The words “LOVE WINS” were scrawled across the steps of the Dane County Courthouse a little over a year ago when Judge Barbara Crabb declared the Marriage Protection Amendment to be in violation of the U.S. constitution. The amendment, which was passed by both houses of the Wisconsin legislature in two consecutive sessions and then by a nearly 60% majority of the voters in 2006 had withstood legal challenges almost from its inception. However, once it was declared unconstitutional, the state of Wisconsin entered a state of legal limbo with respect to same-sex unions. Today, the US Supreme Court effectively removed any question by declaring that individual states do not have the right to define marriage for themselves. I have been thinking about this new situation and its implications for our society and for the church, and I wonder if those words written with chalk on the courthouse steps are really true. Does love win when men are able to marry men and women are able to marry women? Many would say yes, tweeting out their approval with hash tags such as #loveislove, but when the definition of something becomes nothing more than a tautology then the thing really becomes meaningless. In other words, if love is love, then love is nothing and everything at the same time.
When love is conceived in this way, it quickly becomes self-centered and individualistic, characterized by a consumer mentality, a fear of meaningful commitment, and a skepticism toward any other conception of love. Love is self-centered when it demands acceptance and the freedom of expression, loving the way someone makes us feel more than actually loving that someone himself. It is individualistic when the purpose of love and life becomes our own, personal happiness, and we learn to negotiate every relationship according to our own individual values and desires. Of course, as our goals and desires change we are forced to renegotiate those same relationships, and so love becomes consumeristic as we do everything we can to maximize our profit. As consumers, the object of our “love” must be evaluated according to size, appearance, and performance so that we can choose the best one on the market within our purchasing power. In all of this, we must be free to continually reassess the wisdom of our purchase, since buyer’s remorse is an ever-present threat, so we tend to gravitate toward a commitment-less love. After all, if we are bound by contract to a prior purchase, it becomes that much harder to renegotiate more favorable terms as our needs and desires change. Instead of remaining committed to a love we have professed, our relationships become a function of whatever is currently advantageous to us. And once we have thus defined “love,” any attempt to anchor love to a truth-claim becomes too restrictive and unacceptable. How can we pursue complete acceptance, our personal happiness, maximum profitability, and the fulfillment of our ever-changing desires within the bounds of an unchanging and settled truth? As church elder Jonathan Leeman put it: “The opposite of love, according to our thinking today, is judgmentalism, intolerance, or exclusivism, like racists, homophobes, and boundary-drawing churches. On the other hand, I know that you love me if you accept me as I am, and tolerate whatever I say or think without condemning it. In fact, loving me means more than just accepting me; it means accepting and affirming my lifestyle decisions as legitimate and good.” As Christians, we ought to define love as the Bible does, no matter how counter-cultural that may be, so let’s consider a biblical perspective of love.
The social networking hashtag #LoveIsLove is a symbol of the campaign for so-called “love equality,” and is used in statements such as “No matter what gender, race or age #LoveIsLove” and “Love sees no race, gender or age. #LoveIsLove. Deal with it.” But rather than offer us a definition by which we can measure and identify genuine love, statements such as these portray love as a malleable and ultimately meaningless concept which applies to any and every kind of relationship, so long as the individual chooses to call it love. The Bible, on the other hand, would suggest a slightly different hashtag, #GodIsLove. But even though this statement is objectively true (1 John 4:8), it still comes very short of a real definition of love, which the Scriptures reveal to be as complex and multifaceted as the #LoveIsLove hashtag is simplistic and pointless.
D. A. Carson, in his book entitled The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, identifies 5 different ways in which the Scriptures of the love of God:
The peculiar love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father – Carson notes that this intra-Trinitarian love distinguishes the God of the Bible from all other gods, and is a key component in God’s revelation of himself through the Son (John 5:16-30) and in the redemption of mankind (John 3:16-17). This aspect of God’s love runs contrary to the individualistic and self-centered concept of love embraced by much of our culture in that it is inherently other-oriented. It is worth noting that Jesus never demanded the Father’s acceptance or the freedom to express himself as an individual. In fact, just the opposite is true. Jesus declared that he could do nothing of himself, and that he only sought to do the Father’s will. For his part, the Father sent the Son and gave him work to do, fully expecting the Son’s obedience and submission. The Father’s love for the Son is reflected in the commands he has given, and the Son’s love for the Father is demonstrated in his obedience to those commands (John 15:10).
