Love is the Essence of God: A brief analysis of evangelicalism’s popular view of God’s attributes

Misguided evangelical zeal expresses itself in many ways

“Love is the essence of God”. I suppose this is said because the Bible says “God is love” (1Jo 4:8; 4:16). This idea of love being the essence of God has become the starting point of all interpretation for many. “God doesn’t hate people; God is love” or “God wouldn’t send national judgments and horrible calamities on a nation; God is love” or “How dare you judge me; God is LOVE!!!” On and on one could produce examples how God’s being love is used to justify all sorts of error concerning His character.

Yet strangely enough, the proponents of this idea seem unaware of verses like Hebrews 12:28-29 which read, “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire.”

Now, the notion of God being love is usually taken to mean that all of God’s other attributes are not as primary as that of love. Because God is love. To be consistent, therefore, we would need to say that God as a consuming fire is a primary attribute for the writer of the Hebrews says God is a consuming fire. What may be more disturbing to love-only-Christians is that the writer of the Hebrews is pulling from Deuteronomy:

Deuteronomy 4:23-24: “Take heed unto yourselves, lest ye forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make you a graven image, or the likeness of any thing, which the LORD thy God hath forbidden thee. For the LORD thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God.”

Deuteronomy 9:3: “Understand therefore this day, that the LORD thy God is he which goeth over before thee; as a consuming fire he shall destroy them, and he shall bring them down before thy face: so shalt thou drive them out, and destroy them quickly, as the LORD hath said unto thee.”

So which “primary” attribute wins out in the end? Love or wrath? Is God then schizophrenic because our artificial constructs ascribe a hierarchy of attributes to the God of the Bible?

Do we have two primary attributes? Indeed not. For if this theory of God’s having “primary” attributes is true because the Bible says God is love or is a consuming fire, we may also add a third: Psalm 99:5:  “Exalt ye the LORD our God, and worship at his footstool; for he is holy.”

God is holy. God is love. God is a consuming fire. What does it mean that God is holy? What is David talking about? Peter uses it as an admonishment to personal sanctification in 1 Peter 1:14-16, “Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.“

Three primary attributes? This is getting complex indeed! How are we to know which is the truly, truly PRIMARY attribute? Oh my! I fear it gets worse. For, we have yet another Scripture that makes this all too difficult, especially for chaps such as myself. Daniel 9:14: “Therefore hath the LORD watched upon the evil, and brought it upon us: for the LORD our God is righteous in all his works which he doeth: for we obeyed not his voice.”

So God is primarily love, primarily a consuming fire, primarily holy and primarily righteous?

Definition of primary: a : of first rank, importance, or value : principal  b : basic, fundamental 3 a : direct, firsthand.

It seem the more we discover these “primary attributes” the less tenable the view of the primacy of God’s attributes is.

More to the point is the fact that none of these supposed “primary attributes” are ever taken by the prophets, the Apostles, or Christ as having some sort of primacy in the nature of God. They equally say God is just, God is holy, merciful, righteous, etc. One of God’s attributes cannot be used to curtail another. Each attribute is what makes God who He is. Take away his mercy and you have a different god. Take away His love or any other attribute and you have substituted the God of the Bible for a god of your own imagination. But this is also done when we make one attribute truncate another attribute. God is not inconsistent within Himself.

It is not true, therefore, that love is the essence of God. God is the sum total of all His attributes. All appeals to 1 John 4:8 as justification for ungodly behavior, or promiscuous acceptance of evil is unbiblical and ultimately a denial of the God of Scripture.

– Jesse Murch

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