s people, what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ, and to know it, though it is beyond knowledge.”
Revival means the work of God restoring to a moribund church, in a manner out of the ordinary, those standards of Christian life and experience which the New Testament sets forth as being entirely ordinary; and a right-minded concern for revival will express itself not in a hankering after tongues (ultimately it is of no importance whether we speak in tongues or not), but rather in a longing that the Spirit may shed God’s love abroad in our hearts with greater power. For it is with this (to which deep exercise of soul about sin is often preliminary) that personal revival begins, and by this that revival in the church, once begun, is sustained.
Our aim in this chapter is to show the nature of the divine love which the Spirit sheds abroad. For this purpose we focus attention on John’s great assertion that God is love: that, in other words, the love which he shows to humanity, and which Christians know and rejoice in, is a revelation of his own inner being. Our theme will lead us as deep into the mystery of God’s nature as the human mind can go, deeper than any of our previous studies have taken us.
When we looked at God’s wisdom, we saw something of his mind; when we thought of his power, we saw something of his hand and his arm; when we considered his word, we learned about his mouth; but now, contemplating his love, we are to look into his heart.
J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Westmont, IL: IVP Books, 2011).