Love is the first, best, and greatest of the Spirit’s fruit. Why? Because Paul puts it first, of course. Also because John tells us twice in his letter that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 18).
John’s statement–repeated as it is–marks this character quality as unique. It’s like a Grade A label pasted on this particular fruit by the Holy Spirit himself.
I notice labels. When I head to the grocery store this week, I will buy apples–at least 14 of them–to satisfy our daily habit. However, I will not buy just any old apples, filling my cart indiscriminately from the piles of red, green, and yellow fruit. No, I will check for the sticker rapidly applied by the produce department’s sticker clicker: Gala (my favorite) and Honey Crisp (my husband’s).
Every fruit of the Spirit displays the character of God in the growing character of the believer, but one in particular marks us with his Grade A likeness.
God is love. What does that mean? What doesn’t it mean? And how do we live up to our label?
Love is God’s Essence
In last week’s post I laid the ground work for our Fruit of the Spirit series. This week’s sermon launched us into the study of God’s love. Our pastor called God’s love essential. That doesn’t just mean that it’s important, like some of the “essential vitamins” I take with breakfast. Nor does it simply mean necessary, though God’s love certainly is as life giving as the air we breathe.
No, essential means that love is foundational to God’s character. Author A. W. Tozer puts it this way:
The words “God is love” mean that love is an essential attribute of God… . It is a strange and beautiful eccentricity of the free God that He has allowed His heart to be emotionally identified with men. Self-sufficient as He is, He wants our love and will not be satisfied until He gets it. Free as He is, He has let His heart be bound to us forever.”
Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, kindle edition, p. 100.
Make no mistake about it. God doesn’t need us. The doctrine of his self-sufficiency assures us that he is not in some sort of co-dependent relationship with us, giving in order to receive. No, he is blessedly complete in the eternal circle of love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is, as our hymns teach us, “God in three persons…blessed Trinity.”
He doesn’t need us, but he does love us. That means his love is freely given, not forced by us or coerced by some need in himself. His freedom is celebrated by the Psalmist: “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases (Psalm 115:3)”. The Westminster Confession calls him “most free.”
That’s how he loves us, most freely.
Love is not God’s Limit
When some people hear “God is love,” they think they can reverse the statement and it will also be true that “love is God.” In this case the word is becomes an equal sign, similar to the math truths we learned in childhood. If 2 + 2 = 4, we also know that 4 = 2 + 2.
The discipline of logic calls this a tautology. It describes a way to gradually reason from simple ideas to more complex ones. But as a statement of theology, it fails.
God is defined by the Scriptures, not by one attribute alone, but by the magnificent spread of his full character as told in history, prophecy, law and gospel. Yet, even this description is not complete. That’s because he is “infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection” (Westminster Larger Catechism Q7.A).
In fact the tautology the Bible does give us to define God is his own self-revelation to Moses. When Moses asked for God’s name so he could present his credentials to the people, God answered him with these words:
God said to Moses,
“I AM WHO I AM.”
And he said, “say this to the people of Israel:
‘I AM has sent me to you.'”
“I am who I am” is a true statement, both forward, and in reverse. “God is love” only reads true in one direction.
But Love IS the Antithesis
Let’s go back to Galatians 5:22-23. These two verses that list the 9 “fruit of the Spirit” begin with the little word “but.”
“But” reminds us that we are looking at a contrast. Paul has just finished listing 15 “deeds of the flesh” which the believer is warned against. Specifically, eight of the fifteen could be grouped as “anti-love” deeds. They are social sins, attitudes that stand with arms folded in defiance of love:
- fits of anger
These 8 words formed a helpful diagnostic inventory for my soul during the sermon. I don’t tend to pick fights or start arguments, but I do find jealousy, rivalries, and envy to be quite active in my heart. Like seeds, they proliferate in the dark, producing more weeds just like themselves.
I check my phone in the morning, thinking … How many people have signed up for my classes today? Oh, no! And why are her classes always so popular?
These thoughts don’t fuel love, making me a more attentive Pilates instructor. Instead they fuel rivalry, reducing my clients to a number. No longer are they people I’m called to love and serve, but statistics to boost (or deflate) my ego.
But…the Spirit is Busy
“But” (here Paul inserts the turn from our flesh to the Spirit’s help) “but the fruit of the Spirit is love.” What glorious words of hope! Just when I feel powerless against the weeds, God interrupts to point me to a better Gardener. The Holy Spirit takes the seed of God’s great love for me and plants it deep in my heart, as well as in yours, sister. This seed has the potential for exponential growth.
Furthermore, John encourages us that God’s seed is always fruitful in those who have been born again through faith in Christ:
No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God
1 John 3:9
The very fact that we are grieved by our sin is evidence that God’s seed lives in us. From that grief we are led by his Spirit to confess, calling it by God’s terms. From there to repent, turning from sin to love. Each step on this path–grief, confession, repentance– is the work of God’s indwelling Spirit.
While we are doing business with God, his Spirit is busy, too, sanctifying us. He works with us–prompting, convicting, cleansing, and filling us with his fruit.
We know that there’s no law against love for God and neighbor, BUT we also know we need the Spirit’s help to do it. That’s why Paul keeps saying “but.” The indwelling Holy Spirit is busy helping us change our direction again and again.
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16).”
So wherever you’re walking today, walk in love.