Love is love?

For many in our world, love is the ultimate fix-all concept. The mantra ‘Love is love’ essentially means we’re to love everyone regardless of race, gender, religion, behaviour and lifestyle. Loving tolerance is considered the great cure for humanity’s ills. Yet those who repeat this great-sounding ideology will, at the same time, demand justice in an evil world where others act in destructive ways, especially when such damaging behaviour affects them personally. The notion of an all-accepting love quickly vanishes to be replaced by vengeful hatred in the pursuit of justice at all costs. It seems it’s either love or justice, doesn’t it? Fallen human ideologies that leave God out of the equation will always fail to achieve optimal outcomes. Such improperly defined human ‘love’ and human ‘justice’ are doomed to failure.

God is love and God is a righteous judge

When we stop to consider the real love and justice that are intrinsic aspects of God’s essential being, we learn how it is possible for love and justice to co-exist in perfection. Unlike humans, God is the fullness of all His glorious attributes all the time. One aspect of God’s character cannot, and does not, overwhelm another; He is infinitely perfect in all His eternal qualities. For God to lack any characteristic of His being, or to compromise His perfections, would be a denial of His own unique holiness.

The Bible tells us that God is love(1) while at the same time revealing Him as God is a righteous judge.(2) As we read Scripture, we see the perfection of divine love operating fully and concurrently with the perfection of divine justice.

The waiting God

Let’s explore this further by starting with a text from Isaiah:

Therefore the LORD longs [lit. waits] to be gracious to you,
And therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you.
For the LORD is a God of justice;
How blessed are all those who long
[lit. wait] for him.(3)

God was speaking through the prophet Isaiah to the people of Jerusalem who were facing the approaching violence of the Assyrian army in the late 8th Century BC, during the time of Hezekiah’s reign. Despite Israel’s history being littered with miraculous deliverances, the people of this generation were making an alliance with Egypt in the hope that they could stand together against the immense Assyrian threat; they were refusing to trust in ‘the LORD’ who had proven Himself repeatedly in the past.

In patient mercy God invited Israel to renew their trust in Him,

“In repentance and rest you will be saved,
In quietness and trust is your strength,”

and Isaiah observed their response:

But you were not willing.(5)

Such sinful rebellion requires God to intervene in judgment; He must uphold the honour of His own name. Yet, God will always remain faithful to His declared promises to rescue His people! He will wait for the right time to bring judgment and redemption, to reveal His love and justice.

Isaiah was reminding the rebels of God’s patient compassion and their opportunity to repent and trust. We hear God’s revelation of Himself to Moses at Sinai, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in faithfulness and truth,”(6) quoted by Jonah, earlier in the 8th Century BC, when he was disgusted at Yahweh’s mercy towards the barbaric Assyrians! God is patient, and even the most wicked of people can repent and be saved. The rebels of Israel were likewise guilty, and needed to repent and trust!

Isaiah was also reminding the minority who did trust in God that He was waiting for His time when it would be appropriate to reveal His love and justice. The trusting minority were suffering deprivation because of the majority’s rejection of God. Surely God must intervene soon, to remove the unbelievers and bring about His promises of peaceful prosperity? That’s what they hoped for, but they were told to wait patiently for the waiting God, who would act according to His own sovereign purpose and will, in His own time.

God’s redemption timetable

Throughout Scripture, in the salvation and redemption of His people, God acts according to His own purpose and timescale. We’re told, when the fullness of the time came, God sent His Son, born of a woman… so that he might redeem,(7) that while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly(8) and that the man Christ Jesus who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.(9) You can’t hurry love, especially when God is at work.

God had an appointed time when His perfect justice and His eternal love would be displayed in the sending and giving of His Son. Jesus Christ lived to God’s timetable, progressing towards ‘His hour’,(10) the eternal appointment when He would give Himself on the cross to be the Saviour of His people.

God’s perfect justice and love proclaimed at the cross

God brought His holy judgment against believers’ sin down on Jesus. He was the perfect man who never sinned and who now offered Himself as a substitute to bear His people’s sin. As perfect man He voluntarily took the sin of others, since He had no sin of His own for which He must be judged. As the eternal Son of God, He was able to bear the infinite wrath of God against sin. He is therefore the only Saviour!(11)

Paul writes about this in Romans 3:24-26, where he says,

the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in God’s merciful restraint He let the sins previously committed go unpunished; for the demonstration, that is, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

And all of this is because of the eternal love of God towards His people, chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world.(12) The death of Christ on the cross was the single greatest act of self-sacrificing love which, at the same time, satisfied God’s wrath against His people’s sin. God’s love and justice co-exist at the cross, to be enjoyed by all who believe. Only through the cross is God able to forgive guilty sinners and bring them into the fullness of His love.

The judgement to come

For sinners who continue to rebel against God, eternal punitive justice awaits: it is destined for people to die once, and after this comes judgement.(13) Yet God waits patiently:

God is now proclaiming to mankind that all people everywhere are to repent, because He has set a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed.(14)

It is the responsibility of believers to speak of both God’s love and God’s justice so that some will be saved. To minimise God’s justice and His judgement against sin in our conversations and preaching is to erode the Gospel of its power. Many happily speak about ‘God is love’ today, and only give one side of the story of the cross – “a wonderful act of sacrifice” – that denies the full reason for which Christ died. Let’s be careful to speak of righteousness, self-control, and the judgement to come(15) and take people to the cross where saving love is revealed in all of its eternal glory.

Leave room for the wrath of God

For His eternally-loved people, God will bring about a new heaven and new earth in which righteousness dwells, where there is no longer any sin – a place of eternal safety from all evil.(16) What a consummate and unending act of love!

Until then, the redeemed of the Lord are to continue to wait for Him, trusting that His promises of ultimate justice and love are certainly coming. There is a day when the evil that affects so many believers – through persecution, oppression and hardship – will be judged by the one with all power and authority. He will also usher into existence a whole new world order. As Isaiah said, How blessed are all those who long [lit. wait] for Him.(17)

Paul exhorted the believers in Rome:

Never repay evil for evil to anyone… Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,’ says the Lord.(18)

In the face of suffering and persecution we continue to trust in the God of love and justice who works all things in accordance with the plan of His will,(19) looking forward to final justice being served and the eternal presence of God being among His redeemed people in the new creation for eternity. Perfect justice and perfect love await!

References: (1) 1 John 4:8 (2) Ps. 7:11 (3) Is. 30:18 (4) Is. 30:15a (5) Is. 30:15b (6) Ex. 34:6 (7) Gal. 4:4-5 (8) Rom. 5:6 (9) 1 Tim. 2:5-6 (10) see John 2:4; 7:6,8,30; 8:20 (11) see Is. 53:4-12; 1 Pet. 2:24; 1 Cor. 15:3; Heb. 9:28 (12) Eph. 1:4 (13) Heb. 9:27 (14) Acts 17:30-31 (15) see Acts 24:24-25 (16) 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21-22 (17) Is. 30:18d (18) Rom. 12:17,19 (19) Eph. 1:11

David Woods, Manchester, England

Bible quotations from the NASB 2020