Love – definition

Love is the Essence of God's Character
Correctly understanding these terms leads to a better
understanding of the character of God and the Gospel.

Love is defined in a practical way by the life and words of Jesus Who came to show the true meaning of “God is love” (1 John 4:8). From the perspective of the two models of the gospel, the “definitions” below point out the major difference in how God’s love functions toward sinners.

Traditional Legal Model – Because of God’s love, He sent His Son to pay the legal penalty of death so that He could forgive and save us.

Biblical Healing Model – Because God loves us, He forgives us unconditionally, holds nothing against us and sent His Son to show what that love is like.

“In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.” (1 John 4:9)

Notice that, in the Healing Model, the forgiveness came even before Jesus was sent (and came willingly). Because of the hardness of hearts, that revelation of His Father’s love was almost entirely rejected with the result that wicked men betrayed and murdered Him (Acts 7:52).

From a Modern Dictionary

Love (noun)
1. a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person.
2. a feeling of warm personal attachment or deep affection, as for a parent, child, or friend.
3. sexual passion or desire.
(These are the first of 28 listings for love at, accessed Mar. 8, 2018)

Webster’s 1828 Dictionary

Love (noun)
An affection of the mind excited by beauty and worth of any kind, or by the qualities of an object which communicate pleasure, sensual or intellectual.

The love of God is the first duty of man, and this springs from just views of his attributes or excellencies of character, which afford the highest delight to the sanctified heart. Esteem and reverence constitute ingredients in this affection, and a fear of offending him is its inseparable effect.
(, accessed Mar. 8, 2018)

The Love of God

God’s love is unselfish and unconditional; self-sacrificing is the term. Its quality comes from the character and principles of the One doing the loving not from the value, merit or behavior of the object of the love:

“For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth. The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: But because the LORD loved you …” (Deut 7:6-8)

“For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:7-8)

Force not Compatible With Love

It is vitally important to understand that love cannot be won by force or threats of force – that never works. God can “command” us to love Him in the sense of telling us it is the best thing to do but as soon as there is a threat of force, trust is broken. It is often reasoned that God could have eliminated Lucifer when sin first sprang up in his heart but then all of God’s other created sentient beings would have only served Him (if they would at all) out of fear. Love must grant re free will and continue to honor it.

The Best Picture of Love

This is seen in the life of Jesus and how He treated others in so many situations. More than once, He said His life was to show what the Father is like. Sometimes called the love chapter, 1 Corinthians chapter 13 describes the characteristics of agape love:

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” (1 Cor 13:1-7)

The KJV translators used “charity” to translate “agape,” especially in this chapter, to emphasize that agape is a selfless, giving love.

“Only One Word for Love in English?”

Something often said is that “There is only one word for love in English” which is, of course, almost silliness. There is only one word for any word in any language – that word. The saying, in spiritual circles, is used to make the point that there are multiple original Greek words translated as love.

Agape – self-sacrificing; based on decision and principle
Eros* – erotic, sensual
Phileo – for close family, friends; emotion-based
Storgah* – for general acquaintances, relatives, pets
(*Not used in the Bible.)

In English, there are a great number of words (many more than the four we know of in Greek) that are close in meaning to love; on-line dictionaries list dozens of synonyms.

Phileo represents a sentimental love based on feelings and emotions.

“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.” (Matt 6:5)

Agape is a love based on principle, on doing the right thing because it is right. It is the love that the Bible says we should have even towards our enemies.

“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;” (Matt 5:44)

It helps me to understand that I am to have a principle-based love for everyone, meaning I always treat them with respect, honor their freedom, wish the best for them and would benefit them where I could without necessarily having to like what they do or stand for. (Let’s face it, some people do not even try to be likeable.) Agape separates feelings from actions; it is based on principle.

God’s Love in Relation to His Law

Some laws, at least physical laws (for example gravity), are needed keep the universe running. If God is agape love in the ultimate sense, then it would make sense that His laws are all made primarily for our good and happiness before His.

Let’s consider a few that might, at first glance, seem to be otherwise.

Love God first. Of all the rules, laws, whatever you might call them, when Jesus was asked “which is the great commandment in the law?” He answered:

“… Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.” (Matt 22:37-38)

Is God saying “Love Me first”? Does that sound selfish? Is it love me or else? If all of God’s laws are for our benefit then we will definitely be blessed if we keep them. However, it is love for the lawgiver (and knowledge that His ways are best, that He truly does love us and wants our happiness) that will give us the incentive to even want to keep them. If we don’t love God, we will not have the appreciation and respect for Him that will make us want to keep His laws. The result of that would be our unhappiness and disappointment for God. Not because He has not been obeyed but because we are not as happy as we could be. He is concerned for us not for Himself.

Do not worship idols. Not only does God tell us to love Him but He does not seem to like competition:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God …” (Exo 20:4-5)

 The problem is that we tend to become like the God(s) we worship; we admire and try to emulate whatever we see to be of value.

“They that make them (idols) are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.” (Psa 115:8)

That can get pretty silly too:

“He burneth part (of a piece of wood) thereof in the fire; with part thereof he eateth flesh; he roasteth roast, and is satisfied: yea, he warmeth himself, and saith, Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire:  And the residue thereof he maketh a god, even his graven image: he falleth down unto it, and worshippeth it, and prayeth unto it, and saith, Deliver me; for thou art my god.” (Isa 44:16-17)

God is simply trying to protect us from such folly when He says to not worship idols. He wants us to trust in Him because only He can provide for our needs and make us truly happy.

High and Lifted Up

Here is one verse which sounds like God occupying a highly-exalted and even physically-high position.

“In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.” (Isa 6:1)

Is He trying to exalt Himself or impress us with His appearance? He does give people glimpses of His glory in vision especially when they need to be reminded that He is managing events in times of crisis. But that phrase “high and lifted up” is interesting. The only other use of it in scripture is:

“And upon all the cedars of Lebanon, that are high and lifted up, and upon all the oaks of Bashan,” (Isa 2:13)

In both cases, the phrase is the same in the original and is the passive form. The cedars are certainly not responsible for lifting themselves up. In the case of Isaiah’s vision, it seems likely that the throne of God is lifted up by angels (Eze 10:1 etc.). It seems that God is not exalting Himself so much as the angels who so admire His wonderful character are exalting Him.

Some Additional Thoughts

The opposite of agape love is not hate, but selfishness.

Carried to their extremes, agape love and selfishness look like this:

Agape love – I am willing to die that you might life.

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

Selfishness – I am willing to kill you that I might live.

We deserve love because of who we are, not because of anything we do or have done, not because of our faith, our heritage, our income, our position, our reputation or any other aspect of our lives. We deserve love because we were made by a God Who designed us to receive love and He will never stop trying to give His love to us. The question is: “will we recognize how loving He is and accept His love?”


As love cannot function when backed by force or threats of force, God has used a demonstration in the life and self-sacrificing death of His Son to attract us to Him.

“We love him, because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

It is not us loving Him for fear of punishment or even for hope of reward but only a response to what He has done that will help us to truly love Him and others.

Don’t miss the point that all of God’s law is meant for our good, not for His. Understanding this will make a difference when you attempt to understand His law.

While this glossary is meant as a reference work, the logical order in trying to understand the character of God and the gospel is to start with love and then look at law. Go to the entry for law in the glossary.

Go to The Character of God and the Gospel Glossary

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