What is This Thing Called Love?


What is this thing called love?
This funny thing called love?
Just who can solve its mystery?
Why should it make a fool of me?

Cole Porter wrote the lyrics. Frank Sinatra sang the song. This gem out of the great American songbook captures something of the age-old quest for the meaning of love. Yet today love is nearly the most vexed word in the English language, taking second place only to the word God, which has been the most defiled by ignorance and arrogant redefinition. Given that love now supposedly justifies same-sex marriage and other sexual engagements outside of heterosexual marriage, let us consider its meaning.

Love is love, we are told, as if this argued in favor of same-sex marriage. Love is a human emotion, but that does not ground it in moral reality. As St. Augustine argued long ago in The City of God, our loves are warped by sin. As he writes in The City of God, chapter 28:

Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.  The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord.  For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience.  The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, “Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head.”

We may love the temporal more than the eternal, the flesh more than the spirit, the world more than God. Our loves are confused and untrustworthy when left to themselves. We may even love deviancy over morality.

God is love, teaches the Apostle John. God’s character is holy love, not mere sentimentality or an endorsement of all human attraction or affection. God is perfectly good and free from all ignorance and distortion. He is holy in that he is above and beyond his creation, living in perfect righteousness. Hence, when God revealed himself to the prophet Isaiah, the angels worshiped him.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke (Isaiah 6:1-4; see also Revelation 4)

Isaiah’s response was not to rejoice that a tame God of had shown up. Rather, he cried:

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5).

God is holy, holy, holy. The threefold description is a Hebrew figure of speech meaning the uttermost, the maximum, the zenith.

Many know Jesus’ statement of his mission in the Gospel of John. But let us look at it again in its fuller context to understand what love really means. Jesus said to Nicodemus:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God (John 3:16-21).

Jesus came to demonstrate love in the darkness—the darkness of evil. He did not come to ratify our preferences or to confirm our wishes. As God incarnate, he came to shine light into darkness, to condemn sin as sin (rebellion against God and his creation order), and, in love, to offer forgiveness and new life. Love has an object; it does not bless the darkness. That is what the denizens of darkness do.

The darkness not only rejects Jesus, it also paints him in false colors, making Jesus a chameleon for cultural trends. This is not the Jesus who is “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8; see also Malachi 3:6). This is not the Jesus who can reconcile us to God and make us his servants. This is a counterfeit Christ, who is heralded by counterfeit apostles. Listen to Paul:

For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough (1 Corinthians 11:4).

These false teachers must be exposed:

And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (1 Corinthians 11:12-15).

These purveyors of falsehood will have their reward. There error is not small. As the prophet Isaiah declared:

Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter.
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
and clever in their own sight (Isaiah 5:20-21).

Good and evil are determined by the character of God, the Creator and Designer of the universe and of human beings. We are not free to improvise on the principles of morality. As C.S. Lewis wrote in his classic The Abolition of Man, “The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.”

But what, more specifically, is this thing called love? Paul, again, tells us in clear terms:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).

Out of his own matchless love, Christ died to forgive and restore sinners. Love is God’s response to human sin. If we deny acts and thoughts that are truly sinful, we deny God’s claim of love to forgive and renew sinners. Let us listen again to Paul:

Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:4).

It is God’s kindness that reveals and condemns human sin, which issues from within a woman or man. As Christ said:

What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person (Mark 7:20-23; see also Romans 3:14-26).

If it were not for the God of the Bible, we would not know who we are and what we have done in rebellion against God. God is kind, not cruel, to disclose this to us, his wayward children.

What, then, is God’s response to the slogan love is love when meant to endorse same-sex marriage and non-heterosexual activity in general? God cannot love what cuts against his character and the order and design of his creation. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. As the crown of creation he made women and men in his image and likeness, male and female, and God commissioned them to have dominion, cultivate the earth, and come together as husband and wife (Genesis 1-2). Sexual error is due to the fall of humanity. When creatures took it upon themselves to heed the voice of the lie and promote themselves above their Creator (Genesis 3).

God’s authoritative pattern for human sexuality is not open-ended. It is not a matter of subjective feeling or of cultural condition or of legal ruling. Jesus ratified the Genesis norm when he proclaimed:

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:1-6).

God joins together male and female in marriage. No other arrangement is God-ordained, and no other pairing has his blessing

God’s love is demonstrated in sending Jesus to atone for our sins and set us right with God. God’s love is further revealed in his judgments of our sin as sin, so that we may repent and embrace God’s ways on earth and in eternity. God’s love, then, will never endorse, sanction, or bless anything that goes against his holy nature or against the nature of human beings he created in his image and likeness. However, when erring mortals turn against God and make themselves the authority, horrible things happen, as Paul teaches:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.  In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them (Romans 1:18-32; see also Leviticus 18; 1 Corinthians 6:9-12).

The desires of these God-rejecting people suffered corruption, no matter how strong the desires may have been. Intensity of attraction—erotic or otherwise—does not morality make.

Some misguided scholars have attempted to blunt the force of this passage by claiming that Paul is only condemning some kinds of homosexuality. This is alien to every English translation and to the Greek text as well. Further, no biblical text outside of Romans endorses any homo-erotic behavior, let alone same-sex marriage.

By now, the reader should discern that God’s love does not extend to practices or institutions that God explicitly forbids in the teaching of the Bible, which is his living and active word (Hebrews 4:12). Rather, those who come to Christ and name him Lord must repent from their former ways of living in sin. The first word of the Gospel is repentance. After Jesus was tempted by the devil, he began his public teaching by saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus charge to his followers after his resurrection and before his ascension into heaven stress repentance as well:

He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things (Luke 24:46-48).

In the first of his 95 Theses (1517), the Reformer Martin Luther wrote:

When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent,” He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

In the name of Jesus Christ, no Christian is allowed to condone what Christ himself condemns—all sexual immorality. One aspect of sin-causing behavior is sexual intimacy outside of heterosexual monogamy. When men and women are drawn to repent and confess Jesus as Lord, they will live lives of repentance as they seek to please the One who saved them from sin, death, and hell. This is a life of love. But not all that claims to be love from God is love from God. Paul’s famous love passage clarifies this:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Corinthians 13:1-7).

Love is paramount. If so, we must get it right, lest love is drained of its glory. Love is positively shown in patience and kindness; negatively, love does not envy, boast, is not proud, does not dishonor others, is not selfish, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, and does not delight in evil. But there is one more positive statement about love that puts everything else into context: Love “rejoices with the truth” (v. 6). The Message translation says that love “Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth.” The majestic King James Version says, that love “rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth.”

Love’s rejoicing in the truth of God about sexuality forbids rejoicing in what God forbids. We cannot stand with God when we stand against God’s truth about love.

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for Apologetics.com.

5 thoughts

  1. When individual and societal relativism reigns, truth has no backbone, the creature becomes the measure of all things, and the freedom for which rebels long becomes the cruel task master dehumanizing us all. Our thought has become “sub-animalistic” with the word “love” because the Creator’s glory to us is trash, the creatures is gold. Thanks for the post.

  2. I’m sure the previous responder will agree that we’re all essentially “rebels.” What’s hard to accept is that the way to freedom is a paradox: If you want to be your true self, die to self. If you want true love, enslave yourself to Christ, someone you can’t see or touch. If people don’t have this operative in their lives, where else to go but to one’s own appetites, trying to fill up the empty place any way we can in this dark, loveless world.

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