God’s providential love over all that he has made – Carson admits that this aspect of God’s love is usually not called love in the Bible, but can be clearly identified as such without using the term. God created everything, and then, before the corruption of sin entered in, he called his entire creation “very good” (Gen. 1:31). All of creation is the product of a loving God, who with providential care supplies every need of even the smallest creatures (Matt. 6:26) and plants (v.30). And this facet of love flies in the face of our consumer-driven culture by directing attention away from our felt needs and toward the One who so lovingly meets those needs. We are not set free from worry by devaluing temporal things but by trusting in the loving God who knows that we “need all these things” (Matt. 6:32).
God’s salvific stance toward his fallen world – Jesus expressed this aspect of God’s love very clearly when he said, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). This aspect of love runs contrary to our tendency to evaluate relationships and decisions based on maximizing profit. Carson explains that the term “world” as John uses it speaks “primarily the moral order in willful and culpable rebellion against God” (p.17). In other words, Jesus was saying that God loved this morally corrupt and stubbornly rebellious world, not because of the profitability of such a love, but in spite of its cost. God’s love for the world is not based on any inherent lovable-ness in it, and so this aspect of his love is especially difficult for us to understand. Though God stands against the world in judgment, he offers mercy to all who will repent, “’As I live,’ says the Lord God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live’” (Ezekiel 33:11).
God’s particular, effective, selecting love toward the elect – God sets his love on his people in a way in which he does not set his love on others. Moses told Israel in Deuteronomy 10:14-15, “Indeed heaven and the highest heavens belong to the LORD your God, also the earth with all that is in it. The LORD delighted only in your fathers, to love them; and He chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as it is this day.” In this way, God’s love is discriminating between his people and all others, and this is also expressed in the NT in Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her.” A husband offers love to his wife in a way that he does not offer to any other person on earth, indeed, to offer the same love to another individual is immoral, and this discriminating love leads one to give of himself for the benefit of another. This aspect of God’s love is specifically declared to be isolated from any sense of merit on the part of the elect. Paul states in Romans 9:13, “As it is written, ‘Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.’” Yet this determination by God to choose Jacob instead of Esau was done before birth, before either one had done good or bad. Seen in this way, God’s love carries no potential for buyer’s remorse or prospect of renegotiation, and as such it is offensive to our way of thinking. Rather than dissolving his commitment to those he has chosen and seeking a more worthy recipient, he steadfastly commits himself to the object of his love.
God’s love is sometimes said to be directed toward his own people in a provisional or conditional way, based on obedience – This aspect of God’s love has nothing to do with how we enter into a relationship with him, but with how we relate to him once we become his children. Jude 21 exhorts us to “keep [ourselves] in the love of God,” suggesting that it is possible that a believer might not keep himself in the love of God. Jesus says something similar in John 15:9, “As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love.” Clearly, according to Jesus’ teaching it is possible for a disciple to fail to abide in his love, but what aspect of love is this? It cannot be God’s providential love, for that extends to all of the creation, nor his salvific love for the world or his special love for the elect, for one cannot walk away from that love. No, this aspect of God’s love informs the relationship of all those who know him, as the Psalmist declares, “the mercy [i.e. love] of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children’s children, to such as keep His covenant, and to those who remember His commandments to do them” (103:17-18). In this sense, the love of God cannot be separated from his righteous standard of truth, for we must obey him even as Christ obeyed the Father, “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love” (John 15:10).
I have shared all of this to show that the popular understanding of love, which has been embraced by such a large segment of our society is in direct contradiction to the Scriptural teaching on the nature of love as it is revealed in God himself. To return to the original question of this post, “Does love win when men are able to marry men and women are able to marry women?” The answer clearly is no, because love defined biblically always goes hand in hand with the truth. God’s love and his wrath are both directed toward sinners at the same time, so that he simultaneously condemns and loves his rebellious creatures. Love wins when we confess that we have offended our holy and righteous Creator, turn from our sinful rebellion and trust in Christ, who lovingly sacrificed himself to provide mercy and forgiveness for all mankind. Love wins as we learn to walk in fellowship with our heavenly Father, obeying his commands and seeking to do his will, by which he transforms us into the image of his dear Son.