The goodness, kindness, mercy, and love of God are major themes in all parts of Holy Scripture. It’s always one of my favorite parts of theological reading when I come across good explanations of God’s goodness and love that are very much based on Scripture. In volume two of his Theoretical-Practical Theology Petrus Van Mastricht wrote an excellent section on the love, grace, mercy, long-suffering, and clemency of God. After doing some exegetical work on Exodus 34:6 (…The LORD is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth [CSB]), Van Mastricht discussed in detail what these terms mean and how they apply to the Christian life. Here are some quotes that I really appreciate. I’ve edited the layout to make it easier to read:
…There is in God a certain benevolent and beneficent propensity toward his creatures….
That propensity is called benevolent when considered intrinsically and beneficent when considered extrinsically.
In itself generally considered it is love;
insofar as it is independent, free, and is not owed, it is grace;
insofar as it considers the creature as miserable, it is mercy;
insofar as it considers the offending sinner whom it endures, it is patience;
insofar as it endures him a long time, it is long-suffering;
insofar as it also does good to him, it is clemency and beneficence.
It sometimes makes us nervous to think about sharing the gospel with someone or telling them about the hope we have in Jesus. We worry we might make a mistake or we’re concerned that we might end up looking foolish. If you get a little nervous about sharing the gospel, here are some wise words to think about:
There are few points of duty more difficult for wise and engaged Christians to decide, than it is to decide what they shall say, or whether they shall say anything, to the irreligious persons whom they are accustomed to meet. Many times they are afraid to say anything to them on the subject of religion, lest they should do them an injury by awakening opposition or disgust.
No man can teach them their duty. What may be the duty of one, may not be the duty of another. The question depends upon so many things, upon character, upon intimacy, upon time, place, occasion, age, and a thousand other circumstances, that no wise man will ever attempt to lay down any general rule upon the subject.
But if a Christian’s heart longs for the conversion of sinners as it ought, he will not be likely to err. If he speaks to an unconverted sinner, in love, and alone, and without disputation, and in humility, and in the spirit of prayer, his words will do no harm. He may not be able to do good, but at least he can try. The unconverted in the midst of God’s people, meeting them every day, their friends, their associates, and neighbors, certainly ought not to be able to declare, “ nobody said anything to me,”—“no man cared for my soul.”
I’m sure many of our readers have heard all sorts of info about the differences between three words for love: agape (αγαπη), eros (ερως), and phileo (φιλεω). I’ve heard a few of these discussions myself and they often leave me a little concerned because they aren’t always overly accurate. I could do a write-up of it myself, I suppose, but the NIDNTTE does a much better job than I could do. Here are some excerpts from the entry on love/agape (as a noun, verb, and adjective):
One should not infer that this word group has some kind of intrinsic “divine” meaning, as though the terms by themselves indicate selfless, sacrificial, pure love. In the LXX (Septuagint), for example, the verb is used of Samson’s attraction to Delilah (Judg 16:4), of Saul’s initial liking for David (1 Sam 16:21), of King Hiram’s political friendship with David (1 Ki. 5:1), of Solomon’s attachment to his numerous pagan wives (1 Ki. 11:2), of the people’s devotion to vain things (Ps 4:2 [LXX 4:3]), of the wicked’s love for unrighteousness, evil, and cursing (11:5 [10:5]; 52:3–4 [51:5–6]; 109:17 [108:17]), of the love for death that characterizes those who hate divine wisdom (Prov 8:36), of greediness for money and wealth (Eccl 5:10 [5:9]), of the rulers’ passion for shameful behavior (Hos 4:18), of the desire for a prostitute’s wages (9:1)….
