Ever heard anyone say that? Sure you have. People say it all the time - mostly out of frustration - without knowing what they're saying. But have you ever really considered what it means? Have you ever thought about the love of God?
I hadn't. I mean really thought about it. I know that God loves the world. And that He loves me. I know that the love of God is forgiving, great, and gracious. And if asked, I probably would not have said I found it "difficult" to explain.
But then I read this 84-page book, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. And I was blown away. Carson's starting point is basically how I've set this up. No one thinks "the love of God" is a hard thing to grasp - until they look at it more closely.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is close to the beginning, when Carson points out five ways that the Bible speaks of the love of God. They each get more treatment as the book progresses, but they are worth mentioning briefly here. For me it was like stumbling onto a gold mine - just knowing these differentiations exist makes it easier to read parts of the Bible that speak of God's love. They fit together better now. They make more sense. And so here are five ways the Bible speaks of God's love:
1. The special love of the Son for the Father, and the Father for the Son. The gospel of John cites this in 3.35 and 14.31.
2. God's providential love for the whole creation. This theme runs through the entire Bible, but it is clearly seen in God's declaration that His creation is "good" (Genesis 1), and in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus speaks of God's providential care for birds, the grass, etc. (Matthew 6).
3. "God's salvific stance toward his fallen world." In spite of the world's rebellion, God commands people to repent, and orders His people to take the message of reconciliation (through Jesus) to the ends of the earth. God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but wants people to repent (Ezekiel 33.11).
4. God's particular love for His elect. This one has been the cause of many an argument between brothers, mostly because neither understand this in the light of the other four points - this is one aspect of God's complex love. But according to Deuteronomy 7.7-8 and 10.14-15, as well as Romans 9 with Jacob and Esau, and Ephesians 5 with Christ's love for "the church," there is definitely a special way that God loves His people that is different than how He loves everyone.
5. God's sometimes conditional love - conditioned, that is, on obedience. Jude commands us to "keep ourselves in God's love" (verse 21), and Jesus tells his disciples to remain in His love (John 15.9). This way of treating God's love as conditional reminds us that we are still morally responsible for our actions, and have a part in our becoming holy, as He is holy. It's not as if we could ever fall out of His love, but remaining in His love is more like a teen getting home by curfew so as not to incur the wrath of his father. He will rest assured that his father is pleased with him. So it is with God's "conditional" love.
I recommend reading the whole book for further and better treatment of each of these "types" of God's love. It's short, and very accessible - in other words, you don't have to be a scholar to understand it.
And who knows? Maybe the next time you hear someone say, "Oh, for the love of God," you can strike up a spiritual conversation about which one!