It remains true that in the vast majority of its NT occurrences, ἀγαπάω is used with reference to a distinctive Christian virtue, but this fact witnesses to the significance of the theological concept, not to any positive qualities inherent in the word itself
Here’s the section specifically on agape, eros, and phileo:
It has become commonplace—not only in popular literature but in scholarly treatments as well—to say that while English has only one word for “love,” Greek has three, each of which has a clearly distinguishable meaning: ἔρως (vb. ἐράω) supposedly has a negative connotation and indicates a desire for personal satisfaction, so that it is often applied to sexual matters (this word group is rare in the LXX and totally absent in the NT); φιλία/φιλέω (phileo) is said to be a somewhat neutral and colorless term, referring primarily to friendships and family relations; ἀγάπη and ἀγαπάω, (agape) finally, signify a self-giving attitude that seeks the best for others, even if unlovable (some of these distinctions owe much to the influential work by A. Nygren, Agape and Eros ; earlier, Trench (p. 43) had argued that ἔρως and its cognates had been corrupted by the world, and “they carried such an atmosphere of unholiness about them … that the truth of God abstained from the defiling contact with them”).
This approach is problematic, however. Not only does it give an oversimplified picture of the Greek vocabulary—it is also inaccurate in several respects. To begin with, Greek has more than just three words whose use can come within the broad category of “love,” such as ἀντέχω , ἐπιθυμία, ἐπιπόθησις G2161, ἵμερος, κολλάω, πόθος, σπλάγχνον, στοργή, and others. And, of course, it is far from the truth that Eng. has only one word to express the concept of love in its various forms….
More important, it is misleading to suggest that the three Gk. words in question have inherently favorable or unfavorable meanings. As noted above (sect. 1), there are plenty of negative contexts in the LXX where ἀγαπάω is used. By the same token, ἐράω freq. occurs in positive contexts; Philo, for example, links this vb. with “good things,” “virtues,” “perseverance and temperance,” “peace,” “truth,” “wisdom,” etc. (Leg. 2.55, 80, 83; Somn. 2.40; Spec. 2.258; Virt. 1.62), and he can speak of ἔρως as “heavenly” and “divine” (οὐράνιος, θεῖος) and as the source of all virtue (Virt. 1.55). As for φιλέω, it is true enough that this vb. occurs freq. in contexts of friendship, and that often it is used in the mild sense of “to like (something)” (cf. Gen 27:4 et al.), but it can also be applied to Jacob’s strong love for his son Joseph (37:4 [= ἀγαπάω in v. 3]), to a person’s love for wisdom (Prov 29:3), to the love for parents (Matt 10:37), to God the Father’s love for the Son (John 5:20), to Jesus’ deep love for Lazarus (11:3 [= ἀγαπάω in v. 5], 36); to the Father’s love for the disciples in response to the disciples’ love for Jesus (16:27)… (etc).
One more note:
That ἀγαπάω (agapao) and φιλέω (phileo) can be used interchangeably in some contexts is certain: “I love [ἀγαπῶ] those who love [φιλοῦντας] me” (Prov 8:17 LXX, where the two terms render the same Heb. vb., אָהַב; cf. also 21:17; Lam 1:2; and Jos. Vita 1.198; LSJ cites Xen. Mem. 2.7.9); and John himself can employ these two vbs. as simple synonyms, as is especially clear from the formula “[the disciple] whom Jesus loved” (ἠγάπα in John 13:23; 21:7, 20; but ἐφίλει in 20:2). Moreover, as noted above, John sometimes applies ἀγαπάω (agapao) to negative expressions of love (3:19; 12:43), and φιλέω (phileo) to divine love (5:20; 16:27).
The discussion is somewhat technical, I suppose, and I did edit the above quotes to make it easier to read. The point is, be somewhat wary when someone tries to give dogmatic statements about the meaning of agape, phileo, and eros!
Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) was cited and quoted by Calvin and Luther more than a few times. There’s a reason for that! Here’s one example found in his treatise, “On Loving God.” The quote comes right after Bernard uses various Scriptures to explain the love of God shown in the gospel.
What is the result of contemplating such great mercy and mercy so undeserved, such generous and proven love, such unlooked-for condescension, such persistent gentleness, such astonishing sweetness? To what, I ask, will all these wonderfully draw and deeply attract the thoughtful mind when it considers them carefully and is wholly set at liberty from unworthy love? It will despise everything else, everything which will get in the way of that desire. The Bride surely runs eagerly in the odor of these perfumes, and loves ardently (Sg 1:3). Yet even when she has fallen wholly in love she thinks she loves too little because she is loved so much.
And she is right. What can repay so great a love and such a lover? It is as if a little speck of dust (Is 40:15) were to marshal itself to return a love which is ever before it in Majesty and which can be seen to bend all its power on the work of salvation. The words “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (Jn 3:16) were certainly spoken of the Father, and, “He gave himself up to death” (Is 53:12) was undoubtedly said of the Son (Jn 14:26). And it is said of the Holy Spirit, “The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom my Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and will cause you to remember all that I have said to you” (Jn 14:26). God, then, loves, and loves with all his being, for the whole Trinity loves—if the word “whole” can be used of the infinite, the incomprehensible, absolute Being.
I believe that he who understands this will recognize clearly enough why God is to be loved, that is, why he deserves to be loved.
While preaching through Romans 12 the last couple of months I was reminded how helpful Calvin’s commentaries are. Here are a few of my favorite sections of his comments on Romans 12:19-21:
…He [Paul] commands here that however grievously we may be injured, we are not to seek revenge, but to commit it to the Lord. …But he prohibits here, not only that we are not to execute revenge with our own hands, but that our hearts also are not to be influenced by a desire of this kind….
Though it be not indeed lawful for us to pray to God for vengeance on our enemies, but to pray for their conversion, that they may become friends; yet if they proceed in their impiety, what is to happen to the despisers of God will happen to them.
Whatsoever then may be thine ability, in whatever business thy enemy may want [lack] either thy wealth, or thy counsel, or thy efforts, thou oughtest to help him. But he calls him our enemy, not whom we regard with hatred, but him who entertains enmity towards us. And if they are to be helped according to the flesh, much less is their salvation to be opposed by imprecating vengeance on them.
…He who attempts to overcome evil with evil, may perhaps surpass his enemy in doing injury, but it is to his own ruin; for by acting thus he carries on war for the devil.
Romans 12:9a says, “Love must be without hypocrisy” (NET). Matthew Henry said this love is affectionate and respectful. Concerning the latter he wrote,
2) A respectful love: In honor preferring one another (v10b). Instead of contending for superiority, let us be forward to give to others the pre-eminence. This is explained in Phil. 2:3, Let each esteem other better than themselves.
And there is this good reason for it, because, if we know our own hearts, we know more evil by ourselves than we do by any one else in the world. We should be forward to take notice of the gifts, and graces, and performances of our brethren, and value them accordingly, be more forward to praise another, and more pleased to hear another praised, than ourselves….
One of John Newton’s lesser known works is called “A Review of Ecclesiastical History.” It’s a book that basicaly summarizes church history from Christ’s birth until the end of the apostolic era. I’ve really enjoyed it so far, and I do recommend it.
In one section, Newton discusses the character of the apostle Paul (book 2, chapter 2). This is a great chapter for pastors to read! Here’s a helpful quote by Newton on Paul’s love for Christ – applied to Christian pastors today:
Supported and animated by this love [for Christ], he [Paul] exerted himself to the utmost, in promoting the knowledge of Him whom he loved, and bearing testimony of His power and grace. Nothing could dishearted, or weary or terrify, or bribe him from his duty: and this must and will be universally the leading principle of a faithful minister.
Should a man possess the tongue of men and angels, the finest genius, and the most admired accomplishments, if he is not constrained and directed by the love of Christ, he will either do nothing, or nothing to the purpose; he will be unable to support either the frowns or the smiles of the world. His studies and endeavors will certainly be influenced by low and selfish views. Interest or a desire of applause may stimulate him to shine as a scholar, a critic, or a philosopher – but til the love of Christ rules in his heart, he will neither have inclination nor power to exert himself for the glory of God or the good of souls.
The inseparable effect, and one of the surest evidences of love to Christ, is a love to his people. Of this likewise our apostle exhibits an instructive and an affecting example….”